Published by The Islamic Monthly on January 3rd, 2015
Ever since the imperial armies of the West, fuelled by technological and material advantages, encroached upon its eventual colonies a few centuries ago, intellectuals in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere have struggled with what may be the world’s greatest conundrum: how to derive goodness from Western modernity in a way that won’t destroy one’s own sense of historical and cultural self.
From the time when the Japanese navy routed the Russians in 1905 at the “Battle of Tsushima” (日本海海戦, nihonkai-kaisen), the prospect of Asian countries modernizing industrially to “catch up” to the West began to seriously crystallize. It was the first time in modern history that an Asian country had defeated an expansionist European power. The great Liang Qi-Chao, one of China’s foremost modern thinkers, along, with several other thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore and even Gandhi, who was a lawyer in South Africa at the time, also recognized the importance of this victory. Sun Yat-Sen, the first President of the Republic of China, who was passing through the Middle East soon after Tsushima, had throngs of Arabs congratulating him (they mistook him for a Japanese person).
China’s global stature was faltering at the time, and Liang Qi-Chao recognized it even in 1895, when the Qing Dynasty of China decided to surrender after months of battle with Meiji Japan in the First Sino-Japanese War. Originally from a traditional Confucian family and on his way to the civil service, Liang became a travelling intellectual whose ideas articulated China’s sense of civilizational humiliation. His writings influenced a whole generation of Chinese thinkers and doers, including the infamously important Mao Ze-Dong.
Nonetheless, many around the world were excited after the Japanese victory against Russia that a “backward” continent could improve in ways that allowed them to compete in the modern world. [If you haven’t done so, pick up Pankaj Mishra’s ultra-important book From the Ruins of Empire, an intellectual history of how Asia reacted to imperial aggression.]
This issue has become, I would argue, the underlying obsession of much of the world, which has adopted a “social Darwinian-lite” view of the planet in an attempt to modernize themselves industrially (and rapidly). Thus the utterly shocking amount of pollution (among other things) coming out of China and India—the world’s two “rising” powers, or so we’re told. Yet modernity isn’t just a set of political and economic changes, but a comprehensive worldview that has come into opposition with many pre-modern traditions. The 21st century’s current maladies, some of which are disproportionately reported on in the post-9/11 era, are a contemporary manifestation of this much older tension. It’s as much an Asian question as it is, say, an African one, and as much a query involving religious belief as it does more secular outlooks.
That is, can people around the world prosper consistently and stably only if they accept the prescriptions of the West? Plainly, for reasons to do with simple capacity, not everyone in the world can have two cars, a garage, and a house in the suburbs. Such a model is unsustainable and physically self-destructive. This doesn’t mean that technological and civilizational progress can’t be appropriated proportionally to lift people out of poverty. What it points to, though, is the physical aspect of a modernizing trend that has globalized and metastasized to a point of negative return. Alternatives are needed, first and foremost as a matter of economic and environmental justice, but underlying this need is a less empirical reality concerning the human urge for spiritual nourishment—and urge that the modern world has largely ignored or dismissed.
Why believe in pre-modern concepts like a “soul” or “spirit” when shopping malls and Prozac can fill the void? Of course, if things were so simple, this column wouldn’t have to be written at all. The truth is that for all the talk about ISIS or Al Qaeda wanting to paint the world in their monochromal fundamentalisms, it’s the Western world’s financial and cultural influence that has forced its way throughout the world, imprinting its image upon us all. Older traditions that acknowledge and engage with the non-rational aspects of human nature have had to adjust, with some morphing into cells of paranoid violence that don’t amount to even a shadow of its former glory. Islam is at the center of this mess. A tradition once known for an ecumenical existence and an awe-inspiringly intellectual approach has now, through the world media, become distorted due to what’s perceived to be a crisis of authority.
Yet traditional Islam lives, and continues to inspire millions of people around the world. Here is where things get interesting for Muslims who grew up and reside in the Western world—especially when it comes to the US or Canada. Muslim communities in this area of the West have come closest to obtaining a model of sustaining religiously informed principles within a modern social context. It’s not perfect by a long shot, and there’s much to indicate that Muslim religio-cultural realities may become deemphasized in the next couple of generations as a result of further integration, but, truthfully, evidence for the opposite trend also exists.
There resides within these Western geographies an attempt to figure out a way to distance oneself from the corporate state and the excessive realities of modernity via a preservation of religious and intellectual tradition aimed first and foremost at improving modern man from within. I mean “improving” as in helping him or her approximate toward Transcendent Truth (God), which, in my opinion, when done accordingly, will manifest itself outwardly as civilizational stability and sustainability. If this endeavor continues to grow by filling in the gaps within our spiritually impoverished and existentially stale environments, then Muslims in the West would have provided a possible answer to questions that intellectuals like Liang Qichao and others went to their graves asking.
Therein lies the truly exciting potential of Western Muslims, who constitute a microcosm of the world, both conceptually and historically. We have a chance to find an improved response to the overt and covert neo-colonial tendencies of the West, imposed upon everyone else for better or worse—once the primary challenge for those clinging to their identities in the face of encroachment, the residue of which remains scattered throughout all our lives.
Photo: Backstage at a Chinese opera/CC