Against the West: Islamic Radicals Hate Us for Who We Are, Not What We Do

Mackubin T. Owens

July 1, 2004

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its EnemiesOccidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies
Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit (New York: Penguin, 2004), 160 pp.

“Why do they hate us?” This plaintive question has been asked so many times since 9/11 that it has become almost cliché-like. What possessed educated young Arab men to turn civilian airliners into cruise missiles to be crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon on the banks of the Potomac River?

In response, some claim that the current campaign of radical Islamic terror against the West in general and the United States in particular is a desperate response to our policies in the Middle East, especially our support for Israel. Others contend that the Islamists target us more for “who we are”—what we believe—than for what we do.

Some have embraced Sam Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” as an explanation for the rise of terror against the West. Others have responded that this model overstates the case: we are not at war with Islam but only with those who have embraced the instrument of terror.

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit offer some fascinating reflections on these questions in their brilliant little book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies. On the question of “why do they hate us,” Messrs. Buruma and Margalit come down firmly on the side of those who believe that “they” hate us for who we are. But they argue that the Islamists’ loathing for the West is not reflective of a clash of civilization. Instead, it is the latest manifestation of an anti-Western hatred that, ironically, originated within the West itself. This hatred is not so much the result of an ideology per se as a “constellation of images” by which the enemies of the West dehumanize it. The authors call this constellation of images “Occidentalism.”

Before its current Islamist manifestation, observe Messrs. Buruma and Margalit, the West had come under attack in the name of the Russian Soul, the German Race, State Shinto, and Communism. Nazis, Japanese intellectuals before and during World War II, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge killers, and Mao had in common with today’s suicide bombers a chain of hostility to four images: hatred of the City—the seat of rootless, arrogant, decadent, frivolous cosmopolitanism; scorn for the Bourgeois merchant, who represents the very antithesis of the self-sacrificing hero; contempt for the “Western Mind” and its celebration of Reason and Science; and scorn for the unbeliever who “must be crushed to make way for a world of pure faith.” Occidentalism indeed is “a tale of cross-contamination, the spread of bad ideas.”

Those very features of the West that its citizens and advocates admire—individual liberty, liberal democracy, free market capitalism, toleration, emancipation of women, diversity, scientific advancement, and dynamism—are precisely the things Occidentalists despise. But Occidentalism is not merely a critique of Western excesses; rather it strips its human targets of their humanity. It is no accident that the Nazi and Islamist versions of Occidentalism both portray Jews in almost exactly the same way—as rootless, money-grubbing, cosmopolitan parasites who poison the authentic spiritual or racial community and therefore deserve to be exterminated.

The Occidentalist image of the City is particularly powerful and helps to explain why the World Trade Center was a target of the 9/11 terrorists. The modern City of Man is hateful to the Holy Warrior, who sees it as sinful, a soulless whore. Indeed, sex and the City are inextricably intertwined: here the emancipation of women (most notably sexual emancipation) is most advanced. Here, everything and everyone is for sale. To the Occidentalist, the City is “an inhuman zoo of depraved animals consumed by lust.”

The City is also the seat of Bourgeois capitalism, which favors the merchant over the hero. The great Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism as “creative destruction.” But for the Occidentalist, this means that capitalism destroys culture, the only fully integrated and authentic human community possible, replacing it with a marketplace of shallow, materialistic, rootless consumers.

In bourgeois capitalism, the merchant displaces the hero. The virtues of the latter—daring, vigor, grandeur, purity, and the pursuit of destiny that sees heroic death as the highest aspiration—give way to the love of comfort. Again it is no accident that Nazis, Japanese Kamikazes, and jihadis express the same disdain for the fighting spirit of Americans. According to the Occidentalists, citizens of the West, especially Americans, are soft, incapable of any exertion that interferes with their comfort. In the words of a Jihadi in Afghanistan, “[we will win because the Americans] love Pepsi-Cola, but we love death.”

Occidentalism disdains the “Western Mind” as too rationalistic. The West is a mind without a soul. The Western Mind stands in opposition to culture, the organic community of race or blood. Culture is whole—the Western Mind, with its emphasis on reason and science, is fragmented. Of course, the critique of reason was the cornerstone of nineteenth-century German romanticism. Their heirs, the Russian Slavophiles, always contrasted the Western mind with the Russian soul. The problem, of course, is not the critique of reason per se but the hitching of this critique to fanatical political power, as was the case with Nazi Germany and is the case today with radical Islam.

In an earlier version of their argument, which appeared as an extended essay some years ago in The New York Review of Books, Messrs. Buruma and Margalit listed the emancipation of women as the fourth image of the West that Occidentalism hates. But in Occidentalism, the authors have subsumed the emancipation of women and sexuality under other images, especially the City, and have replaced it here with hatred for the unbeliever—the infidel or the idolater—who must be destroyed for true belief to flourish.

Past versions of Occidentalism have been secular, although religion has played a role in shaping culture. Islamism is different from its predecessors in that it represents an explicitly religious Occidentalism, which fuses puritanism and political power. Such a combination is not new in Islam. In the middle of the eighteenth century, the House of Saud joined forces with the puritanical Wahhabi sect of the Nadj plateau to purify Arabia, the cradle of Islam.

But today’s Islamic Occidentalism, in an important sense Wahhabism writ large, sees the West as the main enemy because of its support for “idolatrous” regimes in the Middle East, e.g. secular regimes such as Syria and Egypt, as well as “impure” Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia. Such support stands in the way of the creation and maintenance of a truly unified and pure Islamic world.

The irony is that Saudi Arabia, one of the prime targets of Islamic Occidentalism, is itself the main source of that very ideology. “Oil money is used to promote religious radicalism around the world while the Saudi princes live in an uneasy truce with the clergy at home. But hypocrisy is an unstable solution, for it has given rise to true Wahhabi believers, such as Osama bin Laden, who view the presence of American women soldiers in Arabia as an act of defilement. To him, and his followers, it is as if the Americans were sending their temple prostitutes to defend the unmanly rulers of Saudi Arabia.”

Occidentalism succeeds brilliantly as a description of the toxic character of the fusion of anti-Western ideology and political power, especially in its detailed examination of what one writer has called its “ugly lexicon.” It is less successful in terms of prescription: “how to protect the idea of the West—that is to say, the world’s liberal democracies—against its enemies.”

The best they can come up with is to avoid the idea of a Western “crusade” against Islam, to avoid “the paralysis of colonial guilt (in this they are taking a shot at the book that inspired their own, the late Edward Said’s Orientalism, the main effect of which has been to fuel “victim studies”), and to reject the idea that religious fervor or anti-Western ideology in and of themselves constitute the main problem facing the West. A distaste for, or even hatred of, those characteristics that we attribute to the West is in itself not a serious issue. After all, in The Laws and The Republic, Plato condemns the excesses of Athens and creates in speech a city along the lines of Sparta. “Occidentalism becomes dangerous when it is harnessed to political power.”

The inescapable fact is that earlier forms of Occidentalism had to be extirpated by force—Nazism and radical Japanese nationalism as embodied in State Shinto—or the threat of force—Communism. The unhappy conclusion is that we face the same situation now.

For instance we should recognize that Jihadis, like the Japanese and Nazis before them, believe the West is cowardly, addicted to comfort and lacking the sacrificial spirit. Also like their predecessors, the Jihadis believe that spirit can overcome material disadvantage, that victory belongs to the side with the stronger will. Given this reality, an implication of Occidentalism is that it is imperative for the United States to prevail in Iraq. Failure to do so will only invite more attacks.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.