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Lost in history

17 Aug 2012 By Edward Hadas

“What is the cause of the poverty, indigence, helplessness and distress of the Muslims, and is there a cure for this important phenomenon and great misfortune?”

The question was asked in 1880 by the Persian intellectual and activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Around that time, thinkers from India, China and other lands which had been literally or metaphorically colonised by the industrial nation-states of Europe were asking similar questions about their own degraded peoples. In “From the Ruins of Empire”, Indian-British writer Pankaj Mishra provides a lively narrative of the discussion about how to respond to “the West”. As he points out, the debate continues today.

The theme is impossibly large, since each colonised culture and colonial power has its own story. The quite different 20th and 21st century histories of, say, Japan and Egypt show the danger of making generalisations about conditions in the 19th century. Still, in every losing land, the colonialists inspired a mixture of fear, admiration, fascination and fury. Each intellectual from what would later be called the developing world had to struggle with the tempting new ideas, oppressive politics, intellectual hypocrisy and the crude power of history’s apparent winners.

Mishra provides a readable and often illuminating introduction. As he admits, he is not a great scholar – he rarely refers to primary sources and frequently relies on other secondary works. He is more of a clever journalist, but his use of a journalistic technique, to focus on a few key men, including al-Afghani and the Chinese politician and thinker Liang Qichao, works well.

Al-Afghani’s trajectory exemplifies the challenges of clashing civilisations. He consistently disliked the colonial powers, especially the British with their self-serving rhetoric. But his ideas about how best to respond changed as he moved around the world, including stays in Afghanistan, Persia, Egypt and Europe.

At first, he was tempted by those who wished to discard most of the old ways – the secularising and modernising approach which was to prevail in Turkey after the First World War and in China after the Second. Later, he became more sceptical of Western ways, sympathising with the complaint of the Ottoman intellectual Namik Kemal, who said that blind modernisation left ordinary people “stranded, materially and spiritually”, while the elite became only superficially modern: “frequenting ballrooms, being liberal about the infidelities of one’s wife and using European toilets”.

As he grew older, Al-Afghani lost faith in the ability of colonised people to create Western-style modern states which were strong enough to stand up to Western military and economic pressure. Although personally something of a religious sceptic – he had read European philosophers – he decided that Islam could become a liberating political force. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the leaders of the 1979 Iranian revolution were influenced by his argument that politics and religion needed to be closely integrated to resist the corrosive influence of the West.

In the world that Mishra describes, the temptations of the West were great indeed. It offered not only potent technology but the ideal of human equality, the clarity of rational thinking and the practicality of strong governments ruling well organised societies. In contrast, the traditional Asian wisdom often looked like ignorance and traditional authorities looked oppressive and ineffective.

In that world, though, the West was also repulsive. Racism was standard, the colonial powers were cruel and even such enlightened leaders as U.S. President Woodrow Wilson did not think the principle of national self-determination extended to the colonies and near-colonies which accounted for most of the world’s population. The West’s material and military success was also widely judged to by spiritually empty and doomed to end in violent self-destruction. Chinese thinker Yan Fu said, “Western progress…has led only to selfishness, slaughter, corruption and shamelessness.”

The chaos of World War Two seemed to confirm that judgment. When the colonial powers withdrew after that conflagration, the leaders of newly independent countries had no good examples to follow. They and their successors have struggled to reconcile old and new – forms of government, economic arrangement and ways of thinking.

Mishra ends with a brief discussion of the latest developments in the continuing struggle to be both modern and Asian or Moslem. His conclusion is a good starting point for a longer discussion. On one side, “The rise of Asia…consummates the revolt against the West that began more than a century ago.” On the other, there has been “an immense intellectual failure… Much of the ’emerging’ world now stands to repeat, on an ominously larger scale, the West’s own tortured and often tragic experience of modern ’development’.”


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