Is the Sun Setting on the Western Empire? Exploring Shifts in Global Power and Islamophobic Thinking

Is the Sun Setting on the Western Empire? Exploring Shifts in Global Power and Islamophobic Thinking

Looking at the current world-wide turmoil, and the rise of the multi-polar world, Saeed Khan sets out the questions and conversations that will inform this year’s IHRC Islamophobia Conference. 

Geographically, the sun sets in the West. But has the time now come that the sun is setting, geopolitically, on the West? Western countries defined and distinguished themselves from other nations and regions by a set of self-describing values, often presented as cardinal virtues. These include liberal democracy, adherence to the rule of law and social tolerance. Yet, each of these so-called virtues appears to be at risk with recent transformations. Manipulations of elections and voter suppression schemes place in doubt the primacy and legitimacy of democratic processes. Immunity of the elite and leadership from accountability or even criminal prosecution contradict the claim that Western nations represent fidelity to an open, transparent and fair judicial system. And the restrictive space given Muslims in the public sphere of several Western countries exposes the hypocrisy of societies that purportedly promote freedom of expression for all.

The end of the Cold War in the early 1990s was heralded as a vindication of the West and its nearly half-century conflict with the Soviet bloc. The dismantling of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact caused such noted scholars as Francis Fukuyama to exultantly declare the end of history, invoking Hegel’s famous conclusion to a historical dialectic. In The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama contended that the collapse of the so-called east confirmed once and for all the primacy, superiority and eternality of liberal democracy market economy and perhaps some form of secularity. To characterize Fukuyama’s assertions as being premature would be a gross understatement. The rise of China, as well as other economic, military and political counterpoints such as Brazil, India and even a revamped Russia, refute the notion that the world was somehow destined to 1000 years of peace as defined, directed and even dictated by the West. While Fukuyama has conceded that perhaps his exuberance of predicting the overall victory of the West was misguided, there are many within that geography and ideology that are in denial of any decline within the West. They are also defiant in engaging in any exercise of self-reflection that the Western project is either failing or is systemically flawed.

Who is the West?

While the West is often characterized as being a conglomerate of Europe, North America north of the Rio Grande River, Australia, New Zealand, and perhaps begrudgingly Japan, the West has essentially come to be defined by the Anglophone world. This suggests that most of Europe would not fit into this convenient schematic. If one is to acknowledge the dominance of the Anglophone world, in particular, the cultural, economic, political, military and social reach, then the United States and postcolonial Great Britain in and of itself and through its Commonwealth of Nations must be seen as forming the current Western zeitgeist. But the Anglophone world has suffered a decline in its dominance, especially over the past two decades.

For Great Britain, it is difficult to place a positive spin on its seemingly shocking departure from the European Union in 2016 by way of its own self-inflicted agency of putting that fateful decision to a referendum. More recently, even British influence through the vehicle of its relationship with Commonwealth nations has become less fortified than ever before. Calls for the possibility of removing the British sovereign as head of state have now gained traction in countries like Barbados, the world’s most recent republic. While the Queen (now King) of England is still the head of state of 15 countries, the majority being island nations in the Caribbean and in Oceania, it is now an open question whether these countries will seek to follow the lead of Barbados, and perhaps even the previously unthinkable, i.e. the departure of Canada, Australia and New Zealand as the transition in the monarchy has arrived. Already, the United Kingdom has been overtaken by India as the largest economy in the Commonwealth. Arguably the presumption that Great Britain once had of wielding its influence, assertiveness, amongst Commonwealth nations is no longer one that it can enjoy, facing now the reality of acquiescing to economic gravitational forces that reside elsewhere.

For the United States, arguably the premier hegemonic force globally, there has been a retraction of its presumptive power, authority and influence on the world stage. Domestically, it faced three major stress tests within approximately the past two decades. The first was the 9/11 attacks. Rather than uphold freedom and civil liberties, the oft professed defining principles of American life, the government and civil society collaborated in a project of securitization that disproportionately impacted Muslim Americans. As was perhaps inevitable, more than 20 years on, the spectre of being a country under attack has remained part of the new American narrative. In addition, the US had to cope with the financial meltdown of 2008. The Great Recession was a trauma that still affects the national consciousness and continues to enervate millions in their economic well-being, while the income disparities have reached unprecedented levels, suggesting that not everyone was adversely impacted by the episode.

Both of these traumas then played pivotal roles in the development of the third challenge: the rise of neopopulism, best exemplified by the election and birth of the cult of Donald Trump in 2016. America has entered a “post-truth” phase, where data and incontrovertible truth are inconvenient and irrelevant at best, rejected and refuted at worst. With the zealous and now open efforts to subvert the democratic process, as showcased on January 6, 2021 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC for all the world to see, and continuing pledges by Trump’s acolytes to fortify their chosen election outcomes, America’s experiment with democratic institutions and process is on the endangered species list, with the possibility that it could embolden other regimes, especially in the West to follow suit.

Pride comes…

The past, it is said, serves as prologue. Many of the West’s current maladies have a recent history which arguably could have been altered to prevent what is the situation at hand. The Ukraine invasion has been cited as a possible illustration of the decline of Western hegemonic influence. Yet, the Russian aggression could easily be predicted were one to take a broader historical perspective over the past 25 years. Steady Western encroachment into former Soviet spheres of influence and even former Soviet republics had cast the die for retribution from Moscow. That the West had become complacent, even hubristic about its self-proclaimed mission of spreading democratic and or neoliberal influence into Eastern Europe was bound to result in a backlash. The current crisis in Ukraine has also exposed Western vulnerability to energy dependency, despite all of its indignation to the developing world regarding climate action. The spectre of double standards vis-à-vis military intervention is in concordance with other contradictory Western policies and actions regarding the selective and circumspect promotion of democracy, while suppressing democracy movements with impunity including support for dictatorial regimes to satisfy economic gain and political leverage. In addition, emerging non-Western powers like China and India have openly defied Western sanctions on Russia by allowing Moscow to circumvent barriers on its oil sales.

The erosion of the rule of law and even constitutional and judicial integrity, purportedly hallmark features of Western values, have been on full display over the preceding three years. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a stress test for the ability for Western notions of liberalism to be applied at times when these societies have been facing some of their most comprehensive array of challenges. The conduct of outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson and members of his cabinet in flouting Covid restrictions that they had in fact imposed on the general population is but one example of the hypocrisy of selective Western legal adherence. Of course, the 2020 US election further demonstrates the efforts to subvert democracy and free and fair elections with former President Donald Trump and several high-ranking members of the Republican Party openly seeking to disenfranchise voters and questioning without evidence the propriety of election results that do not suit or satisfy the outcome they seek. Public confidence in the political system, political institutions and politicians has been shown to be at historic lows on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. For a region that touts the primacy, if not superiority of liberal democracy, adherence to that particular pillar of Western society is no longer a certainty.

Divide and conquer no more?

The West is currently the rather crowded landscape of identity politics. Individuals and entire communities are reduced to one side of a particular binary, which could be political (oftentimes, a function of varying degrees of partisanship), or even cultural in nature. It is in this latter area where a wide array of identity markers provides arenas of contestation, including sexual orientation and socio-economic status (i.e. class). But religion is also more than a mere belief system; it is a category of identity that exists unto itself, but it can also subdivide within a faith tradition in the form of sectarianism as well as bind to other identity factors to create phenomena such as religio-nationalism. In doing so, religion may become synonymous with, and indistinguishable to an ethnicity, leading to ethno-nationalism, often deployed with a concomitant religious rhetoric.

As, the West is currently embroiled within a new dimension of identity politics, one may argue that it is a victim of its own creation. But it would be erroneous to assume that Western constructs of identity are a new phenomenon; it has been the tragic experience of colonized and subjugated peoples at the hands of Western powers who were the recipients of new forms of categorization as part of the imperial objectives of divide, conquer and rule. While ethnic, sectarian and even socioeconomic lines of demarcation existed prior to the colonial period, Western intervention created an inorganic recalibration of these demographic differences, without either concern for discord or the agency of those being redefined to object to these efforts.

The identity politics that pervade throughout the West currently may best be placed into two major categories: political/ partisan and cultural, especially with sexual categories. Ironically, the rigidity and perceived lack of permeability of many identity categories today seem to be absent in this latter area, where the greatest level of fluidity seems to exist. Today, individuals, groups, and even entire geographic regions, whether American states or provinces and territories, are reduced to a colour that corresponds to a political or ideological affiliation. Similar reductivism sadly has come to dominate religion, religio-national identity, socioeconomic levels, and the ethno-national, in particular, in matters of migration and immigration, where a mere pair of words may define a binary, itself an oversimplification of complex processes.

Contra the primacy supposedly conferred upon the individual, every individual by Western platitudes on liberalism, people from outside the Occident are apparently ineligible to enjoy the rights of full personhood. As much as Western countries espouse pluralism, free expression and tolerance, the discourse on refugees and migrants over the past decade has exposed the contradictions and limits of these conceits. Several European countries have either closed their borders to those seeking asylum per the laws Western nations have themselves enacted. Great Britain has even pursued policies that will deport asylum seekers to third countries like Rwanda as if the refugees were an errantly purchased item from a retailer. In the United States, the pertinent debates among xenophobes vacillate between those who demand severe curbs to legal immigration at one end to a categorical moratorium on all forms of immigration, legal or illegal, at the other.

The subversion of Western notions of liberalism continues to the fundamental aspect of citizenship. The government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed the revocation of one’s citizenship if the regime determined the individual poses a “threat” to the state without even requiring notification to be given to the affected person. This provision simply adds to existing laws that can strip someone of British citizenship if the government determines such action is “for the public good” and would not make the individual stateless. Within the American context, deliberations to consider the abolition of birth-right citizenship, a core feature of the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, have now gained traction among the politically conservative side of the aisle.

Western-created and imposed constructs of identity upon much of the rest of the world, particularly during the colonial and imperial eras, still exist and in fact have been exacerbated in countries like India, China, various African nations and in South America as well. At the same time, newly established identity markers in the West have also made their way to non-Western regions, thanks to technology, telecommunications and the continuing influence of the West as a producer of mass culture. Some of these identity markers are an artificial encroachment on these societies; yet the West will use them as barometers as to how “modern” these communities are. This is the latest contradictory, even hypocritical oeuvre of the West, redolent of the British dismantling of sexual and gender mores in the colonies, while maintaining Victorian values in the metropole.

The West continues to exert its influence by way of identity politics in very significant ways that then greatly affect the rest of the world and certainly much of the Islamicate. First, the new categories of identity construction affect Western societies by creating moral panics which affect Muslims through scapegoating, discriminatory and exclusionary policies as well as demonization. The inability for the West to come to terms with its own systemic and self-created deficiencies and crises leads to the reflexive and convenient focus on the so-called other. Sometimes, this scapegoating proves to be a diversion to underlying faults within a social and political milieu and championed by the ambitious and opportunistic. Former British chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak invoked the need to combat Islamic extremism as a chief priority in his bid to become both head of the Conservative party and the presumptive Prime Minister. Similarly, despite the indisputable rise and threat of right-wing extremism and white Christian nationalism in the United States, there are many politicians and opinion makers who still stubbornly cling to the hackneyed trope of the Muslim menace.

Exporting the ‘other’ by social media

Social media is often touted as being the paragon of democracy in practice. Arguably, the individual has access to the marketplace of ideas that might be deprived by corporate media outlets and similarly scaled platforms. One can place an opinion or argument into the fray via one’s “app” of choice and evade the obstacles to publication caused by economic and/or ideological motivations of conventional media outlets. Yet, the democratization of voices that is facilitated by social media has also been perverted by some to mobilize the tyranny of the majority against vulnerable minority communities.

The sanction for identity politics in the new Western model is finding a safe haven within certain developing nations with a similar impact on Muslims, the difference being a far more dangerous, violent and lethal expression of othering. India perhaps offers the most structuralized form of religio-national identity construction through Hindutva and the policies of the BJP government. The collaborative efforts between state and civil society to otherize, marginalize and persecute Muslims and other minorities in India has been coordinated in large measure over social media platforms. Companies that operate these outlets, many based in the West, have been reluctant to police and prevent toxic conduct lest they lose access to one of the world’s largest consumer markets.

Similar demonization campaigns against Muslims based on the exploitation of communal difference have been seen in Myanmar and the Central African Republic. Arguably, identity politics and their focus were test-driven by problematizing Muslims in the West as a particular and distinct category by which to exercise nefarious government policies including securitization, but also allowing civil society to be complicit in this endeavour through the cultural otherization of Muslims.

A commonly asserted Western “virtue” and the glorification of its development is the discourse of human rights. Muslims are often either impugned for their purported avoidance of application of human rights or face neglect and ambivalence when their own human rights are violated, whether from Western agency or otherwise. The assertion of human rights violations is largely ignored when Muslims are the target (the Rohingya in Myanmar and the Muslims of the Central Africa Republic, the Palestinians, the Kashmiris and Muslims in India more broadly bear recent testament to that), except when the West seeks to find a convenient ideological cudgel against an enemy that allows it to trumpet its indignation. Case in point, the tepid invocation of the policy of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang Province. Despite incontrovertible evidence, according to several international entities, of a genocide under way in Western China, the West has been nearly impotent in its championing of human rights beyond a few rhetorical flourishes and minimal symbolic overtures, such as when the US government declined to send an official representative to the opening ceremonies of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The Western response was far weaker than the broader boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer games. In a rebuke to purported Western unity, the United States and Canada were not joined by Western European allies in the protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In the case of the Beijing games, the Chinese government was unfazed by Western rants, a further sign that Western posturing is taken less than seriously now.

Reimagining the Ummah

An increasingly pervasive question in the Islamicate focuses upon what the decline of the West portends for the Ummah. First, it may be beneficial to assess the impact of this condition without using the entirety of the Muslim world as a collective point of reference. Given its diversity, its divisions and how those divisions are exploited by external forces, perhaps it may be more helpful to maintain two different focal points: Muslims living within the so-called West, as minority communities, and Muslims living within the so-called Islamicate. For those living in the latter, there may be a sense of impending amelioration of their situation, ostensibly based upon the conceit that their condition is due to Western agency, and that an alternative may improve their situation. They may indeed welcome the prospect of a weakened West and the emergence of a new Wali (custodian/benefactor/patron) to help them repel and resist the West and possibly be their benefactors, as self-reliance and self-determination would realistically still remain elusive. There is much uncertainty and speculation about whether the intended outcome could occur. In high-level geopolitics, there is in fact the underlying realization that subaltern states, of which Muslim countries certainly qualify in that category, would simply be subjected to the whims, strategies and priorities of a new force, i.e. “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” In that scenario, it is difficult to predict whether those Muslim societies would in fact experience any qualitative improvement of their condition.

A common alternative being considered within current global configurations is the purported counterweight that a country like China may offer vis-à-vis the West. While China has emerged as an economic superpower, soon to become the world’s largest economy, boasting a formidable and military presence that can clearly allow it to resist Western efforts to bully it and even assert its own influence regionally and globally, it is doubtful that China will be a model for political organization that would be palatable to Muslim countries. While some Muslim regimes are certainly authoritarian, even totalitarian, communism is inherently antithetical to Islamic and Muslim sensitivities. Additionally, while China certainly is the world leader in manufacturing, the West remains the global dominant force in culture production. It is highly unlikely that this will either change or will even be welcomed by Muslim countries. Although some Western cultural tropes may be disdained by Muslim societies, e.g. sexual identity and orientation matters, the inclination overall toward a Western cultural paradigm will continue.

There may be the convenient, even reflexive tendency for Muslims to look toward countries like Russia, China and India as much needed counterweights to Western hegemony. But to view these countries salvifically as the “anti-West” as a welcome alternative is highly dangerous, especially given the dubious interaction each country has displayed toward its own Muslim population. The Chechens, Uyghurs, Kashmiris and other Indian Muslims can attest to this through their own legacy of blood and suffering.

In some ways, this poses an intriguing dilemma for Muslim societies. While the West and its historical legacy and engagement with the Islamicate has been contentious, disruptive and destructive, there does not appear to be a complete antithetical alternative available to the Muslim world. That leaves it with the choice of either a hybrid form of external influence upon it, one where cultural hegemony and political models remain originating from the West while economic and military influences shift eastward. As such, it would create the atmosphere where the Muslim world would indeed be stuck in the middle of two competing and contesting paradigms. Would then the Muslim world seek to maintain the status quo by orienting itself toward the West? This would pose two important potential consequences. One would be the continuation of existing exploitation, marginalization and targeting. The other consideration is that the Islamicate would be hitching its proverbial horse to a declining centre of power. While tactically perhaps a prudent decision, the strategic impact of affiliating with an empire collective on the wane is wrought with uncertainty and possible adverse impact from whatever force rivals the West.

Diasporic Dilemmas and the Decline of the West

For Muslims living in the West, there are a myriad complex challenges facing them. First, despite the fact that they may well be scapegoated, targeted and the recipients of marginalization and discrimination, they are nonetheless part of the West and either inadvertently or intentionally stakeholders within that project. Therefore, they are agents that may help shape the future of the West. Ironically, they may well find themselves helping to salvage and even reinforce mechanisms of oppression, both for themselves and for Muslims elsewhere.

Second, the Muslim community might not be aware of the subtle ways the discussions and debates outside it may be affecting it in a rather profound manner. The Western world is undergoing demographic shifts and loss of presumption of hegemony, whether internationally or within the domestic context of each respective constituent country. Narratives of nativism and xenophobia are common spasms of experience faced by Muslims. But these sentiments and their corresponding action have a causation which is rooted in anxiety, insecurity, confessions of inadequacy and the resulting moral panics that pervade societies no longer safe and secure within their own perceived protective values. Muslims face scapegoating and demonization both as a result of ideological animus, and also as a convenient diversion by state deficiencies in their policies, be they economic or social and political.

In Muslim countries, the current anxieties in the West manifest themselves with the further exploitation of Muslim resources, often due to the inability for the West to control or exert its influence to make these regions acquiesce to its wheel. Often, provocations of war and military intervention serve as cynical means to distract their own publics from failed policies on the domestic front. But war is also a profitable enterprise and oftentimes serves a corporate and neoliberal agenda.

In many ways, the West is oblivious to, or unable to ascertain the causal factors that inform its own decline. To be fair, this is not a unique phenomenon; other dominant powers have followed a similar tract. The Ottoman Empire, for example, was not able to fully appreciate the signs that augured its eventual decline and ultimate demise. Usually, by the time the decline has begun, it is too late to rectify, reverse or repair deficiencies that precipitated the downward slide. Denial and defiance are common responses to those who may bear the prescience of the fall from a hegemonic apex. This is due in part to being held victim to past success, which impedes the impetus to adapt to new and emerging shifts in social, economic and political realities. It is natural to obstinately “double down” on unfamiliar templates that had worked in the past and had produced prosperity and power, in lieu of novel, uncertain, unpredictable ameliorative models.

The Ummah is a fluid, mutating and yet sustained concept within the Islamicate. As the Western model predicated on liberal democracy, market economy and the nation-state finds these pillars to now be wobbly, the Ummah might gain a sense of rejuvenated optimism that it can re-emerge as a coherent, structured, even thriving polity as none of these features of the Western model are contingent upon its success and survivability. The Ummah is by definition transnational, perhaps even transcendent. In fact, it may be seen as the first true exemplar of globalization. And yet at the same time, it suffers from the same kind of impact and trauma as one may find in the anti-globalist agenda. Hyper nationalism, tribalism and sectarianism plague Muslim societies, either from within or from external sources, be they Western origin or elsewhere. Social media, another transnational phenomenon, has proven to be particularly weaponized to demonize and target Muslims. Under the guise of another purported Western virtue, i.e. free expression, Islamophobia runs rampant in the virtual world, with its concomitant violence deployed in the physical space.

While the 19th and 20th centuries witnessed the near unbridled assertion of Western power through colonialism, imperialism and hegemonic imposition, the 21st century has shown a retraction, even deterioration of such unchallenged hubris. The emergence of counterforces like Russia and China have confronted the presumption of Western superiority, spreading their influence in areas once perceived to be the exclusive province of the West. In some ways, the current Ukraine crisis is a case study in real time of the West being confronted with its own limitations and contradictions.

Some will welcome this development, given the history of exploitation and suppression at the hands of Western powers. At the same time, questions abound whether a metaphoric or actual tilt of the earth’s axis away from occidental dominance will augur a better geopolitical future for various regions, especially those within the Islamicate.

The West will not concede to the new shifts and their potential for the loss of power and influence. Will it respond by realizing its deviation from its own professed, defining values, or will it further alienate, marginalize and target vulnerable groups, like Muslim communities, through an intensified hypernationalism? Likewise, will Muslims, whether those living in the West as minorities or in majority Muslim countries, fall prey to greater tribalism and division, and will such disunity be exploited, both by the West and its emerging counterweight? And finally, will the new competition to Western dominance approach the Islamicate in a spirit of equity and justice or will it merely approach the Muslim world with its own expressions of Islamophobia? These questions take on a critical priority for consideration as the light of the setting sun appears to be fading.


Saeed Khan is Professor of Near East & Asian Studies & Global Studies and Director of Global Studies at Wayne State University, Detroit, USA. He will be co-chairing the 2022 IHRC Islamophobia Conference, of the same title as this essay, between 9 – 11 December.  His most recent publications include “What’s Going on Here? US Experiences of Islamophobia between Obama and Trump“, co-authored with Saied R. Ameli for Islamic Human Rights Commission publications. 


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