October 29, 2007

Axess, a magazine for the liberal arts and social sciences

I thought that the book Occidentalism was excellent and very much worth reading, and have assigned it to my classes on occasion. Here is a fine summary of some of its central ideas, by one of its authors, Avishai Maragalit.

Axess, a magazine for the liberal arts and social sciences: "Yet I maintain that the way the upper-dog West is viewed by the underdog Rest is politically important. Or so I shall argue. September 11th should serve, I believe, as a reminder for this claim, and the arrogant and stupid war of the Americans in Iraq should not blur it."
Occidentalism is more than just a stereotype couched in a set of labels. True, it is not a fully developed ideology either, but it can and does feed ideologies of the most diverse kinds, from Maoism to various forms of political Islamism. I prefer to refer to Occidentalism as a picture, to allude to Wittgenstein’s stress that philosophical illusions are generated because philosophers are in a grip of a picture—namely, of a model of reality that may have its uses but, when used outside its proper scope, it creates illusions. What I propose to do now is to sketch some of the elements of the Occidentalist picture elaborated in our book and to tie these features with the religious element of Occidentalism. This is the feature which is the most highly relevant to the politics of our time, especially as it is expressed by some influential political Islamists.


At one point in his philosophical writings Wittgenstein says, “Let me teach you differences.” An expert on Islam and on Islamic countries is indeed one who can discern differences, more so than the dangerous dilettantes to whom all Islamic countries, like all happy families, look alike. I am by no means an expert on Islam but I am quite aware of the danger of dilettantism and of ideologies that toss all sorts of different things into one big thing. This is not what I am trying to say, or so I hope. What I am claiming is that in many countries in which Islam in one form or another is the dominant religion, revolutionary conditions are developing. And if a revolution will take place in some of these countries the ideology that has the best chance of success is some form of political Islam with a strong Occidetnalist picture. Between the Islam of the Taliban and the Islam of Erdogan (in Turkey) there are all the differences in the world. I happen to believe that the Islam of Erdogan is the right Islamic answer to political Islam, be it Bin Laden’s “Trotskyist” style of permanent Islamic revolution or be it Khomeini’s “Stalinist” style of Islamism in one country first. For one thing Erdogan’s Islam is political Islam free of virulent Occidentalism.

9. Is the Occidentalist talk serious?

This is a serious question. One may recognise a great deal of Occidnetalist talk around and yet deny that it is serious talk. One may take it as something that people say in public but disbelieve in private. After all, one may say, no one really believes that the people of the West are soulless machines, decadent, money grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites and arrogant to the core. You only have to see how many of the youngsters raised in societies with a strong Occidenalist picture aspire to immigrate to Western countries, indeed to countries that are the incarnation of the West.

Occidentalism, like its mirror image Orientalism, is accompanied by a great deal of conflict between attraction and repulsion. This tension does not mean ambivalence, namely finding both conflicting sides of the coin valuable. One can be immensely attracted to a brothel without valuing it. The attraction of the West for many Occidentlalists is the attraction the brothel and not the attraction of a valuable competing form of life.

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