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The subtle perils of Eurocentrism

Mihir S Sharma 

Few events have so up-ended the established order as Japan’s crushing victory over the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. This, the first salvo in the long war to push back the subjugation of the East by the West, was heard around the colonised world; and it is where Pankaj Mishra begins From the Ruins of Empire, which purports to be a history of the ways in which the East imagined that war. Sadly, the glaring flaws that populate Mishra’s book, reducing it even from pop history to puerile polemic, begin there, too. Misleading quotes, for example: he says Gandhi responds by recognising it was “self-respect” that won Japan the battle, except most of Gandhi’s writing on Tsushima actually praised Japan’s patriotism and national unity, a considerably more inward-looking and less reactive claim.

Mishra’s treatment of attitudes to Japanese ambition, in fact, is just one instance of the double standards – which match those of the most devoted apologist of empire -- that riddle this book. The Russo-Japanese war was a battle of empires for land in Manchuria; but throughout, Mishra insists on describing the horrors of Japanese imperialism as “but a reaction”. So, too, could the British Empire be a “reaction” to the Spanish Empire, and the German Empire a “reaction” to the British. But white people are granted agency by Mishra, and people of colour are not – one of the many, many ways in which this book fits squarely into the Eurocentric, mentally colonised framework which Mishra wants us to believe he is helping us escape. Later on in the book, the moral blindness that comes with such double-standards is hideously exposed in his description of Japanese expansionism, where the Rape of Nanking is hastily glossed over, and that empire’s brutality against fellow-Asians is excused as “revenge for decades of racial humiliation.” Indeed, he goes on to say essentially that the occupied should be thankful for this good, Asian, empire: it allowed them to imagine what freedom from the West would be like.

Mishra does not want From the Ruins of Empire to be seen as a reaction, or a polemic. It is difficult, however, to see how any reader will think otherwise. His idea is, of itself, interesting: to get into the heads of those theorising methods of resistance against the West. This is a profoundly conservative, “great man” book of history, a paean to a “small group of thinkers” who he imagines helped chart the destiny of the East. Mishra deduces from their lives, apparently without self-consciousness, a glib logic that moves from a sense of cultural inferiority to a wholesale rejection of anything “modern” as offensively stinking of the West. These “marginal men” were “sensitive to change” and made “great physical and intellectual journeys” before they discovered how to “regain parity and dignity in the eyes of the white rulers of the world.” Mishra modestly does not name these giants’ latter-day heirs. In one of the moments when he stands at the brink of the abyss of self-awareness, he recognises “modernisation shifted the locus of power within any society, and invited resistance from old elites that felt ignored or slighted.” This book is a sympathetic account of those intellectual elites and their centuries-long embrace-cum-wrestle with the West, told very much from within the whale. In presenting to the East a new indigenous heritage for half-baked ideas from an American university’s anarchist student group website or Westerners’ biographies of Asian figures , Mishra is quite tone-deaf to the real problems of cultural imperialism – but expects, apparently, his ideas to be greeted as liberators nonetheless.

In his attempt to create, out of whole cloth, an intellectual history for his own opinions, Mishra turns especially to two figures: one who claimed to be Afghan, and one Chinese. (Any link between his choice and current challenges to the United States reside, no doubt, only the reader’s imagination.). Liang Qichao is a much more interesting, observant and admirable figure; but the story of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani is much more fascinating. Mishra follows him from Afghanistan to India to Persia to Turkey to Egypt to Paris to London and back, recording his opportunistic transformation from conspirator to public intellectual to theologian, pushed at each point by ambition and the duplicity of his allies. It’s a great story, and Mishra writes it well. It is only on a second reading that the subtle distortions, elisions, and editorialising becomes clear. Al-Afghani, one of the earliest pan-Islamists, spoke always about restoring the glory of Islam; yet Mishra insists on selling his career as a “global theory of resistance”. Most amusingly, he keeps on producing variations of “al-Afghani was not a fundamentalist, but...” and then reporting a statement that’s breathtakingly fundamentalist or exclusive. It happens so often that one is forced to wonder if Mishra’s comprehension is at fault, or his honesty. Similarly, when al-Afghani meets Randolph Churchill to argue for India’s Muslims, rather than speak broadly of the Raj’s iniquities, he states his (oddly current) grievances as poor maintenance of Wakf properties and salaries for imams. Yet, for Mishra, this is “informed by an earlier absorption of the larger terrors of imperialism.” Indeed.

Mishra neither asks nor cares why al-Afghani’s vision was so limited, a question he asks of his Chinese counterpart; in fact, he reads into a speech in which al-Afghani talks of the West as “civilised nations” the idea that this was him “rejecting Muslim exceptionalism,” and adopting “a term of 19th century politics used by Western European statesmen to exalt their countries above all others.” Ths is laughable history-writing. For one, it is obvious that al-Afghani, in that speech in Istanbul, was not speaking in English. What Turkish word did he use? Mishra doesn’t know, because he’s cribbed the speech from Western biographies. Yet it matters. Was it kulturlu, or cultured? Was it gelismis, or advanced? Was it, horrors, medeniyet, or modernity? Each word, each concept has a different meaning in pre-Kemal Turkey, a different impact on the course of Turkish history, which al-Afghani changed. But the Anglophonic Mishra cares not, except as it impacts his Eurocentric narrative.

Another example: Mishra speaks of the “Battle of Balakot”, which he says was fought between those “now known as Wahhabis” and “the British and their Indian collaborators”, and now has a “tragic aura in South Asian Islamic lore comparable to Karbala.” Where to start? The mujahideen at Balakot were followers of Syed Ahmed Shaheed, the descendant of intellectual rivals of Abd al-Wahhab. The “Indian collaborators” of the British who fought them at Balakot were the armies of Ranjit Singh’s Sikh empire, the Company’s sternest enemy. I won’t even go into the “South Asian Islamic lore”, because that’s so contemptuously dismissive of the varieties to disagreements between Muslims that I threw the book across the room. The only stories that matter are those that have the West in them as a villain; useful examples to win arguments with apologists for the West are the only product of this book. Like a latter-day Clive, Mishra has come to plunder the intellectual riches of the East for mundane advancement in the West.

In the process, From the Ruins of Empire serves as an excellent illustration of the moral decay consequent on a one-eyed view of the world. “Modern medicine” is condemned because it saved people’s lives, condemning them to live in poverty. Its gender politics, in particular, is hideous. In justifying and explaining resistance to the West, he quotes Turks worrying about “accepting infidelities of one’s wife”, Vietnamese concerns that they are held inferior to French “dogs” and “women”, and Vivekananda’s revulsion that the British are “slaves to women”, and praises al-Afghani for recognising women’s rights in a speech where the reformer argues for women’s education because “they are the mothers”. Meanwhile, Turkey’s 1915 genocide of Armenians is excused as a reaction; Aurobindo is quoted approvingly as railing against the West’s “equality of social status, an improbable dead level which Nature has always refused to allow”; and the highest form of Eastern spirituality is “the self-control of the Brahmin.” (Really, the Gandhi-loving Mishra could do with a bracing dose of that Deweyite materialist, Ambedkar.) It doesn’t matter how reactionary the sentiment, as long as it attacks “Western materialism”.

The book meanders past al-Afghani to Liang Qichao, who helped define China’s hyper-competitive national self-image – though the clash between Confucianism and materialism is presented only as a battle between China and the world, instead of as a precursor to the very real intellectual battles shaping China today. We move then to Tagore’s disappointing quest for an Asian identity, which is the strongest section of the book. Sadly, after that it degenerates into a series of undergraduate-level essays about individual countries’ postcolonial experiences, ending with a restatement of arguments against resource-hungry development made more compellingly and movingly elsewhere.

The third-biggest disappointment of the book is its lack of perspective and large-heartedness. The “spiritual freedom and social harmony” that is absent in Western civilisation, we are supposed to believe, is seen only by Eastern intellectuals. There is no space in this imagination for Western dissenters of the spirit, for Annie Besant, William Jennings Bryan, for Reinhold Niebuhr or William Gladstone, for Schopenhauer or Tolstoy. They are too white to be “spiritual” critics of Western civilisation. Nor, too, can the Real East anything but primarily “spiritual”. At his most elitist, Mr Mishra quotes Tagore that man must know “his salvation is not in... any mechanical rearrangement of social systems, but in a deeper transformation of life, in the liberation of consciousness in love, in the realisation of God in man,” adding that this is the “vocabulary in which many Asians would phrase their aspirations and frustrations for the next century.” Presumably, these would be the Asians with enough to eat. The others, perhaps, would settle for a rearrangement of social systems.

The second-biggest disappointment is its open embrace of errors — for example, its claim that Gandhi’s criticism of “English rule without the Englishman” was directed at Hindu nationalists, and not India’s Anglophile elite, or that the phrase “harmonious society” is used to “burnish Chinese leaders’ credentials in reducing social and economic equality” instead of their ability to deliver hierarchic stability.

But, as is obvious by the lacklustre last section, by far the biggest problem with From the Ruins of Empire is its complete lack of original thought. The Turkish historian Cemil Aydin covered this ground masterfully a few years ago with The Politics of Anti-Westernism, which placed pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism in the context of specific battles and national histories, not some mystic eternal war between the Materialist West and Spiritual East. But, for Mr Mishra, Chinese civilisation is “distinct” because of Confucian values; Islam’s “unity” gave Muslim countries a clear “coherence”; and so on. Rather than transcending the simplistic and discredited “clash of civilisations” thesis he correctly derides, the Pankaj Mishra of this book aspires to be but a foot-soldier in that conflict — and not a very accomplished one.

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia
Pankaj Mishra
Penguin/Allen Lane 2012
368 pages; Rs 699

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First Published: Fri, August 24 2012. 00:05 IST