Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1813
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...
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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 considered themselves intellectual rebels against the Western corruption of Japan. The most notorious Occidentalists today, Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organization, as well as other Islamic fundamentalist groups, have borrowed from the Occidentalism of Nazi totalitarianism and the Japanese kamikaze spirit. This is basically the same point made by Paul Berman in his book Terror and Liberalism (2003), that the anti-Western beliefs of today's suicide terrorists have their roots in Western political and philosophical ideas and practices that began in the nineteenth century and culminated in the totalitarian movements of Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German Nazism.
Buruma and Margalit then turn their attention to the Occidentalist assault on the mind of the West. The Western mind may be efficient, in a coldly practical sense, but it knows nothing of the higher values in life and therefore can really do nothing right, economic success notwithstanding: “Western man, in this view, is a hyperactive busybody, forever finding the right means to the wrong ends.” Various antitheses to the Western mind have emerged at different times in different countries. Nineteenth century Russian thinkers extolled what they called the “Russian soul,” and their thinking was a model for later intellectuals in India, China, and the Islamic countries.
The idea of the Russian soul was, in fact, rooted in German Romanticism, which was prompted by a reaction to the German fear of France, seen as the quintessential West. The German Romantics believed, as did their counterparts in England, that excessive rationalism had destroyed the West. Battling a sense of national inferiority, German Romantics contrasted “their own deep inner life of the spirit, the poetry of their national soul, the simplicity and nobility of their character, to the empty, heartless sophistication of the French.”
In the case of Russia, the Westernizing policies of the eighteenth century rulers Peter the Great and Catherine the Great were followed in the nineteenth century by an ideological battle between the Westernizers and the Slavophiles, who idealized the almost mystical entity of the “Russian soul,” believing that it had been betrayed by Russia's Westernizers. Using the work of the German Romantics, especially the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, philosophers such as Ivan Kireyevsky claimed that the West was built on rotten foundations—spiritually, politically, and socially. The mind of the West, in this view, was narrowly rationalistic, cut off from the wholeness of the world, whereas “the organic Russian mind …is guided by faith and able to grasp the totality of things.” The problem with excessive rationalism was its insistence that science was the sole source of knowledge, which left no place for religion. This belief in the superiority of reason, according to the Russian nineteenth century Occidentalists, had made the West arrogant, insisting on its own superiority.
In the next chapter, “The Wrath of God,” the authors make a distinction between secular and religious Occidentalism. The religious strain of Occidentalism was created in Manichaean terms, as a holy war fought against evil. The modern manifestation of this appears in certain strains of Islamicism which regard the West as a form of idolatrous barbarism. The term is jahiliyya, which is translated as ignorance or barbarism. The West, in this Manichaean view, is made up of barbarians who worship matter, the things of the earth, rather than the things of the spirit.
Like Berman in Terror and Liberalism, Buruma and Margalit highlight the work of an influential Islamic thinker and activist named Sayyid Qutb, who was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb spent two years, from 1948 to 1950, studying in the United States, where he was shocked by what he saw as the frivolous, pleasure-seeking American lifestyle. This helped to transform him into a fervent Occidentalist with a strong anti-Semitic cast. For Qutb, jahiliyya was, in the authors’ summary, “the culture of animals …of supremely arrogant animals who try to play God.” Qutb did not advocate violent attacks on the West. Instead, he reserved his fire for the Westernized rulers of Egypt and other nations. He paid the price for his views, being imprisoned and then hanged in 1966 by Egypt's military leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
After considering the origins of the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia, which began in the eighteenth century and has since been exported everywhere in the Muslim world to become the main brand of Occidentalism today, the authors point out that what makes the terrorism practiced by such revolutionary groups so lethal is that it synthesizes religious zealotry and modern technology. The Occidentalists, while attacking the West, use the technology of the “barbarians” to do so. The authors repeat here one of Berman's main points in Terror and Liberalism, that many Islamic radicals, both today and in the past, live a cultural double life, having been educated in Europe and becoming as familiar with the culture of the “enemy” as with Islamic culture.
As for how to protect the West against its enemies, the authors warn against assuming that the West is at war with Islam, as most of the fiercest battles will be fought within the Muslim world; Muslims themselves must halt the radical Occidentalists. The authors also caution against taking refuge in the idea of colonial guilt or blaming the violence of Islamic revolutionary movements on American imperialism or global capitalism and the like, as every group should be held morally responsible for its actions. Nor should Westerners take the easy route of blaming religion, because organized religion can play a constructive role in offering community and spiritual meaning.
Finally, the authors argue that although the West must defend itself with force if necessary, it must be careful how it wages the battle. The ideas that have fueled the growth of Occidentalism could also contaminate the West “if we fall for the temptation to fight fire with fire, Islamism with our own form of intolerance.” To do so would betray the very idea that the West is supposed to be defending.
Occidentalism is a valuable book because it gives some historical perspective to the Islamic terrorist campaign against the West. It is surely useful for any culture to try to understand how its enemies see it. However, some readers may regret that the authors spend so much time examining long-defunct enemies of the West, such as the nineteenth century Slavophiles or the Japanese in the 1930's and 1940's rather than probing more deeply and directly into the ideology that sustains today's Islamic terror groups.
Booklist 100, no. 12 (February 15, 2004): 1008.
Commentary 117 (April, 2004): 21.
The Economist 370 (March 20, 2004 ): 90.
Foreign Affairs 83, no. 2 (March/April, 2004): 155.
Kirkus Reviews 72, no. 1 (January 1, 2004): 21.
Library Journal 129, no. 5 (March 15, 2004): 87.
The New York Times, March 27, 2004, p. B9.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (April 4, 2004): 11.