Yesterday, in response to the Islamophobia Decal’s question, “Are Western values really different from Islamic values?” on their syllabus, I asserted that Western vs. Islamic values constituted a category error. At the atheist club meeting, several people objected that it was not a category error because they were comparing two sets of values. I’ve given it some thought, and here’s why I stand by what I said. I am not asserting anything about the intent of the authors of the syllabus, either. They are welcome to clarify their position, and I will post any response I receive.
The problem with saying it’s not a category error because both use the word “values” and can thus be compared is that it’s exactly the point of the fallacy: to make you think there is a set of values that can be reasonably called “Western values” that can then be coherently compared to Islamic values that, while not monolithic, at least have an official collection of values that we can all go and read ourselves. And sure, here in The West(tm), we have the Bible, but there’s a reason they don’t talk about Islamic versus Christian values: Christianity doesn’t have the political power it once did. Western countries are rarely Christian theocracies, these days – at least overtly (I’m looking at you, Poland).
For the same reason, we know they’re not making a general statement about the private values of individuals – if they were, again, they’d use the word Christian, because the West is still, for better or worse, majority Christian. Plus, Western and Muslim are not mutually exclusive; they can’t really believe that a Muslim abandons his or her Islamic values when they cross the border into The West. So if they’re not talking about comparing the private convictions of Muslims and of Christians, what are they talking about when they say “Islamic Values” versus “Western values?”Simply put: Western is a dog-whistle term for secular democracy and human rights. “Islamic Values” are the values that are enforced on the population in Islamic theocracies.
Here’s an example that should drive the point home. I live in the West. So does the Tea Party. Surely, whatever ‘Western values’ are, we’ve both got them. So why does my skin crawl whenever the Tea Party bleats about how we’re a Christian nation with Judeo-Christian values? It’s because the next sentence is invariably how our laws are founded on the Bible, and we all know God is against gay marriage/stem cell research/women in pants.
We should be just as suspicious of attempts to geographize “Islamic values” or “Islamic countries” as we are of our home-grown theocrats. We don’t have ‘Western values,’ we have _secular_ values. And yes, damnit, when it comes to the state, secular values and Islamic/Christian values are different. Secular values are better, full-stop. We believe atheists should have the same rights as anyone else. We don’t think women should be executed for adultery, or that, as happened recently in Iran, gay people should be hung in the city square, in obeisance to Islamic values. And you know what? Lots of Muslims agree, and don’t want to live in a society governed by Islamic values anymore than I do. Lots of Christians don’t want to live in a Christian nation, either. Who really likes a theocracy? It took a long damn time for us to break free of that garbage, to have an enlightenment, and I for one don’t ever want to go back.