Tuesday, November 26, 2002

A wrong doesn't make another wrong-Asian values isn't the same as Islamic values Send this entry to: Del.icio.us Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

In this month's issue (not online) of Foreign Policy Fareed Zakaria takes issue with the idea of Asian values (often promoted by statesmen such as Lee Kwan Hew and Mahathir Mohammed), and flips it around to caution those who would demonize Islamic civilization as violent and prone to cross-cultural conflict. Fareed is right on point 1 and taking a cheap shot on point 2. The idea of Asian values underpinning the success of Japan and the "The Tigers" was amusing even in an ahistorical context. Hew and others would often present Confucianism as the glue, and make parallels to Protestantism is northern Europe [1]. Comparing free-wheeling Hong Kong and tightly controlled Singapore seems bizarre on first blush. The two city states were both Chinese, and so presumably Confucian, but the contrast of two styles of Anglo-Saxon governance (laissez faire vs. puritan good government) sent them toward the same end-point (prosperity) via different trajectories. They are illustrative of the flexibility that human beings, and the Chinese in particular, have shown in reacting to varying political pressures and frameworks. Also, there is a sharp contrast between Japan, where non-familial ties (and therefore non-Confucian) have been far more important than in the Sinic and Korean cultures. And though the Chinese minorities of the southeast Asian countries propelled the economic growth of those nations, they flowered in very non-Confucian (Therevada Buddhist Thailand, Muslim Malaysia, etc.) settings. The irony, as Fareed rightly points out, is that theorists in the vein of Webber argued early in the 20th century that Confucianism was holding back the east from modernity. Its hidebound bureaucracy and easy attitude toward nepotism (also called crony capitalism today) were seen as blocks toward further cultural development. It is the classic "just so" conundrum, trying to invent causation where the process is effected by multiple variables. Sociologists who presented the idea of Confucian cultural retardation (like enthusiasts of Webber's thesis who presumed that France, Italy or Catholic Bavaria or the Rhine would always lag behind Protestant Europe in economic growth) have been empirically refuted. The 1998 Asian flu and the emergence of the problems inherent in crony capitalism now makes the second thesis, that Confucianism and Asian values were the keys to success, more precarious. I think the lesson that must be learned is that one has to be cautious when making these sort of bland generalizations. Fareed of course continues by criticizing those who would declare that Islam is at war with the rest of the world, for they might also be jumping the gun and making gross generalizations that will only be proven wrong by the march of history. There are problems in my opinion with the comparison to start off with. While Confucian civilization or Asian values are to some extent nebulous terms, no one doubts there is an Islamic civilization, a Dar-al-Islam. The Dar-al-Islam is not the creation of western geographers and historians (Asia and the Orient is to some extent), it is an idea that emerges out of the Islamic world, where many view themselves self-consciously as members of it. The Middle Kingdom certainly exerted cultural influence on the other civilized nations around its periphery and even planted a Diaspora of its own citizens amongst them. But only Korea and Vietnam were conquered and subjugated, and then only for a short period of time. In general, though China exerted a strong influence on Korea and Japan, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, it has had only a marginal impact on its southeast Asian near-abroad until modern times. And the relationship of China with Korea and Japan can not be likened to the Dar-al-Islam, for this was not a greater cultural community, but an often tense interplay of suzerain and subordinate. The latter nations maintained their identities, and dynastic ties such as those common in Europe did not sew their polities together into a common fabric. The Middle Kingdom demanded submission, but China's territorial expansion abated once the Han had their living space between the Gobi and Hainan Island [2]. In sharp contrast, the shadow of a unitary state (the Caliphate) and an expansionary drive (the jihad) are well elaborated concepts in the Islamic world. The early 20th century theorists who posited the bankruptcy of the Confucian system took a small data sample (the decadence of the late Manchu years) and projected it forward. On the other hand, those who portray Islam as a bloodthirsty civilization bent on expansion have over 1,000 years of evidence. This is simple historical fact. The examples are endless, the early expansion into Spain, the later drive into the Balkans, the lesser known jihads and coups in southeast Asia and eastern Turkestan. Islam is a religion of the earthly domination of Allah, it means submission rather literally. Islam has always had tense borders-anyone who disputes this ignores the historical record. Some of this belligerence is mutual, with Christian Crusades set next to the jihads. On the other hand, Islam's expansion into the realm of Hinduism and Buddhism has not resulted in a like thrust back, but rather the slow inexorable conversion of the people's of the east [3]. The late Manchu dynasty did not characterize the majority of the performance of the period of Confucian cultural hegemony. In fact, the Chinese were traditionally the most advanced and innovative people on the face of the earth, though unfortunately not the most systematic, ergo their failure to develop progressive science. Fareed is correct in saying that Islam may change, and there are more nuances than many of its critics are willing to acknowledge. True enough. Fareed and I are both from South Asian Muslim backgrounds, and both of us are secularists in the Western tradition. But one should not let this lull one into thinking that we are typical Muslims. The periods of tolerance under Akbar or cultural brilliance during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror existed, but these were interludes. To compare the rather weak and incoherent ideas of Asian values against the critiques of a religion that has an extensive body of unifying theology (in the Koran) and law (the Sharia) is to use a straw man to prove one's point. [1] Max Webber's original thesis about the Protestant work ethic vs. Catholic indolence has been heavily disputed-and in my opinion is not longer authoritative as scholarship though important in the historical perspective. [2] China's western provinces have only been intermittantly under central rule. Tibet for instance was a Manchu possession and not incorporated into the general governance of the Empire. [3] Muslim conversions continue in India and Indonesia to this day.

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