Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies

by Ian Buruma

Other authorsAvishai Margalit (Author)
Hardcover, 2005




Penguin Books (2005), Edition: Reprint, 165 pages


"Twenty-five years after Edward Said's Orientalism, a whole field of study has developed to analyze and interpret the denigrating fantasies of the exotic "East" that sustained the colonial mind. But what about the fantasies of "the West" in the eyes of our self-proclaimed enemies? Those remain largely unexamined and, as Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit argue, woefully misunderstood." "This investigation into the dreams and stereotypes of the Western world that fuel hatred in the hearts of Al Qaeda and its ilk argues that the origins of those dreams lie in the West itself. The anti-Western virus has found a ready host in the Islamic world for a number of reasons, but it is not native there. The West that these jihadis imagine themselves fighting is the same menace that has haunted the thoughts of revolutionary groups since the early nineteenth century. Occidentalism identifies its main oppositions - the timid, soft bourgeois versus the heroic revolutionary; the machine society versus the organically knit one of "blood and soil"; the sterile Western mind, all reason and no soul, versus the "inner life" of the spirit - and provides a new conceptual framework for understanding them, as we must to face the world's most pressing issues."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member ashergabbay
The attacks of September 11th have spawned a plethora of books about Islam and the Middle East, all trying to explain to the bewildered Westerner how those planes came crashing out of the skies on that bright and fateful autumn day. Occidentalism is one of these books, the authors taking the
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opportunity of the hightened attention to write a book that, although not officially positioned as such, is an attempt to form a response to the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said's famous 1978 work: Orientalism.

I read this book largely because I enjoyed another book by Ian Buruma about the history of Japan. Unfortunately, Occidentalism is a far cry from the eloquent and gracious Inventing Japan. Buruma and Margalit succeed in combining their knowledge into one book that does not read as if it was written by two authors, but fail in making a clear and coherent argument to explain Occidentalism (i.e. the way the East views the West). Although they try to bring together the many cultures and nations of the Occident, including Asian history, their analysis is most meaningful only when they write about Islam, which I suspect was what they set out to explain in the first place.

Buruma and Margalit begin by listing the main differences between the West and East, as these are perceived in the eyes of the East: the West is urban - the East is rural; the West is capitalist (see the picture on the book cover) - the East values social values; the West is materialistic - the East is spiritual; and, of course, the West is always evil, out to destroy or at least conquer and subdue the East. Then they set out to show that most of the (mis)conceptions of the East about the West - i.e. Occidentalism - is nothing but a product of the West's (or, more precisely, European) influence and ideas. So basically the East is using Western thought and philosophy and adapt it to its needs, turning against those they perceive as evil, the West.

There are a few problems with this argument. First, the Orient cannot all be lumped into one basket. Arguing that Japanese nationalism, German nazism and Muslim fundamentalism all come from the same roots and share the same view of the West is stretching it a bit. Second, the Occident itself is not homogeneous. For example, the authours bring Jewish Zionism as an example of the "evil West", providing a very simplistic view of Zionism as "Jews buying land with money from Arabs". Third, the authors seem to ignore the widespread ties between West and East - e.g. the US-Japan relationship, or the backing of the Gulf states by the US - as these ties would blow holes into the neat Occident-Orient divide they try to picture.

Despite its flaws, Occidentalism is a good read (and it's a short book), as long as one approaches it as one would approach an essay or a commentary column in the newspaper, not a book that purports to explain the problem of "the West in the eyes of its enemies".
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LibraryThing member pattricejones
There are some interesting tidbits of the history of ideas here, but they are woven into an oddly unbalanced and decontextualized story. I'm kind of mad at the authors for taking this title for a book that doesn't live up to its promise. Occidentalism ought to be a book that looks at Occidentalism
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as the obverse of Orientalism, showing the parallels in these stereotyped ways of seeing the other while also surveying the material and intellectual contexts in which these ways of thinking arose.

The worst part of this book is that, as a review in The Guardian notes, Buruma and Margalit give the impression that the ways of thinking they describe are almost wholly imported from Europe, thereby implicitly denying the capacity of Eastern intellectuals to think for themselves.

The best part of the book is the chapter on anti-cosmopolitanism as an intellectual trend stretching across time and geography. I also appreciate the recognition that the ways of thinking that the authors call "Occidentalism" (a misnomer, as far as I'm concerned) are currently present not only among radical Islamists in the East but also among fundamentalist Christians in the West, although I'd have liked that to be made more explicit.
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LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Fascinating book. Very illuminating. Describes the history of anti-western thought, tracing it from German romantic era thru 19th century Russia, early 20th c Japan and the Middle East during the last 50 years.
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
An important look at the concept of Occidentalism, in short, the idea that everything bad can be traced to western civilization and the Enlightenment values it embodies. The authors have put together an interesting and easy to read discussion of the basic tenets of what they are calling
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Occidentalism, but unfortunately, the analysis is a bit superficial. It's an interesting book, but one is left feeling it didn't go far enough. There are a great many questions left unanswered that probably could, and should, have been addressed.
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LibraryThing member skid0612
A nicely done primer that introduces the average reader to the origins of over two century's of anti western thought. Insightful views into the habits and state of mind that have driven some the Wests most implacable foes.


Orwell Prize (Longlist — 2005)


Original language

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