Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies

by Ian Buruma

View All Available Formats & Editions

Twenty-five years ago, Edward Said's Orientalism spawned a generation of scholarship on the denigrating and dangerous mirage of "the East" in the Western colonial mind. But "the West" is the more dangerous mirage of our own time, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue, and the idea of "the West" in the minds of its self-proclaimed enemies remains largely


Twenty-five years ago, Edward Said's Orientalism spawned a generation of scholarship on the denigrating and dangerous mirage of "the East" in the Western colonial mind. But "the West" is the more dangerous mirage of our own time, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue, and the idea of "the West" in the minds of its self-proclaimed enemies remains largely unexamined and woefully misunderstood. Occidentalism is their groundbreaking investigation of the demonizing fantasies and stereotypes about the Western world that fuel such hatred in the hearts of others.

We generally understand "radical Islam" as a purely Islamic phenomenon, but Buruma and Margalit show that while the Islamic part of radical Islam certainly is, the radical part owes a primary debt of inheritance to the West. Whatever else they are, al Qaeda and its ilk are revolutionary anti-Western political movements, and Buruma and Margalit show us that the bogeyman of the West who stalks their thinking is the same one who has haunted the thoughts of many other revolutionary groups, going back to the early nineteenth century. In this genealogy of the components of the anti-Western worldview, the same oppositions appear again and again: the heroic revolutionary versus the timid, soft bourgeois; the rootless, deracinated cosmopolitan living in the Western city, cut off from the roots of a spiritually healthy society; the sterile Western mind, all reason and no soul; the machine society, controlled from the center by a cabal of insiders—often Jews—pulling the hidden levers of power versus an organically knit-together one, a society of "blood and soil." The anti-Western virus has found a ready host in the Islamic world for a number of legitimate reasons, they argue, but in no way does that make it an exclusively Islamic matter.

A work of extraordinary range and erudition, Occidentalism will permanently enlarge our collective frame of vision

Editorial Reviews

Foreign Affairs
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 radicalswill 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.
Library Journal
Well-published scholars Buruma (Luce Professor of Human Rights & Journalism, Bard Coll., and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books) and Margalit (Schulman Professor of Philosophy, Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem) provide a brief but engaging discussion of the East/West cultural fault line. They seek to explain how the "dehumanizing" picture of the West-which they call "Occidentalism"-originated and developed. Using examples from various settings, the authors discuss how Western misconceptions and stereotypes emerged in different countries and how anti-Western cultural mindsets have perpetuated Occidentalism in the contemporary world, especially in Islamic countries. At times, the authors tend to oversimplify modern Islamism and mistakenly treat it as a monolith. Nonetheless, this is an important book on a topic that deserves to be treated seriously by scholars and concerned citizens alike. A complement to the larger works of Bernard Lewis (e.g., The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror), it is recommended for public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/03.]-Nader Entessar, Spring Hill Coll., Mobile, AL Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How do I loathe thee? Let the mullahs count the ways. There are many reasons for non-Westerners to hate the West, write Buruma (Luce Professor/Bard College; Bad Elements, 2001, etc.) and Margalit (Philosophy/Hebrew University; The Decent Society, 1996): some may despise the political, military, and economic reach of the First World into every corner of the planet; some may long for a pastoral arcadia in the face of urbanism; some may simply not like Madonna and other bejeweled emblems of Western pop culture. Usefully, the authors, borrowing a page from Edward Said's Orientalism, collapse this cluster of prejudices into the blanket term "Occidentalism," which seems a good-enough rubric to encompass the loathing of unreconstructed Communists in Russia and the sputtering hatred of Muslim jihadis alike. "Without understanding those who hate the West," they write, dramatically, "we cannot hope to stop them from destroying humanity." The succeeding text offers a guided tour of those enemies, characterized rather sweepingly ("Antithetical of the Western mind is the Russian soul"; "Matter, in the Occidentalist view, shared by some extreme Hindus or prewar Japanese Shintoists, is the god of the West and materialism its religion"). In the end, the enemies of the West seem to be the same as ever: Western-schooled intellectuals and their rural allies, poisoned by mostly German ideas of ethnic nationalism or ideological purity, producing little but "variations on the death cult." The authors close by cautioning that the rising tide of religious fundamentalism in the West is no answer to the noxious twerps who haunt the backwaters: "We cannot afford to close our societies as a defense against those whohave closed theirs. For then we would all become Occidentalists, and there would be nothing left to defend." There's nothing particularly new here, at least not to readers of Karl Popper and Bernard Lewis, but Occidentalism makes for a needed provocation all the same.
From the Publisher
"Succinct, elegant, and challenging..." —The Economist

"A useful primer on the habits of mind that drive our most implacable foes.... Accurate and fair-minded." —The New York Times

Product Details

Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Sales rank:
File size:
168 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


The Idea of the West in the Minds of Its Enemies
By Ian Buruma Avishai Margalit

The Penguin Press

ISBN: 1-59420-008-4

Chapter One

In July 1942, just six months after the Japanese bombed the American fleet in Pearl Harbor and overwhelmed the Western powers in Southeast Asia, a number of distinguished Japanese scholars and intellectuals gathered for a conference in Kyoto. Some were literati of the so-called Romantic group; others were philosophers of the Buddhist/ Hegelian Kyoto school. Their topic of discussion was how to "overcome the modern."

It was a time of nationalist zeal, and the intellectuals who attended the conference were all nationalists in one way or another; but oddly enough the war itself, in China, Hawaii, or Southeast Asia, was barely mentioned. At least one of the members, Hayashi Fusao, a former- Marxist-turned-ardent-nationalist, later wrote that the assault on the West had filled him with jubilation. Even though he was in freezing Manchuria when he heard the news, it felt as though dark clouds had lifted to reveal a clear summer sky. No doubt similar emotions came over many of his colleagues, but war propaganda was not the ostensible point of the conference. These men, the literary romantics as much as the philosophers, had been interested in overcoming the modern long before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their conclusions, to the extent that they had enough coherence to be politically useful, lent themselves to propaganda for a new Asian order under Japanese leadership, but the intellectuals would have been horrified to be called propagandists. They were thinkers, not hacks.

"The modern" is in any case a slippery concept, but in Kyoto in 1942, as in Kabul or Karachi in 2001, it meant the West. But the West is almost as elusive as the modern. Japanese intellectuals had strong feelings about what they were up against, but had some difficulty defining exactly what that was. Westernization, one opined, was like a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit. The "modern thing," said another, was a "European thing." There was much talk about unhealthy specialization in knowledge, which had splintered the wholeness of Oriental spiritual culture. Science was to blame. And so were capitalism, and the absorption of modern technology, and individual freedoms, and democracy. All these had to be "overcome." A leading film critic, Tsumura Hideo, excoriated Hollywood movies and praised the documentary films of Leni Riefenstahl about Nazi rallies, which were more in tune with his ideas on how to forge a healthy national community. In his view, the war against the West was a war against the "poisonous materialist civilization" built on Jewish financial capitalist power. All agreed that culture-that is, traditional Japanese culture-was spiritual and profound, whereas modern Western civilization was shallow, rootless, and destructive of creative power. The West, particularly the United States, was coldly mechanical. A wholistic, traditional, classical Orient, united under divine Japanese imperial rule, would restore the warm organic community to spiritual health. As one of the participants put it, the struggle was between Japanese blood and Western intellect.

The West, to Asians at that time, and to some extent still today, also meant colonialism. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, when China was humiliated in the Opium Wars, educated Japanese realized that national survival depended on careful study and emulation of Western ideas and technology. Never had a great nation embarked on such a radical transformation as Japan between the 1850s and 1910s. The main slogan of the Meiji Period (1868-1912) was "Bunmei Kaika," or "Civilization and Enlightenment"; that is, Western civilization and enlightenment. Everything Western, from natural science to literary realism, was hungrily soaked up by Japanese intellectuals. European dress, Prussian constitutional law, British naval strategies, German philosophy, American cinema, French architecture, and much, much more were taken over and adapted. The modern, then, referred to that "European thing," but also to the Japanese effort to make it their own.

The transformation paid off handsomely. Japan remained uncolonized and quickly became a great power that managed, in 1905, to defeat Russia in a thoroughly modern war. Japan's industrial revolution did not come long after Germany's, with equally dislocating effects. Large numbers of impoverished country people moved into the cities, where conditions could be cruel. The army was a brutal refuge for rural young men, and their sisters were sometimes sold to big city brothels. But economic problems aside, there was another reason many Japanese intellectuals sought to undo the wholesale westernization of the late nineteenth century. It was as though Japan suffered from intellectual indigestion. Western civilization had been swallowed too fast. And that is partly why that group of literati gathered in Kyoto to discuss ways of reversing history, overcoming the West, and returning to an idealized spiritual past.


Excerpted from Occidentalism by Ian Buruma Avishai Margalit Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Succinct, elegant, and challenging..." —The Economist

"A useful primer on the habits of mind that drive our most implacable foes.... Accurate and fair-minded." —The New York Times

Meet the Author

Ian Buruma is currently Luce Professor at Bard College. His previous books include God's Dust, Behind the Mask, The Missionary&The Libertine, Playing the Game, The Wages of Guilt, Anglomania, and Bad Elements. He writes frequently for The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and the Financial Times.

Avishai Margalit is Schulman Professor of Philosophy at the Center for Rationality at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His previous books include Idolatry, The Decent Society, Views and Reviews, and The Ethics of Memory.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >