Japan, islam and the west

Category: Life & Society Topics: Democracy, Islam Views: 2745

Before we present our thoughts on the topic itself, let us reflect on some important --- if controversial --- points in Professor Huntington's paper. These points are being raised in the spirit of scholarship --- in the hope that genuine, sincere academic exchange will generate more light than heat, and will, in the end, bring us all closer to the truth.

There are five points in his paper which we shall examine.

One, on page 3, Huntington lists a number of Muslim countries which according to him provided 'funds and arms to the Bosnians'. The list includes Libya. The truth is Libya did not provide funds and arms to the Bosnians; on the contrary it was opposed to Bosnian independence and even sought to justify the Serbian position. In his hurry to show that nations bind together for cultural or civilizational reasons, the good professor has ignored certain important facts on the ground.

Two, on page 4, Huntington asserts that, "Islamic culture explains in large part the failure of democracy to emerge in much of the Muslim world". Here again, the empirical evidence repudiates his assertion. If we looked at Asian countries which have moved away from totalitarian or military rule to civilian and democratic forms of governance in the last 10 years, we would observe that two of the most significant instances are from the Muslim world. Pakistan with 120 million people and Bangladesh with 110 million people, today boast of active electoral politics, a multi-party system, a vibrant non-governmental organization (NGO) community, a vocal media and an independent judiciary. The country that is most resistant to democracy in Asia is not a Muslim country. It is the military regime in Yangon that clings on tenaciously to its totalitarian power. It so happens that the majority of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist. The Muslims, it so happens, are one of the persecuted religious minorities. The other country that has refused to accommodate democratic principles of governance is Vietnam --- which is another Buddhist majority society. Laos, with a Buddhist background, has also chosen to adhere to its decades old authoritarian system of government. Huntington should not conclude from all this that Buddhism has some problem with democracy! Otherwise he will not be able to explain how Buddhist Cambodia and Buddhist Mongolia have made the transition to democratic rule. By the same token, Confucian China has chosen to preserve its authoritarian form of governance while Confucian Taiwan has, in the last 5 years or so emerged as a vigorous democracy. One can go further: Muslim majority Brunei remains a feudal autocracy but Muslim majority Malaysia, on the other hand, has, in spite of all the difficulties, stuck to parliamentary democracy.

The point is simple. Religion is not an obstacle to the evolution of a democratic polity. This is true of Islam as it is true of other religions and cultures in Asia. What often obstructs and impedes the establishment of democracy is an authoritarian ruling elite which perceives government based upon popular consent and participation as a direct threat to its interests and its power. The ruling elite may be Muslim in Buddhist or Confucian or Hindu or Christian in the nominal sense, but it is not its relationship to religion which is the crucial factor. It is how it relates to power which will determine whether it will nurture a democratic society or perpetuate authoritarian rule.

By suggesting that religion is not an impediment to democracy, we are not implying that religion is synonymous with democracy or religion is supportive of each and every facet of the Western liberal tradition. There are elements in the concept and practice of democracy which are clearly at variance with the values and principles embodied in religion. This is not an appropriate place to adumbrate on this. Be that as it may, it would still be wrong to argue that Islamic culture is responsible for the failure of democracy in the Muslim world when in fact some of the most fundamental philosophical and political ideas and ideals in the religion promote freedom, individual autonomy, accountability on the part of the ruler, consultation with the people, respect for different points of view, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. Indeed, even non-Muslim thinkers like the internationally renowned jurist, Professor Weeramantry, have acknowledged that it was Islam that introduced ideas such as the equality of all human beings before the law and due process to Europe and thereby strengthened the foundations for the growth of democracy in the West.

Of course, as with every other culture and community, Muslim societies in the past and the present have often breached the values and principles of their religion. It is sometimes forgotten that even that one nation that consciously set out to be a democracy --- the United States of America --- failed to live up to the most elementary principles of its own constitution for almost two hundred years after the proclamation of its independence. The African-American population in parts of the Sala South did not even have the right to vote until 1965! In some respects Muslim societies in the pre-colonial era were more successful in translating some of their constitutional principles into policies than the US in the first half of the twentieth century. Huntington would be surprised to learn that in a number of Muslim societies of yesteryear the rule of law was faithfully upheld to such an extent that rulers subordinated their authority to the Syariah (the Islamic legal system). There was also an institution called Hisbah, very similar to the office of the Ombudsman, which ensured public accountability and served as a conduit for the articulation of all types of public grievances.

If this is the evidence from Muslim history, how can Huntington even suggest that Islamic culture is not conducive to democracy?

Three, on page 9, Huntington recycles a hackneyed argument from his 'Clash of Civilizations' about "the bloody borders of Islam". He concedes though that, "These conflicts are not necessarily the fault of Muslims. Muslims may be the target of others....." But then he goes on to say that "it is hard not to conclude that there is something about Islam that generates this violence at this point in history".

Huntington contradicts himself here. If Muslims are the victims of violence --- as they are in almost all the cases he cites, from Bosnia and Chechnya to Kashmir and Palestine --- how can they be held responsible for generating violence? Shouldn't one distinguish the violence of the victim from the violence of the aggressor? By what moral criteria does one put both kinds of violence in the same bracket?

In any case, there is no justification at all for linking Islam to violence. Huntington is wrong in implying that Islam has a problem with "people of other religions". Quite the opposite. Islam and Muslim empires, by and large, have an excellent record of treating non-Muslim minorities with respect and decorum. The seven hundred and fifty years of Muslim rule in Andalusia which witnessed the generous accommodation of Christians and Jews in almost every sphere of society was not the only outstanding example of Islamic tolerance. Many of the Uthmaniyyah and Mughal rulers were also renowned for their accommodative attitude towards their non-Muslim subjects. Here in Malaysia, the Melaka Sultanate displayed a high degree of tolerance in its relations with the cosmopolitan population of the port of Melaka. It is said that at the height of its glory, some 80 languages were spoken in Melaka. How can one describe a religious civilization which has shown such openness towards 'the other' as inclined towards violence?

Four, Huntington has an explanation for Islamic violence. He says "The principal cause is the population explosion in Muslim countries and their large "youth bulges" of people 15 to 25 years old who become militants, fundamentalists, migrants, warriors and, on occasion, terrorists" (page 9).

The good professor is off the mark again. If the victims of violence resort to violence, it is mainly because of their passion for justice --- justice which they are convinced rightly or wrongly, cannot be achieved in any other way except through the use of force. To put it in more concrete terms, if Chechens or Palestinians or Kashmiris engage in acts of violence, it is because of their quest for justice and not because of 'population explosion' or 'youth bulges'. Of course, there are Muslim groups --- just as there are groups in all religions --- which have no qualms about perpetrating senseless, mindless violence. But this is not a reflection, it must be emphasized over and over again, of the moral teachings of the religion. Islam is as committed as any other religion to the minimization of violence and to the ethics of peace.

In this regard, one cannot help but observe that attempting to discredit struggles for social justice by bringing in the population argument was the favored approach of many of cold war warrior. Obviously, it has survived into the post cold war era!

Five, Huntington is of the view that China --- an obsession with many Western academics --- may "assume a hegemonic position in East Asia". He says that, "this goal is a natural result of its rapid economic development. Every other major power --- Britain, France, Germany and Japan, the United States and the Soviet Union --- have engaged in outward expansion, assertion and imperialism coincidental with or immediately following the years in which it went through rapid industrialization and economic growth. No reason exists to think that the acquisition of economic and military power will not have comparable affects in China" (page 12).

It is of course possible that a powerful China will become hegemonic and imperialistic. After all, the mindset behind China's development drive is, all said and done, characterized by the same devotion to materialistic progress associated with the West (and Japan). This one dimensional notion of progress worships the accumulation of wealth and the expansion of power as ends in themselves. It is notion of progress that could lead to the dominance and control of other lands and other resources.

However, if we were honest in our evaluation of China, we would acknowledge that in spite of its size and population, China, for most of its history, has never sought hegemony. Even when China was the world's pre-eminent maritime power six hundred years ago and was building ships that were many, many times bigger than the boats that Columbus used in his voyages to the West Indies, the Chinese did not conquer one inch of foreign territory, or occupy other lands or station soldiers on alien soil. Right through the centuries the Chinese elite have been concerned largely with securing their own borders rather than invading other people's countries or controlling their resources. Contrast this with the behavior of Western imperial powers from the sixteenth century onwards. Look at the barbaric, rapacious policies of even a small state like Portugal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Or France and Britain in the nineteenth century in not only Asia but also in Africa.

The inability or perhaps reluctance of many Western academics to evaluate China in a balanced, objective manner is one of the most disturbing trends in current scholarship.

Having analyzed some of the major arguments in Professor Huntington's paper, let us now turn to the theme of our presentation. How do Japan, Islam and the West perceive each other? How do they relate to one another? Would their interactions lead to peaceful coexistence or would they lead to conflict?

Let us start with Japan. For a significant segment of Japanese society, Islam is almost non-existent. There is very little interest in the religion and even those who have heard of Islam remain ignorant of its meaning and message. A small fraction of Japanese society may even have negative feelings about Islam and Muslims partly because of the influence of the mainstream Western media and partly because of the presence of Muslim migrant workers.

Mainstream Japanese attitudes towards the West are, on the whole, quite positive. Even ordinary Japanese are very much aware of the role of the United States in the reconstruction of post-war Japan. They know that Japan enjoys a special security relationship with the US. There is still a great deal of admiration for the West's accomplishments in science and technology and even in the arts.

At the same time however another trend is gaining some currency within certain sections of the Japanese intelligentsia. Partly because of US economic pressures upon Japan aimed at reducing the former's trade deficit with the latter and partly because of subtle attempts by certain Western industrial powers to curb Japan's economic prowess, there are a growing number of Japanese who are beginning to wonder whether it is in Japan's national interest to remain so closely allied to the West. This rethinking about Japan's relations with the West is also being spurred to some extent by its rapidly expanding economic ties with the buoyant economies of Northeast and Southeast Asia. It explains why some politicians and intellectuals are arguing that Japan should identify with Asia which is its natural home. Besides, within Japan itself there has always been a strong --- even if currently dormant --- nationalistic strain which resents Japanese dependence upon the West especially in security matters and yearns for a truly independent Japan. Elements of this are expressing themselves in the Okinawa issue.

From Japan let us now turn to Islam and Muslims. How do Muslims view Japan? As is to be expected Japan's economic progress continues to win accolades from Muslim countries in Asia. In certain Muslim circles however Japan is sometimes perceived as an overly materialistic society which somehow does not harmonize with the Islamic worldview. There are also a lot of Muslims in Asia and elsewhere who are disappointed with Japan's easy acquiescence with the dictates of US foreign policy.

As for the West, most Muslims recognize that the West --- the US in particular --- is a powerful reality which they cannot afford to ignore. There is some acknowledgement of the strength of Western science and technology. Nonetheless, within the Muslim world there is also a great deal of opposition to Western dominance or, to put it more accurately, dominance of the global system by the centers of power in the West. Many Muslims feel that one of the primary goals of Western dominance is the subordination, even the emasculation of Muslim countries and Muslim communities. This has become more apparent to them after the end of the cold war and the defeat of communism. It is because Islam is perceived as the new enemy that it is constantly caricatured and castigated in the mainstream Western media.

If this is how the Muslim world sees Japan and the West, how does the West see Japan and Islam? When Japan was emerging from the ashes of the second world war, the US and other Western countries appeared to be impressed by Japan's grit and grind. But the moment Japan was on par with them, the centers of power in the West began to treat Japan as an economic rival. Thwarting Japan's economic dynamism has become one of the major preoccupations of US trade policy.

Compared to its treatment of Japan, the mainstream West has a much more negative attitude towards Islam and Muslims. Leaving aside ignorance of the religion which is widespread, there is also considerable prejudice and antagonism towards the religion and its followers which can be traced back to theology, the crusades, colonialism, and, of course, the contemporary West's Machiavellian geo-economics and geopolitical calculations. The fact that most Muslims continue to observe religious practices with much devotion has also created a chasm of sorts with a largely secularized West which has ceased to accord primacy to matters of faith and spiritual transcendence. In other words, there are elements in the Muslim lifestyle which, from a secular Western standpoint, do not conform to their notion of progress and modernity. Be that as it may, it is important to note that today more than in the past there are a number of voices in the West which are distressed by the covert and overt antagonism towards Islam and Muslims especially the negative stereotyping of the religion as a 'violent religion' and its practitioners as `bloodthirsty terrorists.' Unfortunately, these voices are still on the margins of society.

From our reflections on the relations between Japan, Islam and the West, it is obvious that the seeds of conflict lie in the West's attitudes towards Japan and Islam. Underlying these attitudes is a strong desire on the part of the centers of power in the West to preserve and perpetuate their dominance and control of the global system. In the case of Japan it is their fear of Japanese economic power and its potential challenge to their dominance; in the case of Islam and the Muslim world, it is the assertion of autonomy and independence and the Islamic worldview and value-system which the centers of power in the West regard as inimical to their politics of control. Whether the desire for dominance and control will lead to actual conflict with Japan or any of the Muslim states will depend upon a variety of factors - the most important of which will be how a certain circumstance or situation is interpreted by the centers of power in the West as a `threat' to their interests.

As long as the political, economic and cultural relations between the West, Japan and Islam are conditioned by the desire for dominance and control on the part of the former over the latter there can be no genuine peace between the three civilizations. The centers of power in the West must accept the reality that the world is changing, that their dominance, perpetuated over two centuries, is coming to an end. It is not just Japanese economic power that they must contend with; the rise of other economies in Northeast and Southeast Asia is inevitable. Trying to block their economic progress is an exercise in futility. Similarly, as communities, nations and civilizations are brought into closer proximity through the imperatives of economics and technology there would be for a period of time at least an upsurge of consciousness of their distinctive religious and cultural identities. Islamic resurgence is, in that sense, a challenge to the dominant West with its homogenizing tendencies to show respect for, and to celebrate, cultural and religious diversity. Indeed, the religiously and culturally diverse world that is emerging with multiple centers of power located within different civilizations demands of the West a major psychological and attitudinal transformation that acknowledges in genuine humility the equality and dignity of all communities and peoples. Are the centers of power in the West capable of such a transformation?

It is not just the West that must change if there is to be peaceful coexistence. An economically strong Japan that is no longer psychologically and intellectually subservient to the West and is conscious of its place in Asia must be prepared to eliminate once and for all the terrible burden of its past. It must seek forgiveness in a genuine and sincere manner from some of its Asian neighbors for the massacres it committed, and the cruelties it inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of people, during the second world war. At the same time Japan should try to change the perception that exists in certain circles that it is nothing more than a profit maximizing juggernaut that is not really interested in interacting with, or understanding, other Asian peoples and their cultures.

Muslims in Asia and elsewhere should also subject themselves to critical scrutiny. This is particularly important for Muslim relations with the West since ties with Japan are not really problematic. Certain Muslim groups tend to condemn the West in to without any understanding of the complexities of Western civilization or its monumental achievements. There are also Muslim groups that are so exclusive in outlook that they are not prepared to concede that there may be outstanding virtues in other religions, cultures and communities which sometimes accord with universal Islamic ethics. Consequently, some of them show hardly any compassion for the sufferings of 'the other'. And yet as the distinguished Japanese scholar of Islam Toshihiko Izutsu points out the Holy Quran never tires of emphasizing God's mercy and compassion for all human beings and indeed for all creation. It is this all-embracing, all-encompassing mercy and compassion that should be the essence of peaceful coexistence among all civilizations.

  Category: Life & Society
  Topics: Democracy, Islam
Views: 2745

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