Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies by Ian Buruma
Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies by Ian Buruma

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies

Apr 8, 2004

Buruma points out that the hatred animating Islamic radicals conforms to the classic counter-Enlightenment vision of Western society as rootless, timid, and soulless.


JOANNE MYERS: On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to welcome you to our Books for Breakfast program this morning.

Our speaker is Ian Buruma. He will be discussing his book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies. This book is available to be purchased at the end of the program.

Ever since September 11th, many have asked, “What possibly could have prompted so many young men to act as suicide bombers, hijacking planes with the intent to kill thousands of Americans, or why others bombed nightclubs in Bali or chose to blow up trains in Spain?”

While some in the West have been tempted to see the brutality of these terrorist attacks as signifying the arrival of a new and mysterious phenomenon, our guest this morning sees this wave of anti-Western hatred as not nearly so recent a development as many of us have been led to believe.

In Occidentalism, Mr. Buruma, with his writing partner Avishai Margalit,tells us that this display of anger towards the West is neither new nor unique to Islamic extremists; rather, it is an idea with a history far older than al Qaeda and its influence far wider than in the Middle East. The roots, they suggest, can be traced as far back as 200 years ago and are just the most recent manifestation of a worldwide reaction to the rise of Western modernity.

The title, Occidentalism, reflects a theory advanced in Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, a work that explored how the imperialist West misunderstood and distorted the cultures of the East. In a similar vein, Occidentalismargues that various components of Western society are also misrepresented and misconceived by radical elements around the globe. To demonstrate this point Mr. Buruma draws on a variety of historical movements as a way of understanding and explaining the present rage directed towards the West.

Our speaker is known for his witty and profound studies of Asia, England, and Germany. His own personal history includes exposure to different cultures, such as Dutch, English, and Japanese, which have provided him with an unusual and interesting vision for writing about post-Cold War conflicts, as well as reminding us that history has a way of repeating itself.

Among his non-fiction works are God's Dust: A Modern Asian Journey, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, Anglomania, and Bad Elements. Currently he is Luce Professor at Bard College.

Please join me in welcoming Ian Buruma to our Books for Breakfast program this morning. Thank you for joining us. Remarks

IAN BURUMA: Thank you very much. You have more or less given my talk, so we can open up the floor for questions.

I speak here not just on my behalf but also for my co-author Avishai Margalit, who is currently in Jerusalem.

This book and perhaps its title, encourage two misunderstandings. One is that it is an attack on Edward Said, and I would certainly be happy to be among his critics. But rather it echoes his work, in that in the midst of a lot of white noise, he did have one profound insight, which is that there was a view of the non-Western world that was dehumanizing, that depicted non-Western people as less than morally adult, childlike and cruel, which in some instances did indeed justify Western imperialism. Our idea was not to attack that notion but to show the flip side, that there is an equally dehumanizing view of the West, or of what its enemies think the West represents.

The other misunderstanding is that we are somehow talking about critics of the West, critics of American foreign policy or those who have an aversion to Hollywood movies. That is not what we are about either. What we identify as Occidentalists are not simply critics or haters of America or the West at large; it is people with such a dehumanizing vision of what the West represents that they are prepared to commit colossal violence and mass murder to further their ends. That is when it begins to interest us.

To illustrate what we mean by “the West," not a geographical concept but more a set of ideas, I will explain how the idea came to us. We were galvanized by 9/11 and the subsequent events, but the idea was with us sometime before that. It came out of a conversation we had while visiting Highgate Cemetery in North London one afternoon. We stopped in front of Karl Marx’s tomb, a hideous monument of his enormous head, which was sculpted after he was buried there, surrounded by his various Third World admirers who wanted to be buried in the vicinity of the great man. To annoy the old boy, Avishai and I put some stones on his tomb, which we know he would not have liked.

Out of this came a conversation which went as follows. Avishai talked about the stereotypical views that Eastern European Jews had of German Jews, Marx being the archetypal German Jew. Eastern European Jews saw German Jews as being ruthlessly efficient, successful, but materialistic and without a soul. Those who had a soul were in the east, in or out of the shtetls, perhaps poor and less successful, but they were the warm people who lived in organic communities, whereas the German Jews were machine-like, soulless operators.

Out of this came more discussion, because it reminded me of so much what I had heard during my years of traveling and living in Asia. In India, in Japan, in China, you often heard a very similar juxtaposition of “the West may be more successful”—particularly the United States that often stands for the West—“but it has no heart, it has no soul, it’s rootless, it’s efficient but ruthless, and has no deeper spirit. The deeper spiritual values are in the East."

This is an idea that does have a history. Our book does not start with Karl Marx, but with a description of a conference held in Kyoto in 1942, almost a year after the attack on Pearl Harbor, attended by well-known Japanese critics, writers, thinkers, academics. The topic of the conference was “How to Overcome the Modern.” “The modern" for them meant the West.

The problem was that there was no consensus of what they meant by “the West.” Some used the phrase “the European thing,” which had infected the warm organic Asian or Japanese community. Others talked about “Americanism” and wanted to make common cause with the Europeans as people who represented ancient cultures like the Japanese in order to combat the shallow, rootless, cosmopolitan, machine-like American civilization.

Others brought up Hollywood movies, which are a perennial theme in this kind of discourse. One well-known film critic of the time described Hollywood movies as “noxious vehicles for democratic propaganda, propaganda for racial mixing,” which seems slightly odd. The Hollywood movies at the time did not consciously seek to promote that at all, but nonetheless it was seen as such.

The phrase “Americanism” already shows that this was not an originally Japanese, Asian or Eastern idea. “Americanism” was also used by Heidegger,and was a common phrase in European right-wing intellectual circles between the wars. Indeed, we argue that a lot of anti-Western sentiment and prejudices are rooted in the West itself.

A book that was a great inspiration, which, alas, has been out of print for many years and is much less well-known than it should be, was written by a Hungarian refugee in London during the 1930s. Between the wars, he read everything in the German language that was fascist or national socialist in sentiment, from sociological tracts to Spengler,to works of Julius and Langbein.

He came to an anatomy of Nazi right-wing fascistic Germanic thinking: The War Against the West by Aurel Kolnai. He did not simply pluck this title out of thin air. During World War I, many German thinkers, such as Werner Sombart, the sociologist, and Ernst Jünger,indeed did see World War I as a German war fought with heroic spirit against the West – Britain, France, the United States, these materialistic, rootless civilizations. Germany stood for heroism and higher ideals.

One of the more amusing phrases that Kolnai discovered was Komfortismus, comfortism. Komfortismuswas associated with bourgeois liberal society, the bourgeois in Western democracies, which were then seen as their enemies, addicted to comfort, security, money, the material, and not prepared to risk their lives, to die for higher ideals as were those associated with the heroic model, represented in the eyes of these thinkers by Germany.

Very similar ideas appear in anti-Western prejudices in other parts of the world.

Why would this concept of making a cult of sacrifice, of dying for higher causes, for spiritual ideals emerge?

During the Spanish Civil War, for example, we saw the phrase “Viva el Muerte” (Long Live Death). I was reminded of this during the war in Afghanistan, when a Taliban activist interviewed by an American reporter said, “You people will always lose because you love Pepsi-Cola and we love death.” What was very much part of German discourse between the wars, we are now also seeing with Islamist extremism.

Why would these sentiments, this hatred of bourgeois society, this love of sacrifice and death emerge? Isaiah Berlinis a good guide in this matter. He identified it with the counter-Enlightenment and the German reaction to the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. He saw it as a natural reaction of those who feel humiliated by being confronted with a superior force which often has claims to universalism.

You also get the defense of the local, of the blood and soil, of the native, as a last-ditch defense against a superior force which has claims to bring universal values. This can be relatively benign, as in romantic poetry celebrating the spirit of revolt. It can also turn into something very malign, as it did again specifically in Germany but also elsewhere more than a century after Napoleon’s invasions.

This also perhaps explains a seeming paradox in anti-Semitic thought, that before the wars Jews were usually accused of being, on the one hand, the bringers of capitalism and capitalist evil; on the other hand, of being Bolsheviks. Although this would appear contradictory, if you follow the logic, it makes sense because the Jews were associated precisely with the universalism that the “blood and soil” nativists were against.

It is not particularly surprising that minorities would be attracted to universalist messages rather than nativist messages, even though it is a myth, and most Jews were neither capitalists nor Bolshevists, but poor people stuck in villages. But they were seen as part of a universalist mission to crush the local and the native.

We see Islamism as the latest strain of this thought. Obviously, there are many historical and cultural differences between religious radicals and extremists and Nazis and Japanese militarists.

But we can identify certain common elements, and in some cases we can even identify direct influences of European and Russian thought. We have a chapter on the struggles between the Slavophiles and the Westernizers in Russia in the 19th century, which is very much part of the juxtaposition of those who have a spirit and a soul against the rootless, cosmopolitan Westernizers who are without the spiritual dimension.

German thought did have an influence both on secular movements in the Middle East in the early 20th century, on the Baathists in particular, some of whom were avid readers of Ernst Jünger and other German thinkers, and on the Pan-Arabist movement. Pan-Arabism was very much modeled on Pan-Germanism.

Iranian thinkers behind the Iranian brand of religious fundamentalism were very much influenced by Marxist theories, but also by more conservative theories in Europe. Even without those influences, you can identify similar prejudices among the religious radicals to those of the fascists and militarists in Western European thought.

In some ways we are perhaps up against an even more radical and dangerous strain, far from the mainstream of Islam. What we are talking about with Islamist radicals is a modern phenomenon; it is a politicized, revolutionary religious movement that happens to come from Islam, and certainly is rooted in the history of Islam in some ways, just as Japanese militarism had roots in Japanese history, and German thinking in German history.

But just as you cannot draw a direct line from Luther to Hitler, as some have tried to do, you cannot simply say that the religious radicalism of today is a natural consequence of Islamic or Arab history. It is a revolutionary movement.

For that reason it would be naïve to think that there are easy political solutions. It is untrue to say, as many do claim, that if only the Israelis would be less bloody-minded and resolve their problems with the Palestinians, somehow al Qaeda would disappear. It would be very good if the Israelis resolved their problems with the Palestinians, but al Qaeda is very unlikely to fade away, just as it would be good if all American foreign policy were wise and full of sweetness and light, which it will not be because no foreign policy of a major power can ever be so.

But even if that were the case, al Qaeda will not fade away because it is a revolutionary movement with a purist, religious vision of society, which views everything else as savage, barbaric. And indeed, in their writings the same elements return—not only savage and barbaric, but soulless, rootless, ruthless, machine-like. The Jahiliais their idea of pure Islam and everything outside is savage and has to be destroyed.

What can we do about this? Two strands must be tackled which are extremely difficult for the United States or the Western world to deal with.

One has to do with the Middle East itself. Here the neo-conservative analysis has some truth, where they say that the problem of religious extremism will not disappear so long as these societies do not open up and become more democratic, that political oppression over the years has clearly played a role in producing these strands of extremism. But the outside world can do relatively little about this.

The other strand has to do with the Muslim minorities, in Europe in particular, in the Western world in general, where many disaffected, rather unintegrated young people feel that they are not part of the societies in which they are born and bred. Here, paradoxically perhaps, the recipe that we are told will work in foreign policy—i.e., that more secularism, openness and democracy will somehow deal with the problem of religious revolutionary movements in the Middle East—will not succeed, because it’s the other way around. The religious reaction of young Muslims in Europe is precisely against secularism, openness and liberalism.

It is something that often happens to young people who grow up in European cities, like other Europeans, being totally secular, taking drugs and having girlfriends. When they are in their twenties, a reaction sets in because of a feeling of alienation, that this is not enough. Many who end up going to Afghanistan, following the call of extremist clerics, want the opposite of what we think would be good for them. They want authoritarian figures to tell them what is good and evil, and to be part of a pure community, all of the things that a secular, liberal, bourgeois society cannot offer.

How to deal with that is an extremely difficult problem. Probably more efforts to integrate minorities, even as we allow everybody to follow whatever religion they want to, would be in order. Making young women remove their veils in public schools is not a very wise move.

In the general struggle against revolutionary Islam in the Middle East, we should not view this as a war of secularism against religion. In some ways it is precisely an aggressive, violent form of secularism that produced much of the religious fundamentalism and extremism in the first place. Probably if Ataturk, Reza Shah Pahlavi, Nasserand others hadn’t been so radical in their secularism, in requiring conformity to a secular, often socialist ideal, this religious extremism, and the allergy to the West that comes from it, would not have occurred.

The solution, whatever it is, must at least partly go through the mosque as part of the strategy. Moderate Muslims must be encouraged to open up and join the political process in Europe and the Middle East. To see this as a war of the secular world against the religious world is a mistake, just as to see it as a war of the West against Islam is a mistake. It is not a clash of civilizations, it’s a clash of ideas, and it is a clash rooted in European history itself.

JOANNE MYERS: I would like to open the floor to questions. Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Your book will inform discourse in this country, which is altogether too shallow on the question of attitudes to the rest of the world. You either have Americans who stereotype the rest of the world, or another group who think that only Americans are stereotyping the rest of the world, failing to understand that the rest of the world stereotypes the United States as well.

How possible is it for ideas to interact? How possible is it for civilizations and ideas to improve understanding, to reduce stereotyping, by interacting? If it is possible and it is important, how should we do it?

IAN BURUMA: I am not quite sure how one imagines a conversation between civilizations. That seems a little bit abstract. Conversation with the religious extremists is equally hard to envision, because sitting around a table in a seminar room with Osama bin Laden will not change anybody’s mind one way or the other.

As far as the clash of civilizations, I am not a Huntingtonian.This is not a fundamental clash of one civilization against another, because al Qaeda does not represent the Middle East or Arabs or Muslims any more than the Christian Coalition or Southern Baptists represent the West. After all, in the West itself there are forms of religious fundamentalism which are disturbing.

What I have described about al Qaeda you can see in completely different cultural contexts. Al Qaeda's visions remind me of the Aum Shinrikyoin Japan, the group of quasi-Buddhists—often engineers and people from technical universities, who felt that modern Japanese society was empty, without spirit, without soul, machine-like—who wanted to foment a religious revolution to create a purer society. They had views of Armageddon that are not so different from that of certain kinds of Christian extremists. They would create this Armageddon by, first of all, feeding sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system.

These revolutions fail, but the problem in our age is that even marginal groups, just as the religious revolution in the Middle East will fail, have failed. Iran may be the last example of where it has happened, and it is not terribly likely to happen elsewhere. But the more it fails, the more it lashes out in other ways.

The problem of our time is that marginal groups now often have the means to inflict enormous damage even when they don’t have the power of the state behind them that the Nazis had. They won’t conquer countries, but they can kill a lot of people.

Conferences of representatives of different civilizations trying to understand each other better are not the answer here.

QUESTION: You will not convert bin Laden in a seminar and solving the Middle East problem wouldn’t end al Qaeda. You will never convert your extreme opponent or critic who has already taken up a position and will stick with it. The question is always winning over the middle ground between you and him. In the UN we sometimes think it’s not worth replying to Oliver North or the Wall Street Journaleditorial page because we are not going to convert them. It’s not them; it’s their readers that we have to worry about. Addressing Palestine and other Muslim grievances is important in that context.

How would you apply your analysis to transatlantic relations? Europeans and Americans both seem to be a part of your problem in their attitudes to each other.

IAN BURUMA: Hence the confusion at the Kyoto Conference, some who saw this “European thing”—the industrial revolution, the Enlightenment, rationalism—as the source of what an Iranian intellectual called “Westoxification.” Others thought that the Europeans and the Japanese should make common cause against Americanism. There are still, now more than ever, European intellectuals who have an aversion to what they think of as Americanism.

And you are quite right that, on the other hand, America is becoming militarized in a way that is quite alienating and disturbing to anybody who grew up in postwar Europe.

There may be a reason why European intellectuals, in particular, are so allergic to Americanism. De Tocquevilleobserved that in an open, bourgeois, more or less liberal society, people are not particularly keen to sacrifice their lives for higher causes. It takes something to make them go to war.

But there are also societies in which intellectuals do not play much more than a marginal role. In a society where people have the choice of what movies to see, what television channels to switch on and what books to read, where there is a huge marketplace, intellectuals do not score very well, on the whole. In Western European societies, on the other hand, intellectuals have been more important, with more state support to be got for intellectual endeavors and less left up to the marketplace.

It is very irritating for French filmmakers and Italian poets to discover that most people prefer to see the latest Tom Cruise movie. The allergy amongst intellectuals to American society as caricatured in this way is partly to be explained by that. These are not prejudices widely shared by the population at large who like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And the same is true in America. The loathing of what America stands for in the writings of people like Noam Chomsky, or even Gore Vidal,the lofty disdain, is indeed for a society in which intellectuals play a minor role.

The militarization of the United States represents a country that de Tocqueville didn’t write about and didn’t see at the time, that is indeed disturbing, even from the perspective of Britain, and the British are the last Europeans who rather like going to war, but perhaps less and less as time goes on.

QUESTION: The point of the dialogue of civilizations that we are so fond of at the UN is precisely to reach not just the middle ground, but also in so doing to deprive the extremists of their support, without which they would be less effective.

You spoke about the universalizing mission of all religions and value systems. None of them claims to have a system of beliefs that applies to only one particular time or place. They all speak of what is good and right for the world at large.

Might the problem not relate to the perception of a gap between the values as articulated and as practiced in Western societies? Mahatma Gandhi,who in many ways was an emblematic figure of Christian ethics, when once asked what he thought of Western civilization, said, “It would be a good idea."

Much of the criticism of the West that you have referred to, including the stereotyping as mechanistic, is more a reflection of a rejection of specific policies carried out in the name of the West rather than a rejection of values, or even of the essential nature, as perceived of these civilizations.

IAN BURUMA: Yes, if the grievances in the Middle East in this instance were to go away, it may be true that religious extremist groups will gain fewer recruits.

But what are the real grievances? Is true to say that the real grievances that underlie religious extremism in the Middle East are the Palestinian problem, for example? Most fellow Arabs have not deeply cared about Palestinians when they have to live with them. The real problems are probably political failures in these societies. What gains religious recruits are often failed political systems, either secular or religious. In any case, it is closed and often repressive societies which produce these problems, which have relatively little to do with the West, except insofar as their political failures are often associated with forms of Westernization, be it state socialism or another secular system.

As far as the universal appeal of religions, that is not strictly true. Judaism, for example, does not claim the mission of spreading its values to all mankind. It is in many ways a tribal religion, as are many polytheistic religions. Shintoists in Japan do not claim to stand for universal values.

Proselytizing and the mission to spread universal values are on the whole monotheistic and, therefore, indeed associated with Islam as much as with Christianity; messianic offshoots of this have come from the West as well as from the Middle East. It has something to do with the nature of monotheistic religions.

QUESTION: Hinduism is a monotheistic faith and not a proselytizing faith, but it does claim that its ethics are true for all people in all places.

IAN BURUMA: Yes, but they never sought to spread it across the world.

Does the last part of your question refer to specific foreign policies? I am skeptical about that, because the roots of these problems are usually in the politics of the societies in which they occur, and not imported in reaction to resentments of the foreign policy of other powers. Bad foreign policy doesn’t help, and the war in Iraq has made things worse in this respect.

The German reaction to the French Enlightenment, or the French Revolution, and yes, the Napoleonic invasions certainly had a great deal to do with that, which would support your argument. On the other hand, the oppressive nature of German states and the lack of opportunity and openness in leading political lives as citizens fed the idealism which had its extreme offshoots in German history.

So perhaps we are both right, which is the diplomatic thing to say.

QUESTION: One of your colleagues from Bard College, Professor William Mullen, wrote a very good Op-Ed piece in the New York Sun,touching on many of the elements that you address this morning. But one of the most impressive aspects was his commentary on the Western – both American and European – seeming willingness to almost self-flagellate, to blame oneself for the attacks of others. When you talk about whether certain intellectual predispositions are against putting one’s life on the line for the ideals that one believes, more civilized Western areas are not willing to do so. How do you account for this Western intellectual tradition and politico that says “we blame ourselves for what others have done to us”?

IAN BURUMA: My answer is two-fold. First, the West has one or two things to blame itself for. The history of colonialism, slavery, etc. are not things to be entirely proud of, perhaps not to be entirely ashamed of either in the case of colonialism.

Second, it is inherent to open, liberal, bourgeois societies that we criticize ourselves all of the time in our own systems, which is an entirely healthy phenomenon, certainly healthier than the attitude that some elements in the current Administration in Washington wish to encourage, that criticism is somehow seen as unpatriotic and that we should wave the flag every time the President opens his mouth. This is not in the tradition of bourgeois liberalism, which is precisely what its enemies seek to attack.

Self-criticism or criticism of our own institutions can often be misinterpreted, particularly in the kinds of publications you mention, as self-flagellation, whereas they may be self-correcting mechanisms inherent to our system.

QUESTION: I attended a symposium last week in tribute to Pat Moynihan, and the story was told that at a ceremony marking Bob Novak'sconversion to Roman Catholicism, Moynihan said, “Bob, we all know now that you’re a Catholic. Let’s see if you can become a Christian.”

Are there universal values that we can seek to implement in trying to build a peaceful world? Do we go to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Would that be the basic charter?

IAN BURUMA: Universal values must be defined quite narrowly. It is universally true that people do not want to be tortured or arrested for expressing their opinions. So if one defines it as the right to free speech and the right not to be subject to the arbitrary use of power and not to be tortured, there are universal values which should be implemented and encouraged in every way we possibly can.

If one goes very much further than that and then also wishes to use armed force to impose it, one gets into trouble.

The Napoleonic example stands as a warning of another way that one gets in trouble. The values that Napoleon represented with his armed force were not all bad. After all, he liberated the Jews from the German ghettoes and did many good things. But when outside powers come in to impose what in themselves may be good ideas with armed force, it tends to be resented and lead to just the kind of backlash that we describe.

QUESTION: What about decent standard of living?

IAN BURUMA: I’m not sure one can define it as a universal value or right. What is a decent standard of living? A decent standard of living varies from place to place. There are no universal standards.

QUESTION: My question refers to the role of communism in radicalizing Islamic societies. You started with Marx, but then you didn’t follow through on that trend. We know that it was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that radicalized Islamic extremism.

IAN BURUMA: Religious resistance to the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan may not have been so different in its origin as the use of the Catholic Church in Poland to resist the communist regime. When you have an occupation or a government that itself is based on an idea of universal values, or at least an ideology, you need a counter-ideology or a different set of ideas to resist it. The church, whether it is Islam or Christian, is often the focal point.

In the second place,—and I quote Bernard Lewishere, who may not be right about everything, but certainly has some insights: one of the tragedies of the modern history of the Middle East is that it began to take the West seriously just at the time that Marxism had its greatest influence. And so you got a revolutionary secularization in the Middle East, which gave rise to the kinds of religious reactions whose consequences we still see today.

Again, the Middle East is not unique in this. If you look at East Asia, China and Japan too, until the end of World War II in the case of Japan, and in China still today, the liberal model, which could also have been imported instead of ethnic nationalism and other bad ideas from Europe, didn’t prevail either.

QUESTION: If the religious revolutionaries succeeded in evicting the West, would that be enough? Or must Western values be totally defeated?

IAN BURUMA: I think the latter. If there were not one Westerner in the whole of the Middle East it would not satisfy the goals of religious revolutionaries who want to get rid of their own governments, whom they see as noxious and savage. If you want to replace the governments of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and build the purist ritual society, then it wouldn’t matter how many Westerners are there; the goals would still not be satisfied.

QUESTION: One of the Hebrew songs expressed something philosophical and religious when it is said that “the righteous are those who can swear to their own hurt.” This capacity for self-criticism, whether philosophically or religiously based, is one of the strengths of democracy and of Western civilization.

Is it inevitable that this spiritual tone will be seen as weakness in other parts of the world, whereas we are committed to thinking of it as a strength, a readiness to learn, to listen to critics, but also to understand that nothing is above criticism?

IAN BURUMA: Yes, I do think that it is inherent, and almost inevitable that people from the perspective of closed societies see self-criticism, the lack of desire to sacrifice our lives for higher causes, as a weakness, which is why democracies are always underrated by dictators who are thinking of going to war with them.

When the Japanese on their way to Pearl Harbor tuned in to the Hawaiian radio stations, and instead of hearing military talk heard Glenn Miller music, the prejudice was confirmed: the Americans are soft, they have no desire to fight and shed blood. And Saddam Hussein, too, thought he would bluff his way through.

That democracies are seen as weak is not important, because when they are threatened, as they were in the 1930s and 1940s, and finally do go to war, they tend to prevail because they defend themselves better, based on consent and not terror.

The obsession in the United States at the moment, of not being seen to be weak and constantly showing that we are strong and tough, is not necessarily a good policy.

QUESTION: Let’s assume that radical Islamists take over the Middle East, establish their own government and the caliphate is reestablished. Then what? Is there an option to withdraw from the Middle East, and would that have the effect of reducing or simply encouraging the conflict?

IAN BURUMA: The likelihood of the caliphate being established and the religious revolution succeeding is very small, so this is a rather academic question.

More interesting perhaps is the Algerian case, where all of us who are in favor of democracy should have applauded the holding of free elections. When an Islamic party emerged, suddenly the French and the West supported a military coup to put down the successful party.

Without being an expert, I believe that it was a mistake to back the coup and that it is better to have an elected Islamic party take power and hope that the extreme edges will wear off because of the experience of government, than it is to drive them underground, which leads to violence and produces exactly the problems that we are struggling against.

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