East & West: As you mention in one of your scientific papers, anti-Westernism in generally regarded as a manifestation of fanaticism, of backward, sometimes even barbarous forces, a resistance movement against the natural course of history. Why do you think anti-Westernism has a legitimate foundation?
Oğuzhan Göksel: The thinkers who perceive anti-Westernism as backward and barbarous tend to believe in the unquestionable supremacy of Western civilization over all other civilizations across the world. Almost all of them are devoted to the idea that globalization is inevitable and that it would gradually spread “Western values” to non-Western societies – producing a more or less homogenous unified human civilization built on the model of Western modernity. As such thinkers uncritically associate Western civilization with every imaginable positive trait (e.g. democracy, human rights, equality, economic prosperity, technology, cultural progress), they genuinely cannot understand how someone can possibly be opposed to the West and all the values it supposedly stands for. This way of thinking excessively Eurocentric which is a very biased way of analyzing politics, history, society, economy, culture, and international relations via the subjective (and perhaps temporary) point of view of contemporary Western societies. Unfortunately, Eurocentrism is so dominant in Western mainstream media (and now also social media) and academia that it becomes very hard for a thinker to see its weaknesses.
I do not deny the numerous contributions of Western civilization to humanity since the beginning of the rise of Europe from the 15th century onwards. Some of these countless contributions include modern medicine and health services, universities and knowledge production, better average living standards and a massive increase in life expectancy and political systems based on the rule of law and social contract. However, we also have to acknowledge that the rise of Western civilization has been achieved at a great cost and largely at the expense of non-Western peoples around the world. The notorious elements of the story include some of the darkest episodes in human history such as the global slave trade, genocide of many native populations, economic exploitation and under-development across the world and the ongoing imperialist subjugation of areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, the present day superior living standards of many Western societies is possible to a large extent because their ancestors were engaged in colonialism and perhaps because themselves are involved in some form of present day imperialism.
Most Western societies might have built democratic regimes based on human rights within their territories, yet the international political and economic system dominated by Western powers is not based on a democratic understanding of human affairs. In our age, non-Western peoples in Latin America, Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East are still struggling to obtain equal rights with Western peoples and they have to fight against Western intervention in their affairs to achieve socio-economic development. I believe that anti-Westernism has a legitimate foundation in our time because it is only natural for the long marginalized and disenfranchised non-Western societies to desire more rights, power and economic prosperity in a world that is still dominated to a large extent by Western powers such as the US and EU countries.
In a way, non-Western peoples have to struggle to gain “the right to have rights”. For many centuries, black people living in Western countries such as the US were sadly not recognized as human beings and were excluded from having the same “human” rights with the white people. I believe that some form of this racist/culturalist approach still continue in international relations. Perhaps not overtly but subconsciously, non-Western peoples are not recognized as equal by their Western counterparts. We can see manifestations of this approach in depictions of non-Western peoples in cultural products (e.g. movies, TV shows, and the gaming industry) as well as in the actual workings of international organizations such as the UN, IMF, World Bank and even the EU. The leaders and citizens of the EU should sincerely ask themselves the following question for instance: while negotiating for a full membership into the organization, have we treated Turkey equally with other Eastern European countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary? Do Bulgaria, Romania and Greece truly have a more advanced economic development level than Turkey? Does Hungary violate less liberal democratic principles than Turkey? Have we denied Turkey the EU membership because of valid economic and political reasons, or due to a culturalist bias that Turkish people “are not like us”?
I do not necessarily see all manifestations of anti-Westernism as a rejection of Western culture. In fact, I strongly believe that cultural exchange between societies spread empathy and contribute towards the emergence of a collective identity for humanity. I, for instance, strongly believe in many of the positive discourses of Western modernity (e.g. human rights, equality and liberal democracy) while opposing Western military interventions and economic penetrations in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.
E&W: Is anti-Westernism solely the result of XIX century colonialism? It may sound a bit provocative, but couldn’t this be a case of a country, a nation, a culture, putting the blame on other people for their problems? Because undeniably in their first encounters with Western powers, many non-Western countries felt a sort of collective inferiority complex and a sense of being in decline. I have recently had the pleasure to an American who lived in Pakistan for many years. He said: “They think the Americans are always guilty and blame the US for all their evils”.
OG: Anti-Westernism, as I understand it, stem from the historical European colonialism and present day Western imperialism, yet you are right in suggesting that anti-Westernism is frequently employed as a scapegoating device in non-Western societies. As a scholar, I have been deeply influenced by the “Dependency Theory” and “Post-Colonialism” – two prominent theories that have strongly criticized Eurocentrism, Orientalism and Western imperialism. Yet I am also aware that the main weakness of both of these theories is that they often engage in scapegoating, that is blaming the West for every possible problem in non-Western societies. Right at that point, these theories get very “thin” – namely they start losing their legitimacy and validity.
A scholar may begin a career by aiming to objectively understand human history and overcome Eurocentrism, but at some point may end up justifying the authoritarian/totalitarian regimes of the non-Western world (e.g. the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Assad regime in Syria or the People’s Republic of China) because these anti-Western regimes supposedly pose a challenge to the West. A non-Western demagogue politician may effectively use anti-Western discourse to absolve himself/herself of the massive failure to ensure income inequality and claim that the West is entirely responsible for this disappointment rather than the high corruption levels of this government itself! As such, we have to be very careful in utilizing anti-Westernism. Unfortunately, it has the potential to be a very effective tool in terms of manipulating public opinion.
We should be balanced in our account and try to understand, for instance, why some non-Western countries are much more economically prosperous, free and have a more respectable position in global affairs than their non-Western counterparts. All non-Western societies have operated under the same limitation of global Western hegemony for centuries – albeit with varying levels of penetration in their domestic affairs – yet some such as Japan and the so-called “East Asian Tigers” (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) have clearly been more successful in the endeavors to overcome Western imperialism and gain power, wealth and prestige.
Since the end of World War II, much of East Asia has rapidly ascended to power and now forms one of the key economic and cultural centers of the globe alongside the West. Thus, East Asian countries have proven that it is possible for non-Western societies to successfully develop even within a Eurocentric international political and economic system. The ongoing rise of East Asia is a remarkable story that may one day rival or surpass the historical rise of Europe from the late 15th century onwards in terms of its wide scale and breadth! As a result, the present day global system is less Eurocentric at the moment than it used to be in the past. Yet, most non-Western governments of our time in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East still fail to make any significant progress in providing liberties and better living standards to their citizens. Is the West to blame for this? If we are talking about most of Sub-Saharan Africa still exploited by West-based multi-national corporations and/or certain Middle East countries struggling with Western military interventions (e.g. Afghanistan and Iraq) or economic sanctions (e.g. Iran), the West has a key role for sure. Yet, the West is not solely responsible for the ills that beset these countries and much of the blame must also be placed on the decision-makers of non-Western countries themselves. Moreover, the citizenry of many non-Western governments should also be taken into account for tolerating or not resisting the excessive levels of corruption, human rights violations and mismanagement of their own rulers. In this context, the Arab Spring of 2011 should be commended as the protests constituted a historic attempt by the peoples of the Middle East to fight for justice and liberty. The social movements appear to have failed to reach their objectives in almost all countries – with the notable exception of Tunisia – yet the memory of such moments often live on and form a lasting legacy to change the future…
E&W: Most people in the West, in particular the elites, are deeply persuaded that we live in an era of globalisation, where the world has become inextricably interconnected. They call the rejection of globalisation nationalism, populism, illiberalism and, most damningly, irrationalism. On the other hand, however, they do not imagine a united world where every country contributes to the world with what it does best. On the contrary, in their vision, the whole world has to become like the West and adopt Western values. They see a world led by the West as the justest development the world could possibly take. Why is that?
OG: The answer to this question can be found in the beginning of my answer to the first question. Many Western elites – not all – unquestioningly believe in the narrative of globalization and a homogenized humanity based on Western modernity because they are the unknowing victims of a “mental prison”, namely Eurocentrism. As a scholar, I have participated to many seminars and conferences dedicated to discussing West-East relations, the rise of East Asia, the potential future of a post-Western world etc. In my experience, even many experienced and successful Western scholars appear to have been indoctrinated by mainstream narratives into thinking that Western civilization is the only section of humanity that is capable of fostering human rights such as liberty and equality. For many, for instance, the rise of East Asian powers signals a dark age of authoritarianism and repression. Is not the consciousness of human rights the collective product of the entire humanity’s mental development? Is a democratic regime based on individual liberties the exclusive intellectual property of the US, UK, France or Germany? Is it not possible that a less Eurocentric world may produce superior forms of existence by improving the contemporary liberal democracies and the free-market capitalist economies of our time? I believe that cultural exchanges between societies will carry us forward rather than all non-Western societies modeling themselves on Western modernity. A homogenized humanity sharing many common values may yet emerge one day, but that does not have to be modeled on the present day characteristics of Western countries (e.g. free-market capitalism). Unlike what the proponents of a Eurocentric understanding of globalization such as Francis Fukuyama and Alvin Toffler seem to believe, history is far from over. In the 21st century, various human societies will continue to learn from each other rather than only one civilization assuming the role of a tutor to all others.
E&W: Liberal-minded Westerners, especially young ones, would abhor any claim of superiority of Western civilization, seeing in any such proposition more than a trace of unforgivable racism, one of the mortal sins of our time. At the same time, however, these Western internationalists appear not to be able to imagine or desire a world even only slightly different from what the West has become today. How do you explain this paradox?
OG: The liberal-minded young generations of Westerners are indeed more sensitive to the rights and demands non-Western peoples. Many non-Western peoples live as notable minorities and work side by side with Westerners in Europe, Northern America and Australasia. This largely peaceful co-existence has the potential to create a more unified and egalitarian humanity – albeit there are always threats to such a consciousness from extremist groups that feed on each other (i.e. the terrorist activities of ISIS and of white supremacist extreme right-wing groups). The liberal Westerners are critical of racism, culturalism, ultra-nationalism and they are trying to develop a collective consciousness of “political correctness” that is shaped by minority rights. These attempts may also influence narratives of globalization as someone who criticize the injustices suffered by non-Western peoples in his/her country may very well realize the global injustices inherent in our international economic system. I do not entirely agree with you in saying that Western internationalists are incapable of imagining a different world than the present time. Anti-capitalism, environmentalism, sensitivity to non-Western peoples’ rights are popular discourses in Western campuses at the moment. Not unlike the 1968 generation, the contemporary youth are very critical of the political elites across the globe. As the global climate change start to push our world into the brink of economic and humanitarian disasters in the near future, I expect to see more and more young people questioning the validity and sustainability of our global economic and political system. I believe that such discourses will give rise to new intellectuals, leaders, social movements and ideologies in the 21st century and they will build a brave new world…
E&W: It is said that a policy of national awareness emerged in non-Western countries during a period of influence from the West. Nationalism, apparently, is a Western idea. Nationalism in non-Western countries, however, often assumed the characteristics of anti-Westernism. How do countries go from an enthusiastic appreciation of the West to a diffuse anti-Western sentiment? Look at Iran before and after the 1979 revolution, or, in a more recent example, the Russia of the 1990s and Russia today.
OG: I do not believe that nationalism is a Western idea, while the nation-state is certainly a Western invention that emerged in Western Europe (e.g. England, France, Spain and much later in Italy and Germany) from 17th century onwards. I also think that the concept of nation predates the nation-state, not the other way around as many theorists of nationalism believe. Long before modern nation-states emerged, both Western and non-Western peoples had already begun to develop national identities. Nevertheless, the modern nation-state consolidated this process and systematized it. The idea of a centralized nation-state primarily acting as the representative of one certain nation is a Western construct indeed.
As non-Western multi-cultural empires (Ottomans, China, and Iran etc.) encountered powerful Western nation-states and disintegrated as a result of this encounter, they also began to transform into nation-states during their westernization processes. The fledgling non-Western nation-states in Japan, China, Turkey, Iran and many others were forced into competition with their more technologically advanced Western counterparts. A sense of awe and imitation were also accompanied by an inferiority complex. I believe that there is a very thin line between adoration, jealousy and hatred in human relations. On an individual level, when someone we adore entirely snub us and/or even look down on us, our initial adoration tend to immediately transform into a deep hatred for that person.
There is a very famous proverb: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. In the context of this proverb, the metaphor of an angry woman in a one-sided, unrequited relationship is used somewhat misogynously to suggest that an insulted person would seek revenge from the other side. The same principle can be applied to international relations. Non-Western peoples learned from the West, modeled themselves on the supposedly positive features of Western modernity and hoped to gain an equal status with – and the respect of – Western peoples. When proud non-Western peoples who used to possess large empires were instead humiliated at the hands of Western powers via military defeats, direct colonization, and economic exploitation, they quickly became anti-Westernists. This situation is not desirable for any sides for sure, but completely understandable as a human reaction in my opinion. In such non-Western countries (e.g. Iran, Russia, China, Turkey), anti-Westernism becomes a critical component of national political culture to such extent that governments tend not to ignore its appeal to public opinion.
E&W: Will the West, and in particular Western elites, be able to make sense of the diffuse anti-Western sentiment in much of the non-Western world?
As you have probably guessed by now, I am hardly impressed by the performance of Western political elites and West-led international organizations in terms of the way they have treated the non-Western world so far. The UN, IMF and EU, for instance, are very influential organizations that could have realistically served as platforms to bring Western and non-Western peoples together. Yet all these organizations suffer from major institutional defects that prevent them from fulfilling such an admirable goal. Instead they are mostly perceived by non-Western societies as “illegitimate tools of Western hegemony” over the international political and economic system. It would have been interesting to see a revised UN Security Council that has permanent representation from Africa, Latin America, Middle East and South Asia. How about an alternative EU that would include predominantly Muslim countries such as Albania, Kosovo, Turkey and Bosnia and Herzegovina? Would not that contribute to the idea of building a multi-cultural European consciousness united in peace, co-existence and mutual tolerance?
In order to understand where anti-Western sentiment comes from, Western elites should critically re-evaluate the way in which they tell the story of the rise of the Western civilization. Whose suffering and plight have been ignored for centuries, while the achievements of the West have been glorified? Furthermore, what can be done today to alleviate the fears and hatred of non-Western peoples around the world? I am acutely aware that these are very tough questions to ask, but one has to start somewhere. I am skeptical of the intentions of Western elites and the capabilities of the present day Western institutions, yet I choose to place my faith in the personal experiences and multi-cultural visions of the Western youth that have been raised in a very different atmosphere than that of their ancestors. More Western people now live side by side with non-Western peoples than ever before – working together, forming strong friendships and marriages… Such sincere human interactions could be the beginning of a new era. Hopefully these developments will also result in the emergence of more just international political and economic governance in the near future.
Dr Oguzhan Goksel is Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics at the Department of Political Science and International Relations, Istanbul 29 Mayis University, Turkey. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of New Middle Eastern Studies journal. He completed his Ph.D. degree in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, UK in 2015. Goksel’s works have been published in various edited books and international peer-reviewed journals.
This interview was taken by East & West contributor Stefano Di Lorenzo