From the moment the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, America’s chattering class has methodically flagellated itself with the self-accusation, “Why do they hate us?” Sadly, the cavalcades of explanations have mostly been shallow vindications of a priori political agendas, avoiding as they do any serious examination, or even acknowledgement of, “the enemy.” Radical egalitarians cited global inequality, the Christian Right blamed Western anomie, isolationists pointed to imperial overstretch, and the Leftist intelligentsia preached a karmic justice for imperialist misdeeds. These explanations, of course, revealed more about the goals of the presenter than about the real origins of terrorism or anti-Americanism, and have allowed the literati of “old Europe” simply to sit back and enjoy the debate.
Serious attempts to describe the origins of anti-Western outrage remain few, making Ian Buruma’s and Avishai Margalit’s recent offering, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies
, a timely and welcome contribution. In this brief monograph the authors plumb deeply into intellectual history to present an honest and exciting look at how the enemies of the West view and portray the “Occident.” Both authors seem well suited to the task. With an English mother, Dutch father, and Japanese wife, Ian Buruma, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, considers himself an ideal observer of cultural and ethnic identity in conflict with modern technology, and has the bibliography to prove it. Co-author Avishai Margalit, Schulman Professor of Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has devoted serious study on questions of political violence. Both have expressed sympathies with the Left, but have not hesitated to criticize fellow-travelers.
Occidentalism offers readers a truly provocative thesis–that the fundamental ideas that animate violence toward the West are not culturally unique, but are actually illiberal themes born in the West; intellectual Frankensteins turned against their creators. In other words, the story of anti-Western rage is not a Manichean clash of civilizations but “a tale of cross-contamination, the spread of bad ideas.” Exploring these “bad ideas,” and more importantly, tracing them back to their Western authors, forms the bulk of this work.
Specifically, Buruma and Margalit identify four tropes to the Occidental discourse: The West’s preference for the sinful, soulless city to the virtuous countryside; the West’s worship of trade at the expense of “heroism”; the idea that the West is a “machine culture” fixated on matter rather than on the “soul”; and a savage West that lives in a state of idolatry. The wellspring for these images, the authors contend, is chiefly found in German Romanticism and the Russian Slavophile movement of the late 19th century. From Dostoyevsky to Herder onwards, Russian and German thinkers expressed an anxiety over the perceived inferiority of Western Europe and its liberal trappings. The Slavophiles and Romantics ultimately rejected the pillars of classic liberalism, instead advocating themes of heroism and virtue, the collective over the individual, and most disturbing, the glory of suicide and death.
The authors believe that it is these disparaging images of the West that now form this simulacra of Occidentalism, “the dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies.” Though beaten back within the West itself over the course of the twentieth century, they now contaminate much of the Arab world’s political landscape, whether it is the Baath of Syria, the mullahs of Saudi Arabia, or the vanguard of al Qaeda.
Though Occidentalism is essentially an academic meditation, the authors offer a stern warning: “Occidentalism becomes dangerous when it is harnessed to political power. When the source of political power is also the only source of truth, you have a dictatorship. And when the ideology of that dictatorship is hatred of the West, ideas become deadly.” The authors do not prescribe a specific response to the dangers of Occidentalism left unchecked, but they are adamant that the West must shed self-doubt and face the reality of an implacable threat:
“The other intellectual trap to avoid is the paralysis of colonial guilt. It should be repeated: European and American histories are stained with blood, and Western imperialism did much damage. But to be conscious of that does not mean we should be complacent about the brutality taking place in former colonies now. On the contrary, it should make us less so. To blame barbarisms of non-Western dictators or the suicidal savagery of religious revolutions on American imperialism, global capitalism, or Israeli expansionism is not only to miss the point; it is precisely an Orientalist form of condescension, as though only Westerners are adult enough to be morally responsible for what they do.”
Occidentalism is an important work, but as a consequence of its limited focus, it leaves many obvious questions unanswered. Why do societies embrace illiberal ideas as principles of political organization? Why have such ideas persisted in such strength in the Middle East, while being discarded elsewhere in the world? Why do liberal societies have difficulty in calling out and confronting totalitarianism? Buruma and Margalit very well may opine on these issues, but not here.
Paul Berman’s Terror and liberalism (Norton, 2003) addresses such questions, while providing an argument that Occidentalism complements in many ways, and then charts a bold (if lonely) path. Berman, an honorable member of the New Left, is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute and a contributing editor of the New Republic, but his advocacy of recent U.S. military interventions has earned him membership of the notorious “cruise missile Left.” Indeed, in Terror and Liberalism, Berman not only attempts to explain the intellectual roots of terror, but also does so within a political discourse distinct from both his dovish compatriots on the Left and the realpolitik of most presidential administrations. The final product arrives looking distinctly neoconservative, but neither Paul Berman nor William Kristol would ever admit it.
Like Occidentalism, Berman’s Terror and Liberalism sees the events surrounding 9/11 as a more fundamental clash between liberalism and totalitarianism. Berman plainly states, “The terror war is not an imperialist war. Nor is it a clash of civilizations. The Terror War is a new phase of the war that broke out in Europe more than eighty years ago and has never come to an end.”
It may seem odd for a book dedicated to exploring the underpinnings of terrorism to devote so much attention to totalitarianism, but, borrowing from Camus’s The Rebel, Berman sees the two as one and the same. Camus observed a slide from the musings of 19th century Romantic writers such as Hugo and Baudelaire, who celebrated murder and suicide as an act of liberation, to the thoughts and actions of turn-of-the-century Anarchists and Russian revolutionaries, whose aims seemed to be more theatrical than practically driven.
For Camus, the sinews that tied the rising stars of anarchism, Bolshevism, and fascism were an irrational urge to rebel against authority. This illiberal impulse, held initially at bay, overthrew liberalism in the aftermath of World War I, leading to “new type” movements, mass movements that promised an organic unity for their followers, utopias based on purity or restored glory, with grand and grandly brutal organizing principles. For Europe, both Nazism and Communism were the apex of the “new types,” and only after their demise did the West see a restoration of the liberal order. We are then reminded that the animating ideas of the “new type” movements are still in abundance in some parts of the world, most notably in the Middle East.
Berman delves deeper into Arab intellectual history than the authors of Occidentalism. Demonstrating strong linkages of Western totalitarianism to secular Arab ideologies such as the Baath, Berman’s extension of the same argument toward Islamism is truly provocative. First, Berman reminds us how Islamists are influenced by the Occident, when many have traveled and studied in the West, and, like the characters in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, are deeply conflicted by their own cross-cultural experiences. As Michel Afleq has written, “The philosophies and teachings that come from the West invade the Arab mind and steal his loyalty.” The follows a detailed examination of Sayyid Qutb, regarded as a founding father of Islamism, who Berman credits for creating a novel vision far more authentic than Nasserism or Baathism, but still possessing DNA of the “new type” mass movements of 20th-century Europe. He identifies an Ur-myth common to all totalitarian movements of modern Europe:
“The myth…is the one that you find in that strangest and most thrilling of writings, the book of Revelation of St. John the Divine … The people of God are under attack … from within. It is a subversive attack mounted by the city dwellers of Babylon … These city dwellers have sunk into abominations. They have been polluted by the whore of Babylon. The pollution is spreading to the people of God … There is also an attack from without–conducted from afar by the forces of Satan, who is worshipped at the synagogue of Satan. But these attacks, from within and without, will be violently resisted. The war of Armageddon will take place. The polluted and subversive city dwellers of Babylon will be exterminated, together with all their abominations. The Satanic forces from the mystic beyond will be fended off … Afterward, when the extermination is complete, the reign of Christ will be established and will endure a thousand years. And the people of God will live in purity, submissive to God.”
When it comes to analyzing the West’s response to terror and totalitarianism, Berman launches an unsparing critique of anyone holding a “dovish” posture, detailing the pathetic response of the French Socialists to the Nazi scourge as a cautionary tale. The author then delivers a truly scathing attack on Noam Chomsky, treating the MIT doyen as a case study in the risible arguments of America’s adversary culture. Berman blasts the Leftist dogma of “multilateralism”, contemptuously dismissing Europe as “a place that invents Frankensteins, and does not dismantle them.” Berman instead invokes the ghost of Leon Blum and his notion of a “Third Force,” a political voice distinct from both realists and leftists that would take the battle of ideas to troubled regions and would presumably vanquish the “bad ideas” that fill the ranks of our opponents. America’s own culture wars played on a global stage.
If Berman’s “hearts and minds” solution leaves us yearning for something a bit more robust, you’ll find it in Lee Harris’s Civilization and Its Enemies: The Next Stage of History . Based on a series of acclaimed essays for Policy Review, the book has earned Harris, a conservative, the title of “philosopher of the post 9/11 world.”
Harris offers the most sweeping and ambitious thesis of the three books examined, arguing his case through penetrating analyses of classical civilization and a lucid philosophic discourse. His core argument, however, can be gleaned from two words–forgetfulness and ruthlessness. Forgetfulness, according to Harris, is that habit civilizations have of turning citizens into “peaceful, commercially minded, liberal cosmopolitans.” According to Harris:
Ruthlessness, for Harris, is the employment of the most extreme, uncivilized means to shake the will of an enemy. Much as the once-defeated smallpox is now considered a potentially virulent biological weapon, Harris sees a paradox within any civilization seemingly inoculated from war; its attendant forgetfulness and renewed need of ruthlessness:
Harris concludes that this paradox will never be solved, and further, that any society that hopes to survive must maintain a savage element within it, a cadre of warriors willing to answer ruthlessness in kind, yet posing no threat to the society they serve. Harris points to Sparta and later Rome for guidance, but states plainly and boldly that America is uniquely capable in this important and cultivated dichotomy–an army under elected civilian control. Those acquainted with Walter Russell Mead or Max Boot and their discussion of “Jacksonian ruthlessness” will be on familiar ground here.
Each of these texts reveals something unique about America’s place in the world, and more broadly the role of the “Occident” in the history and future of the “Orient.” It is clear from each that America does indeed have the vim to win the war on terror, despite what the “puffdoodle pacifists and mollycoddlers” (as Teddy Roosevelt termed our dear friends on the Left) would have us believe.
–Jonathan Dowd-Gailey is a writer in Washington State. Jonathan Calt Harris, a former reporter for Time magazine and a writer and editor with the Middle East Forum, lives in Illinois.