Claude Guéant, the French interior minister, sparked a firestorm last month when he praised Western values as “superior” to the oppressive ones found elsewhere, namely the Islamic world. Yet the controversy did more to spotlight an area in which the West clearly trails its rivals: self-confidence. If a government official cannot extol the unique virtues of freedom and equality that define Western life without being cast as a bigot by the politically correct, how can they be safeguarded against the highly motivated forces of Islamism, which doubt neither the superiority of their own principles nor the righteousness of imposing them on others?
“Contrary to what the left’s relativist ideology says, for us, all civilizations are not of equal value,” Guéant, a member of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, told a conference on February 4. “Those which defend humanity seem to us to be more advanced than those that do not,” he averred. “Those which defend liberty, equality, and fraternity seem to us superior to those which accept tyranny, the subservience of women, social and ethnic hatred” — a truth that would be hammered home a month and a half later by a jihadist murdering Jewish children in Toulouse. Thus, Guéant underscored the need to “protect our civilization.”
The response from the aforementioned relativists was swift and hostile, led by the Socialist Party of François Hollande, the apparent frontrunner in this spring’s presidential race. Pierre Moscovici, Hollande’s campaign chief, called Guéant’s observations “a premeditated, willful, conscious gesture” to secure rightist votes for Sarkozy. He is “targeting Muslims,” Moscovici added. Prominent Socialist Harlem Désir condemned Guéant’s words as a “pitiful provocation” reflecting his party’s supposed “moral decline.” Hollande spokesman Bernard Cazeneuve accused Guéant of attempting to “hierarchize humanity,” while the Young Socialist Movement decried his speech as “xenophobic and racist.” Serge Letchimy, representing Martinique in the National Assembly of France, went farthest of all when he addressed Guéant in parliament, saying, “You bring us back day after day to those European ideologies which gave birth to the concentration camps.”
To their credit, Guéant stood by his remarks and Sarkozy supported him. “Obvious words to note that not all civilizations have the same worth regarding the humanist values that are ours,” Guéant later explained to Le Figaro. “Who can contest that there is a difference in values between a civilization that favors democracy, protects individual liberties … promotes the rights of women, and a civilization that accepts tyranny, accords no importance to liberties, and does not respect equal rights between men and women?” Many people, it seems.
Guéant is hardly the first politician to be raked over the coals for touting the exemplary characteristics of the West and shining a negative light, directly or indirectly, on Islam. Indeed, the row recalls one that erupted days after 9/11 when Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s prime minister at the time, maintained: “We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights, and — in contrast with Islamic countries — respect for religious and political rights.” The reaction was fierce. Belgium’s prime minister cautioned that such “dangerous” language “could feed a feeling of humiliation” among Muslims, an Italian opposition leader chided Berlusconi for “using terms that no statesman worthy of the name has used,” and another likened him to Osama bin Laden. Berlusconi quickly backtracked, with his office citing his “deep respect for Islam, a great religion … which preaches tolerance” and “respect of human rights.”
Of course, the political figure best known for bluntly comparing the Western and Islamic worlds while suffering the establishment’s wrath is Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders. “We will have to end cultural relativism,” he stressed in Rome last year. “To the multiculturalists, we must proudly proclaim: Our Western culture is far superior to the Islamic culture. Only when we are convinced of that, we will be willing to fight for our own identity.”
The ancient military thinker Sun Tzu taught that victory in any conflict is achieved by understanding not merely one’s adversary, but also oneself. Applied to the struggle against Islamism, this starts with Westerners grasping that which they are charged with preserving: a unique cultural patrimony — born in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem and nurtured during the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and American Revolution — that sustains the freest and most prosperous civilization in the historical record.
Yet as the response to Guéant demonstrates, appreciation of this Western “self” has grown thin in many circles. Due to “post-modernism, moral relativism, and multiculturalism, the West has lost all self-confidence in its own values, and seems incapable and unwilling to defend those values,” argues Ibn Warraq, author of Why the West Is Best. “By contrast, resurgent Islam, in all its forms, is supremely confident, and is able to exploit the West’s moral weakness and cultural confusion to demand ever more concessions from her.”