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Occidentalism by Ian Buruma & Avishai Margalit
Edward Said warned against Orientalism. Now a new study exposes its other face
Sunday 15 August 2004
Thirty years ago, the late Edward Said wrote a book called Orientalism. In fewer than 400 pages he changed the intellectual world. His masterpiece was a study of the dense web of philosophy, literature and pseudo-science that had created a flickering, false "Orient" - childlike, savage and sensual - in the minds of Westerners. With one swoop, Said destroyed an academic discipline - who now speaks of Orientalism without self-flagellation? - and created a new one, Cultural Studies.
In a throw-away line in his book, Said said, "Nobody is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to [Orientalism] called Occidentalism." For a man as critical of the tyrants of the "Orient" as of the West, this was a strange misjudgement. Why did he assume that the "Orient" would not, in time, direct a hate-doctrine as vast and systematic towards its own mythicised Other?
In this thrillingly bold new book, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit try to fill this vacuum in Said's thought. They argue that today, in many parts of the non-Western world, a cultural cloud as toxic as Orientalism has begun to rain down, and that the label Said dismissed is now dangerously appropriate.
This is not another polemic about "anti-Americanism" that tries to damn anybody critical of current Western policies as suffering from a vile prejudice or mental disorder. Far from it; the authors themselves are very critical of Western governments when it comes to environmental policies and many aspects of foreign policy.
Occidentalism is the belief that the Western (or "Occidental") way of life is inherently, irreparably base and depraved, and that anyone living a Western lifestyle has become less than human. The first and foundational belief of Occidentalists is that the West has been destroyed by its materialism. We've all heard this critique: Westerners have replaced spiritual authenticity with the empty worship of money and property. As a result, the Western lifestyle is soulless. The cosmopolitan city - the 21st-century Babel - is the setting for our desolation.
The second central element of Occidentalism is opposition to the very idea of a liberal bourgeois society where individuals follow their own interests under the rule of law. The atomised individual with rights and desires is, for Occidentalists, the wrong focus for human society. Instead, faith and spirit should determine a collective agenda that is right even if the mediocre multitude happens to reject it. Obliterate this unnatural, decadent Western condition and return to a mythicised past, and only then can this monstrous rupture be healed.
The authors explain: "To diminish an entire society or civilisation in this way to a mass of ... decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites is a form of intellectual destruction." And they show how it leads to physical destruction. The most influential Occidentalist movement in the world today is, of course, al-Qa'ida, but its origins go far back beyond the late 1970s when Osama bin Laden first began his plotting.
It was, for example, an Occidentalist hatred of Western modernity that drove the most vicious tyranny of the 20th century, Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, to murder almost half of the Cambodian population. They levelled the cosmopolitan city of Phnom Penh - which they said was riddled with "Western poisons" - and ordered Cambodians to return to peasant subsistence.
There is a dark historical irony to Occidentalism. It is an intellectual tradition that was born in - you guessed it - the despised West itself. Modernity, individualism and materialism were fought off in Europe for centuries. The first Occidentalists were German Romantics such as Richard Wagner and Gottfried Herder, who preached a cult of blood, soil and the heroic German spirit. This was the shield with which they resisted the cold Enlightenment of the French Revolution.
The shield broke. Enlightenment has prevailed in Europe. But Buruma and Margalit show that the battle leapt from Europe to the world stage, where there is now an epic fight. Contemporary Occidentalists are simply picking up where the German Romantics left off.
Buruma and Margalit brilliantly identify a pernicious, infectious mindset. Some soft-headed types who want to imagine that victims are always morally pristine will find it as enraging as itching powder. There are moments, however, when it feels as though the authors are sprinting through their material. Some fairly basic questions are neglected. They do not discuss, for example, the role Western governments have played in driving whole countries over the cliff-edge of Occidentalism. Of course, Occidentalism is never justified, just as Nazism was not a legitimate response to the injustices of the Versailles Treaty - but that should not prevent us from speaking about its origins. The Khmer Rouge could seize Cambodia only because the population had already been driven to psychosis by Henry Kissinger's napalm-heavy war of destabilisation. The decision to back corrupt tyrants across the Middle East has fostered support for al-Qa'ida.
Some Occidentalism may be an inevitable reaction to the onset of modernity, but too often Western governments have made this trend worse in terrible ways. I hope Buruma and Margalit will now write an equally compelling sequel, discussing how the West can change its own behaviour towards "the Occident", so we are no longer fuelling this bush-fire of hate.
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