OCCIDENTALISM: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies (2004) appeared 10 years before the Islamic State/the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS/ISIL) burst on to the international scene. The authors, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, would have easily zeroed in on the group had they published the book much later.
The authors draw attention to hostile views of the West. As such, they concluded that the West cannot afford to close its societies as a defence against those who have closed theirs. They feared “we would all become occidentalists, and there would be nothing left to defend”.
While the West is a career, unbeknown to many — in all its manifestations, they must now represent themselves — but not necessarily in the spirit of Edward W. Said’s critique in Orientalism (1978). The authors do not use Said’s book as a model of counter reflection on the non-Western view of the West. Rather, it partook a simplified and hostile view of the West through generalisations and prejudices by others.
The authors called for understanding the West by the West. In Malaysia and the rest of Asia, we take the West for granted. This has always been so, beginning with our encounters with the Feringghi (Portuguese) during the Malay Malacca Sultanate period. But popular culture and the popular media — the ubiquitous social media as primary conduit — in its eclectic mode, have reinforced our views of the West.
Occidentalism unveils the other discourse on globalisation and world politics, of the virulent intellectual type — of ideologies, values, perceptions and images. Of much relevance to global diplomacy (or its failures) and international relations, the book traces the intellectual, ideological and theological roots of terrorism and extremism. Its explains the rationale for kamikazes and al-Qaeda, and provides a reason for the rest of the world to hate the West.
Most revolts against Western imperialism, and its local offshoots, are borrowed heavily from Western ideas. The French Revolution is legendary. The book cites Robespierre and the Jacobins as inspiring heroes for Arab radicals. Also for extremist and violent groups.
More disastrous, they argued, were the emulation of Benito Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union by Arab nationalists. To the radicals and the extremists, Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, and Karl Marx and Mao Zedong, were Occidentalists because they opposed the idea of a liberal free democratic society.
Bad ideas about the West came from the West itself — those cultured in European thought and the Enlightenment. Occidentalism opened its arguments with an event in Japan seven months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor in July 1942. It was the gathering of distinguished Japanese scholars and intellectuals at a conference in Kyoto. Those who participated comprised the literati of the so-called Romantic Group and philosophers of the Buddhist/Hegelian Kyoto School. Their topic of discussion was “how to overcome the modern”. They were thinkers, not unschooled brutal killing machines.
To many, the “modern”, was a “European thing”. And Japan was very early in soaking up all things Western, given the Bunmei Kaika (Civilisation and Enlightenment) of the Meiji period between 1868 and 1912. The Japanese came to adapt (and adopt) everything Western, from the natural sciences to literary realism, to Prussian constitutional law, British naval strategies, German philosophy, American cinema and French architecture. It paid off handsomely. But then, Japan suffered from intellectual indigestion. Things had to be undone. The West had to be overcome, history had to be reversed, and the spiritual past idealised.
It was, as the authors maintained, an attack on the Western mind, “seen as idiot savant, mentally defective but with a special gift for making arithmetic calculations”. The Western mind is seen to be incapable of non-discursive thinking. The Russian soul is antithetical to the Western mind, the latter, represented by excessive rationalism.
If the human mind is likened to a university, structured into many faculties, than the Western mind has only one functioning faculty — that of reason. Through Occidentalist eyes, the guilt of the West is that of rationalism — the only faculty enabling man to know everything that there is to know. And so the world wages war against the West — in the name of various secular and religious ideologies — Communism, the Russian soul, the German race, State Shinto and Islam. False gods are everywhere.
But then, we need to conceive anew the production and consumption of ideas in our intellectual and global landscapes. The measure of what we know is more than Reason.
The writer, Datuk Dr A Murad Merican is a professor at the Centre of Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS), Universiti Sains Malaysia