Nine days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush told the U.S. Congress, "Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?'" Unlocking the mystery of what motivates Islamic extremists like Osama bin Laden has become the most urgent intellectual challenge of our time. Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism (Atlantic Books; 165 pages) is the latest attempt to solve the puzzle of Islamic rage and it is possibly the most provocative. Its authors, Ian Buruma, a respected commentator on Asian affairs, and Avishai Margalit, a professor of philosophy at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, assert that the ideas inspiring bin Laden and his fellow terrorists originally sprang from the West.
The book is a belated follow-up to Orientalism, the classic 1978 work by Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said, which described how Europeans have long stereotyped non-Westerners ("Orientals") in ways that emphasize their irrationality and childishness. Occidentalism tells the other side of the story: how influential non-Western thinkers, especially in Islamic countries such as Iran, Egypt and Pakistan, have portrayed Americans and Europeans as being money-minded, effeminate, sexually promiscuous and decadent thus providing the intellectual justification for Islamic terrorism.
Most attempts to uncover the roots of Islamic rage are unflattering to Islam and to Muslims. In his 1981 book Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey, V.S. Naipaul suggested that anger and dispossession are endemic to Islam and easily spill over into fanaticism. For others, Islamic terrorism is the most extreme expression of an age-old conflict between Islam and the West. In a 1990 essay, Princeton historian Bernard Lewis wrote that Muslim anger against the West "is no less than a clash of civilizations the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both." The phrase "clash of civilizations," later popularized by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington, is now regularly invoked by political analysts to explain images of angry demonstrators in an Arab country chanting anti-American slogans. Though the concept is subtle and complex in the hands of these two leading academics, the media tend to boil it down to this: the cultures of the U.S. and Europe, with their heritage of democracy, civil liberties and women's rights, are doomed to collide with Islam, which is trapped by tradition into cherishing an opposite set of values and that men like bin Laden are born out of this collision of two different world views.
Not so, say Buruma and Margalit. They argue that when bin Laden and his acolytes accuse the U.S. and Europe of decadence, materialism and sexual immorality, they are largely recycling ideas and language that originated in the West. The authors point out that even as Western Europe and America began evolving into liberal democracies with capitalist economies, a countercurrent of opposition accused the newly emerging "modern" world of being devoid of spirituality. In the arts, Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Blake charged that industrialization was stripping people of their individuality and their connection to the past, while in politics, Karl Marx accused capitalism of ruthlessly exploiting workers. Buruma and Margalit spotlight the often striking overlap in language and ideas between Europe's intellectual rebels from the late 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries and today's Islamic reactionaries, and demonstrate how that influence was transmitted. Many of Iran's Islamist revolutionaries, for example, absorbed Marxism's critique of the capitalist West. Hence, the authors insist, the rise of anti-American hatred in Islamic nations "is not ... a civilization at war with another ... [I]t is a tale of cross-contamination, the spread of bad ideas." Thus, many Muslims see the recent abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers not as a breakdown of the system but as typical of the West's depravity.
Buruma and Margalit sometimes stretch the analogies between European antimodernism and Islamic fundamentalism too far as when they compare a T.S. Eliot poem denouncing the ungodliness of modern cities to the frenzy that prompted the attack on the World Trade Center. Occidentalism might not provide a conclusive answer to the question "Why do they hate us?" But by relating how much of the rhetoric that fuels men like bin Laden came originally from the West, it makes the distinction between "them" and "us" murkier than we previously realized.