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What is Westoxification?

A map of the Middle East.
The government of Iran is publicly skeptical of Western ideology and culture.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 October 2014
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Westoxification is a term that was first used in the latter part of the 20th century. It expressed the way in which many of the more fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic religion, particularly in whole or partly theocratic governments, viewed Western ideology. Especially the American way of life was and sometimes still is seen as a strong threat to the coherence of important things in the societies of certain Islamic states. Westoxification could be applied to other governments that fear Western influence. For instance, banning Western products to a degree in China and North Korea has in part been an attempt to retain certain cultural mindsets and specifically the government structure of these countries.

The word westoxification implies that Western culture pollutes important, sometimes gravely important, ideas in the Middle East. Certainly when viewed through the lens of organizations like the Taliban, westernization of a country or western influence could only be interpreted as a corruptive force. A society interested in keeping women from full participation in that society, cannot be happy when other societies are represented on television, or in other media. Just as Americans in the past were shocked at Elvis’ gyrating hips, the screaming girls that chased after The Beatles, and the sexual revolution and drug culture that followed, there is a vested interest in not allowing things that would subvert or cause massive changes to a culture when those in power don't want these changes.

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Though the term westoxification is fairly new, many countries have feared contact with other countries, or even with fads in their own country. After vigorous trade was established between Europe and Japan, the country became increasingly isolationist because it was felt that Western influence could significantly change Japanese culture. After World War II, when trade between America and Japan was strongly established, it could be stated that Western ways did influence culture, and that things American became highly prized, especially by Japanese youth. To some this may have been viewed as a polluting force.

Corrupting impressionable youth with new ideas could create revolutionary trends and threaten the societal fabric, especially in a society with strict laws and cultural traditions. Though westoxification most often refers to the corrupting ideas of cultural norms in other countries as viewed by certain Islamic countries, this was not always the case. When Islam began, even though much of their first efforts were to enlarge their territories through warfare, Islamic leaders tended to be extremely permissive about the practice of other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. This varied though, depending upon leaders, and gradually great schisms grew in Islam occupied territory that had formerly belonged to Jews or Christians. It didn't help when the Crusades labeled most Arabs as infidels, and did much to try to kill many Muslims who refused conversion.

The trouble with westoxification is that it significantly impairs relationships between countries, especially between the US and certain Islamic countries. If the US is viewed as culturally corrupting, it can influence countries to adopt a warlike or terrorist attitude toward the US. When a society feels so threatened by a larger culture, and feels that their way of life could be destroyed by that culture, they may view all members of the culture as threatening, bad people. Experts on Islamic-US relations suggest that we need to understand westoxification when we attempt diplomacy with countries that fear our influence. The more imperialist an approach taken by the US toward such countries, the more likely the fear of westoxification will grow in those countries. This fear spawns anger at the US, acts of terrorism, and stockpiling of weapons.

It’s hard for some people in the west to understand why westoxification would be viewed as a bad thing. Most of us like our culture, and we may not be able to see past our own constructions of society and government. Why wouldn’t people want democracy, or rights for women, or freedom of religion? The trouble is, though, when these ideas are predominant in the minds of the people who create our foreign policy and trade agreements, there can be a failure to understand that not everyone thinks western ways are the best, and that failure to respect the cultural traditions of others can lead to extremely bad diplomatic relationships with other countries.

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