NAS president Peter Wood and I attended the Wednesday event "Is the West Best?" at Saint Francis College in Brooklyn last night. It was advertised as a debate but turned out to be more of a civil discussion between the panelists, Ibn Warraq, author of Why the West Is Best; Paul Berman, author of The Flight of the Intellectuals; and Sohrab Ahmari, editor of the forthcoming Arab Spring Dreams. The event was hosted by the New York chapter of the National Association of Scholars, Encounter Books, Telos Books, and Saint Francis College. Guests mingled and sampled gourmet refreshments before the program began; when it did, the room was packed, and some audience members were standing and sitting in the aisles.
Ibn Warraq began by speaking in defense of the goodness of Western civilization. He emphasized human rights, freedom of speech and religion, and the West's ability to self-criticize. He contrasted these things with oppression of women, homosexuals, and Christians in the Middle East and a climate of fear. The West is an open book, whereas the East is a closed book, he summarized. Mr. Warraq drew both laughter and annoyance when he compared the highbrow quality of Mozart and Michaelangelo to the Muslim concept of heaven as "a cosmic brothel!"
He said that while no society is perfect, the West is the best of what is available. He also noted that we need to establish what factors we consider to add to a good society - if someone does not care about freedom of speech, that's another matter.
In his response, Paul Berman said that he agreed with Warraq's arguments, but not with his vocabulary. We should not talk about "the West" and "the East" but about liberal democracy, which is possible in any geographical region and in any religion, he said.
Sohrab Ahmari, a young Iranian American journalist, recounted his airplane flight with his mother from Iran to the United States when he was in his early teens. The flight attendant came on the intercom and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, we have just left Islamic Republic airspace." Cheers and applause erupted, and some women took off their head scarves. For Ahmari, it was an important moment.
Fred Siegel, the panel moderator, opened the floor to audience members for questions. Some who came to the mic were young women in head scarves, students at Saint Francis College, who took issue with Warraq's characterizations of Muslims and the absence of a true debate among the panelists. One woman, who lives in the neighborhood of the College, asked whether the real threat to liberal democracy was the rise of conservatism. Warraq called the question ridiculous, saying that even American fundamentalists are subject to the Constitution.
Next time I'd like to ask Mr. Warraq - is Russia part of the West? In the meantime, questions about the superiority of the West will continue, but this discussion was a lively and interesting one, and I'm glad I could attend.
Images: KG Brown