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Bin Laden, a Child of Western Civilization?
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-09-11 09:37:44
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Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies
Written by Avishar Margalit and Ian Buruma
Penguin Press, 2004

In an intriguing book titled Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies, Avishar Margalit and Ian Buruma argue that Bin Laden is a child of the West, in as much as he is within the framework of a modern Western penchant for auto-flagellation as a reaction to the Enlightenment and liberal modern society. Let us briefly examine this thesis.

Harsh auto-criticism, spearheaded by Nietzsche, culminates in modern nihilism and the cult of death in the 1920s. Such a cult and the subsequent notion of martyrdom achieved by shedding innocent blood in the name of ideology, is assumed to originate in retrograde medieval Islam; in reality, it has its origins within the modern West. The authors of the book argue that, paradoxically, the ideas and the language of Bin Laden’s violent terrorist network, fueling so much rage and anger against the West, have their origin in the West.

To be sure, Margalit and Buruma do acknowledge that the notion of a degenerate sacrilegious and blasphemous Western society, managed by ruthless and rapacious capitalists dedicated to the manipulation and exploitation of things and people, is an old one, almost a cliché by now, found in various parts of the world. A superficial and naïve rendering of the causes of this phenomenon, would argue that it is due to sheer resentment on the part of other cultures for the material success of the West.

There is nothing new there. The novelty consists in tracing its genealogy. Then one realizes that, contrary to conventional wisdom, it originates in the West itself, a sort of auto-criticism as a reaction to European Enlightenment. A partial reason why the reason this genealogy may be hard to trace is that nowadays many Europeans like to imagine themselves as peace-loving people, if not exactly pacifists. That is a myth which when challenged, may produce the recognition that in fact it was not so only sixty years ago. They may insist however that a sort of cultural mutation that is almost genetic has occurred of late. Violence, if it comes, comes from outside. What about what happened in Bosnia, in the heart of a peaceful Europe, only sevem years ago, usually ignored or explained away? Oh well, that is an aberration not likely to occur again. There is a fashionable, if somewhat dubious, sound-bite making the rounds which goes like this: “Europeans from Venus, Americans from Mars.” Indeed, it stands to reason that, if that is the prevalent perception, the roots of the current spasm of violence which lately are effecting Europe itself, will be sought not in Europe but in a more convenient place: in America.

To make that point, the authors resort to an apt analogy lifted out of France’s colonial past. They point out that the tropical exoticism of the dresses of Polynesian women was not original; rather, it was brought to Polynesia from French merchants who in the mid-nineteenth century began exporting a textile with vivacious colors. The local women soon adopted the textile enthusiastically. Then, due to Gauguin’s famous paintings, everybody in the West began to assume, wrongly at it turns out, that those exotic textile had always been the distinguishing characteristic of Polynesian women’s clothing. Its origin was simply forgotten. Similarly, after the age of Enlightenment, one notices within Western civilization not only a desire for reform, or reservations on the course of said civilization, but a genuine contempt for it amounting to nothing less than a desire for self-destruction. That too, like the origins of Polynesian dresses, has often been forgotten or overlooked by cultural anthropologists tracing the roots of Islam’s militancy. But at the very least it ought be considered a factor.

This desire for self-destruction finds expression in a relentless critique of the West’s materialism devoid of any spirituality; of its dehumanizing qualities which reduce human being to mere machines, to be used and manipulated by those who wield power and influence; of the loss of ancient traditions and customs leading to loss of meaning in life, what the philosophers call nihilism. It all begs the question: what and who begins this mind-set? It may come from unlikely quarters: from a romantic German author, or a Marx, or a Lenin and their cohorts. The ideological paradigms may differ widely, but the essence of the criticism remains the same: contempt for liberal society, the crass bourgeoisie and modernity.

One late arrival of this phenomenon of hatred for the liberal West and its modernity is anti-Americanism, i.e., a contemptuous rejection of America’s economic, cultural and political system as representing what is worst in Western culture. Some have erroneously traced it to the French poet Baudelaire who in mid-nineteenth century said that “technology shall Americanize us all.” But he did not mean it in a chauvinist nationalistic mode. Heidegger on the other hand spoke of Amerikanismus as a cancer eating away at the soul of Europe. His critique is carried on in the name of European origins and tradition which must reject, at any cost, the modernity of a superficial, vulgar, commercial culture. To somebody like Benedetto Croce, that kind of explanation came across as the greater Germany masquerading as pan-Europeanism, just as Napoleon’s pronouncements on Europe, after a while, came across to somebody like Beethoven as the greater France wearing the same deceptive mask.

According to Margalit and Buruma, this phenomenon of contempt for modernity and liberal society, begins in the late nineteenth century and finds its culmination in Western nihilism, at the beginning of the twentieth century, with ideologies that emphasize an organic kind of nationalism rooted in “soil and blood.” These ideologies are invariably anti-modern and anti-liberal. To wit, Russian slavophilism (see Dostoyevsky’s The Devils), Japanese nationalism, Maoism, sino-Irakianism, Khmer Rougerism. When these ideologies mix with the most fanatical part of Islamic fundamentalism, they produce a fatal mixture. The authors point out that the idea of a terrorist earning martyrdom and immediate entrance to heaven by the spilling of innocent blood is not found in medieval Islam. It is a uniquely modern invention. In fact, traditional Islam never had a cult of death per se. Such a cult begins in the West with the contemptuous rejection of bourgeoisie liberal society, its cosmopolitanism and its tolerance.

The idea of the “beautiful death” is found in the Europe of the early twentieth century (especially Germany), as a reaction to what is perceived as the anti-heroic stance of liberal society. For example, writers such as Werner Sombart, or Ernst Junger, declare war on bourgeoisie Konformismus and its anti-utopian philistine character. Junger declares that “pleasure can be grasped only with death.” This is ominously similar to Bin Laden’s “my death is my victory.”

The authors conclude with this disturbing thought: the auto-flagellation of the West has prepared the ammunition later used by its enemies. Modern Islamic nihilism is lethal not so much because of its theology which if truth be said is in fact predicated on a merciful Allah that abhors cruelty, but because of its synthesis between Islamic zealotry and contemporary ruthless ideologies. Those ideologies and that synthesis, more often than not, originate in the West but nobody seems to remember it; for indeed Europeans are all “from Venus” now.

For example, the authors point out that within fascist circles in Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s the Syrian Sati al-Husel was reading Fitche and Herder to envision an Arab world held together by military discipline and the mystique of sacrifice. In Paris we have the Cambodian Pol Pot and the Iranian Ali Shari reading Mao, Franz Fanon and Che Guevara to prepare themselves for the eventual Cambodian genocide and the Iranian revolution of Khomeni. Within these ideologies, martyrdom and the so called “red death” is held to be the very apex of human existence.

I conclude with a few comments of my own. What exactly has this essay by Margarit and Buruma reminded us of? Basically, of three things: 1) the absurdities of Manichean ideologies that proclaim that the West, the so called “Great Satan,” is the root of all evil; 2) the consequent and apparent loss of confidence of the West after 200 years of relentless auto-criticism; 3) that democratic liberal societies, such as the Weimar Republic, just to mention one, fall not so much because of the stupidity or cleverness of reactionaries, but because too few people are willing to defend them (see Erick Fromm’s Escape from Freedom). The center does not hold, the cultural glue is weak and the enemies win by default.

My own critique is the following: the book while being an eye-opener, as far as it goes, fails to search for the deeper root of the cancer eroding Western liberal society. In my opinion, that root is found a bit further back than the Age of Enlightenment; for indeed modern, rationalistic, positivistic, liberal Europe is not born with the Enlightenment. The crisis, as Husserl, as well as Vico 200 years before him point out, begins at least a century before with Cartesian rationalism; a rationalism contemptuous of humanistic and poetical modes of thought which splits European culture in two worlds: the humanistic world of “I-Thou” and the positivistic scientific world of “I-it” wherein man begins to think of himself a mere machine, a robot of sort or a humbot, nothing more than the material chemical sum of its component parts. At that point totalitarianisms of the right and of the left could have been predicted, as in fact a Dostoyevsky did at the turn of the 20th century.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-09-11 17:22:13
A footnote: another view of 9/11 from the world of religion and science by Dr. Varadaraja Raman of the Metanexus Institute: "the on-line Forum on Religion and science." Open to link below. I suppose our views are heavely influenced by the ideological glasses we wear; hence the more views the better.


Jack2007-09-11 21:46:04
Absolutely Emanuel! And it seems that Totalitarnianism ends up with Utilitarianism. The fringe of society is expendable for the increased efficiency of the state. That debases humans into being only a noun(a thing, disposable) and not a proper one (i.e. John Doe). Society itself then becomes a sort of robot. The cogs must therefore be acceptable, less the whole machine break down, human fuel being irrelevant ot "it".

Emanuel Paparella2007-09-11 23:54:59
Indeed Jack, there were two prophets at the beginning of the 20th century and they are two sides of the same coin of nihilism in Western culture: the first was part of the problem and his name was Nietzsche: he would have preferred a Christ that was a Superman standing on Cuercovado Rio De Janeiro and declared Christianity a morality of slaves and pronounced God dead. The second was Dostoyevsky who writes "The Devils" depicting the Bolshevicks to a t and "The Brothers Karamozov" where the Grand Inquisitor appears telling Christ to go back where he came from for people are not interested in freedom but in safety and comfort.

By the way, did you notice the yawn that such an analysis provoked in this very magazine? Surely they liked the caricature of of Christ as Superman. Whether they like the picture of Christ as a loser suffering on the cross is less sure, for nobody said. Buber had it on target: the West is split in the world of "I-it" and the world of "I-Thou" and the two do not talk to each other. Kierkegaard too has it on target: some sicknesses are unto death!And the worst part of that sickness is to have it and not to know it.

Jack2007-09-12 22:36:34
It is hard for me to fathom a slim, paultry, effiminent, fair-skinned Christ with long, flowing (sometimes blond) hair. Knowing His trade[carpenters worked with heavy beams and huge stones], He must have been more like a muscular, olive-skinned and dark haired Jew that may have looked much like other Jews of the time (hence why did Judas kiss Him on the cheek to betrayel Him? To remove all doubt?). I believe only this type of physical body could endure such sheer torture...

besides the fact the Gopsel authors and Paul left out specific, physical descriptions and characteristics for the very purpose, I believe, that God knew we would create and worship such an image (thus breaking the 1st Great Command).

My greatest fear will be when people finally do see Christ, He will come in awesome splender, power and majesty and be seen by all. I pray people see Him NOW, before this meeting occurs, for alas it will then be too late.

Emanuel Paparella2007-09-13 00:50:37
If you look at the last judgment of Michelangelo which he painted on the wall of the Sistine chapel behind the altar some forty years after the ceiling, you will notice a very muscular, with unbearded Christ who in fact looks more like a Greek Apollo. That image scandalized many "pious" Christians, but what was M. sayings? That this Christ is not the historical Jesus of Nazareth but the Word made flesh at a particular time, in a particular place, among a particular people. I suspect post-modern man will still prefer Christ as Superman to Michelangelo's Christ; but not to worry, it will all come out in the wash eventually. Theologians call it the Parausia.

Jack2007-09-13 03:33:01
Well put my friend.

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