Chain of hostility ties those who hate the West

Occidentalism
January 7, 2005

Why do they hate us?" came the anguished cry of the Western liberal after 9/11. "Because they are evil," replied the neo-conservatives, echoing the sentiments of their enemy. Those liberals who were unconvinced, who denied that there was a war of good against evil, went scurrying off to find an alternative theory. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit made an early, temperate-by-US-standards contribution to this search in The New York Review of Books in January 2002 with a wide-ranging essay titled "Occidentalism".

That essay has been turned into a thought-provoking book. The authors define Occidentalism as "the dehumanising picture of the West painted by its enemies". They declare their position early in the book, describing this portrayal as "a hateful caricature", but they then trace the origins of that caricature back to European and Judaeo-Christian roots.

Buruma and Margalit look in detail at four versions of Occidentalism: these have combined to create "a chain of hostility" that they believe threatens humanity. First, hostility to the city; second, hostility to science and reason; third, hostility to the boring, unheroic "settled bourgeois"; and finally, hostility to the infidel. For example, the attacks on the World Trade Center are seen as the latest in a series of acts of destruction committed against cities. The God of the Bible is, as the destroyer of Babylon, the first in a long line of city-haters, an eclectic list that includes Pol Pot, Godzilla, Mullah Omar and T. S. Eliot.

The authors cannot be accused of taking too narrow an approach to their subject. At its best, this book shows that there is nothing new or uniquely Islamic in the ideas that motivate Osama bin Laden and his followers.

Samson, after all, destroyed the temple of the Philistines in an act of suicidal violence. In Japan, kamikaze pilots invented airborne suicide to attack and terrify their enemy in the Second World War.

The authors trace many Occidentalist ideas back to Russia and Central Europe. The kamikazes were often well-educated volunteers steeped in 19th-century German Romanticism, and the Arab nationalist Sati' al-Husri was influenced by Fichte and Herder. Buruma and Margalit approve of Isaiah Berlin's position that the Romantic movement was part of the counter-Enlightenment, and then censure the Slavophiles, pronouncing that the "love affair of Russians with their own soul is a perfect illustration of the Occidentalist's sordid picture of the Western mind". Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Hegel and Marx, Juvenal and Plotinus are all berated for "Occidentalist distortions".

The range of the book is a strength and a weakness. The writers use such a broad definition of Occidentalism that the idea begins to lose its geographical bearings and to collapse in on itself. By the end of the book, it has come to denote not a discrete set of ideas, but almost any beliefs with which the authors disagree - including, it seems, to encompass the fundamentalist Christian Right in the US.

Bizarrely, the text makes no mention of Edward Said - the author of Orientalism - though Said is mentioned in the publisher's blurb.

Orientalism - which Said portrays as a collection of distorted Western stereotypes of the East - is referred to as the "counterpart" of Occidentalism, but this relationship is not examined in detail, and the issue of the extent to which Orientalist attitudes have engendered Occidentalism is underplayed.

In emphasising the historical and philosophical roots of Occidentalism, Buruma and Margalit are too dismissive of its more immediate causes, the genuinely felt grievances of many Muslims around the world. At one point, the writers declare that "whatever the US Government does or does not do is often beside the point". This is a tough argument to sustain. Try it out on some Palestinians or Iraqis. Even if one believes the US has been justified in its policies towards Palestine or Iraq, it is hard to dismiss the idea that US actions in the region have led to dangerous grievances that are widely and honestly (if, at times, mistakenly) held in the Arab world.

The enemies of the West are unlikely to be persuaded by any attempt to convince them that they are wrong and that liberal Western ideas are right; this book, likewise, will persuade few Occidentalists of the error of their ways. There is a need for less emphasis on determining who is right and who is wrong, and for less talk of "them" and "us". Only then can there be much hope of finding the middle ground in which a dialogue can resume.

Sam Miller is a Delhi-based writer and journalist.

Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism

Author - Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit
Publisher - Atlantic Books
Pages - 165
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 1 84354 287 0

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments