Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma
and Avishai Margalit.
Reviewed by Dmitry Shlapentokh
Besides the fact that this slim book is authored by well-known and widely
published authors and issued by a first-rate publisher, it provides little new
information or sophisticated analysis. However, the authors' major premise is
indisputable. The point is that many Arabs' hatred of the West is not at all
image of the West as crass, materialistic, predatory, individualistic and
imperialistic is not unique. In fact, it is a negative image not so much of the
West as a region/civilization as of Western liberal capitalism. For this
reason, hatred of the West - or to be precise, this particular aspect of the
West - has been shared by such seemingly different people as Arabs, Russians
and even other Westerners, such as Germans. In the German case, these negative
features of Western capitalism became attributed as well to the other Western
nations with which Germany was in conflict. It also explains why this image was
held by both conservative traditionalists and radicals such as Karl Marx.
All these statements, while undoubtedly true, are not very original. Yet the
book is interesting reading. Though it is not a source of much information or
original thought, the book is an important landmark in US intellectual history.
The title of the book clearly hints at the "other title" - Orientalism.
That book, authored by the recently deceased historian/political scientist
Edward Said, who taught at Columbia University, was a landmark in the study of
the Middle East. The point of Said's work is that the West had constructed a
wrong and often abusive image of the Orient, not because of ignorance but
because this was the way the West justified the oppression of the people of the
East. This negative image was actually the major tool of subjugation.
The importance and influence of Said's work lies not so much in his statements
as in the fact that the book was nicely placed in the context of the philosophy
of postmodernism, with Michel Foucault as one of the major representatives of
In Foucault's view, the ideology he called "discourse"/"episteme" was not the
product of a society, not the reflection of the power relationship in the
society, but power itself. Those who control "discourse" control society, and
since the "hegemonic discourse" in the modern West was in the hands of the
white, male middle class, oppression prevailed. In Foucault's view, the
oppressed were not so much workers/peasants - as was the case with traditional
Marxism - but criminals, homosexuals/lesbians and ethnic minorities, and,
implicitly, people in non-Western societies. To liberate themselves, these
people needed to create an opposite "discourse" that would replace the
"hegemonic discourse" of the oppressors.
The success of Said's book was due to the fact that it fitted so well into this
paradigm and ideological trend that dominated the Western intellectual milieu
in general and American intelligentsia in particular. "Linguistic turn" in its
leftist interpretation was almost a profession of faith, and belief in its
creed was the ticket to academic jobs in many fields of the humanities.
To be sure, there is no breaking with the past in many American universities.
The left has continued to occupy a formidable position in Western academia,
especially in the US. The "linguistic turn" is still quite popular. But the
general climate of society has changed, especially after September 11, and to
blame everything on the West has become less fashionable. It is assumed from
now on that not just the West but also the East can produce "hegemonic" and
aggressive discourses, which should not be approached without criticism.
And it is this that makes the book worth reading, for it indicates the new
intellectual trend in American culture.
Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma and
Avishai Margalit. New York: Penguin Press, 2004; 176 pages, US$21.95.
Dmitry Shlapentokh, PhD, is associate professor of history, College of
Liberal Arts and Sciences, Indiana University South Bend. (Copyright
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