Monday, April 11, 2016

From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia by Pankaj Mishra

Hardcover, First American Edition, 356 pages Published September 4th 2012 by Farrar Straus & Giroux

A little history is a dangerous thing. One of the reasons I have never liked reading history is that I discovered written history often has pieces that are missing that can change one’s understanding of an event or time. One has to dig down into the details and the truth may never reveal itself. But thank goodness for Pankaj Mishra, who gives us history like nothing Americans are likely to encounter in school: history from the point of view of majority non-white nations around the time of the first global upheaval at the turn of the last century and the First World War.

Mishra focuses on Asia as it was defined at the time, anything east of Turkey and west of Japan, and uses the words of individuals to define a zeitgeist that inspired and motivated political upheavals taking place in Asia at the time. Though Europe’s most influential thinkers deemed most of the non-white non-European societies unfit for self-rule, the men that drove revolutionary change in those very societies were motivated by notions of equality and human dignity spoken and written of in Western Europe, and later, by Woodrow Wilson.

One of those men was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, revered now as the intellectual god-father of the Islamic Revolution. Educated in Tehran in the mid-ninetieth century, al-Afghani passed himself off as a member of different sects and nationalities in order to most effectively educate and reform with an eye to anti-imperialist strategy.
The English people believe me a Russian
The Muslims think me a Zoroastrian
The Sunnis think me a Shiite
And the Shiite think me an enemy of Ali
Some of the friends of the four companions have believe me a Wahhabi
Some of the virtuous Imamites have imagined me a Babi…
And yet al-Afghani was able to keep his focus on power to the subjugated people of Asia and exhort them to greater resistance to the imperialist power being brought to bear upon them by the West. Al-Afghani turns up wherever societal turmoil was in progress (Afghanistan, India, Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Iran) and by his writings and speeches was able to urge a “protective modernization” upon fellow Muslims: “self-strengthening without blind imitation of the West, and who insisted that the Koran itself sanctioned many of the values—individual freedom and dignity, justice, the use of reason, even patriotism—touted by Turkish high officials as ‘Western.’” “Fanaticism and political tyranny” were the basic evils of unreformed Muslim society, he argued, the means by which the West had come to dominate the East.

Eventually al-Afghani came to believe that modernization alone as not sufficient, as it was making countries in the East subservient client states of the West. Pan-Islamism and nationalism was then considered to be the only way to beat back the encroaching West. He has a long history, traveling to Paris, Moscow and back, eventually, to Persia, agitating until his death in 1897. His grave, long unmarked, was moved to Kabul in 1944, and was visited by the American ambassador in 2002, who paid for restoration of the site. One group of al-Afghani’s followers became proponents of Salafism, the puritanical movement which is the basis for ISIS, surely a perversion of what al-Afghani believed.

I spend so much time on al-Afghani because I don’t think I have ever heard of him before, or if I have, I never knew anything about what he was thinking. Mishra just begins with al-Afghani, however, and delves into China’s (and Vietnam’s) pre-revolutionaries, Liang Qichao, Kang Youwei, and Tan Sitong (Phan Boi Chau). Tan died, tragically for China’s interests one might argue, by allowing himself to be captured and executed in his twenties by forces loyal to the dowager empress. He was one who was clever enough to have negotiated the moral shoals of republicanism by combining it with the Confucian notion of social ethics.

Liang Qichao was the one of his contemporaries to travel in the United States, writing “70 percent of the entire national wealth of America is in the hands of 200,000 rich people…How strange, how bizarre!” Liang was later part of a delegation to the peace conference held in Paris following the First World War. Interests of the non-white majority countries were ignored, despite the notions of freedom from oppression and human dignity embodied in Wilson’s ‘Fourteen Points’ and lodged in the hearts of many nationalists.

The final figure upon whom Mishra focuses is Rabindranath Tagore, who was likewise awakened to new ideas through contact with the West, but who also saw the spiritual vacuity in the West’s worldview. When he visited China in the 1920’s he was disparaged by crowds shouting “We don’t want philosophy, we want materialism!” Such a thing could be said to be heard today in Beijing. Let’s hope the Chinese don’t come to regret their single-minded choice, or are turned back once they see the desert ahead.

It is hard to avoid Mishra’s conclusion that racism was the reason Eastern countries were exploited and ignored by the West at the turn of the twentieth century. It is also true that the West had made advances in science, logic, and humanistic theories that struck thinkers in Asia as entirely worthwhile and modern. The Asians, however, could see something perverted in the West’s materialistic rapacity and sought to preserve some of their rich spiritual heritage while modernizing their political systems. If the West had only appreciated and taken on board what the East had to offer, rather than using muscle to subdue the insistence on autonomy from imperialism, probably none of us would be in the position in which we find ourselves today.

Mishra’s work of history is enormously important and entirely welcome, covering as he does vast parts of the non-white Asiatic world during a time of turmoil. He does not avoid the omissions, and imputations common to writers of history: in the one sentence assigned to Armenia he writes, “However, harassed by Armenian nationalists in the east of Anatolia, the Turks ruthlessly deported hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915, an act that later invited accusations of genocide.” Also, it appears Mishra used English-language secondary sources in his work, where one might have wished original sources. Nonetheless, this work and its bibliography is a giant step towards redressing our ignorance of the histories, needs, and desires of peoples in their search for rights.

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  1. You’ve read so much on Asia in world history. Ron Takaki (the first ph.d in “ethnic studies” who started that department at Berkeley) claims that “oriental” was a racist term, explicitly, as it labeled those who were “oriented” to the East from Europe as subhuman. What do you think of that argument? On the last point – the author does appear to provide an odd denial of the Armenian “holocaust” (that was clearly genocide – so claimed Amnesty International) and, worse, suggests it was provoked by the victims??

    1. I have not read Takaki but I have wondered how the term "oriental" came to define those with different eyes. The descriptor "subhuman" may be a bit strong, even for racists, because I think Western political leaders and thinkers, using the language quoted by Mishra in this book, thought that Asians were not developed enough, not civilized enough, not educated enough, not clean enough to take advantage of, not only their own art, items of their own production, and commodities, but the concepts of human rights and human dignity.

      Regarding Mishra's one sentence dismissal of the Armenian genocide, I am not sure what he was doing here. My sense was that he simply had so much he was trying to focus on--a history of half the world for a fifty-year period--that he could not go into detail. It may be that he is reporting what the Islamists were writing/saying at the time, but I agree he could/should have clarified this for us. There are undoubtedly other areas where folks could take issue with his interpretation, i.e., the Paris peace talks, though I believe the point was to see how that event was perceived by those who did not get the recognition they wanted at the time.

    2. Thanks for this! Had hopes with you confirming Takaki's sense of Oriental/East, although another source of wisdom thought it was simply more geographical-cultural, opposite of Occidental/West. Yes, those "political leaders and thinkers" were influenced by anthropologists who noted most cultures were in only the first two stages of human development (Morgan's classical savagery, barbarism, civilization) with the latter stage reserved for the Western white cultures. (History often fails to account for the role anthropology played as a smokescreen and defense of imperialism.)

  2. Did the author really think Woodrow Wilson was about equality? His racism was so explicit! He showed Birth of Nations in the White House and fired the many Black workers then in the White House. (His wife was uncomfortable in close quarters with Black workers.) See Loewen's Lies my Teacher Told Me.

    1. I do not think Mishra was so much focused on Woodrow Wilson except with regard to how his published "Fourteen Points" was perceived by aspiring nationalists around the world. Those people in far-flung parts of the world knew nothing (and cared nothing) for Wilson the man. They cared for the ideas he represented and what those ideas meant for their struggles to be admitted as full partners to the League of Nations.