The West in the eyes of its enemies

Why do «they» hate us? In «Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of Its Enemies» that has just been launched in a Greek translation (Kritiki), Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit grapple with one of the most vexing questions in the post-9/11 world. Turning Edward Said’s signature concept of Orientalism on its head, the two authors come up with an original, if debatable, analysis tracing the origins of anti-Western stereotypes all the way back to, yes, the West itself. The notion of the West as a malign force, a less-than-human ideal that needs to be destroyed, is not some Eastern or Middle Eastern concept but instead has deep roots in European soil and, more specifically, the history of the counter-Enlightenment movement. Islam was born in the desert, but its radical, anti-Western credos were imported from Germany and Russia long before the emergence of US power and the slogans against Yankee imperialism. To the Occidental mind, the modern West is reduced to a collection of shallow, rootless and unheroic individuals, slaves to comfort and consumerism. The West is portrayed as a godless, cold and mechanical place, too self-absorbed and degenerate to even defend itself. Buruma, a distinguished observer on Asia, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the nature of Occidentalism, liberalism and Islam’s uneasy relationship with secularism. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the enemies of the West to hate us for what we actually are rather than what they think we are? There has been a lot of misunderstanding on this point. Of course there is plenty to criticize in Western foreign policy and civilization and it’s perfectly possible to have an allergy to them, but this is not what is meant by Occidentalism. Occidentalism is used to describe a hatred so fundamental that it wants to destroy Western civilization. So criticism or hatred is not quite the same thing as what we call Occidentalism. Your book has been criticized for underestimating and downplaying the political and economic context that has shaped people’s perception of the West, like colonialism for example. We say quite clearly that there is plenty to criticize about Western imperialism, colonialism and global capitalism. It is perfectly legitimate to criticize all that, but what we are trying to describe is not just a critical stance or even hatred. It’s a loathing so deep that it dehumanizes and wants to destroy the West. So you believe that current Western policies cannot on their own fuel such a destructive attitude. No, because I don’t think this has to do with policies. I think it has to do with a view of the world that, as we described, actually started in the West and which sees modern, post-Enlightenment liberal civilization as something in itself wicked that needs to be destroyed. That is, of course, a notion that goes back long before the Enlightenment. That’s why we bring in the story of Babylon. There have always been people who seek a sort of purist utopia that wants to destroy the city of traders and merchants. Can liberalism make universal claims, in the way Enlightenment thinkers did? Yes it can. There are liberals who feel that liberalism is the natural state of all human beings to start with and I would certainly put myself in that category. So you believe there are some fundamental principles and values that derive from a common human nature. Well I think there is freedom of thought and that is a universal human right. I don’t think anyone, regardless of their culture, should be excluded from it. In your book «Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance» you explored the role of Islam in Europe. Many Western secularists feel growing unease about Muslim demands such as the right to wear the headscarf in public places, women-only swimming pools and so on. How far can liberalism go without betraying its principles? Well I think there are two things here. One is the limit on violence. Any view that advocates the use of violence or uses violence to impose itself on others should not be tolerated. That also means that if, let’s say, there is an art exhibition and one religious community or another feels offended, they have absolutely no right to use violence to express that outrage. And violence can take different forms. Then on things like headscarves it depends a little bit on the law, and again I think that whatever one’s religion is in a liberal democracy, they have to abide by the laws of the land. These cannot be trumped. Take the case of France for example. There is a law that says you cannot wear religious symbols in public places and you should abide by that law, whether that law is a good or a bad one. In countries that don’t have such laws I would be against banning headscarves in public places but I think that people should have the right to demand certain codes of dress appropriate to the carrying out of professional duties. Doctors and bus conductors, to take two examples, wear uniforms and there can be flexibility there, but I think it is proper in public functions not to cover one’s face. So I am against laws banning anyone’s apparel. I think there can and should be flexibility in the dress code. A problem with Islam seems to be that it does not recognize the public/private distinction that is fundamental in Western secular societies. Well Islam is not something which is unchangeable or that has never changed. I mean there are many different kinds of Islam and I don’t see any reason why the Muslims in Europe can’t be flexible. In fact many Muslims in Europe already do respect the distinction between public and private. For them religion is a private matter. There are not many Muslims in Europe who demand that sharia law should be absolute. So in practice I think there can be a lot of accommodation. Finally, what is your view of the so-called new atheist movement? It is somewhat intolerant of people who are religious and who need a faith. Moreover, it is somewhat naive on the assumption that religion can be made to disappear simply because it denies that there is such a thing as a religious impulse. To the extent that people feel that impulse, dismissing it as irrational, stupid, primitive, or backward seems to me a very crude understanding of something which is very much part of human beings. On a more political note, I think it is unfortunate because it misinterprets the friction concerning the Muslims in Europe. The problem is not religion itself. The problem rather is that there is a violent revolutionary movement inside Islam that can do a lot of damage. But by dismissing all religion, including Islam, merely as irrational, dangerous, violent and primitive, such critics are alienating the moderates. You alienate the moderates and you alienate the non-violent ones and make it harder to isolate the revolutionary elements.