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In this short, but insightful, book Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue that in many parts of the non-Western world there is such loathing of everything associated with the West - especially America - that anyone living such a lifestyle is inherently depraved and somewhat less than human. This dehumanizing view of the West, as seen by its enemies, is what the authors call Occidentalism.
It is the reverse side of the idea of Orientalim described over twenty-five years ago by Edward Said. According to Said, the Orientalists constructed accounts of the East as a place where life was cheap and inferior to that of the West. These narratives served to justify Western domination. Occidentalism, however, goes a step further: whereas, the Orientalist wished to subjugate and colonize, the Occidentalist wishes to destroy.
This is a book about ideas rather than policy. It deals more with why they hate us for what we are, rather than why they hate us for what we do. The authors describe a "constellation of images" of the West by which its enemies demonize it. They (the enemies) see the West as " a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites."
The originality of this study comes from the discovery that many of the negative images that the present-day Islamists have of the West are derived, paradoxically, the West itself. The authors see a "chain of hostility" that goes back two centuries. The anti-Western impulse begins with Herder and the German romantics as a reaction to the rationalist, universalist ideals the Enlightenment and the materialism of the budding capitalist economy. Anti-Westernism was also the driving force of the slavophiles of late nineteeth century Russia; it was a reaction to encroaching modernization coming from the West. In the twentieth century, Nazi Germany and a militant Japan railed against, not the modernization that came from the West, but the destruction of their indigenous cultures, being overrun by the decadence and depravity of the West. This anti-Westernism again rears its ugly head in the late twentieth century during the Cultural Revolution in China and, again, in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. These where particulary murderous attempts to root out Western influence. The Occidentalist of today is exemplified by the Islamist suicide bomber.
Buruma and Margalit discuss four images of hatred that run through these movements of the last two hundred years: 1} the cosmopolitan city with its rootless, greedy, and decadent citizens; 2) the bourgeois merchant, seeking only profit and comfort, as opposed the self-sacrificing hero of the Occidentalist; 3) the Western mind, using only the faculties of science and reason, and neglecting faith; 4) and last of all, the infidel, the unbeliever, who must be crushed to make way for the true believers.
In Occidentalism's present-day manifestation, religion plays a central role. The jihadis of today hate, not only the West, but the secular regimes - such as Syria and Egypt - of the Middle East as well. They despise even the Saudis for not being sufficiently pure. Ironically, Saudi Arabia is one of the primary sources of the Wahhabism practised by Osama bin Laden. Jihadis see the West as cowardly and fearful of death. They, themselves, love death and wish to inflict it upon as many others as possible. Their search for weapons of mass destruction makes them an extremely formidable enemy.
From this excellent little study, one can only speculate whether the Islamist Occidentalists will someday come to accomodate the modern secular world or succeed in annihilating it. It is safe to say that the struggle will not end anytime soon.