From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra

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“They cannot represent themselves,” Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “they must be represented.” Marx was referring to the French peasant class whose interests in the eighteenth century, he argued, formed “no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them.” Thus they needed to be represented by others and Bonaparte became their representative. Since Edward Said used it as the epigraph to his 1978 book Orientalism, Marx’s diagnosis came to stand for a particular form of non-representation. The peoples of central Asia, the Middle East, and China have been represented through the Orientalist discourse, Said argued, and this form of representation reduced them to various others in the nexus of western epistemology. But what about Asia’s intellectuals? How to represent them; how to place their ideas in a contemporary context? Do they form a community, a bond, a class? Is there such a thing as the Asian intellectual? If so, does a political unity exist among them? Those were some of the questions I asked myself upon reading From the Ruins of Empire, Pankaj Mishra’s magisterial history of Asia’s intellectuals.

Mishra, a novelist and an essayist, is famed for starting some of the most interesting intellectual controversies in recent times. His critique of Niall Ferguson’s take on British imperialism almost led Ferguson to sue the London Review of Books for libel. (Mishra implied that Ferguson was a racist and apologist for imperialism and colonialism.) In his pieces for The Guardian, Mishra discussed Salman Rushdie’s stances on freedom of expression and countries like China and Iran; these pieces also created controversy, resulting in a furious letter sent to the newspaper’s editor by Rushdie. It may seem appropriate for such a major critic of contemporary ideas to undertake the task of writing a history of ideas. Mishra has focused on Asian intellectuals because he believes that the western public shows insufficient attention to them, most notably to the Iranian ideologist Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani. “Compared to the two other great political and philosophical exiles of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Alexander Herzen, al-Afghani is barely known in the West today,” Mishra writes, “even though his influence exceeds that of Herzen and, at least in its longevity, almost matches Marx’s.”

But doesn’t Mishra’s very effort to represent the ideas of forgotten Asian intellectuals to the English-speaking world place him in a problematic position? Doesn’t it make him an ideal candidate to fall into the trap of producing the kind of Orientalist knowledge Said had warned us against? The crucial question here is whether Mishra does end up falling into the trap: whether he simplifies the complex ideas of Asian writers, reproducing the classic dichotomies of the Enlightenment.

Mishra seems adamant in his refusal to believe in neat distinctions between liberators and oppressors. While conventional chronicles of Asia’s intellectual history resort to clear-cut dichotomies between liberal/secular intellectuals and their illiberal/religious others, Mishra shows how political power can transform progressive values like secularism into tools of oppression. This turns the dichotomy between religion and secularism on its head. In order to appreciate the importance of Mishra’s stance on this, it would be timely to remember the June 30 protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and the subsequent coup d’état. We were led to believe that a military commander with progressive ideas could strike the last blow to an authoritarian government. In just a few weeks the secularist/progressive intervention misfired, further confusing western intellectuals who believed that an anti-Islamist movement was the best of all possible worlds.

From the Ruins of Empire’s arguments provide an antidote to such misconceptions. The book’s scope is impressive and its discussion of Asian intellectuals extends to numerous countries: to Turkey, where I was born and raised, and where a westernized, militarist uprising revolutionized the state apparatus in the 1920s at the expense of destroying some of the country’s most authentic voices from the left and the right; to China, where the Indian writer Rabindranath Tagore had been lampooned and bullied by revolutionaries for his warnings about westernization and for his sympathy towards Confucianism, which Maoists believed needed getting rid of. In those cases political power managed to turn such progressive values as secularism into accomplices of oppression, and this may be one reason why Mishra is sympathetic to the wounded history of Asia’s Islamists. Mishra seems to be on the side of Islamists in many of the intellectual debates he chronicles. Nevertheless The Ruins is by no means a defense of Islamism. Instead Mishra’s approach seems rooted in the post-colonialist, deconstructionist tradition that sees the undermining of western epistemology as one of its features. The book’s numerous references to the ideas of Fanon and Foucault are part of Mishra’s broader critique of the European Enlightenment.

Contrary to my expectations The Ruins doesn’t begin with a discussion of an intellectual or a book: it opens with a scene of military triumph that creates a bond between Asia’s intellectuals. A small Japanese fleet annihilates much of the Russian navy in May 1905; Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō’s victory marks the first time since the Middle Ages that an eastern country wins a major war. The news of the military triumph careens “around a world that Western imperialists—and the invention of the telegraph—had closely knit together,” giving rise to a group of intellectual awakenings across the continent. Future leaders of Asia (Mohandas Gandhi, Mustafa Kemal, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sun Yat-sen, among others) read accounts of the event with pleasure and imagine similar victories in their own countries. While closely observing Japan’s modernization they dream of militaristic ways of transforming their traditional societies. Those intellectuals, Mishra notes, were often “secular, even anti-religious, nationalists.”

Pankaj Mishra

Pankaj Mishra

Mishra summarizes their response to Western hegemony under three categories: the reactionaries who wanted to stick to their religions and lifestyles, which they considered superior to those other civilizations; the radical secularists who supported complete and comprehensive revolutions; and more moderate figures who looked for a middle ground.

In their struggles to get rid of Western dominance and replace it with democratic systems, most Asian intellectuals ended up adopting the evolutionist, nationalist vein of Western culture. This choice added authoritarian tones to their revolutions, most famously in the cases of Japan in 1930s and Turkey under one-party rule, which lasted two decades.

But how did those ideas reach Asia’s intellectuals in the first place? Mishra shows the important role played by the education system and bureaucracy in configuring the ideas of intellectuals. During the British Raj in India, for example, the colonialists created a class of secularized and privileged Indians among whose ranks the future Indian revolutionaries emerged. As the Urdu poet Altaf Hussain Hali noted, getting an English education helped one in finding a government job; it also created a rupture between local and foreign cultures, embedding a dichotomy into the mind of the intellectual. The creation of this special class of enlightened locals was part of Lord Macaulay’s vision of India, where existed “a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals, and in intellect.” This was the idea behind the creation of the so-called “faux-Englishmen.”

Many Asian intellectuals (“faux-Englishmen” among them) focused on the issue of survival and wondered how the Eastern world could survive against such a powerful enemy. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the inventor of the ‘Aryan’ master race theory, noted, “a few million men, who a few centuries ago, lived nearly shelterless in the forests and in the marshes of Europe” had ended up transforming the globe. In reaction to these issues Asia’s Islamic modernists sought “an enlightened synthesis” between tradition and Enlightenment, calling for a “selective borrowing of European science, politics and culture, insisting that the Koran was fully compatible with modernity.” Their attitude was different from that of the faux-Englishmen. Unlike their fellow intellectuals who supported westernization at all costs, Islamic modernists realized that:

European subordination of Asia was not merely economic and political and military. It was also intellectual and moral and spiritual: a completely different kind of conquest than had been witnessed before, which left its victims resentful but also envious of their conquerors and, ultimately, eager to be initiated into the mysteries of their seemingly near-magical power.

One of the most interesting intellectuals who questioned those “mysteries” (while himself being bewitched by them) was the twentieth-century sociologist Ali Shariati, who, as a political exile in Paris, had few aims other than to advance his intellectual training and educate fellow revolutionaries in Iran. An important figure in the radical intellectual movements of the 1960s and ’70s, Shariati had translated Jean-Paul Sartre’s What is Literature? and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth into Persian. Mishra points to the crucial importance of the shift that took place in Shariati’s intellectual interests: after “a long intellectual detour through Western secular ideologies of emancipation” he embraced the ideas of Al-Afghani.

Al-Afghani’s advocacy of a Pan-Islamic unity and his attempts at organizing a unified Muslim response to the west set him apart from other Asian intellectuals. Seen as the intellectual godfather of the Iranian Revolution (after visiting Tehran in 1979, Michel Foucault called it “the first great insurrection” against the “global systems” of the West) Al-Afghani’s influence extended to Afghanistan, Turkey, India, Egypt and Pakistan.

At first glance Al-Afghani’s example seems different from that of Mao Zedung, a passionate advocate of a top-down modernization and a complete rooting out of local traditions. But Mishra also finds similarities between those figures, arguing that Asian intellectuals used western ideas pragmatically in order to reach their political ends.

So was it this political pragmatism that united Asia’s intellectuals during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Along with geography it was certainly an important factor; nevertheless there is something problematic in making too neat distinctions between the kinds of intellectuals V. S. Naipaul called “mimic men” and Islamic modernists like Al-Afghani who were later accused of planting the seeds of Islamist extremism. I would argue that recent events in Turkey were crucial in showing how such a dichotomy no longer holds water.

Since the 1980s Turkish liberals had joined forces with Islamists, whom they rightly identified as representatives of the country’s oppressed; lately, however, liberals came to discover some alarming similarities between Islamists and the nationalists whom they had fought against for many decades. This year a leading figure of the Islamists announced the end of his movement’s collaboration with liberals. The classical divide between modernizing/secularist nationalists and tolerant/multiculturalist liberals thereby seemed to lose its validity.

The events that took place in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in June further complicated old categorizations. The protests were organized by environmentalists whose intellectual heroes were Tagore and Gandhi; when ultra-secularist nationalists tried to march alongside them they were given the cold shoulder. Thus Islamists had to struggle against die-hard environmentalists rather than die-hard secularists. This is a further twist in the history of Asia’s intellectual movements—one that doesn’t fit to any of Mishra’s categories.

The Ruins’ verdict concerning the present state of the “very vital and self-assured” cultures of the Islamic countries is a bleak one. Islamism may be a legitimate and rightful reaction to secularist nationalism, but it may end up incorporating the faults of its enemy, offering little alternative to neoliberalism’s vision of global-scale consumerism. What is more, it has lately started to resemble nationalism, at least in its methods of handling its dissidents. In the past Asia’s intellectuals were united by their varied responses to Western hegemony; today their critiques of the shortcomings of the ruling ideologies of their countries might become their new unifying feature—and that, too, needs to be represented for the English-speaking world.

Kaya Genç is a novelist, essayist, and doctoral candidate from Istanbul. His work appeared in The Guardian, The Guardian Weekly, Index on Censorship, Songlines, and on Guernica, The Millions, and London Review of Books websites. Having published his first novel, L'avventura, in Turkey in 2008, he is currently working on a novel in English. More from this author →