West's policies must embody its ideals

By Fatma Al Sayegh, Gulf News, Al Jazeerah, 27 June 2003

Asked once what he thought of western civilisation Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader, reportedly replied that he thought it would be a good idea. Gandhi's perception of western civilisation was drawn from the core of the very ideals which he believed in.

Ideals such as peace and democracy, tolerance and kindness, respect for individual rights and justice, which are promoted by the West, were for Gandhi, as for many others, the cornerstones of human relations and the highest point of human civilisation.

Clearly, Gandhi was impressed with what the West came to represent as far as moral values are concerned, for he himself shared with the West some of its most cherished ideals.

Although Gandhi preferred simplicity, denounced violence, and shunned materialistic life, he was an admirer of Western civilisation: its scientific achievements, its dynamics, and what it represented as far human values are concerned.

In fact, looking back at the core of very ideals that made Western civilisation, one can't fail but to share with Gandhi his admiration for the Western civilisation, its achievements and its overall contribution to the human civilisation.


Moreover, the West's commitment to its ideals and values brought it the respect and admiration of millions of people, those keen enough to emulate western values and attempt to transfer them to their local societies. Many came to view the West as a symbol of human salvation, an oasis of freedom, and a safe heaven when troubles and disasters were continuously striking other parts of the world.

The West's commitments to its values also earned it the respect of other cultures. Many sought to incorporate some of the West's most cherished values into their own, thus, creating a mixture that suited their needs. The West's declared values enhanced Western culture in the eyes of many and gave the West its greatest asset.

To many in the West, democracy tops the list as the most cherished value. To them, democracy is a way of life that gives each other meaning. Western nations believe that they have succeeded in turning the Western hemisphere into a full-fledged democracy and their societies an oasis of peace and stability.

This could be true, but to many, this fact also contains an irony. While the West acts like protector and defender of these values at home, its behaviour abroad, especially towards non-Western countries, reflects the opposite.

History tells us that the West exploited other nations' desire to be free and democratic, to rule over them. Not only did the West dominate nations but its desire to stay as a conqueror generated mistrust and antipathy towards the West.

The general failure by the West to act according to its ideals obliged many Easterners to question the genuineness and commitment of its values. This suspicion and mistrust today stands in the way of promoting full understanding between the East and the West.

For instance, when America rushed to defend Europe during World War II, it acted as a protector and not a conqueror. America's behaviour after the war was another indication of this double-standard policy. Although the U.S. was determined to stay in Europe, it was to protect it against fascism and communism and so worked hard not to appear a dominant power.

Moreover, America was determined to help Europe in its efforts at nation-building and development. It was this American help that turned Europe into what it is today: the second largest power in the world and America's economic rival.

Europe's special relationship with America turned out to be one of America's highest achi-evements abroad. The two powers forged a new relationship that earned Europe its status, and earned America the respect and affectation of ordinary Europeans. America's relationship with Europe proved strong enough to sustain all the turmoil, and it sustains it still.

While America's policy towards Europe was based on mutual trust, respect and cooperation, its attitude towards the Eastern bloc was filled with mistrust. Questioning their ability to govern themselves, misjudging their achievements and belittling their contributions, America acted differently. While America looked to Europe as a possible rival, ally and dynamic force, it viewed the East as dangerous, needing to be contained and subjugated.

No wonder Easterners developed mistrust about the West's intentions. Easterners gained their views of America and the West from their negative experiences. Thus, for many Easterners, the West is ruthless and discriminatory, cynical and untrustworthy, its motives for meddling in their countries are about natural resources, power and imperialism.

This negative attitude will eventually undermine efforts of co-operation between the two sides and allow the gap to grow deeper.

Public consumption

Today, many Easterners perceive America's promises of freedom and democracy as an issue of public consumption. They believe America is not serious about promoting democratic and other values outside western societies.

Iraq is a test case in which the West could have proved its commitment to its ideals but so far has not done so. Besides, what was lost in the war in Iraq is perhaps the opportunity to demonstrate to Arabs and Muslims that the West acts according to its ideals whether at home or abroad.

How Western values are perceived outside the Western hemisphere is vital in promoting Western culture, a culture that is loved and admired, while hated and criticised. Therefore, the West must do a better job and act in accordance with its ideals.

This will help to improve the East-West dialogue. Western politics should stand aside and let societies work their magic. Societies and cultures are more able to instill tolerance, openness and other human values whenever politics fail.