Ian Buruma on "Occidentalism"


posted to www.marxmail.org on February 5, 2004


Dear Professor Ian Buruma,


As a Bard College graduate from the class of 1965, I continue to be impressed by the transformation of what Walter Winchell called "the little red whorehouse on the Hudson" into a wholly owned subsidiary of George Soros's Open Society. Along with your fellow NY Review of Books contributor Mark Danner on the Human Rights faculty, Bard seems uniquely positioned to lead the legions of the Cruise Missile liberal-left.


In the latest Chronicle of Higher Education (http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i22/22b01001.htm), you have an article titled "The Origins of Occidentalism" that stakes out the rather courageous position that the West must resist Islamic radicalism. One reading it is reminded of those propaganda films from WWII when a swastika was seen sweeping across Europe like a vast oil spill on the Atlantic. By 1947 the swastika had been replaced by the hammer-and-sickle. And, today, in the latest phase of the war against the Other, the symbol of evil is the Islamic crescent. Joining with Thomas Friedman and other guardians of the Rational and Enlightened West, you look to Turkey as a symbol of what the rest of the Islamic world can become:


"The best chance for democracies to succeed in countries as varied as Indonesia, Turkey, and Iraq is if moderate Muslims can be successfully mobilized. But that will have to come from those countries themselves. Even though Western governments should back the forces for democracy, the hard political struggle cannot be won in Washington, or through the force of U.S. arms."


In your view, the war against the West has less to do with imperialism or global inequality than it does with hatred for modernization and universalism. Since Jews supposedly symbolize these values, they are singled out by terrorists. Supposedly, Islamic radicals are following in the footsteps of European fascists and Japanese militarists who "sought to smash 'Americanism,' Anglo-Saxon liberalism, and 'rootless cosmopolitanism' (meaning Jews)." Hence, Auschwitz, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 become amalgamated.


One wonders where you get this prettified version of Anglo-American society. My studies of English and US history leave me with an entirely different perception. Rather than a tableaux based on the Bill of Rights, NPR's "All Things Considered" and the Universalist Unitarian Church, I see an open sewer of blood and shit. In John Toland's biography of Hitler, he notes:


"Hitler's concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa And for the Indians in the Wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America's extermination-by starvation and uneven combat-of the 'Red Savages' who could not be tamed by captivity."


In other words, Hitler drew inspiration from your "liberal" and "rational" Great Britain and USA when it came to core aspects of his genocidal program. Not to speak of his admiration for another element of our culture. Nazi marching band music was copied from American Ivy League football rallies that Hitler heard on records brought back to Germany from one of his henchmen who had been at Harvard.


It also seems highly specious to depict pro-Western moderates in Islamic countries as defending democracy from a siege mounted by Pepsi-Cola hating Islamicists who evoke the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings movie. History teaches a somewhat different lesson.


In 1992, when being poised to won an electoral majority, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), was thwarted by the Algerian army which arrested most of its leadership. Since then, guerrillas fighting in the name of the FIS and its more radical offshoot, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), have fought a terrorist war with the Algiers regime. It is difficult for any rational and fair-minded person to choose sides in a war which has cost civilian lives on either side, although you appear to profess sympathy for the uniformed torturers whose disrespect for democracy touched off this disaster.


In Turkey, the story is depressingly similar although at less cost to civilian bystanders. In 1998 the moderate Welfare Party, which was also the largest party in Parliament, was banned and its leaders were charged with sedition. Although the ban was expressed in terms of suppressing fundamentalist challenges to Kemalist secularism, it seems much more likely that unhappiness over an 80 percent annual inflation was being channeled through the Islamist party, just as resentment over corruption and poverty in Algeria was.


Since the United States and England had backed all and any efforts in the Arab and Islamic world to smash Marxist parties, it is no big surprise that hatred of imperialist exploitation is taking a rather atavistic form as hijacked planes are used as terrorist weapons. As Malcolm X, another Islamic radical once said, the chickens are coming home to roost.


Louis Proyect, '65