Understanding the ‘kamikaze’ mind-setIn “Orientalism,” the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said argued that Western thinkers, statesmen and artists created a fantasy East of exotic charm and primitive irresponsibility that existed only in their imaginations and served to justify Western needs and interests.
But what about the reverse? Is there a corresponding fantasy by which the non-West seeks to justify itself against the West? Indeed there is, according to Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. Their brief, intellectual history, “Occidentalism,” surveys stereotypes of the West nurtured from Japan on the brink of World War II to Al Qaeda today.
In the “Oriental” imagination, as depicted by Buruma and Margalit, qualities defining the “West” are materialism, technology, individualism, worship of progress, cold rationalism, moral compromise, ethnic mixing and cultural sterility. And the East? Soul force, personal authenticity, intuition, unity, faith, emotion, memory, will, wholeness of spiritual culture and heroism.
The “kamikaze spirit,” they say, is the idea that blood, soil and community are superior to brain, civilization and individual gratification. The tolerance of the West is merely another way of saying there are no core values and everything is for sale. The authors point out that these were the ideas of German romanticism in reaction to Enlightenment rationalism. As reworked in opera by Richard Wagner, they celebrated the purity of an imagined past that contrasted with present decadence. And as developed by Hitler and his ilk we know how that turned out.
So are the authors saying that criticism of the West is fascist-inspired? Not necessarily. But they suggest that, “Occidentalism more often reflects the fears and prejudices of urban intellectuals, who feel displaced in a world of mass commerce.”
While noting that Western societies are far from perfect, they caution that “Occidental” values of tolerance of others’ beliefs and respect for the individual must not only be defended, but practiced. “The story we have told,” the authors conclude, “is a tale of cross-contamination, the spread of bad ideas. This could happen to us now, if we fall for the temptation to fight fire with fire, Islamism with our own forms of intolerance. We cannot afford to close our societies as a defense against those who have closed theirs. For then we would all become Occidentalists, and there would be nothing left to defend.”
Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies
by Ian Buruma
and Avishai Margalit
165 pages, Penguin Press
by Hal Piper