An Interview with Ian Buruma on Occidentalism
The Enemy of the West
22 Apr 2011
■ Shervin Nekuee & Ehsan Abedi
Ian Buruma is among the 100 top global thinkers of 2010, as selected by Foreign Policy magazine. With this ranking, the magazine praised him, but it wasn’t a new discovery: years before the selection was announced, Buruma had been known as an intellectual who was concerned with freedom, human rights and peace.
Buruma is a Dutch writer and academic who studied Chinese and Japanese literature and arts, through which he became familiar with Asian culture and soul. It caused him to author numerous articles and books such as Tokyo: Form and Spirit (1986) and God’s Dust: A Modern Asian Journey (1989) trying to create understanding and peace between Eastern and Western cultures. But maybe his most important book is Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, co-authored with Avishai Margalit. Though the book was first published in 2004, it is still being considered as a notable work. The book discusses an ill mind that imagines the West to be devoid of any virtues, believes that it is the symbol of sins and corruptions and must be destroyed. The point is that the term “Occidentalism” itself doesn’t refer to such a meaning. It is used as an inversion of Orientalism and means the knowledge of Western cultures and traditions, but Buruma regards both terms as negative concepts, as Edward Said did decades ago by his book Orientalism, challenging the concept and regarding it as something derived from Western imperialistic views on the East. Said’s 1978 book can be considered as a motivation for Ian Buruma to write Occidentalism, the fact that caused us to interview him.
Why do you regard the term “Occidentalism” as a negative concept?
The way I used the term does not refer to criticism of American or European policies, or even cultures. ‘Occidentalism’ is a violent fantasy that imagines the West to be so wicked that it must be destroyed. This is a symbolic West, of course, a demonic image associated with sin, greed, corruption, sexual depravity, etcetera. It is a form of dehumanization, because it holds that Westerners have no souls, just base appetites.
Do you think that “Orientalism” is used in the same way?
In the sense that ‘Orientalism’ also dehumanizes people from the Orient, yes. In the case of Orientalism, people of the East are considered to be like children, who need to be mastered by the ‘adult’ West.
What are the roots of Occidentalism? Colonization and Imperialism? Which period does Occidentalism refer to? And what is the relationship between Occidentalism and Modernity?
The demonic image of civilization that is so corrupted by sensuality and material greed that it must be destroyed goes back to the biblical story of the Tower of Babylon. The Twin Towers of New York were the modern version of Babylon.
Do you regard Occidentalism as an illusion or a type of paranoia?
Which nations or countries have such a view about the West more than the others? Are the Muslims more predisposed to have such a view?
No, they are not. Avishai Margalit and I argued in our book, Occidentalism, that the demonic idea of Western depravity actually originated in the West itself, specifically in 19th century Germany, as well as Russia. Japanese ultra-nationalists in the 1920s and 30s, who were in fact much influenced by the West, particularly by German ideas about the West, often became Occidentalists.
The demonic idea of Western depravity actually originated in the West itself
What is the effect of religion on developing the “Occidentalism”? Can we regard Occidentalism as something such as a clash of religions?
No, not necessarily. Radical versions of Islam can lend themselves to demonic images of the West, but so can radical versions of Christianity. The Russian ‘Slavophiles’* of the 19th century were Russian Orthodox. And the people who denounced wicked Babylon were Jews.
Can we explain terrorism and the reasons behind it through knowing the concept of Occidentalism? Or do you think them to be related to religion?
This depends on which version of terrorism you mean. Terrorism is a tactic used in many different places under very different circumstances. Islamist terrorism is a form of revolutionary religion, which is a political as much as a religious ideology.
Which factors develop Occidentalism nowadays? Let’s suppose that the East would modify all its views about the West and the western phenomena. If so, are the policies and the acts of western states going toward making the Occidentalism abate?
This question still suggests that Occidentalism is a clash between a geographical West and East, or between Westerners and Orientals. This misses the point. It is a clash of ideologies, not civilizations, or different cultures. To an Occidentalist, many people in the East, especially if they are secular liberals, should be denounced just as much as Westerners. So Western policies are not the crucial factor.
What is the role of both western and eastern intellectuals in reproducing the Orientalism and the Occidentalism? How can an intellectual keep away from these powerful stereotypes?
Western and Eastern intellectuals, who share similar ideas about the desirability of individual freedom and democratic institutions, have more in common with each other than they do with people who are opposed to such ideas, wherever they may live. Western intellectuals who prize political liberties will be on the side of the Iranian Green movement. And Middle Eastern liberals will surely be receptive to liberal ideas in the West.
What is the alternative discourse on describing and expounding the world?
The alternative is not to be enslaved by dogmas, wherever they originate, and to see societies as collections of individuals, who must build institutions to solve conflicts peacefully, and create laws to guarantee civic liberties. Again, in this respect, liberal-minded people, whether they come from Tehran or New York, should be on the same side.
* Slavophilia was an intellectual movement originating from 19th century that wanted the Russian Empire to be developed upon values and institutions derived from its early history. Slavophiles were especially opposed to the influences of Western Europe in Russia. There were also similar movements in Poland, Hungary and Greece. (Wikipedia)
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