For more than four months now, the United States, the United Kingdom, and other Western countries have been staunchly supporting Israel’s war on Gaza. As of now, the Israeli army has killed more than 28,000 Palestinians, including more than 12,000 children.
On January 26, the International Court of Justice ruled that “at least some of the acts and omissions alleged by South Africa to have been committed by Israel in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the [Genocide] Convention,” and that South Africa’s claim that Israel is committing genocidal acts is “plausible”. Nevertheless, the West continued to stand by Israel.
Then when Israel alleged that employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) were linked to Hamas, the US, the UK, Germany, and more than a dozen other countries suspended their funding, as Palestinians in Gaza faced starvation.
Despite Western complicity in actions the world’s top court is recognising as genocidal, the West still assigns itself all manner of superiority in civilised societal behaviour. Western countries still honour themselves as “the good guys”.
“I got in trouble many times for saying you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist, and I am a Zionist. I make no apologies for that. That’s a reality,” President Joe Biden said in a speech at a private campaign reception in Massachusetts in early December, when the death toll in Gaza already stood at 16,200. “We’ve [Americans] never thought anything is beyond our capacity, from curing cancer this time around to everything we’ve ever done. I really mean it,” he added.
It takes a special kind of narcissism for a world leader to declare himself a 50-year-long adherent to a white supremacist ideology that excuses apartheid, settler-colonialism, and genocide and then to turn to the greatness of the US and all its “possibilities”, as if the US has only been sprinkling pixie dust around the world and not intervening with brutal military and economic power over the past 130 years.
But the US president is not alone in his self-delusion. At the Conservative Friends of Israel gathering in London last month, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak showed unwavering support for Israeli attacks on Gaza and the West Bank. “There is a horrific irony in Israel, of all countries being accused of genocide,” Sunak said, labelling South Africa’s case against Israel “completely unjustified”.
The “horrific irony” is that Israel, as a Western ally, cannot be accused of genocide because it is one of “the good guys”. The “bad guys” can only be non-Western (really, non-white) nations, such as South Africa.
Biden, Sunak et al still believe that as the leaders of the developed world, they are making understandable rational choices when they are fighting wars and killing people in the name of self-defence or under the guise of fighting “terrorism”.
Despite the protest of tens of millions people around the world and the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians, the razing of Gaza and other crimes against humanity, the disregard for the ongoing war in Sudan and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Western leaders still believe Western capitalism and democratic institutions will save the world.
In his book The Clash of Civilizations (1996), the late political scientist Samuel Huntington warned about the dangers of the Western delusion that the rest of the world should embrace its purported values. “The survival of the West depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilization as unique not universal,” he wrote.
But what Huntington didn’t understand about the West’s quest for a one-world civilisation is that today’s resentments toward it didn’t start in the post-Cold War era of the 1990s. They are a response to the trail of death, destruction, and devouring of resources that Westerners have left behind ever since Christopher Columbus made his way to the Western Hemisphere and Vasco da Gama found a route around Africa to South Asia, both in the 1490s.
The rest of the world has been the West’s source of plunder, first through the pillage of gold, silver, and gems from newly invaded lands, then through the enslavement of millions of Indigenous, African, and Asian peoples, and finally through the conquest of the old empires of the East.
This belief in Western civilisation as superior and righteous because of its whiteness is so ingrained in its culture that young people in the West grow up without anyone in their lives ever questioning it. That is, until someone like me as a history professor comes along and confronts this fundamental belief.
In my many years of teaching history, my own students have often gotten into it with me over my supposition that “Western civilisation” is a contradictory term.
“But the Aztecs practiced human sacrifice!” one student yelped, while a calmer student, with a raised hand, said, “It’s unfortunate that atrocities happened to the natives, but it’s insulting to compare what the Spanish did to what happened to Rome.”
That was the strong pushback I received from a few students in one of my world history courses a few years back when I spoke of the barbarity of the Spanish conquests of the Aztecs and the Inca in the 16th century and the similarities between those invasions and the Vandal and Visigoth tribes who helped end the Western Roman Empire.
I pointed out the achievements of the civilisations destroyed and the conquistadors and the Spanish priests burning nearly all Mayan writings, desecrating Mexica, Mayan, and Inca temples, and forcing the population into slavery and Christianity.
I have also endured vitriol from students unwilling to even consider the possibility that the US and the West, having engaged in barbaric behaviour with their own populations and across the globe, might do so in the near future.
“It isn’t possible, because…no civilised society wants it happening to them,” one student said years ago. “Americans would never take up arms against the government, especially with our military, it isn’t rational. We wouldn’t be stupid enough to make this mistake again. Our military would crush any insurrection,” is what another student blurted out in the past year, despite evidence of the opposite with the insurrection at the US Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.
Some students were too deep in the belief of the West as a positive force to consider the apocalypse it visited upon 60 million Indigenous people, wiping out up to 90 percent of the population within 100 years of Columbus’s first contact.
We couldn’t even discuss the other genocides wrought in the name of empire, colonialism, and capitalism: the 165 million South Asians the British starved, murdered, or worked to death between 1880 and 1920; or the estimated 10 million Congolese who Belgians exterminated; or the genocide of up to 100,000 Herero and Nama people by German forces in Namibia between 1904 and 1908.
My students’ belief in Western rationality remained strong even when the carnage of World Wars I and II was brought up. In those conflicts, as many as 90 million civilians and service members were killed – among them more than 200,000 annihilated in the US nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Western narcissism is exactly why my students have difficulty accepting that Western civilisation contradicts itself at every turn. As the late post-colonial scholar Edward Said wrote in Orientalism (1978), “It can be argued that the major component in European culture is precisely what made [Western civilisation] hegemonic both in and outside Europe: the idea of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.”
This belief in Western superiority means always being on the right side of history, even though there are plenty of examples of Western irrationality, barbarism, and brutality in its interventions in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Western narcissism means the US and West will only lift a finger to support the Palestinians if forced to by the world and by their own citizens.
That roughly half of Americans ages 18-29 believe that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza is encouraging, but by itself not enough to end US and Western complicity in Israel’s crimes.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.