American professors have long lectured to our students about purported Western biases and cruel misconceptions toward the “Other.” According to Edward Said and other postcolonial critics, much of our dim view of Arabs is a product of an “Orientalism” that was constructed by European intellectuals of the 19th century West — blinkered folk actively engaged as colonialists overseas, and conditioned by an earlier pedigree of prejudice toward the East dating from Herodotus and Aeschylus. According to such supposedly biased and unsophisticated views, Asians and Arabs were considered tribal, emotional, less-sophisticated peoples, prone to violence, fundamentalism, and irrational thinking, simply because they did not understand, or chose not to follow, Europe’s rather brutal notions of capitalism, nationalism, rationalism, and Christianity.
Few any longer accept such a simplistic, black-and-white portrait — especially when a number of erudite Europeans made great efforts not only to live among and understand the Islamic world, but also to criticize their own culture’s interactions with it. Indeed, “Orientalism” is a superficial charge that does no justice to a wide range of liberal 19th-century thinking and the present array of modern Middle East Studies programs throughout America and Europe.
What really is startling, however, is not how the West in an earlier age — without easy communications and cheap travel — misunderstood the Arab and Islamic worlds, but rather how today — Internet, jets, student visas, television, and all — the East continues to stereotype the West, with not a clue about its intrinsic nature.
We should call this bias “Westernism” — or, perhaps, “Occidentalism.” In general we can describe it as the mentality of desperately wanting something that one either cannot understand or that one, in fact, blindly and in ignorance loathes. Millions of Arabs have now come in contact with the dividends of Western capitalism and industrial production, most clearly in their easy acceptance of everything from cell phones and televisions to antibiotics and chemotherapy — everything that makes life a little easier materially, and occasionally somewhat longer. Sheiks from Saudi Arabia go to London or New York for bypass surgery — not to Cairo or Amman; they buy their Viagra from the States, not from apothecaries in Yemen. The Arab street purchases appliances that are made in China or Japan on Western blueprints, rather than producing them en masse in Damascus or improving on their designs at Baghdad University.
The Israelis produce the best tank in the world, and export everything from drip-irrigation technology to computer software; their enemies whine that America does not give them more and better weapons. Not even Saddam Hussein could establish a modern aircraft factory, nor could the formidable Assad dynasty produce a single destroyer. All the arms in all the Arab countries are either imported from Europe, Japan, or America — or licensed and built from Western designs in China and Korea.
We see such a very thin facing of material prosperity in almost every picture that is broadcast from the Middle East — thousands of consumer goods, movies, videos, and processed food that would be impossible without the West. Bin Laden himself, after calling for a medieval caliphate, bought a cell phone, a video camera, and sophisticated weapons — products that his own anti-rationalist madrassas and mosques could not produce. The Taliban liked SUVs, but the government and school system they established ensured that not a single Afghan would ever acquire the knowledge to produce such pricey appurtenances. The killers in Palestine must bring in everything, from their rifles to their bombs — and the expertise to use them. Those few who do possess indigenous knowledge of sophisticated destruction either are foreign-educated or got the requisite information off the Internet.
The lust for the West is not only a matter of material addiction; there is a yearning for its freedom, modernity, and liberality as well. On American university campuses, Arab students often are the most vociferous questioners at lectures, and bask in the Western idea of completely unrestricted free speech. At rallies and on call-in radio stations, Islamic visitors on visas keenly exercise their rights of sharp critique — by openly condemning our own Mideast policy, our president, and indeed our country itself. Non-Westerners metamorphose into hyper-Westerners when they come here to study.
Diplomats from the Middle East are a funny sort. They are at home in Western ties and suits, and with cocktails and limos — and adept at the free-for-all of commercial television — adroit, too, in the subtle nuances of our politics, and aware of the possible nexus between the cause of the Palestinians and a vast labyrinth of American victimology. They grow silent only when caught in an obvious lie, abject anti-Semitism, or incontrovertible evidence of state-sponsored terrorism — occasions when their newly found Western candor would earn them a bullet or prison billet upon landing on the tarmac at home. Likewise, al-Jazeera has the entire fluff of the Western news media down pat — the jazzed-up background music, the computer-simulated graphics, the photogenic airhead newsreaders — everything except true free speech, criticism of government, and doubts about religious orthodoxy.
So this entire familiarity with Western goods and practices ultimately is superficial. The Arab world is suffering from a deep-seated schizophrenia as it slowly sorts out its ambiguous feelings toward the hated West. Do you despise a country that gives you oil-drilling equipment, Ford SUVs, and contact lenses, along with Spider-Man and McDonald’s, as being crass, godless, and decadent? And if so, do you express such loathing between Big Macs, as you park your air-conditioned Wagoneer, board a 767, or put in eye drops for your glaucoma? Are America’s unveiled, auto-driving, and sometimes belly-baring women sluts and worse? — or do they accomplish far more than exciting the baser passions, such as doubling the work force and bringing critical brain power to the very pinnacles of society? Should you even shake hands with a Western woman, pay her to join your harem, lecture her about chastity — or hire her to economize your bureaucracy, control your aircraft traffic, design your power grid, sort our your legal codes?
And what exactly is this mysterious Western paradigm — the right to speak freely when visiting America, but not when you return to Egypt? If you are a envoy from the Sudan, Palestine, or Saudi Arabia, do you condemn America on Crossfire and Fox News, but then curb such criticism when it concerns Arafat and the royal princes at home? Quite simply, very few in the Arab world realize that the reason we produce CAT scanners and F-16s and Apaches, and they do not — or the reason they come here to be schooled and we, as a rule, do not go there — is that our universities are free, our governments elected and tolerant, our people welcome to chose any religion or none, and our schools secular and meritocratic rather than fundamentalist and tribal.
Occidentalism — this counterfeit affinity with, and superficial knowledge of, the West — is most apparent in politics, where America’s support for Israel is wrongly attributed to Zionist conspiracies and Jewish influence, rather than a tolerance and liberal values shared with the Middle East’s only true democracy. When we see Israeli women in uniform, we think of our own — not those veiled in Pakistan. When we see the fiery debates in the Knesset, we recall our own Congress — not Syria’s faux parliament. When we witness in the last few years Rabin, Netanyahu, Barak, and Sharon, we think of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush II — not of the uninterrupted tenure of an Arafat, Mubarak, or Hussein.
In short, Occidentalism is a simulacrum of the West, and it is an insidious and often tragic phenomenon. One uses the Internet — a handy device that one’s own society could not create or repair — to spread fundamentalism. One has a parliament and a president — even a staged election or two, on occasion — but no free press, real opposition, or unbridled speech. A writer likes Western acclaim, the genre of the novel, and literary prizes based on merit not obsequiousness — but finds stone-throwers in the courtyard when one’s narrative dares to question the hold of Islam. One travels abroad to become a vociferous Western student, but upon graduation goes from a vocal lion on an American campus to a timid mouse in the Gulf.
At day’s end, the Arab world will have to sort out these paradoxes and contradictions — and decide how traditional, how fundamentalist, or how autocratic and closed its societies should be in rejecting some, all, or none of the West’s material and ideological dynamism. But we here in America have our own choices to make — and it is high time that we confront Occidentalism squarely and without pretense.
Politically, our officials must at last realize that Israelis tell the truth more often than Palestinians do — not because of genes or superior morality, but because their system of a free press, informed citizenry, and vocal opposition requires them to. We must not take seriously too much Arab hatred that is predicated on real grievance, but realize that most antipathy is the result of this unhealthy stew of envy, anger, and desire for the West, a concoction that can so often be as humiliating to them as it is dangerous to us — as we saw with the Westernized murderers on September 11.
As a people and a government, we must realize that our West is not Westernism; that all the suits, jet planes, and televisions in the Gulf do not add up to gender equity, free speech, or religious tolerance — and that the latter are precisely what ensures the life that is good, and humane, and uniquely our own. We must accept that the most parochial and ridiculed American — selling real estate in Des Moines or hammering nails in Provo — in fact knows far better who and what he is; what his own culture is, and is not, about; and what the Arab world stands, and does not stand, for, than does the wealthiest, most sophisticated, and most glib Westernized intellectuals and professors of the Middle East.
We wish all this was not so, but it is — and we should get used to it, fast.
— May 10, 2002