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Ideology, Power and the War Against the West

The following is excerpted from “Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies” (The Penguin Press). Its authors are Ian Buruma, a professor at Bard College whose previous books include “God’s Dust” and “Behind the Mask,” and Avishai Margalit, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem whose previous books include “Idolatry” and “The Decent Society.”

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The West in general, and America in particular, provokes envy and resentment more among those who consume its images, and its goods, than among those who can barely imagine what the West is like. The killers who brought the [twin] towers down were well-educated young men who had spent considerable time living in the West, training for their mission. Mohammed Atta received a university degree in architecture in Cairo before writing a thesis on modernism and tradition in city planning at the Technical University in Hamburg. Bin Laden himself was once a civil engineer. If nothing else, the Twin Towers exemplified the technological hubris of modern engineers. Its destruction was plotted by one of their own.

The reaction in many places to the American disaster was, in any case, more than schadenfreude over the misfortunes of a great and sometimes overbearing power, and went deeper than mere dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy. There were echoes of more ancient hatreds and anxieties, which recur through history in different guises. Whenever men have built great cities, the fear of vengeance, wreaked by God, or King Kong or Godzilla, or the barbarians at the city gates, has haunted them. Since ancient times, humans have lived in terror of being punished for their effrontery in challenging the gods, by stealing fire, or gaining too much knowledge, or creating too much wealth, or building towers that reach for the skies. The problem is not with the city per se, but with cities given to commerce and pleasure instead of religious worship. In the case of Osama bin Laden and Mohammed Atta this religious impulse curdled into a dangerous madness….

Wars against the west have been declared in the name of the Russian soul, the German race, State Shinto, communism, and Islam. But there is a difference between those who fight for a specific nation or race and those who go to battle for religious or political creeds: The former exclude outsiders; they believe they are the chosen ones. The latter often make claims for universal salvation. In practice, of course, the lines are never so clear: Islam sometimes becomes a form of Arab chauvinism; State Shinto propaganda extolled the Japanese as a divine race; communism excluded social classes. Nevertheless, the distinction between religious Occidentalism and secular Occidentalism is a valuable one. Religious Occidentalism tends to be cast, more than in its secular variations, in Manichaean terms, as a holy war fought against an idea of absolute evil.…

Islamism, as an ideology, was only partly influenced by Western ideas. Its depiction of Western civilization as a form of idolatrous barbarism is an original contribution to the rich history of Occidentalism. This goes much further than the old prejudice that the West is addicted to money and greed. Idolatry is the most heinous religious sin and must therefore be countered with all the force and sanctions at the true believers’ disposal.

The metaphorical use of idolatry to depict the capitalist West is not in fact new; nor is the view that Jews are its archetypical idolaters. Karl Marx, that bitter grandson of a rabbi, once remarked: “Money is the jealous god of Israel before whom no other god may exist. Money degrades all the gods of mankind and converts them into commodities.” He also believed that the “bill of exchange is the Jew’s actual god. His god is only an illusionary bill of exchange.” This kind of rhetoric was later adopted by radical Islamists, some of whom probably read Marx before they read Islamic texts. But the literal use of idolatry, which emerged among political Islamists, is a lethal innovation.…

Theodor Herzl, founding father of the Zionist movement, was not a gifted novelist. Nevertheless, his novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land), is one of the most remarkable books of the twentieth century. Although Herzl finished it in 1902, the visionary ideas expressed in this “fairy tale,” as he called it, belonged firmly in the century before. Altneuland is a blueprint for the perfect Jewish state, a technocratic Utopia, a socialist dream with all the advantages of capitalism, an idealistic colonial enterprise, a model of pure reason, a “light unto the nations.”

By the 1920s, in Herzl’s tale, Jerusalem would be transformed into a thoroughly modern metropolis, “intersected by electric street railways; wide, tree-bordered streets; homes, gardens, boulevards, parks, schools hospitals, government buildings, pleasure resorts.” Arab and Jew would live happily together in the New Society, working in vast “co-operative syndicates.” And all the nations of the world would meet in Jerusalem at the Palace of Peace.…

The tragedy of this optimistic fairy tale lies not in the story itself, but more in the tone, the fanciful descriptions, and the peculiar justifications for Herzl’s ideals. This is how they find the Holy Land on their first visit, before the Jews have built their New Society: “The alleys [of Jaffa] were dirty, neglected, full of vile odors. Everywhere was misery in bright Oriental rags.” The landscape on the way to Jerusalem is “a picture of desolation.” The people of “the blackish Arab villages looked like brigands. Naked children played in the dirty alleys.”

Jaffa twenty years on is “a magnificent city,” whose “magnificent stone dams showed the harbor for what it was: the safest and most convenient port in the eastern Mediterranean.” Littwak, the happy pioneer, explains: “Never in history were cities built so quickly or so well, because never before were so many technical facilities available. By the end of the nineteenth century, humanity had already achieved a high degree of technical skill. We merely had to transplant existing inventions to this country.” …

This is all most gratifying, but what do the Arabs make of it all? What about their traditions, beliefs, and aspirations to be proud and free? Not to mention their “identity.” The question does in fact come up. Kingscourt, impressed as he is by the Zionists’ great achievements, asks an Arab named Reschid Bey whether his people resent the new interlopers on their tribal lands. “What a question!” he replies. “It was a great blessing for us.”…

Altneuland is still worth reading because it contains so much that is grand and hopeful about Western thought since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. From this king of thinking came the industrial revolution, liberal democracy, scientific discovery, civil rights. But the same Promethean dreams of European rationalists, taken to their logical extremes and brutally implemented, often by non-Europeans who wanted to catch up with Western progress, have ended in the mass graves of the gulag and the killing fields of China and Cambodia. Europeans justified their imperial conquests with claims of progress and enlightenment. Asian tyrants murdered millions with the same justifications.

Reactions to the rationalist dreams of Eastern tyrants or Western empires have been just as bloody. The Islamist revolutionary movement that currently stalks the world, from Kabul to Java, would not have existed without the harsh secularism of Reza Shah Pahlavi or the failed experiments in state socialism in Egypt, Syria, and Algeria.…

Most revolts against Western imperialism, and its local offshoots, borrowed heavily from Western ideas. The samurai who founded the modern Japanese state in 1867 did so to defend themselves against being colonized by the West. But it was a defense by mimicry. Their ideals could have been lifted straight from Altenuland. The Meiji oligarchs were in ways the perfect pupils of Europe. Changing their kimono for tail-coats and top hats, they set about smashing Buddhist temples and transforming their country in the name of Progress, Science, and Enlightenment. Japan’s own imperial conquests were justified along the same lines. Like Herzl, Japanese empire builders took the gratitude of lesser breeds for granted.…

A distaste for, or even hatred of, the West is in itself not a serious issue. 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 dictatorship. And when the ideology of that dictatorship is hatred of the West, ideas become deadly.

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