Thirty years ago, the late Edward Said wrote a book called Orientalism. In fewer than pages he changed the intellectual world. His masterpiece was a study of the dense web of philosophy, literature and pseudo-science that had created a flickering, false "Orient" - childlike, savage and sensual - in the minds of Westerners. With one swoop, Said destroyed an academic discipline - who now speaks of Orientalism without self-flagellation? In a throw-away line in his book, Said said, "Nobody is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to [Orientalism] called Occidentalism. Why did he assume that the "Orient" would not, in time, direct a hate-doctrine as vast and systematic towards its own mythicised Other?
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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.
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Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies
Occidentalism is their groundbreaking investigation of the demonizing fantasies and stereotypes about the Western world that fuel such hatred in the hearts of others. 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. A work of extraordinary range and erudition, Occidentalism will permanently enlarge our collective frame of vision. Ian Buruma teaches at Bard College. His previous… More about Avishai Margalit. Accurate and fair-minded. Read An Excerpt.