Nothing Quiet, on This anti-Western Front

Itamar Rabinovich
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Itamar Rabinovich

"Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies" by Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma, Penguin, 160 pages, $21.95

One's initial reaction upon reading the term "Occidentalism," which Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma have chosen as the title of their book, is the assumption that this is some sort of a mirror image or an answer to Edward Said's book "Orientalism." Said's book, which was published in 1978, was a harsh attack on the way in which the East, and in particular the Arab and Islamic world, has been studied in Western academia.

Said applied post-modernist concepts and techniques to argue that what had been considered for generations as a learned and somewhat boring academic discipline was in fact part of a system of colonial control. The orientalists (of which the Hebrew term mizrahanim is an imprecise and even misleading translation) contributed to a stereotyped and paternalistic view of the East, served imperialist, colonial and post-colonialist regimes and also instilled these approaches in academics in Eastern countries who became, and not to their benefit, tools of the West's system of control and overlordship.

But "Occidentalism" is not a mirror image of the term "orientalism" as coined by Edward Said. Margalit and Buruma use it to denominate a critical and hostile approach to the West, or more precisely its hard core in countries and cultures that do not belong to it. The West (the "Occident"), in this approach, represents a focus of power and values that center on capitalism, materialism, pragmatism, military power, hedonism and an excess of Jewish influence. In previous centuries the hard core of the West was located in France and England, and now it is in the United States. The antithesis of Western culture in this sense of the word is a culture that is based on the spirit, emotions, religious belief, romanticism and solidarity of the social organism.

"Occidentalism," write Margalit and Buruma, is hostility to the hard core of the West and the system of values it represents. Expressions and manifestations of this hostility can be found in Japan at the end of the 10th century and the beginning of the 20th century, in 19th-century Russia, in German romantic national sentiment and its nationalism, and in the Arab and Muslim world of our day. Ironically, a large share of the artillery ammunition that is fired off by the enemies of "the West" and its critics comes from the West. In other words: The polemical and self-critical literature that has been written and is being written in the West is exported to the East and adapted by Japanese, Pakistani, Iranian and Egyptian ideologues and theoreticians into anti-Western screeds.

"Occidentalism" should be seen not as an irrelevant intellectual exercise, but rather as a contribution to one of the major polemics of our times: the nature and origins of the conflict between the West and Islam, and its connection to the issue of terror. Buruma and Margalit do not preach, but their stance in this debate is clear. They disagree with Samuel Huntington ("The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order," about what is first and foremost a struggle between the West and Islam) and with Bernard Lewis ("What Went Wrong?" and "The Crisis of Islam"). Lewis describes the crisis of Islam and hostility of Islamic fanatics as a unique phenomenon. "Something went wrong" with Islamic civilization between the period of its highest flourishing and modern times. For more than 200 years Islam and the Muslims have not succeeded in dealing with modernity and with the challenge that it and its clearest representatives in the West pose to them. The result is fury and frustration that have given rise to the phenomena around which this debate revolves.

Broader context

Buruma and Margalit do not disagree with the essence of this analysis, but they blunt its sting in that they locate it in a broader context. Anger at the West and hostility toward it can also be found in other cultures, and they are not unique to Islamic society. (Buruma's criticism of Lewis is harsher than what is expressed in this book. In an article he published recently in The New Yorker, he came out with harsher and more direct criticism, especially with respect to Lewis' position on Iraq.)

Another interesting point concerns the essence, or the definition, of the very term "West." The "Occident," the object of the hostility of "Occidentalism," has undergone changes during the past 200 years, and the lenses through which its enemies examine it have also changed hands and angles. For many years Britain and France were perceived as the embodiment of the West, but in the 20th century the U.S. replaced them.

Germany and Russia have a special place along the axis of the tension between the West and those who despise it. In certain respects and during certain periods, Germany represented in a very decided way the values and the achievements of the West. In other periods the Teutonic past and the mysticism of the forest served as sources of inspiration for attacks on Western values. The Russia of Peter the Great wanted to "open a window to the West," and since then it has been teetering back and forth between the aspiration to adopt its values and the presentation of a "Russian" or "Soviet" alternative. From the point of view of the Chechen rebels and their jihadist allies, Russia is a Christian country and part of the West, but from Paris, Washington and London the perspective is different.

This vagueness has practical implications. In the 1930s the peoples of the Middle East saw Germany as an ally with strength and technology equal to those of the West but outside its hard core. During the Cold war years Soviet Russia was perceived as being able to play a similar role. Today, there is a less obvious line running between the U.S. and the European Union, which is led by Germany and France, while Britain is in an uncomfortable intermediate position. Germany and France definitely want Europe to appear to the Islamic world as a friendly, and certainly not a hostile, force - a potential interlocutor that is free of the hostility that characterizes its relations with the U.S.

We frequently ask ourselves what the point or benefit is of two scholars coming together to write a book. Not this time: The pairing of Margalit and Buruma has given rise to reciprocal fertilization and a seamless division of labor. Together they have afforded us a profound and fascinating book that casts an original beam of light on an important issue on the international agenda.

Prof. Itamar Rabinovich is the president of Tel Aviv University.