... but can the West survive the threats of Islam?

March 14, 2004|By Ray Holton | Ray Holton,Special to the Sun

Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit. Penguin Press. 155 pages. $21.95

This is a small book about big ideas. Actually, it's about Big Bias, as two academicians examine the roots of the anti-Western views of radical Islamists in today's context of 9 / 11 and suicide bombings. And the authors contend that the sources of those views are Western philosophers, kings and dictators, as well as the evolution of capitalism, industrialism and trade.

Some commentators argue that the West "deserves" the terrorism it is getting. They say the constant export of cultural trash from Hollywood, filled with sex, violence and drugs, fuels the flames of radicalism in the culturally conservative religious lands of the Middle and Far East.

This long essay offers a much more complicated chain of ideas, and, fortunately, the authors do not impose their own judgment of "justified terrorism" in their analysis. Readers today who are still trying to figure out why the West is hated so much by the East should add this brief survey of Eastern views of the West to their bookshelves.

Radical Islamists see big Occidental cities in the mold of corrupt Sodom and Gomorrah. They believe pastoral, earthbound existence is superior to life in finance, marketing and entertainment. They cannot comprehend government without God, and believe that holy men should be placed at the forefront of civil decision-making. They yearn for the return of the caliphate, a line of religious leaders who were successors to Muhammad.

While individualism is praised in the West, it is abhorred in the East. Family counts more than tribes, and tribes count more than governments. John Wayne-style heroes of the West are replaced by caliphs and holy warriors in the radical Islamist state. Women stay home, cook, clean and raise kids. They're covered from head to toe outside of the home. Jews are the devil incarnate, and Christians are barely tolerated if allowed to exist in a true Islamist state.

Of course, all of this might be tolerable if it were kept within state borders, and if suicide missions were not part of the radical Islamist agenda. The subcontinent could go its merry way in the Dark Ages if it pleased.

But that is not reality, and the authors remind us of the fate of the last two ethno-purist regimes that preached hate as a run-up to suicide missions and all-out conflagration. The emperor's kamikazes of Japan and the storm troopers of Nazi Germany died in vain for their racist causes, but not without the sacrifice of millions of human lives.

Of course, the world waits to see how Western leaders will respond to radical Islamism now that it has spilled from nationalist, subcontinent borders. Some are slower than others, but as the suicide missions and terrorist attacks spread, other Western nations will harden and respond. Westerners should avoid the "intellectual trap [of] ... the paralysis of colonial guilt" in the face of barbarism, the authors note.

Before the world is dragged into another massive conflict, the authors predict another outcome: "The fiercest battles will be fought inside the Muslim world. That is where the revolution is taking place and where it will have to be halted, preferably not by outside intervention, but by Muslims themselves."

Ray Holton of Bethlehem, Pa., is the former editor and senior vice president of The Morning Call in the Lehigh Valley, Pa. He reviews books while aboard his sailboat, Nellie Belle, in the Caribbean.

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