[Paleopsych] TLS: John Gray: Ever the twain

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John Gray: Ever the twain
The Times Literary Supplement, 4.10.8

    OCCIDENTALISM. A short history of anti-Westernism. Ian Buruma and
    Avishai Margalit. 149pp. Atlantic Books. £14.99. - 1 84354 287 0.

    Looking back, it is surprising that the Cold War should ever have been
    described as a conflict between East and West. The ideas in terms of
    which that vast geopolitical conflict was played out were all of them
    rooted in the central traditions of Western thought. The Soviet Union
    began as a Westernizing regime and remained so until the end. Equally,
    Maoist China always followed the Soviet model in seeking to "catch up
    with and overtake the West". These were regimes dedicated to emulating
    the West, not repudiating it. Just as much as their opponents in the
    "free world", the Communist dictatorships took their view of human
    society and history from the European Enlightenment. In geostrategic
    terms, Communism and liberal democracy may have been mortal enemies,
    but from an intellectual standpoint the Cold War was a family quarrel
    among Western ideologies.

    During the Cold War it was common to describe the Communist states as
    totalitarian regimes. Today it has become fashionable to attack the
    concept of totalitarianism on the ground that it fails to capture the
    differences between Nazism and Communism. A more fundamental flaw lies
    in the failure to acknowledge their common European origins.

    Generations of historians have portrayed Soviet and Chinese Communism
    as vestiges of Oriental despotism, but a truer account would recognize
    them as embodying a Western revolutionary project. Certainly the
    ruling elites exploited nativist sentiment whenever it suited them.
    Even so, Lenin's claim to be the legitimate heir of the Jacobins was
    not mistaken. The Communist regimes continued a European revolutionary
    tradition in which terror was used as an instrument for remaking
    society, and it is not accidental that they were most admired by
    Western intellectuals during the Stalinist and Maoist eras, when
    terror was at its height.

    The idea that totalitarianism is part of a revolt against the West
    predates the Cold War, and was the central feature in a once
    influential analysis of Nazi Germany. Aurel Kolnai's War Against the
    West (1938) is little read nowadays, but this fascinating book by an
    unjustly neglected thinker illustrates the central weakness of any
    interpretation of totalitarianism as an anti-Western phenomenon. For
    Kolnai - a convert to Catholicism - Nazism was a neo- pagan movement
    that aimed to destroy the Christian West: the Nazis were radical
    relativists, who sought to replace belief in truth by a cult of power.
    Kolnai identified an important strand in Nazi ideology, but he passed
    over the continuities between Nazism and Europe's religious and
    intellectual traditions. It is true that some Nazis were virulently
    anti-Christian, but, like the rest of the Nazi movement, they drew
    heavily on the poisonous inheritance of Christian anti-Semitism. It is
    also true that some Nazi ideologues flirted with radical relativism,
    but many more were exponents of an Enlightenment ideology of
    "scientific racism". Theories of eugenics and racial anthropology were
    widely accepted in nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Europe - not
    least by progressive thinkers. The Nazis used them as a rationale for
    racial slavery and extermination. Recent historical research has
    tended to focus on the origins of the Final Solution in the highly
    fluid conditions that existed in Nazi Europe between late 1941 and
    early 1942, but the ideas behind that incomparable crime had been
    current in Europe for generations.

    The view of totalitarianism as an anti-Western project is the reverse
    of the truth, but it has an enduring appeal and it is not surprising
    that it should be revived in the moral panic surrounding radical
    Islam. In Occidentalism: A short history of Anti-Westernism, Ian
    Buruma and Avishai Margalit seek to explain the enmity to the West
    expressed in forces such as al-Qaeda as an episode in a longer and
    more extensive tradition of anti-Western thought. As they see it, the
    rage against the West that fuelled the attacks of September 11 is not
    a unique pathology of radical Islam.

    Inverting Edward Said's account of Orientalism - which oddly is not
    discussed in the book - Buruma and Margalit interpret radical Islam as
    a contemporary version of Occidentalism, a world-view in which the
    West is perceived as unheroic and materialistic and its inhabitants
    less than fully human. A virtue of their account is that it
    illuminates some curious intellectual connections. As they show,
    Occidentalism is itself a Western export. Twentieth-century
    anti-Western movements were heavily indebted to German thinkers such
    as Herder and Fichte. In attacking the universalist pretensions of
    French civilization, these Counter Enlightenment thinkers (as Isaiah
    Berlin called them) laid the intellectual ground for European radical
    nationalism. At the same time their critique of European culture
    helped shape anti-Western movements in pre-war Japan and in India.

    Today's Islamists deny any debts to the West, but the history of their
    ideas demonstrates the pervasive influence of European radical
    ideology. As Buruma and Margalit note, the Iranian revolutionary
    scholar Ali Shari'at translated the works of Frantz Fanon, while the
    Ba'athist ideologue Sati Husri was an avid reader of Fichte and Herder
    and modelled his conception of Arab unity on the interwar pan-German
    movement. In these and other examples, we can see the influence of the
    European Counter-Enlightenment on radical Islam, but - though Buruma
    and Margalit seem less keen to acknowledge this - Enlightenment ideas
    have also been formative.

    The Egyptian Islamist thinker Sayyid Qutb propagated ideas of a
    revolutionary vanguard and of a future society without rulers that
    derive from the Jacobins, Bakunin and Lenin, not from traditional
    Islamic ideas of governance. Like many others, Buruma and Margalit
    find aspects of al-Qaeda prefigured in the Assassins, an eleventh-and
    twelfth-century Shi'ite sect that practised political murder and
    ritual suicide. There can be no doubt that al-Qaeda makes use of
    Islamic traditions, but the belief that the world can be remade by
    violence is a modern Western inheritance. What is striking about the
    industrial-style mass killing practised in twentieth-century Europe is
    not just its scale. It is the fact that it was done to transform the
    human condition. In its strategy of maximizing civilian casualties,
    al-Qaeda is more ruthless than most other terrorist movements, and
    because of its uniquely global reach it poses a greater threat. In its
    belief in the regenerative power of violence it is a privatized
    spin-off from twentieth-century state terror and has more in common
    with the Baader-Meinhof Gang than with the Assassins. When it asserts
    that terror can create a world without conflict or power, al-Qaeda
    speaks in a European voice.

    At the beginning of their book, Buruma and Margalit write that its
    point is "neither to gather ammunition in a global 'war against
    terrorism' nor to demonize the current enemies of the West", and they
    have produced an elegant and forceful study in the history of ideas.
    But Occidentalism is first of all a tract for the times, and towards
    the end they present a rather different view of its purpose.

    "The question", they write, "is how to protect the idea of the West -
    that is to say, the world's liberal democracies - against its enemies
    . . . . The war of ideas is in some respects the same as the one that
    was fought several generations ago against various versions of fascism
    and state socialism." It is a telling formulation. It purges "the idea
    of the West" of everything that is negative or questionable. The
    sources of totalitarianism in Western thought are denied.

    Marxism - the most powerful assault on liberalism produced by a
    Western thinker - appears to be no longer a part of "the Western
    idea". Fascism and state socialism - also indisputably Western
    ideologies - are written out. Even Occidentalism, which the authors
    themselves acknowledge to be a body of ideas manufactured in the West,
    is excised from the Western canon. The implication is clear. The West
    is the embodiment (however imperfect) of freedom and enlightenment,
    while the world beyond the West is a realm of darkness and despotism.

    It is an old story, and if it rings rather hollow today one reason is
    that "the West" is now even more of a makeshift than in the past. The
    boundaries between East and West have never been fixed. Before the
    Cold War, Europe was divided between the Catholic and Protestant West
    and the Orthodox and Muslim East - a boundary that has reappeared in
    the Balkans and in Europe's relations with Russia. In a longer
    perspective, Islam is a part of the West. It helped shape European
    life in medieval Spain and the Ottoman Empire, and along with Judaism
    and Christianity it belongs in a Western monotheist tradition in which
    human salvation is worked out in history. During the colonial era
    European countries believed that Africa and Asia would become part of
    the West by being Christianized.

    Insofar as postcolonial African and Asian countries embraced Marxism
    they did join the West - not the Christian West, but the secular West
    that defined itself in terms of ideas of universal human emancipation.
    In Europe today ideological enthusiasm is muted, but radical ideology
    has found a new home in Washington. Perversely, given their obsessive
    hostility to all things European, the neoconservatives have imported a
    defunct European radical tradition into American political culture.
    Fusing a right-wing version of the Trotskyite theory of permanent
    revolution with Christian fundamentalism, they have renewed a
    millenarian style of politics that has died out in Europe. The
    missionary zeal of the Bush administration evokes fear and loathing
    among Europeans, who believe - not without reason - that it could turn
    the crass theory of clashing civilizations into a self-fulfilling
    prophecy. Having not only different interests and policies but
    different values and world-views, Europe and America are becoming
    divergent civilizations.

    By now, "the West" has as much meaning as the Bush administration's
    celebrated "axis of evil".

    Buruma and Margalit insist that they do not seek to shield the West
    from criticism, and clearly they do not belong with the
    neoconservative ideologues who denounce all dissent from current
    American policies as tantamount to siding with the terrorists. Yet by
    defining the West today in terms of a single idea, supposedly wholly
    benign and universal in its reach, they endorse the neoconservative
    view that modernity comes in only one variety, in which Western
    democracy is the sole legitimate form of government. The trouble with
    this view is not only that it rests on a very simple reading of
    history. It is that it can easily be used to license the kind of
    democratic evangelism that has led to catastrophe in Iraq.

    Political legitimacy is a complicated business. There is no reason to
    think that modern states which possess it will all be of the same type
    - still less that they will all be secular liberal democracies. In the
    Middle East secular regimes are commonly authoritarian and democracy
    usually means some form of Islamist rule. In toppling Saddam Hussein,
    the Bush administration destroyed a prototypically Western regime.
    Like the Soviet Union (on which it was modelled), Ba'athist Iraq was a
    modern state, which for most of its history was militantly secular. By
    destroying it America has empowered the political forces of radical

    Neoconservative ideologues who demanded regime change in Iraq did so
    because they wanted a democratic revolution throughout the Middle
    East. They may be granted their wish, though hardly in the way they
    dreamt. Democracy may come to Iraq, but if so it will be the Iranian
    kind, not the Westminster or Capitol Hill variety.

    The ironies of history continue, and it looks as if we are in for
    another era of conflict between the West and "anti-Western" forces
    that the West itself created.

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