The outbreak of Occidentalism


At APEC in Shanghai in October 2001, President Bush called for an international campaign to ‘save civilisation’. A year later, in September 2002, he said the coming war was ‘their war against civilisation’, meaning Muslims’ war against the Christian civilisation of the United States and the Jewish civilisation of Israel.

The war against terror, he said, would be a battle ‘for the future of the Muslim world’, and a conflict between competing values, meaning those of the West and those of Islam. They, meaning Islamists, ‘hate our freedoms’, Bush explained: you are either with us or you’re against us, and ‘good will prevail against evil’.

Problems in US international relations are often portrayed as moral struggles between good and evil, between the civilised and uncivilised, as many writers, including recently Clyde Prestowitz in Rogue Nation (2003) have shown. When he called himself a war-time President, Bush apparently had in mind just such an apocalyptic struggle between the ultimate good and evil.

Southern televangelists in the United States told their audiences after 11 September 2001 that Mohammed was a devilish paedophile. After 11 September Jerry Falwell, founder of the Moral Majority, blamed ‘the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians’ for creating a environment that might, as he put it, have ’caused God to lift the veil of protection which has allowed no one to attack America on our soil since 1812′. William Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, called Islam a ‘very wicked and evil’ religion. He addressed soldiers at the Pentagon on Good Friday, in April 2003, telling them there was no other way to God except through Christ. A year later, still stuck in Iraq, US Marines were preparing for a punitive attack on Falluja, after four American civilians had been dismembered by a mob. Their chaplain told them:

Today is Palm Sunday. The day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he broke the bounds of hell. Tonight commences your triumphal entry into Falluja, a place in the bounds of hell. This is a spiritual battle, and you Marines are the tools of mercy.

Lt-Gen William G. ‘Jerry’ Boykin, who was appointed in October 2003 as Deputy Undersecretary of Defence for Intelligence, called the war against terrorism a ‘spiritual battle’. Satan, he declared, ‘wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army’. The Judaeo-Christian god, he asserted, is real and bigger than the god of Islam, and Muslims worship idols. The world has 1.2 billion Muslims: no wonder Bush can list sixty countries that he says are America’s enemies.

United States exceptionalism and religiosity are not new. They have been asserted by so many Americans that few seem to doubt the rightful place of the US as the city on a hill. From Herman Melville who declared: ‘We Americans are the peculiar chosen people – the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world’ to Superman assuring his readers of his determination to ‘fight the never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American Way’, Americans have claimed for centuries that it is their destiny to reshape the world.

Many Americans are, it appears, convinced that advancing the interests of the civilised United States is the same as advancing the interests of humanity. Bush believes the United States has a God-given responsibility to lead ‘this great mission’ of American internationalism. Like Tony Blair, Bush is a born-again Christian, who says he takes his advice from ‘a higher Father’. His close advisers Rumsfeld and Rice, and former Attorney-General Ashcroft are all exponents of Christian revivalism.

Many of their neo-conservative associates in the Project for a New American Century who have Jewish backgrounds, now hold high office. The US has supported Israel in defying the UN Security Council more than sixty times, but when Iraq did so only seventeen times, the US invaded it. The US – and Australia – will not condemn Israel’s wall-building territorial aggression, even when we are in a minority of three. Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defence and the architect of the Iraq invasion, has spoken of ‘draining the swamps’ in ‘the uncivilised parts of the world’, and declared that the road to Jerusalem runs through Baghdad.

Another Bush supporter, Professor Daniel Pipes, in late 2002 described the religious-civilisational conflict in terms reminiscent of the cold war, merely exchanging terrorism for communuism. It was a clash between the ‘side of civilisation’, he told Australians in Sydney, and the ‘side of totalitarianism’. British author William Shawcross endorsed these views, seeing ‘brutal attacks’ as perpetrated only by the other, uncivilised, side. The war against terror must be waged, because the consequences of not doing so were unthinkable. ‘The battle in Iraq’, he wrote in 2004, ‘is between those who have committed mass murder or wish to, and those who seek a decent civil society’. This was published just before Americans were shown to have tortured prisoners in Saddam Hussein’s gaol. But Islamists, according to Shawcross’ argument, do not seek decency or civility, because theirs is an inferior civilisation, so they must be confronted by the civilised nations.

For the neo-conservatives advising Bush, there certainly is a clash of civilisations, even though, for domestic political reasons, they cannot admit it. For these same reasons, Bush denies that the war is against Muslims, but the fact is that those resisting the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and those who attacked the United States, are all Muslims. And those who lead them are Occidentalists who declare that their war is against the West, Jews, and Christians.

Fundamentalists of whatever persuasion habitually say a cosmic struggle is occurring now, in this world, not in the future. Faithful individuals believe they must play their part in it, whether they come from the Christian Bible belt, from the Dome of the Rock, or from occupied Iraq. For the Islamists, as much as for neo-conservatives in the West, there is certainly a clash of civilisations: Osama bin Laden himself has repeatedly declared that the battle is between Muslims and the ‘Jews and Crusaders’. The more Palestinians and Iraqis are killed, the more he can point to a clash, and call on the faithful for revenge and resistance. His videotape of November 2001 said:

We are terrorists, and terrorism is our friend and companion. Let the West and East know that we are terrorists and that we are terrifying as well. We shall do our best in preparation to terrorize Allah’s enemy and our own. Thus terrorism is an obligation in Allah’s religion.

Even Iyad al-Allawi, Iraq’s Interim Prime Minister, has recently said that Iraq is now the main battlefield between two mutually exclusive world visions, between radical Islam and its enemies. He appeared to endorse a message from the Sons of the Resistance (Abna al-Muqawimmah) that said: ‘Baghdad is the first step to victory over the Jews and the Crusaders’. The war that was claimed to be against terror is, it seems, a war between religions, or within them. Fundamentalism’s face, underneath the balaclava, is the same everywhere. Pro deo et patria: religion is always used by old men to inspire young men to fight the heathen.

Baroness Cox, a British independent who works with Muslim countries in conflict, sees the threat of a clash of civilisations as imminent and this year described its human consequences, particularly in southern Sudan, northern Nigeria (where twelve states have shariya law), and Aceh, as catastrophic. The President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, who has been the target of assassination attempts, supported her ‘act local’ view, although he foresaw a clash not over ideas, but over the denial of justice and prosperity. He warned that a clash of civilisations will occur if the West, particularly the US and Muslim countries do not act together to eradicate the root causes of anger and resentment in the Muslim world. He advocated ‘Enlightened Moderation’ as a double strategy: the Muslim world must shun militancy and extremism and pursue socioeconomic advancement; and the Western world must resolve political disputes with justice and support human resource development in the deprived Muslim world. Confrontation and force, he argued, will never bring peace.

The world’s 1.2 billion Muslims tend to marry young and polygamously, and to have large families. Owen Harries, in his 2003 Boyer Lectures, noted that Muslim birthrates in Europe are three times those of non-Muslims so that, with increasing Muslim migration, Europe’s population will soon consist of a few rich, elderly Christians and a lot of poor, young Muslims – who are all voters. But he followed Samuel Huntington in fearing that it will not be Muslims but Hispanics – the majority of them Mexicans – whose culture will dominate the United States, and warning that this will cause what he and Huntington mean by ‘the West’ to wither and weaken. Yet here the notion that religions are at the heart of the clash of civilisations, or of fundamentalisms, breaks down, for most Hispanic migrants to the US are not Muslims but Catholics. What Harries and Huntington really fear, perhaps, is cultural nonconformity, and its potential to mobilise antagonism within and between civilisations: a 21st century version, perhaps, of racism. What Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit fear, in their important book, Occidentalism: the West in the Eyes of its Enemies (2004) is ‘bad ideas’, which even though they may have their genesis in the West, can lead fundamentalists to turn on it with a vengeance.

The equal and opposite response to Orientalist imperialism has always been Occidentalist resistance, and that seems unlikely to change. Civilisation, it is clear, is something people care about, and can be roused by their leaders to fight for. It remains to ask: must there be a clash of civilisations?

No conclusion to this complex debate is possible, because it is still unfolding before our eyes. But considering it in terms of Orientalism and Occidentalism serves at least to recall the age-old origins of the issues, and to reveal the underlying similarities of the arguments on both sides about fundamentalism, civilisation, religion, ethnicity, and prosperity. Certainly, for those who seek to understand all the perspectives involved, retreating behind civilisational walls and fortified boundaries resolves nothing and makes no-one safer. To do so is likely to exacerbate the ignorance, fear, and hostility both inside and outside the razor wire that lead to generational cycles of revenge and violence.

For those who hope that humankind can progress beyond warfare, ‘standing up’ to the Other is not the answer. Sooner rather than later, ‘sitting down’ with the Other, whoever that may be, will be the only way.

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