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Buruma on Occidentalism: Great Diagnosis, Terrible Remedy

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Ian Buruma, who with his writing partner Avishai Margalit, has been advancing a theory of “Occidentalism” as a counterpart to Said’s “Orientalism” since 9/11, restates his theory in The Chronicle of Higher Education in advance of their new book:

    the kind of violence currently directed at targets associated with the West, from the World Trade Center to a discothèque in Bali, is not just about the United States. Nor can it be reduced to global economics. Even those who have good reason to blame their poverty on harsh forms of U.S.-backed capitalism do not normally blow themselves up in public places to kill the maximum number of unarmed civilians. We do not hear of suicide bombers from the slums of Rio or Bangkok.

    Something else is going on, which my co-author, Avishai Margalit, and I call Occidentalism (the title of our new book): a war against a particular idea of the West, which is neither new nor unique to Islamist extremism. The current jihadis see the West as something less than human, to be destroyed, as though it were a cancer. This idea has historical roots that long precede any form of “U.S. imperialism.” Similar hostility, though not always as lethal, has been directed in the past against Britain and France as much as against America. What, then, is the Occidentalist idea of the West?

Buruma uses the example of Imperial Japan theorizing against the West in the ’40s:

    The West, particularly the United States, was coldly mechanical, a machine civilization without spirit or soul, a place where people mixed to produce mongrel races. A holistic, traditional Orient united under divine Japanese imperial rule would restore the warm organic Asian community to spiritual health. As one of the participants put it, the struggle was between Japanese blood and Western intellect.

    Precisely the same terms had been used by others, in other places, at other times. Blood, soil, and the spirit of the Volk were what German romantics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries invoked against the universalist claims of the French Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Napoleon’s invading armies. This notion of national soul was taken over by the Slavophiles in 19th-century Russia, who used it to attack the “Westernizers,” that is, Russian advocates of liberal reforms. It came up again and again, in the 1930s, when European fascists and National Socialists sought to smash “Americanism,” Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and “rootless cosmopolitanism” (meaning Jews).

    ….Wherever it occurs, Occidentalism is fed by a sense of humiliation, of defeat. Isaiah Berlin once described the German revolt against Napoleon as “the original exemplar of the reaction of many a backward, exploited, or at any rate patronized society, which, resentful of the apparent inferiority of its status, reacted by turning to real or imaginary triumphs and glories in its past, or enviable attributes of its own national or cultural character.”

    The same thing might be said about Japan in the 1930s, after almost a century of feeling snubbed and patronized by the West, whose achievements it so fervently tried to emulate. It has been true of the Russians, who have often slipped into the role of inferior upstarts, stuck in the outer reaches of Asia and Europe. But nothing matches the sense of failure and humiliation that afflicts the Arab world, a once glorious civilization left behind in every respect by the post-Enlightenment West.

    Humiliation can easily turn into a cult of the pure and the authentic. Among the most resented attributes of the hated Occident are its claims to universalism. Christianity is a universalist faith, but so is the Enlightenment belief in reason. Napoleon was a universalist who believed in a common civil code for all his conquered subjects. The conviction that the United States represents universal values and has the God-given duty to spread democracy in the benighted world belongs to the same universalist tradition. Some of these values may indeed be universal. One would like to think that all people could benefit from democracy or the use of reason. The Code Napoleon brought many benefits. But when universal solutions are imposed by force, or when people feel threatened or humiliated or unable to compete with the powers that promote such solutions, that is when we see the dangerous retreat into dreams of purity.

    ….It is when purity or authenticity, of faith or race, leads to purges of the supposedly inauthentic, of the allegedly impure, that mass murder begins. The fact that anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism, and a general hostility to the West often overlap is surely no coincidence.

    ….Calculation — the accounting of money, interests, scientific evidence, and so on — is regarded as soulless. Authenticity lies in poetry, intuition, and blind faith. The Occidentalist view of the West is of a bourgeois society, addicted to creature comforts, animal lusts, self-interest, and security. It is by definition a society of cowards, who prize life above death. As a Taliban fighter once put it during the war in Afghanistan, the Americans would never win, because they love Pepsi-Cola, whereas the holy warriors love death. This was also the language of Spanish fascists during the civil war, and of Nazi ideologues, and Japanese kamikaze pilots.

    ….What, then, is new about the Islamist holy war against the West? Perhaps it is the totality of its vision. Islamism, as an antidote to Westoxification, is an odd mixture of the universal and the pure: universal because all people can, and in the eyes of the believers should, become orthodox Muslims; pure because those who refuse the call are not simply lost souls but savages who must be removed from this earth.

    ….The West, as conceived by Islamists, worships the false gods of money, sex, and other animal lusts. In this barbarous world the thoughts and laws and desires of Man have replaced the kingdom of God. The word for this state of affairs is jahiliyya, which can mean idolatry, religious ignorance, or barbarism. Applied to the pre-Islamic Arabs, it means ignorance: People worshiped other gods because they did not know better. But the new jahiliyya, in the sense of barbarism, is everywhere, from Las Vegas and Wall Street to the palaces of Riyadh. To an Islamist, anything that is not pure, that does not belong to the kingdom of God, is by definition barbarous and must be destroyed.

Brilliant, logical, explanatory – it makes perfect sense conceptually and objectively, but then Buruma, rounding third and heading for home like the proverbial brown-eyed handsome man, then stumbles badly and ends up ass-over-teacups in the front row of the stands, nowhere near home plate. It’s as if he were suddenly possessed:

    Since the target of the holy warriors is so large, figuring out how to defend it is not easy. But it is not immediately apparent that a war against Iraq was the most effective way to fight the Islamist jihad. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath regime was a murderous dictatorship that deserved to come to an end, but it was not in line with the holy revolution. There is no evidence that Saddam wished to destroy the West. Osama bin Laden clearly does, and he is still at large. It may even be that attacking Iraq, however gratifying in many ways, has made the defense against Islamist revolution harder. Moderate Muslims everywhere are cowed into silence by aggressive U.S. actions, for fear of being seen as traitors or, worse, barbarous idolators.

    ….The best chance for democracies to succeed in countries as varied as Indonesia, Turkey, and Iraq is if moderate Muslims can be successfully mobilized. But that will have to come from those countries themselves. Even though Western governments should back the forces for democracy, the hard political struggle cannot be won in Washington, or through the force of U.S. arms.

You idiot! Only by force of US arms do those very “moderate Muslims” have any chance of being “successfuly mobilized.” It is only through fear of credible use of force that autocrats from Libya to Syria to Saudi Arabia are being forced to mitigate their self-serving public anti-Americanism, their “Occidentalism-lite,” shall we say, and only through American force that a democracy is being allowed to establish itself in the heart of the authoritarian Arab/Islamic world. The point was to finally begin the process of reordering the entire Middle East by establishing a functioning Muslim-majority democracy with separation of church and state, civil society and capitalism. The establishment of such a state literally yanks the rug out from under Islamists/Occidentalists everywhere – including Osama bin Laden – and that is why the stakes there are so high and why we must stay the course through this very difficult time in order to give the new Iraq every chance to succeed against the formidible forces arrayed against it.

Buruma doesn’t even address the very central point that bin Laden felt he could strike at the U.S. so boldly on 9/11 because we hadn’t bothered to strike back strongly after earlier attacks on Americans and American interests, and that therefore we were weak, listless, self-satisfied and ripe for the taking. He and others have now been disabused of that notion.

In addition, Buruma dismisses “U.S. arms” as effective against Occidentalism, but he doesn’t bother to offer another, more effective weapon. Neither diplomacy, nor bribery, nor even the Care Bear Stare are effective against such foes: force is the only possible weapon against those who intractably and fundamentally see us as less than human and deserving of nothing but eradication.

It is extremely unfortunate that someone who has the perspicacity to develop as fine an explanatory theory as Occidentalism would then fall so flat when it comes to what to do about it.

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