The “Enlightened” West Versus “Benighted” Islam: A False Dichotomy

by Keith Preston

In their discussion of Edward Said’s concept of “Orientalism,” Appelrouth and Edles make this observation:

The source of the West’s superiority lies not in its own “advanced” civilization but, rather, in constructing non-Western cultures through negative terms that project onto the colonized all those traits that the West cannot possess if it is to legitimate its position as the center of progress and the beacon of humanity….Thus, when a politician remarks that Muslims “hate us for our freedom,” this claim is dependent on a purified notion of what Western freedom has promoted around the world, in turn justifying an ennobled aggression against those who are “against freedom.” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2007, p. 616)

The kind of dualism and cultural chauvinism described in the above passage is the hallmark of the ideological and rhetorical framework utilized by Western, particularly American, imperialism in its efforts towards the political, economic, and military conquest of the Islamic world.  According to this paradigm, the Islamic nations are plagued by political repression, anti-intellectualism, retrograde cultural values, and severe social underdevelopment. By contrast, the Western nations are believed to bemanifestations of higher levels of enlightenment, progress, prosperity, “freedom,” “democracy,” and cultural evolution. Caricatures of this type dominate depictions of East-West relations. Such caricatures can be found both in the American media and in the statements of American officials. Numerous case studies involving examinations of the actual inner workings of Islamic societies show this to be a false dichotomy. Among the most compelling of these examples are Lebanon’s Hezbollah, contemporary Iran, and Ba’athist Iraq.

 Hezbollah’s Democratic Pluralism

 An essay by Daniel Byman in Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, describes Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia as “responsible for more American deaths than any other terrorist organization” prior to the incidents of September 11, 2001. According to Byman, Hezbollah has a “record of bloodshed and hostility” and “its highly skilled operatives have committed horrifying attacks as far away as Argentina.” Little mention is made as to why Hezbollah might have done these things, other than perhaps a pathological love of violence or an equally pathological hatred of Americans. Richard Armitage, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, claimed that “Hezbollah may be the A team of terrorists, while Al Qaeda is actually the B team.” (Byman, 2003)

From such depictions, one might be inclined to regard Hezbollah as a band of bloodthirsty tyrants, driven mostly by quasi-medieval theocratic fanaticism. Yet the actual political practice of Hezbollah in its home nation of Lebanon reveals a much different picture. The journalist Nir Rosen described a rally attended by over a million people in Beirut on September 22, 2006 in celebration of Hezbollah’s largely successful military confrontation with Israel months earlier. According to Rosen, Hezbollah is “the most popular political party in the Middle East.”  The celebration included the “flags of  Palestine and Palestinian movements, Lebanese Christian movements, the Communist Party, Sunni and Druze movements, as well as secular nationalists.” Hezbollah supporters also included a great deal of cultural pluralism: “Although many of the celebrants were men with beards or women whose hair was covered, many were not. There were youths in trendy attire, girls in tight jeans with hair exposed and who had turned their Hezbollah T-shirts into stylish form-fitting fashion statements.” Rosen further described the contents of a speech delivered at the celebration by Hezbollah’s leader, Seyid Hassan Nasrallah:

He told his audience that they were sending a political and moral message to the world that Lebanon’s resistance was stronger than ever. Their victorywas a victory for every oppressed, aggrieved and free person in the world, he said, and an inspiration for all who rejected subjugation or degradation by the United States. He mocked Arab leaders for not using their oil resources as a strategic weapon, for prohibiting demonstrations, for not supporting the Palestinians and for kowtowing to Condoleezza Rice. He extended his people’s hearts, grief and empathy for the Palestinians who were being bombed and killed daily, and whose homes were being destroyed while the world, and in particular the Arab world, was silent. (Rosen, 2006)

Within the wider context of Lebanese politics, Hezbollah operates as a democratic political party, holding seats in the parliament. The Hezbollah militia also serves as the de  facto national defense forces of Lebanon as the army is weak and inept. (Butters, 2006) Additionally, Hezbollah maintains a vast network of social services, hospitals, schools, charities, and news organizations. (UNOCHA, 2006)

Iran: More Democratic Than the U.S.?

 A lead editorial published by the New York Times on June 18, 2005 described Iran’s democratic institutions as a “sham.” The Times editorial writers further argued that “the world would be better off if Western leaders used their little influence to press for more authentic democracy in Iran.” (New York Times, 2005) Yet a serious examination of Iranian institutions provides a somewhat different perspective on which nation’s“democracy” is best regarded as a “sham.” The current Iranian constitution was approved through general referendum in 1979, with voting rights being universal and inclusive of women. Both the president of Iran and the parliament are democratically elected, and seats in the Iranian parliament are reserved for religious minorities like Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. As of 2004, ten separate political parties held seats in the parliament. Critics of the Iranian system will point out that the Council of Guardians, a body of Islamic clerics, has veto power over legislation enacted by parliament, and can also disqualify candidates and parties for parliament. Yet the Council of Guardians was included in the original constitution that was approved by popular vote in 1979.  It is also somewhat unclear as to how this system is less democratic than the American system, which has only two parties represented in Congress, and where competition from otherparties is either cost prohibitive or rendered de facto illegal due to highly restrictive regulations concerning ballot access. Further, it is also unclear as to how the role of the Council of Guardians in the Iranian system is fundamentally different from that of the United States Supreme Court, which also has veto power over legislation enacted by the elected bodies of government. Indeed, elected legislative bodies, unelected federal agencies, and U.S. courts have all, at times, overturned or simply ignored laws enacted by popular referendum. (Wright, 2001; LaTulippe, 2004)

It should also be pointed out that while Iran is considered an enemy of the United States, with Iran’s supposed “undemocratic” nature ostensibly being a partial justification for this, many American allies in the Islamic world operate as individual autocracies (Egypt, Uzbekistan), absolute or near absolute monarchies (Kuwait, Morocco), or feudal fiefdoms (Saudi Arabia). Further, the Iranian referendum of 1979 was in fact a restoration of democracy which had not existed in Iran since 1953. During that year, Iran’s elected government was overthrown in a coup organized and directed by the United States, with the result being autocratic rule by Shah Reza Pahlavi for the next twenty-six years. (Hedges, 2009)

Iraq: The Achievements of the Ba’athist Revolution

An article by Harvey Sicherman published in February, 2007 by the Foreign Policy Institute, a think tank comprised of former U.S. diplomats, members of the National Security Council, academics, and journalists, surveyed the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq. The article focuses primarily on the achievement of power by Hussein in 1979 and events that transpired in Iraq during the time between the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. To the degree that there is any discussion of Iraqi politics or society between 1979 and 1990, it is mostly limited to references to the repression of opposition forces. There is no discussion of Iraq during the time between the Ba’athist revolution of 1968 and Hussein’s ascension to the presidency eleven years later. (Sicherman, 2007)

Ba’athism is a secular, revolutionary, pan-Arabist outlook that stands inopposition to both capitalism and Marxist communism. Ba’athists have also been the governing faction of Syria since 1963. During the years of Ba’athist rule in Iraq from 1968 until the first Persian Gulf War of 1991, Iraq was arguably the most progressive of any Arab or Islamic nation. Because misogyny is one of the most frequently expressed criticisms of Middle Eastern societies by Westerners, it may be instructive to examine the condition of women during the peak period of Ba’athist rule. Anne Alexander offers this summary:

A broad spectrum of middle class urban women, from all religious communities, saw their horizons widen in terms of opportunities to study and work. The 1970s, despite the consolidation of the Baath Party in power and horrific repression of opposition groups, were remembered by many middle class women as “days of plenty”. Skyrocketing oil prices and the regime’s rapid expansion of the public sector brought prosperity to a relatively large layer of households. Rising affluence took visible form in the shape of huge chest freezers which had pride of place in the living rooms of the middle classes. “Our society will remain backward and in its chains unless women are liberated, enlightened and educated,” declared Saddam Hussein. The state pumped money into childcare; it encouraged women to study, and enter professions such as medicine and engineering. Unlike many women in Britain (or America) today, middle class Iraqi women in the 1970s and 1980s could expect to receive full pay while on maternity leave and benefit from an extensive system of state-subsidized nurseries.

But the most important factor in the dramatic decline in Iraqi women’s social, political and economic position over the past two decades has been the assault on Iraq by the Western powers, led by the US and Britain. Sanctions gutted the Iraqi public sector, the main employer of Iraqi women, and destroyed the state welfare system, which provided healthcare, public transport and education. As a result, women’s participation in the workforce collapsed from 23 percent in 1991 to 10 percent in 1997. With public sector salaries below subsistence level, marriage, not education, appeared to be the only way to secure Iraqi girls a decent future.

Since 2003 the occupying forces have not only failed to rebuild the economy and welfare system; they have killed and injured hundreds of thousands of Iraqi women and their children. Millions of Iraqi women remain trapped in their homes as a result of the spiraling violence. They live in fear not only of the occupying forces but also of violent crime, the militias attached to the sectarian parties that the occupation has strengthened, and radical Islamist groups. (Alexander, 2007)

As a secular regime, Ba’athist rule also repressed Islamic fundamentalist and theocratic movements, and allowed a relatively high level of freedom of religion. Religious minorities, such as members of Iraq’s Assyrian Christian community, were allowed high ranking positions in the government. The fall of the Ba’athist government has resulted in large-scale persecution of the Christian minority by Islamic fundamentalists, and many Iraqi Christians have fled to Ba’athist controlled Syria. (Baghdadi, 2004)

Perhaps most interesting of all is the prisoner amnesty program implemented by the government of Saddam Hussein prior to the beginning of the present war in 2003. The program offered amnesty to “prisoners, detainees, and fugitives…including those under sentence of death, inside or outside Iraq.” Persons imprisoned for murder were granted amnesty only if the victim’s mother agreed to a pardon. (BBC, 2002) This is certainly a far more magnanimous gesture than any American head of state would ever likely engage in. Indeed, the prisoner population in Iraqi has continued to escalate since the American invasion, occupation, and installation of a puppet regime. Still, at the end of 2007, only one in 470 Iraqis were held in penal or detention facilities, as opposed to one in 140 of persons within the domestic United States itself. (Gilmartin, 2008)


The case studies examined above indicate that Islamic societies, and particularly the politics of Islamic nations, are far more complex that what is typically depicted in the Western media. These biases and misconceptions can also be found in the mainstream of Western academic scholarship. The evidence indicates that Edward Said is correct in arguing that the treatment of the Islamic world by Western thinkers reflects a rather profound cultural chauvinism and unjustified attitude of moral and cultural superiority. Specifically, the common perception of Western societies as centers of enlightenment and progress, and Islamic societies as centers of reaction and obscurantism is rooted in demonstrably false assumptions.


Alexander, Anne (2007). Nadje AlAli, Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present. Zed Books, 2007.

Baghdadi, George (2004). Anguished Iraqi Christians Flee to Syria. LewRockwell.Com, August 9, 2004.

British Broadcasting Company (2002). Iraq Empties Its Jails. BBC News, October 20, 2002.

Butters, Andrew Lee (2006). Who Will Disarm Hezbollah? Not the Lebanese Army. Time, August 4, 2006.

Byman, Daniel (2003). Should Hezbollah Be Next? Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations, November/December 2003.

Editorial (2005). Iran’s Sham Democracy. New York Times, June 18, 2005.

Gilmartin, Ciara (2008). The “Surge” of Iraqi Prisoners. Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies, May 7, 2008.

Hedges, Chris (2009). Iran Had a Democracy Before We Took It All Away. Truthdig, June 22, 2009.

LaTulippe, Steven (2004). A Few Thoughts Before We “Liberate” Iran. LewRockwell.Com, November 24, 2004.

Rosen, Nir (2006). Hezbollah, Party of God. Truthdig, October 3, 2006.

Sicherman, Harvey (2007). Saddam Hussein: Stalin on the Tigris. Orbis, Foreign Policy Institute, February, 2007.

U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (2006). Lebanon: The Many Hands and Faces of Hezbollah. March 29, 2006.

Wright, Robin (2001). The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran. Vintage Books, 2001.

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4 replies »

  1. Are you opposing the Western expansionism into Islamic lands or the (not-unfounded) fear of Western “kaffirs” being reduced to dhimmi status by mass immigration?

  2. Both. I oppose Western imperialism in the Islamic world out of recognition of the principle of self-determination and opposition to Anglo-American-Zionist war crimes. I also oppose mass immigration by Muslims into the West as I view this as a prelude to cultural conquest followed by political conquest.

  3. In the context of existing structures, are you opposed to extending full civil liberties to the Muslim populace? Also, in regard to immigration would you make exceptions for Muslims/apostates/kaffirs persecuted in Islamic lands?

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