Highlights for From the Ruins of Empire

It mattered little to which class or race they belonged; the subordinate peoples of the world keenly absorbed the deeper implications – moral and psychological – of Japan’s triumph.

They had failed to notice the intense desire for equality and dignity among peoples whom Europe’s most influential thinkers, from Hegel and Marx to John Stuart Mill, had deemed unfit for self-rule – thinkers whose ideas, ironically, would in fact prove highly potent among these ‘subject peoples’.

During their long and eventful lives the Asians discussed in the book manifested all of the three main responses to Western power: the reactionary conviction that if Asian people were truly faithful to their religious traditions, which were presumed to be superior to those of all other civilizations, they would be strong again; the moderate notion that only a few Western techniques were required by Asians whose traditions already provided a sound basis for culture and society; and the vigorous determination, embraced by radical secularists like Mao and Atatürk, that the entire old way of life had to be revolutionized in order to compete in the jungle-like conditions of the modern world.

Islam was as much a universalizing ideology as Western modernity is now, and it successfully shaped distinctive political systems, economies and cultural attitudes across a wide geographical region

Two centuries later, al-Jabarti seems to stand at the beginning of a long line of bewildered Asians: men accustomed to a divinely ordained dispensation, the mysterious workings of fate and the cyclical rise and fall of political fortunes, to whom the remarkable strength of small European nation-states would reveal that organized human energy and action, coupled with technology, amount to a power that could radically manipulate social and political environments. Resentfully

The Chinese themselves remained perplexed by the apparently unappeasable greed of the British.

The British were beginning to replace their economic and political regime of pure plunder, as had existed in Bengal, with monopoly interests in shipping, banking, insurance and trade, and administrative structures. They enlisted native collaborators, such as the middlemen who expedited the lucrative export of opium grown in India to China, but these tended to be Hindu, Sikh or Parsi rather than Muslim.

European forms of political and military mobilization (conscript armies, efficient taxation, codified laws), financial innovations (capital-raising joint-stock companies) and information-rich public cultures of enquiry and debate fed upon each other to create a formidable and decisive advantage as Europe penetrated Asia.

By 1900, a small white minority radiating out from Europe would come to control most of the world’s land surface, imposing the imperatives of a commercial economy and international trade on Asia’s mainly agrarian societies.

Secret British government reports from Kandahar and Kabul in 1868 describe al-Afghani as having arrived from India in 1866, a virulent anti-British agitator and likely Russian agent, a slender man with a pale complexion, open forehead, penetrating azure eyes and goatee, who drank tea constantly, was well-versed in geography and history, spoke Arabic, Turkish and Persian (the last language like a native of Persia), not visibly religious and with a European rather than Muslim lifestyle.

Most of Istanbul’s population was Christian, and parts of it – the western quarters of Pera and Galata – resembled, superficially at least, a more cosmopolitan version of Berlin or St Petersburg.

Many Muslim reformers in his time spoke of following the West, but it was not easy for most ordinary Muslims to follow the ways of infidel peoples whom they feared or hated or knew nothing about.

With European bondholders and moneylenders practically running the country, al-Afghani was becoming less discreet than before about the dangers of Western encroachment.

The correspondent did admit that the expulsion ‘may not seem consonant with English ideals as to the free expression of opinion’, but added that the ‘peculiar circumstances of the country must be considered’.

Modernization, it was clear, hadn’t secured the Ottomans against infidels; on the contrary, it had made them more dependent.

India had originally alerted al-Afghani to the advantages of Western science and knowledge; India also served as a warning against those advocating drastic, total Westernization.

In the same vein, he also argued that linguistic ties were more profound than religious ones (a lesson Pakistan was to learn when the Bengali-speaking Muslims in East Pakistan seceded to form Bangladesh in 1971).

The Indian visitors were keen to learn about the Mahdi, then the kind of minatory figure to Westerners that Osama bin Laden was to become later.

Renan attacked Islam in terms similar to those he and other European freethinkers deployed against Catholicism: with its claims to supernatural revelation, it was an affront to reason, and a violent persecutor of free thought.

The masses do not like reason, the teachings of which are understood only by a few select minds. Science, however fine it may be, cannot completely satisfy humanity’s thirst for the ideal, or the desire to soar in dark and distant regions that philosophers and scholars can neither see nor explore.

That Islam needed a Reformation, with himself as Luther, was gradually becoming a favourite theme of al-Afghani.

He confessed he was worried about British influence in Afghanistan; the British, he said, always crept into countries as advisers before becoming their masters. This could also, he added, be proved true in Persia, where the shah was beginning to make major concessions to the British at the expense of Russia.

Budding revolutionaries usually have one shot at success. Al-Afghani had had several, but he had nothing to show for his efforts except a wide network of friends, sympathizers and fellow conspirators across three continents.

Like many other despots, he was interested in modernization only in so far as it strengthened his apparatus of surveillance and control, and made him look enlightened to foreign investors.

The imperatives for reform and science were contained in the Koran, which was perfectly compatible with modern science, politics and economics. He stressed a clear and modern reading of the Koran; no traditionalist interpretation of the holy text, he seemed to argue, should stand in the way of Muslim unity.

‘The entire Oriental world,’ he told the German journalist who visited him in Istanbul, ‘is so entirely rotten and incapable of hearing the truth and following it that I should wish for a flood or an earthquake to devour and bury it.’

More drastic, and popular, revolutions from below were needed; and they needed to shatter the bases as well as the superstructures of oppression.

A generation of educated Japanese, some exposed to Western societies, came to occupy powerful positions in the Meiji Restoration. They recognized the futility of unfocused xenophobia, shrewdly analysed their own weaknesses vis-à-vis the West as scientific and technical backwardness, and urgently set about organizing Japan into a modern nation-state.

The brisk rout of Chinese naval and land forces not only resoundingly proved the sturdiness of Japan’s military and its industrial and infrastructural base. It also showed that, as Sohō put it, ‘civilization is not a monopoly of the white man’.

At the risk of lèse-majesté, Kang now told his fellow students that China had degenerated so much that it resembled Turkey, another once-confident and now-feeble country carefully maintained in its infirmity by exploitative foreigners.

The Chinese resisted, and in the war that ensued the French destroyed much of the Chinese navy.

Even Italy, a latecomer to Chinese affairs and expansionism in general, demanded territory (although it was successfully rebuffed).

They all faced the task of having to generate a new set of values that ensured survival in the modern era while respecting time-honoured traditions – of appearing loyal to their nation while borrowing some of the secrets of the West’s progress.

the sick men of Asia were better alive than dead, for they held chaos at bay, and could also be bullied at will.

Singh particularly blamed the Russian and French soldiers for the mass killings, arson and rape inflicted on the Chinese. Some of the soldiers tortured their victims purely for fun. ‘All these sportsmen’, Singh noted, ‘belonged to what were called “civilized nations”.’

As he saw it, corporate interests played an insidious role in American politics. Frequent elections made for policy short-sightedness and cheap populism. People entering democratic politics tended to be third-rate; far too many American presidents had been mediocre and uninspiring.

Invoking their ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, the French authorities in Vietnam had rounded up some 100,000 peasants and artisans and shipped them to the battlefields of France. In return, France was to consider self-rule for their country at some unspecified point in the future.

It is hard to exaggerate the impact of Atatürk’s success on opinion across Asia – the greatest victory of the East since the Battle of Tsushima. ‘The truth’, Muhammad Iqbal wrote, ‘is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained to self-consciousness.’

Indian philosophy and literature – which only Brahmans in possession of Sanskrit could read – had been a closed book to a majority of Indians; it was the European discovery, and translation into English and German, of Indian texts that introduced a new Western-educated generation of Indian intellectuals to their cultural heritage.

‘Whatever is to their interest,’ Mukhopadhyay wrote about Europeans, ‘they find consistent with their sense of what is right at all times, failing to understand how their happiness cannot be the source of universal bliss.’7

According to him, the Industrial Revolution, by turning human labour into a source of power, profit and capital, had made economic prosperity the central goal of politics, enthroning machinery over men and relegating religion and ethics to irrelevance. As Gandhi saw it, Western political philosophy obediently validated the world of industrial capitalism.

Okakura had been alerted to Japan’s cultural heritage by his American teacher Ernest Fenollosa, an art historian and philosopher who believed that it was Asia’s destiny to spiritualize the modern West.

And, he added, ‘the unbridled tyranny of the white races exists because there are no powerful people other than the white races. By breaking through this condition, we can make a positive contribution to all mankind.’

In this programme of eradication, Japan succeeded beyond the most garish militarist fantasy. In about ninety days, beginning on 8 December 1941, Japan overran the possessions of Britain, the United States and the Netherlands in East and South-east Asia, taking the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, much of Siam and French Indochina, and Burma with bewildering swiftness to stand poised at the borders of India by early 1942. There are few examples in history of such dramatic humiliation of established powers.

The Japanese had revealed how deep the roots of anti-Westernism went, and how quickly Asians could seize power back from their European tormentors.

However, everywhere they came up against the new communal identities forged during the long war, when the Europeans were absent or slaving in prison camps.

Accustomed to deferential natives, European powers mostly underestimated the post-war nationalism that the Japanese had unwittingly or deliberately unleashed. They also misjudged their own staying power among populations unremittingly hostile to them. This led to many disastrously futile counter-insurgency operations and full-scale wars, many of which still scar nations across Asia.

The prominent Malay nationalist Mustapha Hussain spoke for many Asians when he said that, ‘Although the Japanese occupation was described as one of severe hardship and brutality, it left something positive, a sweet fruit to be plucked and enjoyed only after the surrender.’

The revolutions that succeeded in Muslim countries were launched in the name of Islam not Marx or Paine. Liberalism, defined in the broadest sense, had a tenuous hold in the Muslim world.

A further devastating blow to the reputation of the West was the creation of the state of Israel on Palestinian lands in 1948

New urban elites emerged from modern educational institutions and bureaucracies, and they tended to have little time for traditional sources of authority. Many of them enriched themselves at the expense of the rural poor. A reservoir of discontent built up, especially among the people most marginalized by this process, such as the clergy, small-town merchants, provincial officials and men from semi-rural backgrounds – the kind of people who hung around al-Afghani.

Relations between the Arab world and the West were never so fraught as they were between the two world wars. Muslim intellectuals who stressed Western ideologies of nationalism, secularism and democracy felt cruelly betrayed by Europe’s refusal to support their aspirations for national independence.

In the war that followed, the Zionists defeated the combined Arab armies, expelled hundreds of thousands of Arab inhabitants of Palestine, and proclaimed an independent state. This constituted a radical defeat for Egypt in particular – the most modern of Arab nations – and Israel became, and has remained, a symbol of Arab impotence against Western power.

This was where Qutb first began to develop his larger critique of Western civilization as unhealthily obsessed with material and technological progress to the detriment of moral freedom and social justice.

He freely employed the words ‘white man’ as an epithet thereafter: ‘We must nourish in our school-age children sentiments that open their eyes to the tyranny of the white man, his civilization, and his animal hunger.’

Qutb extended a conventional critique of corrupt Middle Eastern regimes and failed modernization into an indictment of all those Western ideologies – whether nationalism, liberalism or socialism – that banished religion and morality from the realm of politics, and exalted human reason above God.

The attempt to push Iran into the twentieth century created a small middle class, but it also uprooted millions of people from their traditional rural homes and exposed them to the degradations of urban life. Inequality increased as a small urban elite prospered and acquired the symbols of a modern consumer economy.

However, a visit to the then new nation-state of Israel in 1962 impressed upon him the power of political solidarity built upon a shared religion: ‘I as an Easterner [prefer] an Israeli model over all other models of how to deal with the West,’ he wrote in his diary.

In many countries, especially in the Middle East and South Asia where modernization failed or was not even properly attempted, hundreds of millions of Muslims have long inhabited a netherworld fantasy of religious-political revenge. Trying and failing to enter the modern world defined by the West, they ended up not only uprooting themselves but also hating the West – the source of so much upheaval and trauma in their lives.

Turkey is the first Muslim country to have developed a model of indigenous modernity that not only does not depend on the original Western one but also seems to rival it. Furthermore, this Islamic modernism is rooted in lived experience rather than, as has been the case elsewhere, pure imagination. Western ideas remain important but they are now assessed on the basis of their effectiveness, rather than simply swallowed whole. And a certain abject attitude towards the West has been replaced by a renewed pride in Turkishness.

But Turkey itself shows that Atatürk’s political and cultural experiment succeeded only partially and that some selective borrowings from Western modernity cannot relegate Islam to the private sphere – let alone ensure social and economic justice for the majority of the population.

What China may well need, he said, is state socialism which controls the economy and works to diminish inequality, while making the country a serious combatant in the jungle of international competition.

This loss of the West’s moral prestige and the assertiveness of the East may appear a recent phenomenon. But, as this book has shown, the less uneven global order coming into being was outlined as early as the nineteenth century by Asian intellectuals who rejected the West’s racial and imperial hierarchies and its right to define the rules of international politics.

This can be seen most clearly today within Europe and the United States, the originators of globalization. Inequality and unemployment grow as highly mobile corporations continually move around the world in search of cheap labour and high profits, evading taxation and therefore draining much-needed investment in welfare systems for ageing populations. Economic setbacks, the prospect of long-term decline and a sense of political impotence stoke a great rage and paranoia among their populations, directed largely at non-white immigrants, particularly Muslims.

Globalization, it is clear, does not lead to a flat world marked by increasing integration, standardization and cosmopolitan openness, despite the wishful thinking of some commentators.

It took much private and public tumult, and great physical and intellectual journeys, to bring these thinkers to the point where they could make sense of themselves and their environment, and then the knowledge they achieved after so much toil was often full of pain and did not offer hope. They often seemed to change their minds and contradict themselves. As some of the first to break with tradition, they were faced with the Sisyphean task of finding their bearings in the modern world and reorienting their minds to new problems of personal and collective identity.

Many of these thinkers judged Western-style politics and economics to be inherently violent and destructive forces. They knew that borrowing technical skills through a modern system of education from Europe wasn’t enough; these borrowings brought with them a whole new way of life. They demanded an organized mass society whose basic unit was the self-reliant individual who pursues his economic self-interest while progressively liberating himself from guild rules, religious obligations and other communal solidarities – a presupposition that threatened to wreck the old moral order. These thinkers sensed that, though irresistible and often necessary, the modern industrial society and social freedoms pioneered by Europe would destroy many of their cherished cultures and traditions, just as they had in Europe itself, and leave chaos in their place.

And all this was for a process which did not lead directly, even in the West itself, to a clear destination of happiness and stability, and which despite producing mass education, cheap consumer goods, the popular press and mass entertainment had only partly relieved a widely and deeply felt rootlessness, confusion and anomie.

Indeed, as one indigenous modernizer after another in Japan, Turkey, China and India conceded, resistance to the West required urgent adaptation to Western ideas of organizing state and society.

Ryszard KapuŚciński once summed up the tragic ‘drama’ of the honest and patriotic postcolonial leader by describing the

terrible material resistance that each one encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that is just isn’t happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organizes a coup.

And the cycle begins anew.

We can see that the seemingly wholesale adoption of Western ideologies (Chinese communism, Japanese imperialism) did not work. Attempts at syntheses (India’s parliamentary democracy, Muslim Turkey’s secular state, China’s state capitalism) were more successful, and violent rejections of the West in the form of Iran’s Islamic Revolution and Islamist movements continue to have an afterlife.

It is simply this: no convincingly universalist response exists today to Western ideas of politics and economy, even though these seem increasingly febrile and dangerously unsuitable in large parts of the world.

The European model of the ethnically homogenous nation-state was a poor fit in Europe itself. That it was particularly so for multi-ethnic Asian societies has been amply proved by the plight of Kashmiri Muslims, Tibetans, Uighurs, the Chinese in Malaysia, Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Kurds in Turkey and Tamils in Sri Lanka.

As India and China rise with their consumerist middle classes in a world of finite energy resources, it is easy to imagine that this century will be ravaged by the kind of economic rivalries and military conflicts that made the last century so violent.

The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth – that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans – is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda.

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