Thursday, February 05, 2004

Our Hateful Selves

Reader DL sends a link to a Chronicle of Higher Education article by Ian Buruma describing Occidentalism, the ideological banner of resistance against the West. It explains why Osama Bin Laden believes we must die not so much for what we have done, but for what we are.

Even those who have good reason to blame their poverty on harsh forms of U.S.-backed capitalism do not normally blow themselves up in public places to kill the maximum number of unarmed civilians. We do not hear of suicide bombers from the slums of Rio or Bangkok. Something else is going on ... a war against a particular idea of the West, which is neither new nor unique to Islamist extremism. The current jihadis see the West as something less than human, to be destroyed, as though it were a cancer. This idea has historical roots that long precede any form of "U.S. imperialism." Similar hostility, though not always as lethal, has been directed in the past against Britain and France as much as against America. What, then, is the Occidentalist idea of the West? ...

Clearly, the idea of the West as a malign force is not some Eastern or Middle Eastern idea, but has deep roots in European soil. Defining it in historical terms is not a simple matter. Occidentalism was part of the counter-Enlightenment, to be sure, but also of the reaction against industrialization. Some Marxists have been attracted to it, but so, of course, have their enemies on the far right. Occidentalism is a revolt against rationalism (the cold, mechanical West, the machine civilization) and secularism, but also against individualism. European colonialism provoked Occidentalism, and so does global capitalism today. But one can speak of Occidentalism only when the revolt against the West becomes a form of pure destruction, when the West is depicted as less than human, when rebellion means murder.

Occidentalism figuratively takes the view that Original Sin came not upon mankind but exclusively on the men of the West. In the tale, the Occidentals, armed with knowledge of the devil, strode forth to corrupt an Edenic world. In the popular liberal mind, no less than the extremist Islamic one, the pre-Columbian peoples of the world, Islam, China and India included, lived in harmony with both plant and animal under a regime of universal brotherhood until the cursed day when the white man touched their shores, shattering Paradise forever. Only one other malign kindred did the Occidentals find, a race so evil in itself that had not the West come, they would have invented the pestilences of the world on their own: the Jew.

And so Israel, in the eyes of its enemies, is the colonial outpost of "Westoxification." Its material success only added to the Arab sense of historic humiliation. The idea, however, that Jews are a people without a soul, mimics with no creative powers, is much older than the founding of the State of Israel. It was one of the most common anti-Semitic slurs employed by Richard Wagner. He was neither the first to do so, nor very original in this respect. Karl Marx, himself the grandson of a rabbi, called the Jews greedy parasites, whose souls were made of money.

Buruma argues that while the current jihad against the West has many proximate causes -- the desire for money and power not the least -- it cannot be wholly understood without the background of this fable. In this canon, the warriors of Eden stand against the Western infection aided and abetted by Jewish imps whose "souls were made of money". It is of course, an absolutely lunatic view of the world, but this unfortunately, recommends itself all the more. Better that we should accept it as a view, that for whatever reason, motivates our enemies.

And yet it is only a dream. In the waking world Muslims, no less than card-carrying Leftists in a rent-controlled Manhattan apartment, are more concerned about not being late for work, paying their bills and worrying about what to wear for their date that weekend. For despite the fables of Occidentalism, the serpent was in every garden, even and especially by the Tigris and the Euphrates. The ambition of men like Osama Bin Laden is to take men from the everyday, and cast their disciples into a sleep haunted with their nightmare fantasies; to create a dark dreamscape from which they may never waken; in which the sun never rises, nor anything of the everyday sound, till the clacker on the suicide bomb release becomes the only escape. Our task is raise them up and lead them into the day.

"Lazarus, come out." The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."


More on the same subject from Victor Davis Hanson. (The link is fixed now)