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From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra

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Europeans would like to escape from their history, a ‘great’ history written in letters of blood. But others, by the hundreds of millions, are taking it up for the first time, or coming back to it (Raymond Aron, 1969).

The contemporary world first began to assume its decisive shape over two days in May 1905 when a small Japanese fleet commanded by Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō annihilated much of the Russian navy.

For the first time since the Middle Ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war; and the news careened around a world.

For many other non-white peoples, Russia’s humiliation seemed to negate the West’s racial hierarchies, mocking the European presumption to ‘civilize’ the supposedly ‘backward’ countries of Asia.

Students from Muslim countries everywhere now headed to Tokyo to learn the secrets of its progress. The domino effect of Japan’s victory was felt even in the Indonesian archipelago which had only recently been unified by Dutch colonialists.

The most far-reaching changes occurred in China, culminating in the overthrow of one of the world’s oldest imperial dynasties in 1911.

Elsewhere, too, Japan’s victory galvanized patriotic sentiment and even pushed it towards extremism.

The slaughter of the First World War, a decade after the Battle of Tsushima, would deprive Europe, in Asian eyes, of much of its remaining moral prestige.

From its zenith at the beginning of the twentieth century, Europe’s hold over Asia would dramatically weaken; by 1950, with India and China already sovereign states, Europe would be reduced to a peripheral presence in Asia, shored up only by the newest Western power, the United States, and increasingly dependent on an informal empire constituted by military bases, economic pressures and political coups.

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’.

The central event of the last century for the majority of the world’s population was the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. To acknowledge this is to understand the world not only as it exists today, but also how it is continuing to be remade.

The European subordination of Asia was not merely economic and political and military. It was also intellectual and moral and spiritual: a completely different kind of conquest than had been witnessed before, which left its victims resentful but also envious of their conquerors and, ultimately, eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani is revered as the intellectual godfather of the Islamic Revolution, which Michel Foucault, visiting Tehran in 1979, called ‘the first great insurrection’ against the ‘global systems’ of the West.

Compared to the two other great political and philosophical exiles of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Alexander Herzen, al-Afghani is barely known in the West today, even though his influence exceeds that of Herzen and, at least in its longevity, almost matches Marx’s.

Certainly, there was scarcely a social or political tendency in Muslim lands – modernism, nationalism, pan-Islamism – that al-Afghani’s catholic and vital sensibility did not either ignite or stoke. Nor was there a realm of political action – anti-imperialist conspiracy, education, journalism, constitutional reform – on which he did not leave the imprint of his ideas.

Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt had first demonstrated to many Muslims that some people of the West had discovered new sources of economic and military power, and could project it thousands of miles away from home.

They did not yet fear Europe as a profoundly disruptive force, one that would challenge Muslims’ most strongly held conceptions about their place in the world.

Remarkably, al-Afghani was already alert to the perils ahead for Muslim countries in the 1860s, when the European presence in Asia was still largely confined to India. He realized that history was working independently of the God of the Koran, and that the initiative had been seized by the restless, energetic peoples in the West who, erupting out of longstanding cultural and political backwaters, were discovering and exploring new worlds and subjugating with means never wielded in previous imperial expansions, Muslim as well as other non-Western peoples.

By late 1869, when al-Afghani arrived there, Istanbul was the largest city in the Muslim world and the political centre of both Arabs and Persians. *

Europeans attracted by the possibility of easy money had poured into the city after 1838, when the Ottomans signed a free-trade agreement with Britain and loosened their control of the economy.

In 1867 Sultan Abdulaziz had returned from a grand tour of Paris, London and Vienna with big plans to make Istanbul appear more European. In 1869, the Prince of Wales visited the city.

European banks mushroomed, offering loans at extortionate interest rates. As the Ottomans sank steadily into debt, European power inexorably grew.

Capitulations made Europeans immune to litigation or trial in Muslim courts, no matter how severe their crime.

In Ottoman Turkey the dominion of the West was achieved not through outright conquest, as had happened in India, but through urgent borrowings of political, economic and cultural ideas from Europe.

‘Islam was for centuries, in its setting, a marvellous instrument of progress. Today it is a clock which has lost time and which must be made to catch up.’

The Ottoman desire to be part of the Concert of Europe, echoed today by the Turkish application to join the European Union, was fulfilled at the end of the war by the Treaty of Paris of 1856.

So disruptive was the overall effect that in 1876 Sultan Abdulhamid would himself join the growing popular reaction against Westernization, and turn to pan-Islamism as a bulwark against Western encroachments upon the Muslim world.

Clearly, the lessons from Afghanistan and India were crystallizing in al-Afghani’s mind – mainly that Muslims could not return to the glorious imperial past. They had to look ahead and to catch up with the West; and it wasn’t enough to confine the necessary modernization to the army, as the Ottomans and the Egyptians were then doing.

As al-Afghani saw it, a much greater transformation – primarily in the mind – was needed.

Despite the setbacks, al-Afghani was learning how to make his views acceptable to a broader constituency than the ruling classes in Muslim countries.

Like the Young Ottomans, al-Afghani knew how to speak of new ideas and possibilities in the idiom of Islam, and make reform acceptable, even attractive, as a step to political independence and unity.

Until the revolts of the 1870s, British officials counted on the possibility that the Egyptian peasant was so beaten down that ‘no amount of misery or oppression would provoke him to resistance’.

More vividly than Ottoman Turkey, Egypt had revealed the severe limitations and problems of modernization within an international capitalist economy where the rules were made by European imperialists.

When Crown Prince Tawfiq became khedive in June 1879, al-Afghani sent his congratulations and urged the new ruler of Egypt to expel foreigners from the government.

These speeches were always likely to get al-Afghani into trouble; and European consuls had been tracking him for some time.

Arrested in Cairo, al-Afghani was denied food for two days in Suez, and his few possessions were taken from him by the police before he was expelled to India.

That same year, the British ferociously bombarded Alexandria and began their long occupation of Egypt.

In the late 1870s, while he was still in Egypt, al-Afghani wrote to Sultan Abdulhamid describing his pain and outrage over the humiliation of Muslim countries by Western powers.

He would now advocate nationalisms, religious-based rather than ethnic or secular, in different Muslim countries, and would also deploy such potent invocations as pan-Islamism and holy war.

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century the tone was changing all across the Muslim world as it took stock of its own helplessness against an increasingly aggressive West.

Modernization, it was clear, hadn’t secured the Ottomans against infidels; on the contrary, it had made them more dependent. Nor had it saved Egypt from buckling to British pressure – indeed, its globalized economy had made Egypt a subservient client state.

The idea of a strong Caliph bubbled up in such far-off places as India and Indonesia, where Muslims considered themselves oppressed by Europeans and hankered for their own universal civilization.

Reform had run its course; the dalliance with Europe’s values was over. It was the turn of Islam to serve as a ruling ideology.

Very quickly, Muslims around the world embraced the idea that what could now save Islam was a strengthened pan-Islam centred in Istanbul, with the only surviving great Muslim power, the Ottoman sultan, as the caliph or khalifa.

After a brief stopover in London,al-Afghani arrived in Paris in January 1883, shortly after Britain had suppressed the uprising in Egypt and occupied the country.

A few months later Abduh joined him in Paris and together they founded a secret society of Muslims dedicated to the unification and reform of Islam.

Al-Afghani and Abduh started a magazine called al-‘Urwa al-wuthqa (literally, ‘The Firmest Bond’) for free distribution in the Muslim world.

It is hard to underestimate its importance as the first international periodical to call explicitly for the revival of Islamic solidarity in the face of the encroaching West. Nothing like it had ever existed in Arabic, or in any of the other languages of the Islamic world.

It would spread al-Afghani’s reputation deep into Central Asia and further east to the Muslims of China and the Malay Peninsula.

In 1886, he travelled to Persia,he was a famous man by then. *

Al-Afghani then went on to Moscow. The British were closely monitoring his movements at this time,‘his object in visiting Russia was to make himself practically acquainted with a country on which 60,000,000 Indian Muslims place sole reliance, and which they hope will afford them protection and emancipate them from the detested English yoke’. *

He confessed he was worried about British influence in Afghanistan; the British, he said, always crept into countries as advisers before becoming their masters.

Apparently influenced by al-Afghani’s networking in Russia, the shah of Persia overcame his dislike enough to invite him again to Tehran.

His decision to accept a flattering invitation to counsel the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid 11 and go to Istanbul would effectively remove him from the political scene he had hoped to alter.

He often returned to his favourite themes. Muslim mimicry of European ways, he argued, would expose them to European rule: ‘this is an imitation that by its nature will drag us into admiration for foreigners; and being content with their domination over us.’

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.

Al-Afghani spent a few painful months before dying, still only fifty-nine, on 9 March 1897.

His grave was left unmarked. It would not be disturbed for almost a half century. During this time, ordinary people rather than despots would eagerly absorb his ideas. Then, in yet another pendulum swing of fortune usual with political exiles, he would be famous again, revered by a new generation of politicized Muslims who had taken to heart his favourite Koranic injunction: ‘God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition.’ *

In the late nineteenth century many Muslims were to develop their sense of a world out of touch with God, of a glorious history gone terribly wrong, and the related suspicion that their failure to adhere to a ‘true’ path of Islam was to blame for their political setbacks. These have since become recurring notes in the modern history of Muslim countries. It was al-Afghani’s unique achievement to sense and amplify this predicament more keenly than anyone before him, from places – the central parts of the Muslim world – where it was most acutely felt.

It is impossible to imagine, for instance, that the recent protests and revolutions in the Arab world would have been possible without the intellectual and political foundation laid by al-Afghani’s assimilation of Western ideas and his rethinking of Muslim traditions.

His Islamic anti-imperialism can be seen now to have inaugurated a tradition of political activists and revolutionaries that culminated, more than a century later, in a major assault on the very capital of Western modernity.

The Arab Spring has finally brought popular mass movements to the Middle East.

A measure of the magnitude of al-Afghani’s self-appointed task is that the problems he dealt with remain as dauntingly intransigent as ever, and their ramifications now extend not only to the Muslim countries he travelled through but also to the rest of the world.

In the wake of the First World War and the Paris Peace Conference, many thinkers and activists in the East began to reconsider their earlier captivation with Western political ideals. Modernization still seemed absolutely imperative, but it did not seem the same as Westernization, or to demand a comprehensive rejection of tradition or an equally complete imitation of the West. Freshly minted ideologies like revolutionary communism and Islamic fundamentalism, which promised to sweep away the debris of the past and initiate a fresh beginning, began to look attractive. And, most fatefully, liberal democracy did not seem necessary to national self-strengthening.

For many Chinese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, India was the prototypical ‘lost’ country, one whose internal weakness, exploited by foreign invaders, had forced it into a state of subjugation that was morally and psychologically shameful, as well as politically and economically catastrophic.

Addressing a dinner-party audience in New York in 1930 that included Franklin D. Roosevelt, Henry Morgenthau and Sinclair Lewis, Tagore had conceded that ‘the age belongs to the West and humanity must be grateful to you for your science’. But, he added, ‘you have exploited those who are helpless and humiliated those who are unfortunate with this gift’. As events in the next decade would prove, liberation for many Asians would be synonymous with turning the tables and subjecting their Western masters to extreme humiliation. This extraordinary reversal would occur more quickly than anyone expected, and more brutally than Tagore feared. And Japan would be its principal agent.

Speaking to a full house at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1930, Rabindranath Tagore claimed that Americans ignored Britain’s domination of India, and worried about Japan only because the latter ‘was able to prove she would make herself as obnoxious as you can’.

It was his final message to the West, greeted, according to the New York Times, by ‘considerable laughter and hand-clapping’.

Tagore was, of course, aware that Japan’s ‘obnoxiousness’ was itself a reaction to the nationalistic and imperialist West and its ‘unreasonableness’.

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 slow, frustrating efforts of al-Afghani, Liang Qichao and other first-generation intellectuals and activists across Asia – all those many periodicals with tiny circulations, and late-night conversations in dingy rooms – were finally bearing fruit. The Japanese had revealed how deep the roots of anti-Westernism went, and how quickly Asians could seize power back from their European tormentors.

After a long and hard struggle, the Japanese were finally ‘punished’, fire-and nuclear-bombed into submission.

Still, in most countries they occupied, the Japanese deeply undermined the European power that kept the natives in a permanent state of submission.

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.

Nevertheless, the speed of decolonization was breathtaking.

The comprehensive defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 brought the most powerful country in the world – the United States – into Indochina. But this only bloodily prolonged the inevitable. *

But the last stubborn Western illusion in Asia – the conviction that brute power would provoke obedience and compliance from the natives – was shattered in 1975 with the disorderly retreat from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. *

Crisis convulsed the world of Islam from the moment it was confronted and then penetrated by the West. The course of history, which white men presumed to direct, seemed to violate the Muslim sense of a world order shaped exclusively by God.

No Islamic leader described an entirely secular utopia.Radical atheists like Mao Zedong had little chance of flourishing in Islamic societies. *

The revolutions that succeeded in Muslim countries were launched in the name of Islam not Marx or Paine.

Muslims initially admired Western-style liberalism for having created, at least in Europe, a humane civilization. But this prestige began to crumble in the last quarter of the nineteenth century; liberalism was discredited by its apparent complicity with imperialism.

Among ideologies imported from – and then used against – the West, nationalism had more purchase, especially as old empires crumbled in the first half of the twentieth century and the idea of self-determination came into vogue.

Decolonization, and the gradual lessening of Western influence, did not undercut the power of popular Islam.

The most striking aspect of the Muslim world in the second half of the twentieth century has been the outbursts, frequently fanatical, of deeply politicized Islam in both Sunni and Shiite lands.

During this time, * Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood moved from the political margins of their societies to the mainstream. An Islamic Revolution erupted in Iran, and its aftershocks travelled as far as the Malay Peninsula and Java, transforming politics in these regions. Three years later, in 1981, an Islamic militant assassinated the president of Egypt. Within a decade transnational militant groups, often upholding hard-line Salafi versions of Islam, declared jihad against despotic Arab regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Libya. Despite different political contexts, these Islamist groups had in common an idea of Islam as a framework for moral reform as well as a revolutionary ideology and an identity.

The West is no longer the source of good as well as bad things, deep in material benefits but shallow in spiritual matters; it has to be rejected in toto.

But the vast majority of people in Muslim countries never stopped believing in Islam. They also failed to develop the habit of seeing Islam as a purely religious phenomenon, separate from economics, politics, law and other aspects of collective life.

It is largely due to the Islamic Revolution in Iran that today the basic principles of the first Muslim Westernized elites – that development entails the rejection of Islamic values in favour of Western ones – lie discredited from Tunisia to Xinjiang, and that Islam continues to serve as a focal point of resistance to authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.

The appalling story of Afghanistan’s destruction is better known. The subsequent backlash from radical Islamists was supported by the United States, and turned, with the help of Pakistan’s Islamist dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and Saudi Arabia, into the first global jihad in Islam’s long history. Wherever there were Muslims, Saudi petrodollars underwrote Wahhabist mosques, madrasas and clerics. Victory against Soviet Communism – a godless ideology of the amoral West – emboldened radical Islamists, and expanded their anti-Western agenda.

It was the experience of training and fighting together during the decade-long anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan that bound the Islamists together into an international community. It defined their enemy more clearly than before – the materialist and imperialist civilization of the West in which both communists and capitalists were complicit – and stoked their fantasy of a global caliphate.

Unwittingly parodying many earlier Western interventions in Asia, in 2002 the Bush administration pledged to bring ‘democracy, development, free markets and free trade to every corner of the world’, a mission that, informed by neither history nor irony, soon met with fierce local resistance and universal opprobrium. In particular, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003, which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, radicalized Muslims across a vast swathe of territory.

By evolving into a strong modern nation, Turkey seems to have been the exception to the main trends of extremism and chaos in the Muslim world.

The central figure was an army officer, Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’, the hero of Turkish resistance to the European powers during and after the First World War.Atatürk saw modernization as synonymous with wholesale secularization and Westernization, and he went to absurd lengths.

Not surprisingly Atatürk,had many fervent admirers among modernizers in the Muslim world: Nasser, the shah of Iran, Jinnah and Sukarno were among those who wanted to imitate him.

But this conventional Western view, in which Turkey quickly ascends to modernity after cutting the Gordian knot of Islam, suppresses a lot of inconvenient facts.

The great mass of Turkey’s population, mostly peasants concentrated in Anatolia, did not reject Islam.

The military regimes that periodically ruled the country after 1961 made more concessions to the essentially Islamic nature of Turkey’s population, especially after the military coup of 1980.

This development is often feared and scorned in the West as the ‘re-Islamization’ of Turkey.

It tends to be devout, inclined to embrace Islamic symbols banned by Atatürk (such as the headscarf), while remaining a participant in the global economy in which Turkey is a major figure.

For Muslims elsewhere, Turkey’s success confirms the validity of an ‘Islamic’ solution to the problem of adapting to Western modernity, and the geopolitical implications of this unique achievement are immense.

But Turkey, like Meiji Japan before it, may have finally come up against an explicitly racially motivated disinclination in the West against granting it full membership to their club. As its efforts to join the European Union are rebuffed, and anti-Muslim-immigrant sentiment rises in Europe, Turks have begun to wonder whether, although a modernized Islam seems to have adjusted itself to the West, the West may still be reluctant to include Islam in its self-perceptions.

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.

The pressures on China in the early twentieth century made it imperative to form a strong nation-state or perish. In this, it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its founders, and, as in Turkey, the selective repudiation of the past and the appropriation of Western ideologies like secular nationalism and communism were crucial.

Nothing revealed British weakness in Chinese eyes (and gladdened Chinese hearts) more than a widely distributed picture of Mrs Thatcher emerging from a blunt talking-to by Deng Xiaoping and then stumbling on the steps of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People and ending up on her knees.

Mao’s stress on rural mobilization was opposed by doctrinaire Marxists within his own party. Eventually, however, through a series of agrarian revolutions – land redistribution, local government by peasants – the Communists under Mao welded Chinese peasants into a revolutionary army, and made their victory in 1949 possible.

Together with Soviet and Korean communist forces, China fought the United States to a stalemate in Korea by 1953 at the cost of nearly half a million Chinese dead.

Wanting China to catch up with the West as quickly as possible, Mao Zedong set fantasy targets: he asked his compatriots in the mid-1950s, for instance, to match Britain’s industrial production in fifteen years.

It was the death of Mao in 1976 that enabled a fresh beginning on principles that eemed to owe less to orthodox communism than to Mencius’s economic ideals of public ownership combined with free trade.

In retrospect, communism in China seems more and more to have been an effective ideology for mobilizing and unifying the Chinese masses.

This is partly why, though communism led to a calamitous misinterpretation of Chinese realities and has lost its intellectual appeal, the Chinese Communist Party seems in little danger of going the way of its East European and Russian counterparts.

In less than six decades, history seems to have fulfilled Mao’s hopes.

White changed the world for ever, subjecting its great diversity to their own singular outlook and in the process reducing potentially rich encounters with other peoples and countries to monologues about the unassailable superiority of modern Western politics, economy and culture.

Successfully exporting its ideas to the remotest corners of the world, the West also destroyed native self-confidence, causing a political, economic and social desolation that can perhaps never be relieved by modernity alone.

It is no exaggeration to say that millions, probably hundreds of millions of people in societies who have grown up with a history of subjection to Europe and America – the Chinese software engineer and the Turkish tycoon, as well as the unemployed Egyptian graduate – derive profound gratification from the prospect of humiliating their former masters and overlords, who appear uncompromisingly wedded to their right to dictate events around the world.

The images from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, the deep Western financial crisis, and the brutal but inept military actions in Afghanistan and Pakistan all sustain a powerful sense of Western hypocrisy, failure and retrenchment.

The historical resentments and frustrations of non-Western societies have long been central to Asia’s political life in which memories of past religious and political grandeur despoiled by European imperialists still have not faded.

These different national subjectivities now combine to remake the modern world; it is impossible to ignore them.

Blighted by the calamitous ‘war on terror’, it has been profoundly discredited by the collapse of the ‘Washington Consensus’, the West’s vaunted model of unregulated financial capitalism.

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.

China, in particular, poses a formidable challenge to the West, and a much greater one than that presented by radical Islamists who mostly embody the rage of permanent losers in the international economic system.

The long revolt against the West that began in the late nineteenth century seems to be approaching a historical watershed. Certainly, the dominance of the West already appears just another, surprisingly short-lived phase in the long history of empires and civilizations.

The rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West that began more than a century ago; it is in many ways the revenge of the East.

Yet this success conceals an immense intellectual failure, one that has profound ramifications for the world today and the near future. 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 ‘Washington Consensus’ may lie in tatters, and Beijing’s Communist regime mocks – simply by persisting as long as it has – Western claims of victory in the Cold War and the inevitability of liberal democracy. But the ‘Beijing Consensus’ has even less universal application than its Washington counterpart; it sounds suspiciously like merely a cynical economic argument for the lack of political freedom.

Furthermore, the nation-state is fundamentally unable to deal on its own with such problems as climate change, environmental degradation and water scarcity, which spill across national borders.

Europe’s own transition to its present state of stability and affluence was more than just painful. It involved imperial conquests, ethnic cleansing and many minor and two major wars involving the murder and displacement of countless millions.

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.

It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots – the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic.

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