Western Citizens Lack Courage at Their Own Peril

Tourists relaxing in park near Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Tourists relaxing in park near Eiffel Tower, Paris, France

As a parent, you quickly discover that children do not learn by what you tell them, but by how you behave. This is a lesson that the Western World has yet to learn. We like to believe and we certainly present ourselves as societies built on values, but as nations we often do not act accordingly.

We are able to keep the illusion of a value based society alive -- progressives and conservatives alike -- because we confuse our individual morality with our societal morality. Broadly, on an individual level, we believe that all human beings are equal and deserve the same respect, regardless of race, religion or gender. We also act upon these values. In private encounters, we are respectful and inclusive when interacting with people who are different from us.

Unfortunately, we do not live out these values as a society. For all practical purposes, a Western life is considered valuable, a non-Western life much less so. Our governments do not keep track of the hundreds of thousands Afghani and Iraqi civilians killed in the past wars, but do carefully count and commemorate every deceased western soldier. The terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino are seen as events of major importance, whilst recent terrorist attacks in Beirut or Ankara receive much less attention and are all too easily framed as "Muslim affairs." This is how our governments act, this is how our news outlets report, and this is what we, as Western citizens, uncritically accept as a fair reflection of reality.

As Western citizens we are easily blinded from this aspect of our moral functioning. People living outside of the Western bubble, however, tend to see things differently. What they experience is a lack of Western societal morality that is often concretely and detrimentally impacting their lives. Because of this, they are not very impressed with our individual morality.

This is something that we may want to understand better after the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. The attacks are not perpetrated by a few rotten apples, but they are the extreme manifestations of a societal process gone awry.

Since the era of George Bush, but embedded in a much longer history, Western nations have adopted an aggressive geopolitical strategy against many Muslim nations. Although not very convincing as an analysis, Huntington's notion of a 'Clash of Civilizations' has worked well as a political paradigm. Once politicians started using Huntington's views to shape policy, the ideas quickly turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This analysis is not new and is now shared by many, but it doesn't go quite far enough. In this story, the responsibility is relegated to politics and politicians. However, it fails to address the individual responsibility we have as Western citizens.

Before the second war in Iraq was launched in 2003, many people protested on the streets of Western cities. Once the war began, however, the protests quieted down. This is partially because Western citizens felt helpless and did not know what else they could do, but also because it would require an engagement that would have us deeply change the priorities we set for our personal lives. What we refuse to accept however, is that this war and others are being fought in our names.

We like to live our lives, go to bars, go to football games and concerts. We believe -- and rightly so -- that we have the right to live our lives in this way. Only, through the actions of our nations, we make it impossible for many other people to live their lives in the same way. The personal values we profess are just a little too easy. What we lack as individuals in Western societies is courage. When it comes down to it, we will always choose comfort above principles.

We have set in motion a cultural evolutionary process that will follow its own remorseless logic. The story of a value-based Western society that we tell ourselves does not convince the people who do not feel a part of it. The new generation of young Muslims correctly recognizes that Western society does not fully respect their culture. The extreme end of this Muslim generation now acts upon this.

Reality is knocking at our doors. We cannot venture into wars; creating chaos and misery where we go, and expect the privileged world we have created for ourselves to go unaffected in perfect isolation. It is time to grow up. We have to start shaping our societies in accordance with the values we profess to hold, because if we don't, there might await us much more of a clash than we wish to imagine.

Stefan Jansen, PhD is Belgian and works as a Senior Researcher at the University of Rwanda. He is Ag. Deputy Director of the Center for Mental Health in the College of Medicine and Health Sciences. Through discussions with colleagues and friends, he became increasingly aware that an important element is missing in the Western media coverage over the recent Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks, namely the responsibility that Western citizens have for the actions of their nations. Twenty one years ago, Rwanda went through the horror of genocide where one million on a total population of seven million have been killed in an outbreak of extreme violence. He saw that his Rwandan colleagues and friends share the shock and concern over the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, but also see them as events that take place in a bigger historical story.