Islam Now, China Then: Any Parallels

Category: Life & Society, Middle East Topics: History Channel: Opinion Views: 7704

"History is more or less bunk. It's tradition. We don't want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's damn is the history that we make today."

Henry Ford, 1916

On some days, a glance at the leading stories in the Western media strongly suggests that Muslims everywhere, of all stripes, have gone berserk. It appears that Muslims have lost their minds.

In any week, we are confronted with reports of Islamic suicide attacks against Western targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or Western countries themselves; terrorists foiled before they could act; terrorist attacks gone awry; terrorists indicted; terrorists convicted; terrorists tortured; terrorist suspects kidnapped by CIA or warnings of new terrorist attacks against Western targets.

Unprovoked, without cause - we are repeatedly told - Muslims everywhere, even those living in the West, are lashing out against the civilized West. Many in the Western world - especially in the US - are beginning to believe that the entire Islamic world is on the warpath against Civilization itself.

Expert commentators in Western media want us to believe that the Muslims have lost their minds. They tell us that Muslims are inherently, innately, perverse; that never before has violence been used in this way, against innocent civilians. It is always 'innocent' civilians.

Other peoples too have endured colonization, slavery, expulsions, extermination at the hands of Western powers: but none have responded with violence on this scale against the West. Certainly not with violence against civilians. Never have Aborigines, Africans, indigenous Americans, Hindus, Jews, or the Chinese targeted civilians. They never attacked Westerners indiscriminately. They never targeted 'innocent Western civilians.'

Is this 'insanity' slowly raising its ugly head across the Islamic world really unique? Is this 'insanity' a uniquely Islamic phenomenon? Is this a uniquely contemporary phenomenon? Is this 'insanity' unprovoked?

We cannot of course expect any history from the corporate US media on this Islamic 'insanity'. In order to take the moral high ground, to claim innocence, the rich and powerful - the oppressor classes - prefer not to talk about history, or invent the history that serves their interest.

What is surprising, however, is that few writers even on the left bring much history to their analysis of unfolding events. Not being a historian - of Islam, China or Britain - I can only thank serendipity for the little bit of history that I will invoke to provide some background to the 'malaise' unfolding in the Islamic world. A little history to connect Islam today to China in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Implausibly - perhaps for some - the history I invoke comes from Friedrich Engels - yes, he of the Communist Manifesto, friend of Karl Marx, revolutionary - writing in May 1857 when the British were waging war against China, known to history as the Second Opium War.

More implausibly, this history comes from an article published in a leading US newspaper: The New York Daily Tribune (available in Marx and Engels Internet Archive).  Yes, in some remote past, a leading US newspaper routinely published commentaries by the likes of Marx and Engels. Today, the publishers of the New York Times, the Washington Post or LA Times would become apoplectic just thinking about it. 

During the First Opium War of 1840-1842, when the British waged war to defend their 'right' to smuggle opium into China - Friedrich Engels, writes - "the people were quiet; they left the Emperor's soldiers to fight the invaders, and submitted after defeat with Eastern fatalism to the power of the enemy." Yes, in those times, even enlightened Westerners spoke habitually of oriental fatalism, fanaticism, sloth, backwardness, and - not to forget their favorite - despotism.

However, something strange had overtaken the Chinese some fifteen years later. During the Second opium War, writes Friedrich Engels, "the mass of people take an active, nay fanatical part in the struggle against the foreigners. They poison the bread of the European community at Hong Kong by wholesale, and with the coolest premeditation...They go with hidden arms on board trading steamers, and, when on the journey, massacre the crew and European passengers and seize the boat. They kill and kidnap every foreigner within their reach."

Had the Chinese decided to trade one oriental disease for another: fatalism for fanaticism? Ah, these Orientals! Why can't they just stick to their fatalism? If only the Orientals could stick to their fatalism, all our conquests would have been such cakewalks!

It was no ordinary fanaticism either. Outside the borders of their country, the Chinese were mounting suicide attacks against Westerners. "The very coolies," writes Friedrich Engels," emigrating to foreign countries rise in mutiny, and as if by concert, on board every emigrant ship, and fight for its possession, and, rather than surrender, go down to the bottom with it, or perish in its flames. Even out of China, the Chinese colonists...conspire and suddenly rise in nightly insurrection..."

Why do the Chinese hate us?

No doubt the Europeans then were asking this question. And, like the democracy-mongers in the United States today, unwilling to examine the root causes, the history of their own atrocities, unwilling to acknowledge how they "throw hot shell on a defenseless city and add rape to murder," the Europeans then too were outraged. European statesmen and newspapermen fulminated endlessly about Chinese barbarity, calling their attacks "cowardly, barbarous, atrocious..." The Europeans too called for more wars, endless wars, till China could be subdued, totally.

Friedrich Engels was not deceived by the moralizing of the British press. Yes, the Chinese are still 'barbarians,' but the source of this "universal outbreak of all Chinese against all foreigners" was "the piratical policy of the British government." Piratical policy? No, never! We are on a civilizing mission; la mission civilizatrice Europeans. It was not a message that the West has been ready to heed: then or now.

Why had the Chinese chosen this "uncivilized" form of warfare? What had gone wrong? Was this rage born of envy; was it integral to the Chinese ethos; was this rage aimed only at destroying the West? Westerners claim that "their kidnappings, surprises, midnight massacres" are cowardly; but, Friedrich Engels answers, the "civilization mongers should not forget that according to their own showing they [the Chinese] could not stand against European means of destruction with their ordinary means of warfare." In other words, this was an asymmetric warfare. If the weaker party in a combat possesses cunning, it will probe and fight the enemy's weaknesses: not its strengths.

Then as now, this asymmetric warfare caused consternation in the West. How can the Europeans win when the enemy neutralizes the West's enormous advantage in technology, when the enemy refuses to offer itself as a fixed target, when it deploys merely its human assets, its daring, cunning, its readiness to sacrifice bodies?

"What is an army to do," asks Engels, "against a people resorting to such means of warfare? Where, how far, is it to penetrate into the enemy's country, how to maintain itself there?" The West again confronts that question in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. The West has 'penetrated into the enemy's country,' but is having considerable trouble maintaining itself there. Increasingly, Western statesmen are asking: Can they maintain this presence without inviting more attacks?

Friedrich Engels asked the British to give up "moralizing on the horrible atrocities of the Chinese." Instead, he advises them to recognize that "this is a war pro aris et focis ["for altars and hearth"], a popular war for the maintenance of Chinese nationality, with all its overbearing prejudice, stupidity, learned ignorance and pedantic barbarism if you like, but yet a popular war." If we can ignore the stench of Western prejudice in this instance, there is a message here that the West might heed. Is it possible that the Muslims too are waging a "popular war," a war for the dignity, sovereignty of Islamic peoples?

In 1857, the Chinese war against Westerners also was confined to Southern China. However, "it would be a very dangerous war for the English if the fanaticism extends to the people of the interior." The British might destroy Canton, attack the coastal areas, but could they carry their attacks into the interior? Even if the British threw their entire might into the war, it "would not suffice to conquer and hold the two provinces of Kwangtung and Kwangsi. What, then, can they do further?"

The United States and Israel now hold Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. How strong, how firm is their hold? on the one hand, they appear to be in a much stronger position than the British in China. They have the 'rulers' - the 'Mubaraks, Musharrafs and Malikis - in their back pockets. But how long can these 'rulers' stand against their people?

What if the insurgency that now appears like a distant cloud on the horizon no larger than a man's fist is really the precursor of a popular war? What if the "extremists," "militants," "terrorists," are the advance guard of a popular war to restore sovereignty to Islamic peoples? Can the US and Israel win this war against close to a quarter of the world's population? Will this be a war worth fighting: worth winning?

Shouldn't these great powers heed the words of Friedrich Engels? Shouldn't they heed history itself. After nearly a century of hard struggle, the Chinese gained their sovereignty in 1948, driving out every imperialist power from its shores? Today, China is the world's most powerful engine of capitalist development. It threatens no neighbor. Its secret service is not busy destabilizing any country in the world. At least not yet.

Imagine a world today - and over the past sixty years - if the West and Japan had succeeded in fragmenting China, splintering the unity of this great and ancient civilization, and persisted in rubbing China's face in the dirt? How many millions of troops would the West have to deploy to defends its client states in what is now China - the Chinese equivalents of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan and Iraq? If Vietnam bled the United States, imagine the consequences of a quagmire in China?

Would the United States prefer this turbulent but splintered China held down at massive costs in blood and treasure, with military bases, client states, wars, and unending terrorist attacks on American interests everywhere in the world - to the China that it has today, united, prosperous, at peace; a competitor, but also one of its largest trading partners?

At what cost, and for how long, will the United States, Europe and Israel continue to support the splintering, occupation and exploitation of the Islamic heartland they had imposed during World War I? At what cost - to themselves and the peoples of the Islamic world? There are times when it is smarter to retrench than to hold on to past gains.

That time is now: and that time may be running out.

Another turn of the screw - another attack by the United States or Israel - and this window may close irrevocably. If wars, civil conflicts or revolutions sweep across the Islamic world - unlike the Chinese revolution, most likely this turbulence will not be confined to one segment of Asia. In one way or another, this violence will draw the whole world into its vortex. One cannot even begin to imagine all the ramifications, all the human costs of such a conflagration.

The most vital question before the world today is: Can the United States, Israel or both be prevented from starting an apocalypse?

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. He is author of Challenging the New Orientalism (IPI Publications: 2007). Visit his website at He may be reached at [email protected].
M. Shahid Alam

  Category: Life & Society, Middle East
  Topics: History  Channel: Opinion
Views: 7704

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Older Comments:
Did the Chinese slaughter their own children and teachers, you ask?

Of course they did and much, much more. Read the history of Mao's Great Leap Forward. When the government dammed certain areas of China to "industrialize" the nation, a horrendous famine ensued in the 60s. Mao not only refused to grant the affected people aid, but he forbid these people from leaving the affected areas. 30 million people died!

Yes - 30 MILLION.

Our family was disgusted by all this. We moved to Hong Kong. So don't just make brash blanket statements about people without knowing your history.

Assalamualaikum and greetings.

I am replying to a Christian view in his / her post that Saudi women are bribed to wear the head scarf and cover over their head. And that if it weren't for any coercion, then there wouldn't be any Islam.

Look, where did you get all these things, what evidence have you ? If I'm not mistaken, even in western countries, the Muslims or even westerners that embraced Islam would face all sorts of challenges in trying to comply with the beliefs of Islam.

In France, school children are not allowed to wear the head scarf, and even in the daily lives, women who wore them are frowned upon. And in the U.S.A., it's difficult to build mosque when there's resentment among the comunities. Who is bribing who ?

In the Gulf war, the Pentagon bribed Iraqi generals to defect thus they had taken over Baghdad so very easy. And this bribing is just one of the many done by such imperialist army and even the C.I.A bribed puppet leaders in poverty ridden countries to continue to support US policy.

Is there a coercion in Islam ? No, and never. Please consult impartial historian scholars in Oxford and Cambridge and ask whether or not there was forced conversion of Christain Orthodox Greeks during the Muslim rule in Europe. Or in Spain. Infact Christianity flourished during the Muslim rule.

Check your facts before you say anything, alright Mike ?


in response to A Christian:

Nothing could be more absurd than what you claim, the teaching of Islam itself nullifies your claim. Taking bribe in Islam is haram (forbidden), violence and coercion isn't islamic at all.

The Qur'an says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error..." (Qur'an 2:256)

If you are sincere in seeking for the true information about islam, please get it from a proper source.

For a christian, the following link could be of any help:



LoL hypocrites and religious terrorists, that is all this world is full of. All religions are trash as are all the political views, you want to change the world for the better? Perhaps you should actually invest time in doing so rather than talking about!

Nothing could be more absurd than what you claim, the teaching of Islam itself nullifies your claim. Taking bribe in Islam is haram (forbidden), violence and coercion isn't islamic at all.

The Qur'an says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error..." (Qur'an 2:256)

If you are sincere in seeking for the true information about islam, please get it from a proper source.

For a christian, the following link could be of any help:



Salaamu alaikum,

Fair enough Altaf,

Not to harm your neighbours, well how about your neighbours destroying you. Example last summer Israel destroyed Lebanon? Are you saying that Muslims should remain sitting ducks for the vultures? Allah said "Wa idoo lahum ma statatum min qu'watin..." Are you saying that we can only fight those armies that have nuclear weapons with sticks & rocks...If Islam & Muslims are going to be wiped out from planet earth my friend, I say to hell with the environment & planet earth!!!


A wordy rebuke to the civilization of mankind based on the submission to the revealed Will of the Highest and sobriety of reasoning. This portrays the Christian West and the Jewish Nation is ARMS of the BEAST. Yes, all good causes that men take are marred by human weaknesses and failings of the fallible men. On the contrary, the real BEAST manifests itself as a benefactor to the deceived mankind. Double DECEIVINGS!! Yes, to those that perish, the light of the Gospel is hid. They exercise their will against the Grace justifying their own damnation.

The ALMIGHTY forgive the innocent opponents of the One True Faith, the True Islam for they know not what they do. Amen.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) taught us not to destroy living organisms (plants, animals, etc) old people, women,children etc in a war fought in self defense. No matter how great the injustice suffered or how great a cause is, an unjust approach of killing civilians is unacceptable. Allah's help will never come by using means that Allah condemns.

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) has talked about the rights of neighbors and has said he will stand against those muslims who harm the neighbors.

May the Almighty guide us and forgive me for anything I might have said not in exact words of prophet Muhammad (PBUH)

I dont think an apocalypse can be avoided at all . but they will pay for it in the eventually and soon blood of innocent victims will not go unpunished for the prpetrators it is aginst the law of nature . . unfortunatley it is the people who suffer regradless of thier religion .

Mosques are being constructed worldwide with saudi
money. Am under the impression Islam is being
propped up by the saudis. Have even read that some
women are bribed with saudi money to wear hijab.
Have also read that women are forced and pressured
and threatened into wearing it.
Maybe if it weren't for violence and coercion there
wouldn't be any Islam.

Salaamu alaikum,


He is a trustworthy source of knowledge and can discuss many subjects & manage to convince the critics unless you are subjective & blind to the TRUTH and can't see it..Allah help you! "Innaha la ta'ma labsaar bali lquoloobu lati fisodoor" Holy Quran.
Re: Sunnis killing Shia and Shia killing Sunnis that is not the work of good Muslims but the dirty job of the hundreds of thousands of the mercenaries hired by the US & British Army generals. And even if they were Muslims so what do you think that the Muslim community has no rotten eggs like all nations. We have our own disgusting criminals. That's's impossible to have 100% pious society. The prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has his share of this: The hypocrites and rapists of Yatrib (AlMadina).


Assalamualaikum and greetings.

In reply to Norman Bates, I am not perturbed at all by your claim that " Islamic terrorism helps spread Biblical Christianity " And that the spread of Biblical Christianity helps Israel...".

Much as you are entitled to your opinion, but such is unsupported by facts. Look around you Norman, which faith is spreading faster by the day ? I suggest you make a little research at the U.S State Department, you'll find that Islam is the fastest spreading religion in the U.S.A. And even in the U.K too.

And take a look at e bay, how many thousands churches buildings are for sale, because not many or nobody frequents them any more. And in CNN last month in one city in the U.S.A., there's even a hue and cry among residents of one county, when a Muslim organisation bought a building which was earlier a church and wanted to turn it into a mosque, suddenly there was huge protest by residents. The need for a mosque is because of an increasing number of Muslims there. This building was bought with good money, but it's an irony isn't it, when the residents are turning away from their church yet when ownership change hands, they just couldn't bear see a mosque in their area.

As to which faith spreads faster, please, let the facts speak for itself. Regards,

Did the Chinese slaughter their own schoolchildren
and teachers?

I think it more likely that the western popuations will
arise and start giving the muslims among them the
"Chinese treatment he describes.

Mr. M. Shahid Alam is an economist and should stick to demand and supply and other related issues.

Is he aware of GOD'S WILL?



Asalamu Alaikum,

I am a Muslim who has respect for all of our Divine Prophets: Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed starting with our forefather: Abraham. If I was a Christian or Jew, I would not think of Muslims as being rational people especially that Iraq, the spotlight of the world, has turned out to be a showcase for nihilism and mayhem between the Sunnis and Shiites. Shame on them! Shame on them! Shame on them! They have made a mockery of our faith, Islam, which stands for nothing but a peaceful, serene, and exemplary world of nothing less that a lot of hard work and worship of the Almighty. Where are the Muslim leaders in the face of this chaos? Why can't they put their efforts to stop the genocide in their backyards? Or are they all interested in wealth and orgies?
May our creator help all of us regain our sanity!

Eveyrtime there is islamic terrorism or as long as islam is seen as a threat it helps in the embrace and spread of Biblical Christianity around the world. And though islam may not be aware of it,but unintentionally the embrace and spread of Biblical Christianity helps Israel.

And would add that all this violence in Iraq Afghanistan and Palestine is un neccessary.

Not in anyones interest.

Its a political problem which needs a political solution.