Occidentalism is an ideology which is based on a fundamental misrepresentation of Westerners as a basis for dehumanizing them, and hence legitimizing attacks on Western people, culture and institutions. As such, it is the counterpart to 'Orientalism', a term invented by Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to describe the reverse process.
Fundamental misunderstandings about how American society operates apparently circulate at a high level in foreign governments, not to mention among the general public. Vladimir Putin delivered a salient example last February. During the American election in 2004, CBS failed to observe acceptable standards of journalism by displaying patently forged documents from a highly questionable source. The documents were a variation on the well-worn "Bush shirked military service" theme. The result was the resignation of a number of CBS employees involved with the incident, which was necessary credibility damage control from CBS. Bush met Putin shortly afterwards.
George Bush knew Vladimir Putin would be defensive when Bush brought up the pace of democratic reform in Russia in their private meeting at the end of Bush's four-day, three-city tour of Europe. But when Bush talked about the Kremlin's crackdown on the media and explained that democracies require a free press, the Russian leader gave a rebuttal that left the President nonplussed. If the press was so free in the U.S., Putin asked, then why had those reporters at CBS lost their jobs? Bush was openmouthed. "Putin thought we'd fired Dan Rather," says a senior Administration official. "It was like something out of 1984".
The Russians did not let the matter drop. Later, during the leaders’ joint press conference, one of the questioners Putin called on asked Bush about the very same firings, a coincidence the White House assumed had been orchestrated. The odd episode reinforced the Administration's view that Putin's impressions of America are often based on urban myths fed to him by ill-informed aides.
This amusing yet worrying incident is about a relatively trivial matter, and merely shows the barriers to understanding that exist across thousands of miles and over cultural and linguistic barriers.2 More worrying is when this lack of knowledge is buttressed by the discourse of Occidentalism, which claims to be able to simplistically explain the Western mindset. An adherence to this discourse unifies the Nazi stormtrooper, the Japanese fascist, the Bolshevik cadre and the Islamist.
Occidentalism actually emerged for the first time in the West. It had its origins in a backlash against the bourgeois modernity that now characterizes the Western world. Fascists in Germany and Japan reacted against the growth of capitalism and 'machine civilization'. Against the allegedly cold rationality and material obsession of bourgeois liberalism, they extolled the virtues of conflict, war, blood and soil. Ernst Jünger wrote around the time of World War I that he welcomed the purification of war, out of which the nation would be renewed and its weakness excised. Japanese fascists extolled the kamikaze spirit, a sacrifice by the young to purify their nation.
The Western world managed to destroy the movement that it had given birth to, but crucial ideas lived on. In World War II, much of the Middle East had turned to Nazi Germany as a potential savior from the British and French Empires. Rashid Ali had tried to bring about a pro-Axis coup in Iraq, and the Mufti of Palestine was in contact with Nazi authorities. Anwar Sadat, later President of Egypt, spied for German intelligence. In this climate, ultra-nationalist ideas from Germany filtered into the region.
What happened next was encapsulated brilliantly in the life of one man, Al-e Ahmed. This Iranian translated the works of Ernst Jünger and was briefly an advocate of German-style fascism (having previously been a Communist). However, imported European ideas were soon perceived to have failed the people of the Middle East.3 The people of the region turned to Islam. Yet from the past they retained their image of the weak, soul-less Occidental. Al-e Ahmed went on to invent the concept of 'Westoxication', the 'disease' said to afflict Islamic societies which allowed Western goods and ideas to penetrate them.
The fact that modern political Islam has manifested itself in strongly anti-Western ways is well-known, as are the usual eclectic list of charges levelled against the Great and Little Satan. It is not necessary to repeat them here, and writing elsewhere on this site attempts to explain the rise of the movement. Here we are interested with the view of Westerners held by Islamists.
Many people consider the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb to be the father of modern political Islam. He visited the USA once, and was disgusted by what he found. He was struck not only by the materialism but by the loose morals of Westerners, especially a dance in which females and males cavorted together. And the dance had taken place in a church, of all places! His complaints are common among Islamists. Stereotypes based on these incidents help to demonize the West, and it's a melancholy reflection that in the Arab Middle East there are few authentic sources of information. A report by Arab intellectuals in 2002 published by the United Nations pointed out that every year the Arab world translates about 330 books, a fifth of what Greece achieves in a year. Since the ninth century, the cumulative total of translated works has been 100,000 - about what Spain translates in an average year.
In the eyes of an Islamist, the main crime of the West is its adherence to goals apart from the glory of God, and the sovereignty of people and ideas rather than God. The absence of the Divine leads to the thoughtless pursuit of idols, such as money and sex. The city is the central place where this immorality is carried out, and it seems no coincidence that all of the major anti-modern movements of the twentieth century originated in the countryside. The attack on the World Trade Centre is explicable in this context. The Twin Towers were the centrepiece of world commerce, propagating American material culture around the world. This culture is seductive and capable of drawing pious Muslims away from their duty to God; like Satan in the Qur'an, the Great Satan is a seducer. The Satan of the Qur'an is also a weak figure, settling always for material things rather than the glory of God.
If all Westerners are viewed as just soul-less merchants with no authenticity or dedication to God, then the destruction of them and their societies is an acceptable means to the end of establishing the Kingdom of God on Earth. A disregard for Orientals once marked Western imperial policy, as the colonized people were viewed as somehow subhuman, incapable of grasping civilization or achieving progress. The tables have now been turned on us, and the need for the West to present a good image of itself globally could not be clearer. While striving to understand other societies, we must also strive to be understood. Only then can we sap support from those who don't even want to understand, only to destroy.
1. A TIME Magazine article, cited at http://www.rathergate.com/?p=608
2. See also my node on Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize laurete who has consistently claimed that AIDs was invented by Western governments as a means of control over the black population. This used to be a commonplace of Soviet propaganda.
3. A narrative of this process would not fit here. Simplistically, it can be put like this. Nasser represented the high-hopes of Arab socialism and nationalism, and then proceded to fail to win the Six Days War. A younger generation felt betrayed by him and his contemporaries, and no figure has attained a similar stature since. Arab dictatorships were also increasingly conflated with the West due to their stress of imported ideologies rather than Islam. The Hama massacre of 1982 is perhaps the archetypical example of the Godlessness of these regimes in the eyes of an Islamist.