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Occidentalism, Zarqawi and Iraq - A new ideology for a new era?


Though the US has blundered in Iraq, it is hard to understand how any decent person can glorify the "resistance" - terrorists who cut off heads, blow up worshippers in mosques and are preventing any return to normalcy in Iraq. Kidnappings, robbery and banditry are all carried out in the name of "resistance." Only a fool or a knave could find any reason to support such scum.

However, the world does not lack fools and knaves. In Al Ahram, Galal Nassar writes:

The Americans would be wrong to assume that the death of Zarqawi means the end of resistance in Iraq. Resistance is bigger than one man or one group. Perhaps time will prove that the fall of Zarqawi will be a boost to the national resistance, for it would rid it of the mindless mayhem that terrorist has brought into the picture. Perhaps now the world will see the Iraqi resistance for what it is: a noble and honourable movement that aspires to free the country from occupation. Zarqawi was the fig leaf that covered US crimes in Iraq. Now that the Americans had to sacrifice that leaf, one wonders if they'll be looking around for someone to fill his shoes.

What sort of moral degeneracy could see the Iraqi terrorists as anything other than what they are: a motley crew of sectarian fanatics intent on imposing their will by terror? Nonetheless, there are people who accept this reasoning. It is the result of the same sort of tortuous ideological acrobatics that were once used to justify the pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR, or the Soviet invasion of Hungary or indifference to the plight of Darfur.

In fact, in the current menu offered by ideological cafeterias, we may be may be forced to chose between the grotesque alternative of glorifying the murderers, offered by Al-Ahram, and the unappetizing and equally uncomfortable stance of offering unquestioning support to the fiasco being perpetrated by the Bush administration in Iraq. Is there a third way?

Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have provided an account of the ideological framework of such fools and knaves, in a book called Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies reprinted by Penguin and reviewed by Marko Attila Hoare in Democratiya, and further discussed by Jeff Weintraub under the title Occidentalism and "Anti-Imperialism".

Occidentalism, the complementary phenomenon to "Orientalism" described by Edward Said, views the West and all its doings as automatically evil and immoral.

The central argument of Occidentalism was presented in a 2004 article by Ian Buruma, "The Origins of Occidentalism", in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Vol. 50, Issue 22 - February 6, 2004 - Page B10).:

... the kind of violence currently directed at targets associated with the West, from the World Trade Center to a discotheque in Bali, is not just about the United States. Nor can it be reduced to global economics. Even those who have good reason to blame their poverty on harsh forms of U.S.-backed capitalism do not normally blow themselves up in public places to kill the maximum number of unarmed civilians. We do not hear of suicide bombers from the slums of Rio or Bangkok.

Something else is going on, which my co-author, Avishai Margalit, and I call Occidentalism (the title of our new book): a war against a particular idea of the West, which is neither new nor unique to Islamist extremism . The current jihadis see the West as something less than human, to be destroyed, as though it were a cancer. This idea has historical roots that long precede any form of "U.S. imperialism." Similar hostility, though not always as lethal, has been directed in the past against Britain and France as much as against America. What, then, is the Occidentalist idea of the West?

That is the problem that vexed a group of prominent Japanese intellectuals who gathered for a conference in Kyoto in 1942. The attack on Pearl Harbor was not the ostensible reason for the conference, but the underlying idea was to find an ideological justification for Japan's mission to smash, and in effect replace, the Western empires in Asia. The topic of discussion was "how to overcome the modern." Modernity was associated with the West, and particularly with Western imperialism.

Westernization, one of the scholars said, was like a disease that had infected the Japanese spirit. [....]

All agreed that culture -- that is, traditional Japanese culture -- was spiritual and profound, whereas modern Western civilization was shallow, rootless, and destructive of creative power. The West, particularly the United States, was coldly mechanical, a machine civilization without spirit or soul, a place where people mixed to produce mongrel races. A holistic, traditional Orient united under divine Japanese imperial rule would restore the warm organic Asian community to spiritual health. As one of the participants put it, the struggle was between Japanese blood and Western intellect.

Precisely the same terms had been used by others, in other places, at other times. Blood, soil, and the spirit of the Volk were what German romantics in the late 18th and early 19th centuries invoked against the universalist claims of the French Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and Napoleon's invading armies. This notion of national soul was taken over by the Slavophiles in 19th-century Russia, who used it to attack the "Westernizers," that is, Russian advocates of liberal reforms. It came up again and again, in the 1930s, when European fascists and National Socialists sought to smash "Americanism," Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and "rootless cosmopolitanism" (meaning Jews). Aurel Kolnai, the great Hungarian scholar, wrote a book in the 1930s about fascist ideology in Austria and Germany. He called it War Against the West. Communism, too, especially under Stalin, although a bastard child of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, was the sworn enemy of Western liberalism and "rootless cosmopolitanism." Many Islamic radicals borrowed their anti-Western concepts from Russia and Germany. The founders of the Ba'ath Party in Syria were keen readers of prewar German race theories. Jalal Al-e Ahmad, an influential Iranian intellectual in the 1960s, coined the phrase "Westoxification" to describe the poisonous influence of Western civilization on other cultures. He, too, was an admirer of German ideas on blood and soil.

Clearly, the idea of the West as a malign force is not some Eastern or Middle Eastern idea, but has deep roots in European soil. Defining it in historical terms is not a simple matter. Occidentalism was part of the counter-Enlightenment, to be sure, but also of the reaction against industrialization. Some Marxists have been attracted to it, but so, of course, have their enemies on the far right. Occidentalism is a revolt against rationalism (the cold, mechanical West, the machine civilization) and secularism, but also against individualism. European colonialism provoked Occidentalism, and so does global capitalism today. But one can speak of Occidentalism only when the revolt against the West becomes a form of pure destruction, when the West is depicted as less than human, when rebellion means murder.

Wherever it occurs, Occidentalism is fed by a sense of humiliation, of defeat. [....] Humiliation can easily turn into a cult of the pure and the authentic. Among the most resented attributes of the hated Occident are its claims to universalism. Christianity is a universalist faith, but so is the Enlightenment belief in reason. [....]

Just as the main enemies of Russian Slavophiles were Russian Westernizers, the most immediate targets of Islamists are the liberals, reformists, and secular rulers in their own societies. They are the savage stains that have to be cleansed with blood. But the source of the barbarism that has seduced Saudi princes and Algerian intellectuals as much as the whores and pimps of New York (and in a sense all infidels are whores and pimps) is the West. And that is why holy war has been declared against the West.

Since the target of the holy warriors is so large, figuring out how to defend it is not easy...

Buruma and Margalit's analysis, Hoare's article and Weintraub's commentary have in common the characteristic that they fit the facts more or less, but they do not fit a particular brand name of ideology. Standard issue "leftists" will be irate at this explanation for obvious reasons. However, the joy of neoconservatives will be short lived, because of the injunction in the continuation:

But it is not immediately apparent that a war against Iraq was the most effective way to fight the Islamist jihad. [....] In the West itself, we must defend our freedoms against the holy warriors who seek to destroy them. But we must also be careful that in doing so we don't end up undermining them ourselves.

This analysis is either the work of people who are only happy when everyone is angry at them, or it is part of a new ideological third way, being pioneered in works and ideas represented in Democratiya and The Euston Manifesto. You can read a bit of the background of the Euston Manifesto here, but that preliminary sketch looks like an attempt to define something new in terms of older ideas and slogans such as "progressive" and "leftist" and "socialist," terms whose associations may confuse as much as they explain. If like me, you cannot read either an entire average article in The Nation or an entire article in NRO without feeling sick and angry at some point, this new intellectual path may be for you. If however, you must label anyone you meet or anything you read as "leftist" or "rightist" or "pro-Palestinian" or "Zionist" before you will dare to venture an opinion about it or them, you may feel very uncomfortable with these ideas.

The danger of abandoning your "left" and "right" stickers are that you will be forced into the dangerous occupation of original thought, and that you might reach conclusions that are not popular among your friends. The potential gain is that you would no longer have to support odious causes such as Iraqi "resistance" on the one hand, or undiluted Bushism on the other, just because they are decreed to be politically correct by your currently accepted political label.

Perhaps you will hear more from me about this third way soon.

Ami Isseroff

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by Moderator @ 01:34 PM CST [Link]


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Replies: 5 comments

Ami, I would also recommend you and others with similar concerns check out www.workersliberty.com/iraq . This is a decidedly leftist website, but the organisation behind it (AWL) is very much "Third Campist" - ie opposed to both the American invasion and the essentially fascist-led insurgency. The Euston lot have the same sort of illusions in the USA as the 'jihadist left' have in the "resistance" and don't I think represent anything new or radical.

The problem with the knee-jerk left is that they boil all world events down to "imperialism" and "anti-imperialism" and cheerlead the latter. This is how so many leftists came to support the Soviet Union even when the true nature of that regime was known and the same process is at work now. The main exponents of this kind of Marxism-Made-Stupid in the UK are the Socialist Workers Party who have gained control of the UK Stop the War movement.

This leads to all sorts of idiocy, for example they tend to deny that there is a serious problem of Sunni-Shia sectarianism in Iraq or that the present insurgency is based solely in the Sunni community, and they applauded the election of Hamas.

(There is also a damaging cultural relativism at work on the left, which would require a separate contribution to outline).

Having said all that, I don't think you can reduce the resistance in Iraq to beheadings and mosque bombings. A more nuanced view is necessary here also. While the Zarquawi strand evidently does fit the 'occidentalist' paradigm you suggest, there are also motivations bound up with straightforward nationalism - occupy any country with an arrogant alien force and a violent resistance is likely to emerge sooner or later - and also with remnants of the Ba'ath party. Most insurgent attacks have actually been made against occupation forces, although the attacks against civilian targets tend to produce a higher body count. Added to which much of the new Iraqi government is just as occidentalist as the resistance - ask any "westernised" woman in Iraq.

AWL supports neither the USA nor the insurgency but the Iraqi trade union and women's movements as represented by the IFTU, OWFI and others. OK, those groups are small and so are the forces in the 'west' supporting them, but I don't see that as a reason to change our thinking on the basic issues of principle involved.

Clearly the implications go way beyond Iraq and here again there is a strand which supports working class self-organisation against both imperialism and the kind of reactionary thinking you have labelled "occidentalism".

Posted by Chris @ 06/19/2006 07:57 PM CST

You mean www.workersliberty.org.
The reason to change your thinking is this: If the US/Iraq gov't goes down in Iraq, there will be no workers movement and no rights and there will be no gay people. Only sad people. All the gay people will be dead. There will be either a Saddamite dictatorship or a Sadrite Islamic "republic" or a Zaraqwi-ite Islamic "republic." The moolahs will decide. The workers will get Islamic justice and the gay people will be treated according to the law of the Qur'an. That is, if the whole country doesn't fall apart and lapse into utter chaos and civil war.

Priorities for Iraqi workers and children and gay people and everyone else: Get the electricity working, stop the bombings, stop the mayhem, make the streets safe, get the oil flowing and generate some income (and make sure it is used in the right way). Work with the government to stop corruption - a full time job. All the rest must come later. Put out the fires first.

Your idea of undermining the Iraqi government is approximately the strategy of the Communist party in Germany in 1932. If you "succeed" then all your people will end up in the same place as German communists finished then - in Dachau or worse. What any of these regimes will do, will make Halabja look like a health resort.

They have a lot of stuff at that Web site about imperialism and it is just the sort of thing we are aiming at it seems. They have nothing there about Chinese imperialism in Tibet or about genocide in Darfur. Nothing about Iran either. I bet rights of gay people and workers are violated in Iran, but there isn't anything about it there, is there? Don't you ever question why that is? To their credit, they do at least have a section on workers' rights in China.


Posted by Moderator @ 06/20/2006 12:53 AM CST

workersliberty.org indeed, thankyou for the correction. However you then move swiftly into straw man territory.

There's plenty of stuff about workers rights in Iran on the AWL site, for example the recent bus strike jailings in Tehran. You clearly didn't look very carefully. The lessons of what happened to Tudeh are very plainly outlined, with particular reference to the present SWP love affair with Islamism.

I have no idea what you mean about "undermining the Iraqi government". Do you regard building an independent trade union movement as "undermining", or what? In fact the elected Iraqi government are of a similar stripe to the "elected" Iranian government but for the fact that they presently need to rely on US firepower to stay in office. The Sadrists are part of the government, in case you hadn't noticed.

I note your point about the consequences for women, workers and minorities but (1) these things are happening already (2) if your alternative is for the US occupation to continue until a stable secular democracy is in place we are probably talking about infinity. Things appear to have been getting steadily worse since 2003 and the USA's firefighting technique appears to involve the liberal application of gasoline (apt in the circumstances).

Having said that, I believe there is a debate within AWL over whether to call for coalition troops out now or maintain a discreet silence on the issue.

Anyway, I would invite you to return to the AWL website and engage with what it actually says rather than what you think it says.

Posted by Chris @ 06/20/2006 04:12 PM CST

I would invite you both to read the recent report, published at the Washington Post, from the US Ambassador to Iraq, Khalilizad.

I have some quotations from it, and a link to it, on my blog

Posted by Josh Narins @ 06/20/2006 06:41 PM CST

Perfect, especially the final comment. I think that all of the analysis of this phenomena really describes the nature of evil, that is, the abuse of good. Hence, no group of people ever has gotten up one day and decided arbitrarily to blow themselves up in a nihilistic obsession posing as righteousness, but it's a gradual process of the good (in this case, being the initial awareness of the real moral evils of overindulgence, greed, lack of self-restraint, immorality, nihilistic tendencies of materialistic/pragmatic, reductionism seen in the 'west' or the 'modern world')being parasitically by degrees, twisted into evil (in this case, destruction as it own goal, no matter who, where, etc.)

Posted by Josephus @ 06/29/2006 06:12 PM CST

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