From the Ruins of Empire: Gerald McGhie Reviews a Recent Book on the Remaking of Asia

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FROM THE RUINS OF EMPIRE

The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

Author: Pankaj Mishra

Published by: Allen Lane, London, 2012, 356pp. 11.99 [pounds sterling].

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In the 19th century 'Asia' was in crisis. Societies that had stood largely unchanged for centuries seemed powerless to resist the aggressive thrust of Western nations into their widespread and populous territories. The aggression was not without a response, but often resistance came from only a limited number of writers struggling against the humiliations of subjugation.

An important question was how to construct an effective response to what Asians saw as the overwhelming use of modern technology and power. What should they accept from the imperial powers? What could they adapt and what reject? To some extent these questions remain unresolved even in the resurgent Asia' of today.

In his wide-ranging, perceptive and challenging book From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra identifies three main strands of resistance. First, the traditionalists (in fact reactionaries) who believed that the areas religious and cultural traditions would ultimately prevail. Secondly, the moderates who wanted to take the best of what the West had to offer leaving their societies essentially in place. Thirdly the revolutionaries such as Mao Zedong and Kemal Ataturk who thought that if their societies were to emerge into what might be called the modern world they would need radical, secular reform under the aegis of a new ideology.

Mishra begins with what was seen in Asia at the time as a hugely important event--the sinking in 1905 of the Russian fleet in Tsushima Strait by Japan, the rising star of Asia. Russia might have been surprised to find itself classified as 'Western', but, as Sun Yat-sen said, 'the Japanese victory over this Western power infused Asia with new hope'.

Mishra's constant theme is the deep humiliation suffered by formerly great empires at the hands of what they saw as crass, outward thrusting Europeans. Mishra identifies several distinctive traits that underlay the European successes--advanced technology and organisation (particularly in Western institutions), superior information gathering and imposed trade terms. He also discerns an underlying strength in financial innovation and, importantly, the development in the West of 'rich public cultures of enquiry and debate'.

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One might have expected Mishra to explore this theme through such household names in the West as Gandhi, Mao and Ataturk. But not so. He chooses instead three public intellectuals whose writings would inspire later generations. The first, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, travelled extensively as a journalist, teacher and agitator working in cafes, mosques and homes while being expelled in turn from Afghanistan, India and Turkey between 1860 and 1900. He had a marked ability to adapt to circumstances. Although a Persian-born Shia, he acted when necessary as a Sunni from Afghanistan. In his early days Mishra characterises him as a liberal. Mishra provides extensive background on conditions in many of the countries al-Afghani travelled through--his own experience of these defined his worldview. And, as Mishra says, 'a history of his ideas cannot depend, as in the case of many Western thinkers, on published texts setting out dear concepts and well referenced biographies'. For Mishra, there was scarcely a social or political tendency in Muslim lands--modernism, nationalism and pan-Islamism--that al-Afghani's eclectic sensibility did not cover. Nor was there an area of political action--anti-imperialist conspiracy, educational reform, journalism or constitutional reform--on which he did not leave the imprint of his ideas.

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In drawing attention to al-Afghani's current relevance, Mishra describes a visit in October 2002 (almost a year after the Taliban were driven from power) by the then American ambassador to Afghanistan to the tomb of al-Afghani at Kabul University. …