Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies

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Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies

By Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit
Penguin Press, 2004
176 pp. $21.95
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In this grandly illuminating study of two centuries of anti-Western ideas, Buruma and Margalit contend that the hostility of Islamic jihadists toward the United States is but the most recent manifestation of a long-running, worldwide reaction to the rise of Western modernity. They call the cluster of prejudices and unflattering images of the West conjured by its enemies "Occidentalism," a phenomenon that originated within the West itself in the late eighteenth century and only later spread to the Middle East, Asia, and beyond. German romantics, reacting to the Enlightenment and the rise of capitalism, expressed it in their rejection of a coldly rational Europe -- a "machine civilization," manifest in imperialism, urbanism, and cosmopolitanism. From there, similar themes appear in Occidentalism's other variants: the sinfulness and rootlessness of urban life; the corruption of the human spirit in a materialistic, market-driven society; the loss of organic community; the glory of heroic self-sacrifice in overcoming the timidity of bourgeois life. Western liberalism is a threat -- to religious fundamentalists, priest-kings, and radical collectivists alike -- because it deflates the pretensions of their own brand of heroic utopianism. Ultimately, the picture that emerges is not of a clash of civilizations but of deeply rooted tensions that ebb and flow within and across civilizations, religions, and cultures. What the West can do about Occidentalism, however, is less clear. The anti-Western impulses in nineteenth-century Europe and interwar Japan were only transitional, overwhelmed by the forces of socioeconomic advancement. Whether the Occidentalism of present-day Islamic radicals will also come to accommodate modernity is the great question of our time. Buruma and Margalit do not venture an answer, but their evocative study shows that, whatever happens in the end, it will play out as a long and violent historical drama.