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Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism

Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism

During the past three years, the 19 Arabs who carried out the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington have received many labels, including &#34Islamist&#34.

Without knowing it, however, they were, in fact, &#34Occidentalists&#34.

This is the message of &#34Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism&#34&#34, an engaging essay by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, professors at Bard College in New York and Hebrew University of Jerusalem respectively.

The authors define Occidentalism as the &#34dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies&#34. They chose the term as a nod to &#34Orientalism&#34, coined 25 years ago by the late American-Palestinian polemicist Edward Said to describe the vision that Western &#34Imperialists&#34 supposedly developed of the East in the 19th and early 20th century.

The word-play is rather unfortunate.

The &#34Orientalists&#34 did not hate the people of the East and, although some developed fantasies about the &#34Orient&#34, did not belittle the cultures that they studied. Without the &#34Orientalists&#34, ancient civilisations such as the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Chinese may not have been rediscovered and studied as early as they were. And the most important body of recent research on Islamic history, art, and culture has been done, not by Muslim scholars, but by the same &#34Orientalists&#34 that Said vilified. Champolion, Rawlinson, Goddard and Rypka, not to mention Bernard Lewis today, could not be compared to Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden and Muhammad Atta.

Presenting hatred of the West as a form of Manichaean dualism is also problematic. In Manichaeanism, and the Christian dualisms, such as the Paulicans and the Cathares that it inspired, evil is a necessary principle of cosmogony and not an object of hatred. In that form of dualism the one cannot exist without the other while ion any supposed duel between the Orient and the Occident one must assume both to be capable of self-sustained existence.

But what is, after all, this &#34 West&#34 that Occidentalists, supposed to be currently represented by the Islamist militants, hate and wish to destroy?

Is it democracy or modern science? Is it the concept of the individual or the currently fashionable multiculturalism?

The authors do not offer a definition.

At some points they sail so close to the wind as to suggest that Aristotle, somehow, represented &#34 the West&#34, because he sought to understand the world through reason, while Plato, and his philosophical descendants, given to mysticism, were &#34Occidentalists&#34. More broadly, ancient Athens represented &#34 the West&#34 while Sparta was &#34Occidentalist&#34.

The &#34Occidentalists&#34 , we are told, hate the West for four reasons: The West prefers the sinful city to the virtuous countryside; the West replaces heroism with commerce; the West thinks only of matter and not of spirit; the West worships evil.

Such juxtapositions, however, are too general to explain the intention of the authors, which is to demonstrate why there are people prepared to die while killing Americans, Europeans, and Israelis.

The city versus country part of the argument does not apply to Islam because Islam has been a religion of cities from the start. The Bedouin who roamed in the &#34virtuous&#34 desert of Arabia regarded Mecca as &#34the sinful city&#34. Today, of the world”s six most populous cities three are Muslim.

In a broader sense there is no evidence that Plato, or for that matter any other philosopher worth his salt, hated the city because it was &#34sinful.&#34 As for the various brands of totalitarianism that are supposed to be , ipso facto, anti-West, it is clear that all were produced and sustained by large cities. Marx dreamed up his murderous fantasy not in an idyllic rural backwater but at the British Museum in the heart of London. Lenin staged his 1917 coup d”etat in Petrograd, then Russia”s largest city, and not in the muzhik-populated heartland of the Third Rome. Hitler and his Nazi Party were born in the beer-houses of Munich, then Germany”s second most populous city, and not in any pastoral setting.

The claim that the West destroys heroism and honour in favour of commerce has been applied to many civilisations at different times. Xenophon thought that of ancient Athens and Juvenal lambasted ancient Rome for it. The Jews looked down at &#34Chaldae, that land of the traders&#34 (Ezekiel: 16:32) while they themselves were later caricaturised in the same way by their detractors. Napoleon dismissed the English as &#34a nation of shopkeepers&#34, while the Parsees in India and the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia get similar labels from their Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim compatriots.

The charge that the West thinks only of matter, not of the spirit is, as Buruma and Margalit observe, a product of European, mainly German Romanticism, itself an eminently Western product. It is based on a fake mysticism of the kind suitable for dinner table conversations at select bourgeois salons.

The truth, however, is that , without a minimum of material security, not to say actual comfort, there could be little interest in any spirituality. The yogis of India may seek spirituality through self-imposed starvation and poverty but there is no evidence that they have found it.

Finally, the image of the West as evil incarnate is, in origin at least, a product of the schisms that have torn Christianity asunder since its adoption by Constantine as the faith of the Roman Empire.

The many enemies of the Western model of existence, if one can speak of a single such model at all, have often been seduced by its wealth and power rather than the real or imagined darkness of its &#34evil&#34 soul.

Today”s Islamists do not regard Westerners as &#34evil&#34 but, in the words of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, as &#34wayward creatures&#34 that must be prodded back onto the right part towards &#34the Only True Faith&#34, i.e. Islam. Sayyed Qutb, one of the founding theorists of modern militant Islamism, was overwhelmed by what he saw during his year-long visit to the United States. But he did not regard the US as &#34 evil&#34. On the contrary he showed, or faked, certain sympathy for the American people whom he thought were victims of a pagan system.

The reader ends up by assuming that the term &#34 the West&#34, as used by Buruma and Margalit means all liberal societies while &#34Occidentalism&#34 is an umbrella term for all forms of totalitarianism throughout history. This leads the authors to suggest that wars waged against Western democracies in the name of the &#34Russian soul&#34, the &#34Aryan race&#34, the &#34state Shinto&#34, Communism, and Islamism have the same origin. An intriguing thought.

This, of course, is so sweeping a statement that defies any serious assessment.

Nearly a quarter of the book is reserved fro a long article that the two authors had published in the New Yorker magazine about Theodor Herzl”s book &#34Neuealtland&#34 (Newoldland). In that book Herzl, the father of Zionism, depicts his Utopia as a new mini-state located in Palestine and based on a mixture of modern European science and eastern spirituality. The Jewish inhabitants of this &#34 Newoldland&#34 have bought the land on which they have bought their new state and devote much of their time and resources to helping the natives, presumably the Palestinian Arabs, emerge from the dark age of poverty and ignorance and share the benefits of European Enlightenment.

The article is an interesting read. However, it is difficult to see its connection with the rest of the book. May be it was just added to make this very short book a little bit longer.

The article implies that the Jews were trying to bring the West to a small corner of the benighted Orient but were bound to fail because they were motivated by religious and ethnic considerations rather than liberalism and democracy, i.e. the two greatest values of the West.

What makes this elegant short book especially valuable is its core message, as expressed in these lines: &#34 The bourgeois, often philistine, un-heroic, anti-utopian nature of the liberal civilization can make it difficult to defend….The Weimar republic did not fall only because of Nazi brutality, reactionary stupidity, military ambitions, or the arguments formulated by {fascist theorists}. It also fell because too few people were prepared to defend it.&#34

In other words democracy, a quintessentially Western product, may be an imperfect system but remains the least bad of all the choices available. And, as such, it deserves to be defended where it is in place and fought for where it is not.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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