Commentary Magazine

Through the Eyes of Our Enemies

One of the effects of the attacks on New York and Washington on the morning of September 11, 2001 was to create a surge in demand for translations of the Qur'an and for books about Islam. This was natural enough, for the people who massacred thousands of innocents had claimed to be acting for the glory of Allah. Likewise, the mass media began a frenetic search for experts on the Islamic religion and the Muslim world who might explain to Americans and others throughout “the West” how such a thing could have happened. Were the terrorists really orthodox Muslims, or were they agents of a psychopathic cult? Did the master terrorist, Osama bin Laden, enjoy a wide following? Was this a one-day wonder, or was it worse than Pearl Harbor—the first stroke in a full-scale clash of civilizations? How did Muslims in general look upon the West, what did they think of us? And if they hated us, “Why do they hate us?”

Books that had lain dormant on remainder shelves suddenly came to life; some that had been long out of print were exhumed; and many instant books were commissioned—more than 300 in the first year alone. At various levels of expertise and from various points of view, such writers as Karen Armstrong, Stephen Schwartz, Malise Ruthven, Victor Davis Hanson, Dilip Hiro, Richard Fletcher, Ahmed Rashid, Yossef Bodansky, Peter L. Bergen, “Ibn Warraq,” Daniel Pipes, and Steven Emerson went from relative obscurity to best-sellerdom. The West's greatest living historian of Islam, Bernard Lewis, became a household name. And for a while it seemed that almost every public intellectual and talking head felt compelled to repackage himself as an authority on the “war on terror.”

When it came to Islam, a note sounded early and often was the note of liberal tolerance. In this, George W. Bush took the lead. Within a week of the terror strikes, the President appeared at the Saudi-funded Islamic Center in Washington to declare that “Islam is a religion of peace.” He has made innumerable such pronouncements since, becoming America's most visible imam as he stresses the sanctity of Muslim lives and property and the innocence of the Muslim masses. The President has introduced a White House tradition of Iftaar (Ramadan fast-breaking), and quoted passages from the Qur'an. I am in receipt of one of his cards for Eid al-Fitr, which informs me that Islam promotes “justice, compassion, and personal responsibility.”

The President's aspirations to tolerance and decency were universally echoed in the mainstream media in the days after the terrorist strikes. Television anchors like Peter Jennings regularly warned viewers not to jump to conclusions about Islam or anything connected with it; the networks even suppressed film footage of Palestinians celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center at spontaneous demonstrations in Gaza and Ramallah. A parade of media-suborned academics begged us to remove our own cultural blinders, to see ourselves as others see us.

To be sure, other views were expressed as well. Franklin Graham, a powerful evangelical Christian leader who had delivered the benediction at President Bush's inauguration, noted memorably that “It wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn't Lutherans. It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” And while Bush was wishing the world's one billion Muslims “health, prosperity, and happiness during Ramadan,” Rev. Graham was saying that they were “wicked, violent, and not of the same God.”

But these remarks (which the Christian leader has since qualified) were by no means widely shared, and were emphatically repudiated—as were other, less vivid suggestions of an implacable clash of civilizations. Some among the repudiators decried the resurrection of ancient racial and cultural stereotypes. Others observed the irony inherent in the inability of a modern Western culture that values tolerance, pluralism, and equality to understand an ancient Eastern culture that does not. Many meditated upon the strange phenomenon of “otherness,” and the perils of cross-cultural judgment.

Who was better informed about Islam, Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush? Were any of our Western experts truly well informed, and if so, which ones? What of the experts we imagined on the Muslim side? Were they knowledgeable about America and the West? Who were they, anyway, and what were they saying?

In the shock of 9/11, such questions were brought to the surface as if for the first time. But they were hardly new questions. How the West understands the East has been a source of intense academic controversy for at least a generation, and that controversy itself looks back upon many centuries of encounter between Islam and what was once called “Christendom.” With the passage of time, and through the great cloud of information that has been kicked up, we may begin to see how older debates illuminate the current one.


Edward Said, who died last September, was the man who touched off the contemporary controversy over “Orientalism” that preceded the present “war on terror.” Born in Jerusalem into a wealthy Arab Christian family, Said was raised mostly in Cairo, educated at Princeton and Harvard, and for many years taught English and comparative literature at Columbia University in New York. A radical activist in the cause of an independent Palestine, he served as an overseas member of the Palestinian National Council, an arm of the PLO, until breaking with Yasir Arafat over the Oslo accords (he thought Arafat had sold out).

Said's chief claim to fame is likely to remain his 1978 book, Orientalism. This was an attack on the long line of British, French, and, later, American scholars, travelers, and imaginative writers who had undertaken to interpret the Near East over roughly the previous two centuries. All these Western interpreters, Said argued in Orientalism, had adopted a consistently a-priori view of the region. All tended to characterize it as an exotic, degenerate, sensual, violent, fanatical, aberrant neverland, incapable of development or reform. And all tended to attribute this incapacity to the stifling effects of the Islamic tradition.

Assuming, with the French structuralists of the 1960's, that every civilization defines itself by its “Other,” Said reached as far back as Homer's Iliad, Aeschylus' Persians, and Euripedes' Bacchae to reveal the literary underpinnings of the West's “othering” of the East. Assuming with Michel Foucault that knowledge always generates power, he proceeded to maintain that Orientalism—far from being the objective, disinterested, and rather esoteric field of inquiry it claimed to be—had from the very beginnings served the political ends of European aggression, and in the modern age served both prospectively and retrospectively to justify Anglo-French colonialism, hegemony, and control. Finally, assuming the “essentialism” of this European view, Said held that the description of the Near East in the works of all the Orientalists was necessarily inaccurate, distorted, and false.

Said's attack was very broad. It took in not only the proponents of imperialism and neo-colonialism who needed arguments to buttress their claims of superiority, and not only the purveyors (and consumers) of popular or sensationalist accounts of the “mysterious East,” but top-shelf writers (Kipling most conspicuously but even such outwardly sympathetic authors as Yeats, Conrad, and Camus) and, above all, professional and reputedly objective scholars. Here Said attempted to undermine the reputations of such towering figures as H.A.R. Gibb (1895-1971), the doyen of English Arabists in his time, and Louis Massignon (1883-1962), the equivalent figure in France.

Polemical but engagingly written, Said's Orientalism could at times be perceptive and entertaining. The book presented itself as a pioneering exercise in “postmodern irony,” for the West to which Said referred, and with which he himself frequently identified, was the West of Enlightenment humanism—and here he was, using its “discourse” to convict the Enlightenment tradition itself of complicity in colonialism and imperialism. A master of the liberated, secular, enlightened drawing room, he was in effect denying not only its right to investigate the lives of the “unenlightened” but even its basic humanity.

While Said's idea of Orientalism came under a certain amount of return fire from within the bastions of the traditional academy, it was gleefully welcomed by a new generation of scholars, eager to be free of the shackles of the old disciplines, especially the linguistic ones (for in addition to classical Arabic, the old-fashioned Orientalist had also to wrestle with Turkish, Persian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, and French). When Said wrote his book, the word “Orientalism” was already beginning to be used among progressive academics in a dry, insinuating manner. He was able to create a new academic industry by elegantly clinching the sneer.

In the decades since 1978, innumerable papers have been written, and innumerable degrees granted, for extensions to Said's celebrated “insight.” Redefined from its much older, more innocent usage—meaning mainly the study of the Near East—Orientalism became a byword across the social sciences, in literary theory, and in all related disciplines. Very quickly applied to almost every interaction between a powerful, hegemonic West and an East no longer restricted to the Arab or even to the Islamic countries, both “Orientalism” and Orientalism came to serve as canonical reference points for the politically correct field now known as “victim studies.”


It was the events of 9/11 that made inevitable a public revisiting of Orientalism, for on that day the mysterious East we had been imaginatively constructing through our “hegemonic discourse” had, it seemed, suddenly turned around to bite us. Said, who was by this time dying of leukemia, took in the news and wrote acidly in the London Observer about “the vague suggestion that the Middle East and Islam are what ‘we’ are up against.” It was as if he were passing the torch to the next generation.

Enter Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, two public intellectuals who, in response to the fury now being directed against the West, have flipped Said's model of Orientalism on its head. Their new book, Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies1 is an elaboration of an article they co-authored in the New York Review of Books two years ago. Buruma is a Dutch-born journalist and traveler whose long experience of Japan has led him to find parallels to contemporary Islamic jihadists in Japan's kamikaze past. Margalit is a political essayist and a professor of philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He was a protégé of Isaiah Berlin, and a founder of Peace Now.

The new book echoes even as it inverts Said's thesis. As “Orientalism” was a handy term with which to conflate those in the West who hold a malignly simplistic view of the East, “Occidentalism” is a handy term with which to conflate those in the East who hold a malignly simplistic view of the West. Buruma and Margalit disclaim any desire to provide a unified theory of everything, proposing instead to look into ideas and assumptions that have fueled various ostensibly anti-Western movements over time. Perhaps their most effective example is the one with which their book opens: an intellectual conference in Kyoto in the summer of 1942, convened six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and devoted explicitly to “Overcoming the Modern.” There, the assembled Far Eastern writers and thinkers wistfully evoked a distinctively “Asian spirituality” while serving the interests of contemporary militarist thugs.

As Buruma and Margalit suggest, much of what is anti-Western in the East today was in former generations a critique of modernity from within the West. They mention the pan-German stirrings of the 18th century, which contrasted the pastoral and spiritual qualities of pre-industrial Germany with the alien and soulless metropolitan culture of post-industrial London and Paris; or, later, the pan-Slavic stirrings in Russia against an alien West that now incorporated Germany. Even as Berlin and then Moscow tried desperately to catch up with the industrial age, an important constituency resented the impact of modern goods, manners, and ideas, finding literary expression in writers as sophisticated as Herder and Dostoevsky. And very Western forms of idealism and romanticism went underground to resurface as racial theories.

From the West the wave continued to the East. By the 20th century, write Buruma and Margalit, it was the turn of many Japanese to lament the “contamination” of Tokyo and Osaka by the movies, cafés, dance halls, radios, newspapers, short skirts, and cars that had become symbols of Western cultural hegemony. Although large cities in themselves were not a novelty in the East—Baghdad, Peking, and Edo were vast metropolitan centers long before London—the supposed atomization of the city by the importation of Western commodities and attitudes kindled a reactionary fire. Paradoxically, Buruma and Margalit point out, there was here the shadow of still another Western idea of ancient provenance: the big city as Babylon. And with it came a further paradox: the importation of such originally Western bogeymen as Jews and Freemasons, taken to be the devilish, “cosmopolitan” managers and conspirators advancing the Occidental conquest.

Capitalism, too, became a target of Eastern animosity, especially in the form of the bourgeois satisfaction with money and the comfort it can buy. To this were opposed the heroic virtues, the ideals of self-sacrifice, and the religious and aristocratic visions of grandeur that each afflicted society associated with its own past. Liberalism and democracy were no less frequently rejected as symptoms of the same disease, along with artistic freedom and sexual license. Hence, in much of the Third World, the appeal of socialism with its promise of a purely “scientific” way to obtain the advantages of modernity without the cultural and religious ramifications. But then, with the failure of socialism to deliver the goods, resentment was added to an already combustible inferiority complex to fuel still further animosity to the West.

Buruma and Margalit discern something novel in the specifically Islamist condemnation of the West, which looks upon the Westerner neither as someone to ignore nor as someone to win over but, in religious terms, as an idolater to be slain. And yet, when Islamists try to define the nature of Western idolatry, they too yield to the same anti-urban, anti-bourgeois, and Manichaean impulses that they share with all other Occidentalists. Mao drove the urban proletariat out to work in rural communes, and the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh; both were inspired by approximately the same set of objections that provoked the Taliban to strafe Kabul.

What the Occidentalists in each place and time have shared, according to Buruma and Margalit, is a failure to grasp the indivisibility of human advancement. “You cannot import what is merely utilitarian while keeping out the potentially subversive ideas that go with it.” (Alas, what you can do is try.) But this is not to say that the authors absolve the West of blame. To the contrary, they are eager to concede that people who attribute all their problems to (for example) American foreign policy have some valid points. Nor are they against anti-Westernism per se; they are just against taking it to the point where it thoroughly dehumanizes the Other. Criticism of “globalization” is one thing, but by the time a whole Western society has been reduced to “a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites,” things have gone too far.


What can one say about these various exercises in cross-cultural analysis? Though Said on the one hand and Buruma and Margalit on the other share a common or converging theme, their books proceed differently and strike very different tones. (Occidentalism, for instance, is much less overtly polemical than Orientalism.) But each of them is deeply unsatisfactory.

While Said's Orientalism had its incidental merits, many of its defining flaws were pointed out early on by scholarly critics. In particular, it was indefensibly selective, tendentious, and reckless with fact. It also played shamelessly to the political gallery, uncritically flattering the radical mentality of the 1970's. Choosing colorful—and generally unrepresentative—examples to serve his argument, Said entirely overlooked almost all of the most serious and accomplished Orientalists, including the prominent Muslim ones. He showed himself entirely unaware of scholarly publishing in the Arab world itself, and of previous Arabic discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of Western scholarship.

The intellectual deception in Orientalism was, in fact, thoroughgoing. By restricting his field to a small sampling of Anglo-Saxons and Frenchmen (plus some gratuitously introduced Israelis), Said managed to exclude the German contribution that dominated Western Orientalism through both of the centuries he surveyed, and without which the scholarly tradition as a whole is incomprehensible. Likewise he ignored significant Dutch, Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, and other scholars—for the obvious reason that their countries had no horses in the race to occupy the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Seeking no enemies on the Left, he also sedulously bypassed the Soviet Russian Oriental School—which would have supplied a true rogues' gallery for comparison with the Europeans. For, in the service of Marxist ideology, the Russians peppered their studies with extremely insulting and dismissive remarks about Islamic religion and “feudal” Arab society.

Worse, as Bernard Lewis, Malcolm Kerr, and others pointed out, much of the historical narrative that underlay Said's book was downright ignorant. He got important events in the wrong order, and he hung his thesis on a historical model, borrowed from the French scholar Raymond Schwab, that corresponded to Anglo-French adventures in India but predated the Anglo-French forays into the old Ottoman dominions of the Near East by more than a century. Indeed, as Lewis discovered, the whole book amounted to a Procrustean transplantation of Schwab's work on sub-continental India to another region entirely.

Ignorant and meretricious though it was, Orientalism wrought lasting damage. Whereas Said had (largely though not entirely) confined his application of the word “Orientalism” to Western apprehensions of the Near East, his intellectual descendants quickly freed themselves of any such limitation, using his one-string harp to generalize about Western encounters with the whole planet. And whereas Said had allowed that the word “Orientalism” might retain its old meanings in parallel with his new, his successors abandoned both variety and ambiguity. All Western efforts to understand non-Western cultures and aspirations could be tarred with the same brush.

Nor could Said be altogether excused of responsibility for the wild generality of his followers; he had suggested it from the beginning. Orientalism was, for him, something only Western people could do, and only to Eastern people, and in Orientalism and even more so in his later writings he was promiscuous in pointing to examples of “Orientalist” bias operating beyond the Arab world. Thereafter, the imbalance of power between East and West over the last few centuries was made quite consciously a point of departure for a vast harvesting of easy examples of the “othering” of anything not free, white, and male.

In the end, the most telling thing about Said's Orientalism is that while it has became a standard textbook, not to say a classic, throughout the English-speaking West, it has been almost completely ignored in the Arab world—except by Western-educated Islamists, who have gladly seized upon it for their propaganda. Indeed, the most positive Arab response to Said is a nearly 900-page examination of the subject by the Egyptian Islamist thinker Hassan Hanafi, published in Cairo in 1992 under the title Introduction to the Science of Occidentalism. It argues for a distinctively Islamic study of the modern West, for the express purpose of “othering” it into extinction. It is not available in English, and probably would not be worth reading if it were.


Unlike Orientalism, Buruma and Margalit's Occidentalism does not pretend to be a work of scholarship or of literary sleuthing. It is also less a piece of sustained argumentation than a scrapbook—an anecdotal tour of several of history's oft-visited mental asylums, the rather hapless conclusion of which is that many of the inmates are crazy. The superficiality itself becomes a grievous intellectual flaw.

To begin with, by offering us a long catalogue of now-defunct enemies of Western civilization—Muscovite pan-Slavist dreamers, German race theorists and hero worshippers, Japanese emperor-cultists, Stalinist, Maoist, and other Utopian butchers, chauvinists of various kinds and degrees—Buruma and Margalit create the effect of extenuating the Muslim jihadists who threaten us today, and of diminishing their importance in the grand scheme of things. All such enemies, they write somewhat resignedly, tend to characterize us in much the same way. We—the Westerners, the Europeans, the Americans, the bourgeois, the cosmopolitans, the Jews, whoever—are whores; our civilization is Babylon.

But what does this reveal, aside from their implacable hatred of us? And what is there about this hatred that we could ever reason with? Well, it is “bad ideas,” according to Buruma and Margalit, that provide the family resemblance between one anti-Western fantasy and another, and bad ideas can presumably be countered by good ones. Unfortunately, what they have presented is a collection less of ideas than of caricatures, and what unites them is only that they are caricatures of the same thing—that is, the same Western civilization, which has itself undergone a crisis of modernity yet shows certain continuing traits. It is the civilization that has prevailed, and has been seen to have prevailed, over every other on earth. So why would it not be despised by the “others,” and why would not some of those others carry their grudge beyond despising?

In any case, what really holds the authors' various schools of Occidentalism together is not ideas but, rather, a history of failure and maladaptation. These are people driven by an acute sense of inferiority, by humiliation; they bury a painful reality under sheets of fantasy. They do not seek dialogue with us, but revenge. And they cannot exact revenge except with the West's own technology. To the extent that we try to excuse them, or argue with them, we misunderstand them. For only the mad argue with the mad; it is the task of the sane to restrain them.

On the other hand, we do a terrible disservice not only to our own mental health but to the sane trapped among our enemies by failing to defend ourselves, intellectually as well as militarily. Yet nowhere in Buruma and Margalit will the reader find anything resembling a vindication of the West's merits. Instead, there are repeated admissions that, of course, we are not perfect, and America and Israel have many flaws. What this suggests is that Buruma and Margalit are not addressing the Occidentalists after all but rather a purely Western audience accustomed to the same parlor game that Edward Said was playing.

Their final prescription, which gives that game away is unbelievably limp, and has to be read to be believed:

The story we have told in this book is . . . a tale of cross-contamination, the spread of bad ideas. This could happen to us now, if we fall for the temptation to fight fire with fire, Islamism with our own forms of intolerance. Religious authority, especially in the United States, is already having a dangerous influence on political governance. We cannot afford to close our societies as a defense against those who have closed theirs. For then we would all become Occidentalists, and there would be nothing left to defend.

In other words: the fault, dear brutes, lies in ourselves.


Not until the penultimate chapter of Occidentalism do Buruma and Margalit delve specifically into Islamist ideology. Here is where they draw their distinction between secular and religious ideologies—a largely specious distinction, in my view, since the spiritualization of politics is an inevitable concomitant of ideologizing. Here, too, they make the characteristic liberal error of missing the continuities in the Wahhabi response to modernism over the course of more than two centuries—not to mention the tension between “catholic” and “puritanical” manifestations of Islam that runs deeper still, back to the Muslim middle ages. Intent on finding common intellectual sources, they cannot see that the present confrontation between Muslim East and post-Christian West may be more fundamental, and thus likely to be much longer-lasting, than our other confrontations.

What makes Islamism different from the other Occidentalisms? It is its very rootedness, the fact that it can strike chords much deeper in Islamic history than the experience with modernity. The usual contrasted pairing of “Europe” with “Islam”—a geographical term with a religious one—obscures this from us.

Through many centuries, the Muslims who surrounded Europe's Christians posed the chief threat to Christian religious and cultural identity; for Muslims, the Christians both outside and inside the realm of Islam were the chief threat to them. Each knew the other as its rival in the evangelization of the world. No other religions (since Buddhism in the age of Asoka) had made such universal claims to the allegiance of men as were made by both Islam and Christianity. No two peoples could use the word “infidel” to describe each other with such mutual understanding of its meaning.

They did not, however, create each other. The claims of Said's French structuralists notwithstanding, each civilization created itself, not by an “othering” process but by building upon its own traditions, its own legacy of faith. At one point, when the Christians discovered themselves to be completely surrounded by Muslims, the Christians became self-consciously aware of Islamic civilization. At a later point—the colonial situation—the Muslims discovered themselves to be completely surrounded by Christians. It is the same Christian West that today continues to surround them, and interpenetrate them, and fill them with a self-conscious fear of annihilation.

It is necessary to grasp this in order to balance the lazy, secular Western tendency to lump radical Islam together with sundry fascist and totalitarian movements more comprehensible to us because they happen to use a more European vocabulary. The rivalry between this West and that East—between the West and Islam—is different in kind from the rivalries between either of us and any other civilization. Even though the West, especially Europe, has become outwardly de-Christianized, it retains so many of the characteristics and moral assumptions, and so much of the worldview, of the Christendom that underlies it that it continues to be Christendom from any external point of view. In this sense, the Muslims understand us better than we understand ourselves.

They certainly understand us better than the purveyors of such fashionable jargon as Orientalism and Occidentalism. Beneath both accounts of “othering” lies the naive assumption that the West can be identified with modernity and even more specifically with the Enlightenment—prior to which, we might suppose, it was just a backward, third-world sort of culture like every other. But the West precedes the Enlightenment, and the ideals of the Enlightenment could only grow out of a much longer history.

In the depths of that history lie the roots of the peculiar Western ideas of law, of impersonal institutions, of separation of church and state, of the significance of the individual, of the voluntary nature of community and of many other factors contributing to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment's rationalist commitments owe even more to Thomas Aquinas than to Voltaire; its spiritual flavor is discernible in Augustine. Even the ideas that exploded in the Paris of 1789 were present in the Paris of 1277, and may be found listed among the 219 theses condemned in that year by Bishop Tempier.

This is why it is possible to speak without self-contradiction of Christian humanism—even of Calvinist humanism—and why it is an error to conceive of the Enlightenment and all that followed it as a complete breach with Christian history. The Reformation, the Enlightenment, humanism: Christianity could accommodate these things because these things were implicit in it. By the same token, however, the phrase “Islamic humanism,” though a conjunction devoutly to be wished, is in fact a contradiction in terms; as a goal, it has repeatedly eluded those down through the ages, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who have dreamed of it.

The great accomplishments of the Islamic past were not built on humanist ideas. Though the medieval Arabs took over various Greek traditions in science and philosophy, they absolutely rejected Greek art and literature, with their representations of the divine-in-man (in theory, a representation perfectly congenial to a Christian). Islam could not have a reformation or an enlightenment or a genuine humanism because such things were not only missing from Islam but explicitly repudiated by it. This is not to say that Islam's accomplishments were necessarily inferior to the West's; they were, instead, radically “other.”

In the later 19th century, there were many Islamic liberals at work, merrily importing all sorts of “discoveries” from the West. What happened to them? They died right out. We may applaud those who today are trying against all odds to resurrect that noble project. But we should also acknowledge how great, if not insurmountable, the odds really are.


Does an honest recognition of radical otherness preclude the ability to understand “the Other”? To the contrary, it may be the precondition for such an understanding.

Take the proposition that to study “the Other” is necessarily to distort and disfigure it, and that anyone engaged in such an enterprise must tend to be in the service of his own culture's political and ideological assumptions. Thus stated, the proposition sounds plausible enough (if also untestable). But so long as cultures are bound to interact on the finite surface of this planet, it does not get us anywhere. From the time the world began, the human tribes have been appropriating, and improving upon, each other's cultural and even political productions, on the principle of “who can, may.” The East may be understood on Western terms or on Eastern terms; the West, likewise. Civilizational rivalry does not preclude this effort; indeed, it may spur it on.

For me, one of the most fascinating and indeed inspiring writers on Islam in English is Fazlur Rahman, whose heartfelt, one-volume survey, Islam (1979), may well be the best place for a curious reader to begin learning about Islam's experience of modernity from within. The son of a learned alim (scholar) in the northwest frontier of Pakistan, Rahman was educated initially in madrassas before finishing his university education in Lahore with distinction in Arabic. He then went to Oxford, where he wrote a remarkable dissertation on the medieval Arab philosopher Avicenna, and later taught the Islamic metaphysical tradition at Durham (England), McGill, UCLA, and finally Chicago. He was recalled to Pakistan in the 1960's to run the Central Institute of Islamic Research, tasked with recommending national legal and political reforms. There, colliding with both the ulama and the bureaucracy, he acquired the experience with which he later struggled intellectually for a way to overcome the ossification of Islamic education and society.

I mention Rahman because he writes out of the same metaphysical tradition that he studied and taught, his mind trained in “Eastern” categories that prove wonderfully useful in receiving and interpreting modern “Western” ideas. His fundamental distinction between “historical Islam” and “normative Islam”—an attempt to abstract the universal message of Islam from the historical circumstances in which the Qur'an appeared, without sacrificing the divine nature of the text itself—was founded on the best traditions of the medieval Islamic philosophical schools. And yet how did Rahman gain access to that tradition? Largely, through the Orientalist institutions of the West, which had preserved a treasury of medieval Arab thought to return to later generations of Muslims just as the Muslims once preserved a treasury of Greek thought to return to us.

How does the case of Rahman fit into the scheme of Edward Said, or for that matter into the inverted scheme of Buruma and Margalit? It does not and cannot. How, moreover, do we explain the leap of serious Muslim thought into the clothing of the English language—the language that served Said and Rahman alike as Arabic once served Jewish and Christian thinkers, or as Muslim thought was once translated into Persian and Turkish and Hindi and Malay?

In the case of this one man—and there have been many others, including especially Iranians—we can see the whole project of cultural reductionism beginning to implode. If a Fazlur Rahman has something to say to me as a Westerner, and incidentally as a Christian, can I doubt that a Gibb, or a Massignon, or a Lewis, has something to say that would be of equal interest to an intelligent and believing Muslim?

For a better comprehension of what is at stake in the current exchange between East and West, I turn to another public intellectual of today, Lee Harris, whose new book, Civilization and Its Enemies2 begins and ends by evoking the majestic example of the 14th-century Muslim historian ibn Khaldun, the inventor and perhaps greatest master of the discipline we now call sociology. Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, or “Prolegomenon” to the study of history, was an unprecedented effort to comprehend the causes of the rise, persistence, and decline of human civilizations.

Ibn Khaldun considered the primary cause of civilizational decline to be forgetfulness. As Harris explains, this could be defined as the “tendency of civilized men to take for granted the complex and peculiar historical conditions that permitted them to behave as civilized men.” It is a collective amnesia, a forgetting of who we are, and of how we came to be, and therefore of what we must do to continue being.

This is the very crisis that threatens to undermine and finally destroy everything in the West that has been worth emulating by foreign cultures. In the East itself, the situation may well be past the crisis point, for the conditions that raised Islamic civilization to the heights it once attained seem to be irretrievably lost, leaving us “others” in the unhappy position where we may only be able to learn from the Islamic past.


It is in the nature of civilizations to civilize. It is also in their nature to learn, as the Romans learned from the Greeks, the Christians from the Romans, Greeks, and Jews, the Muslims from the Christians, Jews, and Greeks. And it is in the nature of successful civilizations, as Hegel wrote, to transcend their teachers, and in turn to become teachers themselves, raising up from barbarism the untutored world around them—or else falling back into barbarism themselves as they forget what they are.

The rise of the West has been a case of Darwinism on a world-historical scale: a triumph of adaptation in which the Western way of doing things has proved to work better than any other way. This is not to suggest that our civilization is the end of history, that it has nothing to learn, or even that it is not in decline. We have prevailed, as previous civilizations prevailed, because we believe in work instead of djinns, and hold fast to the law of noncontradiction. That, after all, was how the Muslims advanced themselves many centuries ago.

It is, however, incumbent upon us to say so. It is incumbent upon us to correct fanciful errors: to explain, in this case, that the West did not prevail over the East because it was peculiarly brutal or conspiring or malicious but rather because it was unusually adept, co-operative, and just. We sufficiently mastered the realities of the world around us to remain in charge of our destiny.

The “Orientalist” project was very much a part of this enterprise. This was not, as Edward Said infers, an unconscious, Freudian, concealed agenda; the Orientalists were fully conscious of it. Their very ability to master exotic languages, and reconstruct lost literatures and histories, and analyze them in an empathetic yet objective way was the mark of their cultural confidence, as also of their accomplishment. For despite frequent flaws in procedure, motive, sentiment, and imagination, the European and American Orientalists of the 19th and 20th centuries did a spectacular job of exploring and interpreting Said's Near East—better, in aggregate, than even the brilliant attempts of ibn Khaldun to explain, reciprocally, the functioning of the European courts to Arabic readers.

The Orientalists felt themselves part of a West so triumphant that they had become heirs to the entire cultural inheritance of the world. Conversely, the symptoms of our own forgetful decline may well be found in the reflexive multiculturalism that has banned such triumphalism from our thinking about ourselves, while leaving large numbers of us unable to make any cultural demands of “others,” no matter how psychopathological or destructive their behavior. This refusal to demand cultural change, a refusal often advanced in the name of liberal tolerance and decency, is, in Harris's apt word, “indefensible.” He spells out the point in curtly moral terms:

It is to treat the members of this other culture as if they were children, and to condemn them to live in a kind of cultural wildlife preserve. To argue that other cultures cannot change because their members are incapable of embodying the values we hold dear is racism.

This is the kind of bald, rational, true, evangelical, and thoroughly Western statement that writers like Said, Buruma, and Margalit have long since lost the ability to utter. Tolerance and decency are part of the Western heritage, but they are not ends in themselves. There is so much more; and if we are to survive the present crisis of our civilization—and theirs—we had better remember to remember.



1 Penguin, 176 pp., $21.95.

2 Free Press, 256 pp., $26.00.


About the Author

David Warren, a columnist and commentator for the Ottawa Citizen, reviewed Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi in the October 2006 COMMENTARY.

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.