Occidentalism Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Americans watching the nightly television news about terrorist threats to the United States from the Islamic world frequently ask the bewildered question: Why do they hate us so much? It is difficult for Americans, so convinced that their country stands for freedom and democracy, to imagine why such apparently worthy goals could arouse such fierce opposition. In Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit answer this question in an unusual way. They do not immediately cover the prevalent views of the West among those in the Islamic world. Instead, they examine extreme anti-Western views, which they call Occidentalism, that have emerged from within the West itself, from where such ideas have spread to the Islamic world. The authors identify several strands of Occidentalism that can be found wherever the phenomenon has occurred: hostility to city life; opposition to science and reason; contempt for the settled, mediocre bourgeois lifestyle; and hatred of the infidel, who must be destroyed.

Hostility to the sinful city, given to pleasure and commerce rather than to the worship of God, was dramatically revealed on September 11, 2001, when Islamic terrorists attacked the Twin Towers in New York, symbol of American power and commerce. Hatred of cities as perceived centers of corruption is not a new phenomenon. It can be traced as far back as Juvenal's satire of ancient Rome and the hatred of the early Christians for Babylon, which they referred to as the great whore—a metaphor that has endured because it expresses the idea that in a city, the highest goal is the pursuit of wealth, which means that everything is for sale. Everything has a price—but nothing has a soul.

The hatred of cities became focused on the West largely because of the growth of the great European urban centers of the nineteenth century. Trade and individual and political freedom went hand in hand, but this attracted censure from those who saw cities as centers of self-interest and greed. Friedrich Engels, for example, identified the selfishness and individualism of city life as unnatural, something that human nature rebelled against. The association of universal trade and capitalism, concentrated in cities, appeared to Occidentalists as a conspiracy to destroy everything that was authentic and spiritual. Capitalism was, in a sense, the victory of the city over the country, and it generated a backlash in those who idealized stable, rural cultures that had endured for centuries. During the 1920's and 1930's, many European intellectuals espoused disdain for the city life, perceived as shallow, rootless, and materialistic, and this aspect of Occidentalism spread to other continents, too. In the twentieth century, it manifested in Mao Zedong's war against the bourgeois and the intellectuals in the city, as well as in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge marched into the Westernized city of Phnom Penh and destroyed it.

In their next chapter, “Heroes and Merchants,” the authors discuss the contrast between Western liberal democracies, perceived by their enemies as soft, decadent, and addicted to pleasure, and those who subscribe to a heroic ideal of revolutionary action and self-sacrifice, including death. They point to Germany after its victory over France in 1871 and its growing worship over the following seventy years of martial self-discipline and the “warrior state.” For German nationalists, Germany was a nation of heroes willing to sacrifice themselves for a higher ideal, in contrast to the commercial values of Britain and France, interested only in material goods that brought physical comfort. Because commercialism needed security and peace in order to flourish—war was bad for business—nations dominated by commercialism adopted liberal democracy because it was the political system that suited them best. Conflicts of interest were resolved through negotiation and compromise.

The Occidentalists, however, saw no virtue in this. In their view, the West was unheroic, mediocre, superficial, and soft. The liberal ideals so cherished by the West, of civilization, freedom and peace, undermined the potential grandeur of a people, nation, or religion. War was needed for regeneration, or so the German nationalists thought. This aspect of Occidentalism spread to Japan, which was the most Westernized country in Asia in the 1930's, and culminated in the kamikaze pilots of the last years of World War II, who...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)