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    Middle East
     Jul 2, 2005
BOOK REVIEW
Changing perceptions
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 unusual.

The 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 this trend.

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 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


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