Occidentalism and the Enlightenment

This is a review of Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. Buruma is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights & Journalism at Bard College, and Margalit holds the George F. Kennan chair at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. This short book came out of an article published in the New York Review of Books shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center. Akeel Bilgrami, a prominent philosopher at Columbia University, wrote a devastating critique of this book. While much of his criticism is valid, there is something to be salvaged in this work. I will try to arrive at a synthesis that does justice to both.

Bilgrami identifies five broad points Edward Said makes in his seminal work Orientalism. First, the material inequalities generated by colonization gave rise to attitudes of civilizational condensation and the societies and people of the Orient were as a result depicted as inferior and undeveloped. Second, it stereotyped them and reduced them to monolithic caricatures. Thirdly, even when it made an effort to find civilizational glory in the Orient, it’s attitude was of wondrous awe reducing the living reality to an exotic object. And fourth, Said argued that all of these three features owed in more or less subtle ways to the proximity of such writing on the Orient to the metropolitan sites of political and economic power. This point is absolutely central to the power of the analysis. Said refuses to see literary and scholarly production as self-standing, disconnected to their locational privilege. 

Orientalism infantilized the Orient and consciously or unconsciously served to justify the White man’s burden. It is this nexus of power and writing that Said explored further in Culture and Imperialism among many other noteworthy works. It is compulsory to read Edward Said, and I will leave it to the reader to discover the full power of his work by herself and return to the task at hand. 


In non-Western writing critical of, and dehumanizing the West, there are common threads which Buruma and Margalit explore. In their words, 

“These strands are linked, of course, to form a chain of hostility–hostility to the City, with its image of rootless, arrogant, greedy, decadent, frivolous cosmopolitanism; to the mind of the West, manifested in science and reason; to the settled bourgeois, whose existence is the antithesis of the self-sacrificing hero; and to the infidel, who must be crushed to make way for a world of pure faith.” The claim is that these together constitute a “dehumanizing picture of the West” which they label Occidentalism.

The City of Man

The idea of the City as a wicked symbol of greed, godlessness, licentiousness and rootless cosmopolitanism has a long history. At least since Biblical times, this notion has been a common threat in narratives pitting the virtuous, trustworthy people of the country against the greedy, hedonistic, sinful cheats of the City. The great city is seen as inhuman, a zoo of depraved animals, consumed by lust. The great cities of Islamic world, China and Japan were bigger than the biggest Western cities, including London, until well into the nineteenth century. When and how did this become almost completely associated with the West?

The authors never answer this question and forget they posed it. An answer must be sought in European expansion and colonization of much of the world which reduced it to a periphery of the great European metropolises. They are not just identified as great hubs of global trade and commerce; but as centers of cultural hegemony, the source of cultural symbols emanating from the West that came to be associated with modernity itself.

Western women as whores

Sexual morality is about women, about regulating female behavior. A man’s honor is seen as dependent on the women related to him. The exposed women of the West are the very negation of this idea. Being oblivious to this role as a guardian of his women makes the Western man not dishonorable, but more disturbingly, without a sense of honor. Kwame Anthony Appiah elaborates on this notion in the context of honor killings in his brilliant book The Honor Code. The lack of sexual morality and the permissiveness of Western society makes it depraved. Morteza Motahhari, a leading thinker of the Islamic revolution in Iran, links this to materialism. In his view, the obvious differences between man and woman were deliberately obliterated in the West, so that women could be exploited more easily in the interests of capitalism.


Perhaps the most interesting chapter of the book is called Heroes and Merchants which was the title of a book published in 1915 by the German writer Werner Sombart. This is the view of the West as a decadent civilization addicted to pleasure. Sombart begins by describing the Great War as an existential battle between cultures, or Kulturkampf. England, the land of shopkeepers and merchants, and republican France represent “West European civilization”, “commercial values”, “the ideas of 1789”; Germany is the nation of heroes and poets. The typical merchant is interested only in what life can offer him in terms of material goods and physical comforts, this is the bourgeois mentality, KomfortismusLiberal democracy is the political system most suited to merchant peoples. It is a competitive system in which different parties contend, and in which conflicts of interest can be solved only through negotiation and compromise. It is by definition unheroic, and hence despicably wishy-washy, mediocre and corrupt. This notion of liberal democracy as unheroic and mediocre cannot satisfy those who wish to see heroism and glory. Fascism appeals precisely to the mediocre man because it gives him glory by association, by feeling part of a supernation. Self sacrifice for a higher cause, for an ideal world, cleansed of human greed and injustice, is the one way for the average man to feel heroic. Better to die gloriously for an ideal then to live in Komfortismus. The Occident is seen as a threat because its promises of material comfort, individual freedom, and the dignity of unexceptional lives deflate all utopian pretensions.

However unheroic and unexceptional life may be in liberal civilization, there is much to defend in the dignity of the private life. The Weimar republic fell also because too few people were prepared to defend it.

The Western Mind

The mind of the West is capable of great economic success, and of developing advanced technology, but cannot grasp the higher things in life, for it lacks spirituality and understanding of human suffering. It is a mind without a soul, efficient like a calculator but suffers from a form of higher idiocy. Antithetical to the Western mind is the Russian soul, a mythical entity constructed by intellectuals in the nineteenth century. To be sure, this is common to all strands of the counter Enlightenment and Romantic traditions.

Rationalism is the belief that reason and reason alone can figure out the world. Associated is the idea of Scientism, the idea that science is the sole source of understanding natural phenomena. Together these constitute a cognitive totalitarianism whereby all criticism of modernity is branded as irrational. I will return to this in the context of Bilgrami’s critique.


In the context of religiously motivated Occidentalism, in particular, in Islamist representations of the West, we have the notion of the West as ignorant and idolatrous. The original jahiliyya, the age of ignorance, describes the state of ignorance among the Arabs before the revelations of the Prophet. A better translation would be not ignorance but barbarism, in the sense in which the Romans regarded those on the periphery of civilization. The new jahiliyya identifying the West as barbaric is thus a dehumanizing idea. All the aspects identified above flow into this notion. 

Sayyid Qutb, a leading ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, sees the Westernized world as being in a state of jahiliyya. He sees the West as a giant brothel, steeped in animal lust, greed and selfishness. Greed, immorality and oppression would end only once the World is ruled by God, and His laws alone. 

All the above threads connect in a obvious way to forge a narrative that dehumanizes the West. For now, just note that most of them are squarely anti-Enlightenment. 

The Bilgrami Critique

Akeel Bilgrami sees this as a contribution to a new Cold War, inaugurated by Huntington’s influential article Clash of Civilizations shortly after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and the end of the usefulness of anti-communism as an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. Not to put too fine a point on it, he sees it is an attempt to answer the rigged question: Why do they hate our freedoms?

I must warn the reader here that it would be best for her to read the text itself and jump straight to the next section. The notion we need to work with is that of the “thick” notion of rationality and its Classical liberal critique. He explains it thus: 

“[T]he dispute was about the very nature of nature and matter and, relatedly therefore, about the role of the deity, and of the broad cultural and political implications of the different views on these metaphysical and religious concerns. The metaphysical picture that was promoted by Newton and Boyle, among others, viewed matter and nature as brute and inert. On this view, since the material universe was brute, God was externally conceived with all the familiar metaphors of the “clock winder” giving the universe a push from the outside to get it in motion. In the dissenting tradition – which was a scientific tradition, for there was in fact no disagreement between it and Newton/Boyle on any serious detail of the scientific laws, and all the fundamental notions such as gravity, for instance, were perfectly in place, though given a somewhat different metaphysical interpretation–matter was not brute and inert, but rather was shot through with an inner source of dynamism that was itself divine.”


“[To say that] these early dissenters were unleashing an irrationalist and unscientific critique of the “West” as they define the “West”, is to confuse and conflate science and its ideals of rationality with a notion of rationality defined upon a very specific metaphysical outlook that started at a very specific historical moment and place and grew to be a presiding orthodoxy as a result of alliances that were formed by the scientific and clerical and commercial establishment in England and the Netherlands and then spreading to other parts of Europe. It is this outlook and its large consequences for history and culture and political economy, which made Gandhi and his many conceptual predecessors in the West anxious in a long tradition of dissenting thought. What this helps to reveal is that while one works with a “thin” notion of rationality and an innocuous notion of the “West”, it is absurd to call these freethinkers, either “irrational” or “unscientific”, or “enemies of the West”. But if one works openly and without disguise (in a way that Buruma and Margalit do not) with a thick notion of rationality, understood now as shaped by this very specific intellectual, political and cultural history, it is quite right to call them “irrationalist” and “enemies of the West”–for those terms, so understood, reveal only the perfectly serious, legitimate and, as I said, highly prescient anxieties of the dissenters. It is only when we make plain that these thick meanings are being passed off in disguise as the thin ones, that one can expose the codes by which an edgy and defensive cold war intellectual rhetoric tries to tarnish an entire tradition of serious and fundamental dissent.”


If one is to do any justice to the spirit of Orientalism, one has to relate the nexus of power and writing about the West in the rest of the world. I am going to argue that the impact of Western power in the preceding few centuries has created a common frame of reference for those at the receiving end. Everywhere it has prompted adoption of Western institutions and technology in an attempt to cope with Western power. In particular, it has prompted the question Bernard Lewis asked with What Went Wrong? 

There have been two identifiable major strands in non-Western narratives critical of the West. Both can be identified by their answer to Lewis’ question. We can call them Enlightenment and counter Enlightenment schools. 

The Enlightenment is what Bilgrami calls the Radical Enlightenment, and Noam Chomsky has called the Classical Liberal tradition going back from Dewey and Russell to Adam Smith. Central to it, is the kind of notion underlying the defence of liberal civilization; the right to have a private life, the rule of law, democracy and the rights of man. These are also the aspirations of the activists who took Tahrir Square, and of Edward Said himself. It is precisely the Western notion of liberty that requires the West to be supportive of the revolutionary regimes and the activists of the Arab Spring. 

What is inconsistent with this tradition is the reality of U.S. foreign policy. Realism is inconsistent with the values of the Enlightenment, because the same rights belong to Bahrainis as well, to take an example familiar to the readers of this blog. What Bilgrami calls the “thick” notion of rationality is the intellectual underpinning of the kind of notion underlying the practice of Orientalism and the exercise of Western power on behalf of Western capital. It is what one relies on to say that it is cool to imprison billions of animals in cages where they can never turn around, rape the planet and disregard unpeople. Nothing in the Enlightenment tradition makes all this “rational” independent of the “thick” notion of rationality.

Now listen to what Eddin Hussein says in the independent Egyptian daily, al-Shorouq, 

“God have mercy on Osama bin Laden… He did everything he thought he could to serve the Muslim cause. But in the end, if America and Israel had launched a multi-trillion dollar campaign to demonise Muslims, they couldn’t have done a better job… Al-Qaeda ended up killing more Muslims than anyone else. They inflicted indescribable damage on the Muslim nation, while failing to inflict any real damage on the West…For us to confront the West, we need to be strong. But we will only become strong when we become free, well-educated citizens of democratic nations. If we could achieve that, Israel would not be able to push us around—the West would not be able to occupy our lands. Who knows—maybe they would start giving us the respect we deserve without us having to fire a single shot.” [Emphasis mine.]

I am identifying the strand by its answer to the question of what to do about Western power. This is the school that regards the talisman of Western success, to borrow Bernard Lewis’ words, as precisely the Western institutions whose intellectual underpinnings are the values of the Enlightenment: when we become free, well-educated citizens of democratic nations. 

The other strand is the counter Enlightenment tradition going back to German Romanticism, and down to radical Islam. In the words of the authors, “When people are not only humiliated by foreign forces but oppressed by their own government, they often retreat to the “inner life” of the spirit, pure and simple, where they can feel free from the corruption of power and sophistication.”, thus making them susceptible to Romantic notions which the authors trace especially to the high Romanticism between 1797 and 1815. These are equally modern, in that they are also themselves a response to modernity, and the disenchantment of the world. And precisely for this reason, they fall into the same totalizing cognitive stance as that provided by the “thick” notion of rationality.

In the narratives of radical Islam (à la Qutb), Arab and Muslim impotence in the face of Western power is ultimately due to Arab/Muslim decadence and turning away from Islam. Therefore, the appropriate response is not Westernization but rather purification. That is, to regain the vitality of the Golden Age of Islam, we need to purify Muslim societies and return to a purer form of Islam. The more totalizing this notion becomes, the more fascist; the closer it gets to the bin Laden doctrine. Hence, the need to be watchful of Islamo fascism, which has its intellectual underpinnings in the subordination of self for the glory of the organism: the nation, the race, the ummah. It is of interest to trace these narratives historically and the authors do a fair job of it. 

The “thick” notion of rationality in ostensibly Enlightened narratives; say some of the texts in the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times, to take the most influential agenda setters; certainly has a less totalizing cognitive stance. But there is a de facto support for the subjugation of individual rights, and the nonexistent rights of the Other and Nature, to those of Western capital. In as much as these collections of narratives deviate from the values of the Enlightenment, and are in a strict sense in conflict with them; one should not regard them as bastions of Classical liberalism and the Enlightenment. Let me elaborate. 

It is clear that antagonism to the West, as a response to the exercise of Western power is common to both strands and constitutes a common frame of reference. It is also clear that it is the former which is ascendent, while the latter, the counter Enlightenment tradition à la Qutb, should now be regarded as a spent force. Moreover, it is precisely the conditions perpetuated by the Western policies, say for instance, supporting the authoritarian and reactionary regimes of the Gulf, which adds fuel to the latter. Whence, the ideologies deriving from the “thick” notion of rationality; Free market fundamentalism, Neoliberalism, and The Washington consensus et cetera; which underlie the Business consensus behind a muscular U.S. foreign policy and ideological commitment to state capitalism as embodied by Davos; should be properly seen as the driving force behind resistance to the current world order. It is then that one can make sense of both strands in the Third World at the periphery of the West, and in the hinterland and the internal Third Worlds of the West itself: the Tea party and the Muslim Brotherhood on the one hand, and the Wisconsin and Arab Spring activists on the other. 

Occidentalism is an exercise in looking at the intellectual heritage of non-Western narratives dehumanizing the West, but being devoid of any analysis of it relationship to power, falls far short of earning its title as an inversion of Orientalism

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