"To Be Read" Book Review Column: Ian Buruma, Avishai Margalit. "Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies." Rashid Khalidi. "Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America’s Perilous Path in the Middle East"

Oct 1, 2004

Should we have gone to war with Iraq? Having gone, were we at all prepared for the reception we got? Our too easy victory is blowing up daily in our face. The “we” I invoke so easily, the solid “we” that every country needs to prosecute its wars, is dissolving. No one wants to turn away from the American troops who are being picked off relentlessly, daily, by a resistance which, after melting before the American attack, has set about to undermine an utterly unprepared occupation. But how can we back a war so arrogantly and ignorantly embarked upon? Everybody is worse off, the Iraqi people worst of all.

What do we need to do when what we are doing seems to make no sense at all? We need what these two books, each in its own forceful and important way, help us to do. We need to step back, look into the past, and see how we got into this mess.

Occidentalism takes late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Japan as its first historical example. Japan set out to catch up with the West. The project was successful, but the triumph of Western modernity in Japan elicited a furious backlash among Japanese intellectuals and leaders, a backlash which exploded onto the world stage with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Western modernity had become revolting to both Japanese Marxists and right-wing Japanese chauvinists, a threat to a “holistic, traditional Orient united under divine Japanese imperial rule,” a rule which “would restore the warm organic community to spiritual health.”

Occidentalism is the authors’ term for the reaction of the East to Western modernity. The modern West is the land of the infidel, the sinful world; and the destruction of the World Trade Center towers was the contemporary expression of an ancient impulse, to visit apocalypse on the sinful city of man, on the realm of the secular, the realm which puts its faith in reason. The recurrent theme of the book is ironic. Occidentalism did not originate in the East. It arose in Europe as a reaction against the European commitment to science, to the Enlightenment, and to the separation of church and state, especially the latter. Occidentalists see the modern West as “a machinelike society without a human soul.” And that is why “the first Occidentalists were Europeans. . . who sought to eradicate the impurities of urban civilization with dreams of spiritual or racial purity.” Wagner, Engels, and Hitler all evoked a romanticism of the Volk to define Germany against the commercial anonymity of the city of London. Capitalism, alas, was the victory of the city over the country. And so the Khmer Rouge exiled or murdered the citizens of Phnom Penh, and the Taliban set out to turn Kabul into a City of God.

Western secular man loves “Pepsi-Cola, but we love death.” This is the machismo cry of today’s warrior for the trivial satisfactions of civilization. To the macho warrior liberal democracy is the politics of mere merchants, those who prefer life to dying for great ideals. This sort of machismo, too, has its roots in the West. “One reason so many Western intellectuals supported Stalin and Mao, or indeed, to a somewhat lesser degree, Hitler and Mussolini, was their disgust with democratic mediocrity.” As an English professor, I cannot leave W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound off the list of merchant-haters. The death cults of Japan and Germany were populated by students from humanities departments who had read widely in German and French philosophy and literature. There they found grounds for their romantic belief that it is “Better to die gloriously for an ideal than to live in Komfortismus.” To the romantic adolescent, Erik Erikson’s satyagraha (truth-force) of everyday life is beneath contempt. In this highly Romantic vision, intuitive thought, rather than reason, is the ground of truth. Dostoevsky’s Russian soul finds Europe strange, with its commitment to rational thought. And the intellectuality of the Roman Church “was a sure sign to Russian believers, that it was lacking in simple and pure-hearted faith.”

Islamism, not Islam, adds to this stew of hate the idea of the West as “a form of idolatrous barbarism.... Idolatry is the most heinous religious sin and must therefore be countered with all the force and sanctions at the true believers’ disposal.” The notion of idolatry as the ultimate sin is Biblical, and in the Bible idolatry is what characterizes the huge and threatening empires which surround the small Jewish state. Similarly, the Islamist sees himself surrounded by threatening empires with secular governments which are, by definition, idolatrous, because their demand for loyalty rivals the loyalty owed to God. There is no separation of church and state in this Islamist vision. Instead there is a radical separation of body and spirit, a Manichaean antipathy of spirit to matter. Traditional Islam conceded to Jews and Christians their dignity as people of the book. But this is not true of Islamism, which believes that both these religions have allowed secular rulers to encroach on the realm of God. In doing so they have put themselves at the service of merely bodily needs and become beasts.

    • The main difference between contemporary Islam and Protestantism is not that the former is more political, but that it insists on a greater moral regulation of the public sphere by religious authority.... Even today, with the resurgence of Islam, most devout Muslims are not political Islamists so much as advocates of enforcing public morality.

And the regulation of women’s behavior is central to public morality, so central, that it marks the pivotal difference between the cultures of East and West.

“The West is not at war against Islam,” say Buruma and Margalit. “Indeed, the fiercest battles will be fought inside the Muslim world. That is where the revolution is taking place, and where it will have to be halted, preferably not by outside intervention but by Muslims themselves.” This concluding reflection leads us directly to Khalidi’s Resurrecting Empire.

The historical perspective in Resurrecting Empire focuses more on the brutal realities of political imperialism than on the more subtle realities of cultural imperialism. In light of that historical perspective, the American blunder into Iraq precisely resurrects, in the minds of the Arab Middle East, the years of British and French colonial expansion under the aegis of the League of Nations. About this the Western media, apparently, know nothing. They certainly manifest no awareness of a century-long liberal tradition among Arab, Turkish, and Iranian intellectuals, no awareness of the democratic experiments that took place in the Middle East, the efforts to establish parliamentary systems there. And in spite of the fact that the Western powers repeatedly undermined these efforts, Western commentators continue to refer to the absence of a democratic tradition in the Islamic world. Khalidi is enraged by the Western chorus that simply repeats the official line: they hate us because they hate freedom.

Khalidi’s story is a historical one: “The Middle East is a region where history matters a great deal; its people have a very, very long history, to which they pay a great deal of attention.” The contemporary story is, or should be a familiar one: a pre-emptive war, “demolishing the structure of international law as it had developed since the 17th century”; the contempt for the international community of Richard Perle and the rest of the highly influential body of neo-conservatives who seem to have taken over the foreign policy of the Bush administration; their breath-taking ignorance of the actualities of the countries of the Middle East. The story behind the story is another story that should be familiar: the story of European colonialism, which Khalidi outlines in detail, followed by the story of the United States in the Middle East. It is not a story about the promotion of democracy, but about ad hoc measures taken in the old and endless chess game of balance of power. After a sketch of the situation of Shiites and Sunnis, Khalidi concludes: “These are among many basic facts about the Islamic world and the Middle East that are well known to experts and even to those not so expert, but which these ‘prominent opinion makers,’ as they describe themselves. . . , seem to have missed altogether.” He sums up:

    • An approach emphasizing humility, and a consciousness of the not-entirely-positive record of Western powers regarding constitutionalism, the rule of law, and human rights in the region, would perhaps go further in moving the Middle East toward greater democracy and respect for human rights than the Bush administration’s trumpeting about bringing democracy to the Arabs, if necessary by force, heard since it decided to invade Iraq and remake the Middle East.

Khalidi goes on to tell the story of oil in the Middle East, and finally, and most sadly, the story of the U.S. and Palestine. He had remarked in his introduction on:

    • the pervasive atmosphere of intimidation and fear that makes many experts on the region reluctant to express themselves frankly. This is true generally with respect to the Middle East, and particularly true with respect to the highly sensitive issues touching on Israel and Palestine that frequently come up when the Middle East is addressed.

His chapter on “The United States and Palestine” is introduced by two significant epigraphs:

Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, in future hopes, of far greater import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.Arthur James Balfour, August 11, 1919.

The Palestinians must be made to understand in the deepest recesses of their consciousness that they are a defeated people. –Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Army Chief of Staff, August 30, 2002.

There is more. Harry Truman, for instance, on the occasion of his recognition of the new Jewish state: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” In spite of America’s obvious bias toward Israel, she was able to play the role of honest broker for a while. But that ended with the 1967 war and the rising importance of Cold War rivalries. The present situation, says Khalidi, is one in which experts on the Middle East have learned to “lay very low in a Washington world dominated by influential, aggressive and highly opinionated political appointees.” The list is the same: Rumsfeld, Cheney, Feith, Perle. “In the eyes of these suddenly ‘expert’ advisors, moreover, the actual, real-world expertise embodied by the U.S. government’s trained Middle East specialists, except for a few ideologically tested individuals, was inherently suspect and was taken as a prima facie indication of grave political unsoundness.” In the end, American Middle East policy today is a story of “blind zealotry overriding expertise.”

Here is Khalidi’s final point and the explanation of his title, Resurrecting Empire:

    • What seems most painful to those with any real knowledge of the region is the apparent unwillingness of those in power in Washington to accept that in this vast region of the world the United States is wittingly or unwittingly stepping into the boots of earlier imperial powers, and that this cannot under any circumstances by a good thing and cannot possibly be “done right.”

The Arab world knows, from long experience, what it means to be invaded by a Western power with only the best of intentions.

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