[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
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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