Niall Ferguson: The Western Roots of Islamic Extremism

Roundup: Talking About History

Niall Ferguson, in the Daily Telegraph (London) (Aug. 14, 2004):

Orientalism - Edward Said's scathing critique of the way European scholars portrayed what used to be called "the Orient" - has spawned a host of imitators. In university libraries the world over, there are whole shelves of "post-colonial" tomes, each dedicated to laying bare the wicked, racist assumptions of this or that early anthropologist. Devoted though one may have been to Sanskrit poetry, steeped though another may have been in Islamic law, they were all, to a man, despicable "Orientalists", taking for granted the innate superiority of the West and condescending odiously to the East.

A few historians, however, have sought to turn Said's argument around. In Ornamentalism, David Cannadine portrayed Victorian colonial administrators as projecting their own romantic notions of a pre-lapsarian, Merrie England on to native cultures. Now, in Occidentalism, Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have gone a step further. They argue that the most radical critics of the West today - including Osama bin Laden and other "Islamist" extremists - are not the upholders of pure, untainted Eastern values. Their extreme anti-Western ideologies are, paradoxically, in large measure Western in origin.

Buruma will be best known to British readers for his outstanding recent work on modern Japan; Margalit is a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Between them they are able to cover an astonishing range of material, from the reading habits of kamikaze pilots to the doctrine of the Iranian revolution, from German Anglophobia during the First World War to the dissolute youth of Madame Mao. The climacteric of 9/11 has produced a great deal of mediocre analysis and bathetic reflection; this essay is one of the best things yet to be published on what, thanks to Samuel Huntington, has become known as the "Clash of Civilisations".

Buruma and Margalit define "Occidentalism" as "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". This combination is not peculiar to modern Islamic revolutionaries, they argue. It can also be found in the Russian Slavophilia of the 1880s and the extreme Japanese nationalism of the 1930s.

Their key point, however, is that the dichotomy between Western and Eastern civilisation - so dear to the heart of zealots such as bin Laden - is a fantasy. Whether it is simply the US they hate, or the increasingly ubiquitous Anglo-American style of urban, commercial and secular life, nearly all the most passionate critics of the West turn out to owe a surprising amount to the very object of their antagonism.

Mohammed Atta, one of the leaders of the 9/11 hijackers, wrote a thesis on city planning at the Technical University in Hamburg.

In this he was following in a distinguished tradition of Western-educated haters of the West. Sayyid Qutb, perhaps the most influential ideologist of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, studied in New York and Colorado. The Iranian revolutionary Ali Shari'ati studied in Paris, where he translated the works of Che Guevera. As Buruma and Margalit note, this pattern goes back still further. Many of the most effective leaders of anti-colonial movements from Africa to Indo-China were graduates of European universities.

It is not just that such men studied in the West and were appalled (as Qutb certainly was) by what they saw. Many were able to draw inspiration from the numerous homegrown critics of the West - the likes of the German writer Ernst Junger, whose Uber die Linie was translated into Arabic by the Iranian radical Al-e Ahmed in the 1960s. It was Al-e Ahmed who later coined the ugly neologism "Westoxification" (which may sound better in Persian).

All this should worry those Americans who say that the US does not need a class of colonial administrators to police its informal global empire; it can rely on the legions of clever foreigners who have been educated at American universities. To which Buruma and Margalit would presumably retort: they're the ones you really need to worry about....

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Charles Lee Geshekter - 8/20/2004

Trying to learn more about Sayyid Qutb's rabid, anti-western Islamism, I read his book *In the Shade of the Koran*. It is a jumbled, rambling, incoherent mish-mash of selections from the Koran. How it manages to inspire or motivate people escapes me. Maybe it is easier to understand in Arabic.......