The hollow claims of Western triumphalism

From a Royal Society of Arts/BBC World Service lecture by Ali Mazrui, the director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies
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The Independent Online

"The sins of the powerful acquire some of the prestige of power."

"The sins of the powerful acquire some of the prestige of power."

Even the very vices of Western culture are acquiring worldwide prestige. Muslim societies which once refrained from alcohol are now manifesting increasing alcoholism. Chinese elites are capitulating to Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's hamburgers. And Mahatma Gandhi's country has decided to go nuclear.

Western civilisation is a pretender to the status of universal validity. Yet there are three forces which contradict that claim. One force is within the West itself. This is the force of historical relativism (differences in values between historical epochs). What was valid in the West at the beginning of the 20th century is not necessarily valid in the West at the beginning of the 21st century. If validity is changeable in the West itself from generation to generation, how can the claim to universalism be sustained?

Another challenge to the West's claim to universalism is not historical but cross-cultural. This latter challenge is the old nemesis of cultural relativism (differences in values between societies).

One of the consequences of globalisation is that we are getting to be more and more alike across the world every decade. Homogenisation is increasing similarity.

The second accompanying characteristic of globalisation is hegemonisation - the paradoxical concentration of power in a particular country or in a particular civilisation.

At the moment, the Muslim world is a net loser from both homogenisation and hegemonisation. However, will Islam one day gain from homogenisation? Only if Muslim values penetrate the global pool. Can people share Muslim values without sharing the Muslim religion?

For example, many American Muslims find themselves sharing social values with Republicans in the United States: in favour of prayer at school, against easy abortion, against too much homosexual permissiveness, in favour of family values and stable marriages. One can be in agreement with Islamic values without being a Muslim.

Strictly on the issue of free speech, the cultural difference between Western culture and Islamic culture may not be as wide as often assumed. In both civilisations only a few points of view have national access to the media and the publishing world. In both civilisations there is marginalisation by exclusion from the centre.

The West has become powerful over the past five to six centuries. Western culture and civilisation became influential and attracted widespread imitation and emulation. Western hegemony precipitated widespread homogenisation of values, styles and institutions. Much of the world became Westernised.

The Westernisation of the world has been part and parcel of the phenomenon which we have come to refer to as "globalisation". The economic meaning of globalisation refers to the expansion of world economic interdependence under Western control.

The comprehensive meaning of globalisation refers to all the forces that have been leading the world towards a global village. Globalisation in this third sense has meant the village-isation of the world.

In the economic and informational meaning of globalisation, the West has been the primary engine of global change. However, in the comprehensive meaning of globalisation some other civilisations have been equally crucial at other stages of history.

The West's triumph in the past two or three centuries has led to the claim that Western civilisation has universal validity. Such a claim faces three challenges - the challenge of historical relativism, the challenge of cultural relativism and the challenge of empirical relativism. Not only does the West fail to meet its own ethical standards, but those standards are sometimes better fulfilled by other cultures than by the West.