The following is an excerpt from my interview with award-winning author and essayist Pankaj Mishra on his new book From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia. The interview was published at Al Jazeera.
Belen Fernandez: You explain at the start of From the Ruins of Empire:
The form of this book – part historical essay and part intellectual biography – is primarily motivated by the conviction that the lines of history converge in individual lives, even though the latter have their own shape and momentum. The early men of modern Asia it describes travelled and wrote prolifically, restlessly assessing their own and other societies, pondering the corruption of power, the decay of community, the loss of political legitimacy and the temptations of the West. Their passionate enquiries appear in retrospect as a single thread, weaving seemingly disparate events and regions into a single web of meaning.”
You’ve discussed your own intellectual formation and travels in previous writings, such as your book Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet, and Beyond. What convergence of events and experiences compelled you to embark on From the Ruins of Empire?
Pankaj Mishra: Many things over the last decade. I’ll speak only about two here. The first was surely my visit to the Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir in 2000, where I witnessed a military occupation by a nation-state, India, that claimed the moral prestige of secularism but was actually oppressively Hindu majoritarian in all significant ways – that’s how it was perceived by Kashmiris who had long belonged to a cosmopolitan and syncretic culture.
That’s when I began to wonder why many Asian nation-states had turned out to be often more violent than the European empires in Asia they had replaced. And that was when I began to wonder – and this is a major theme in the book – if the political and economic models Asians had adopted from the West in their struggle for self-determination and dignity were disastrously unsuitable.
I realised too that the post-colonial version of history I had grown up with – one that celebrated the nation-state’s emergence from foreign rule – was deeply defective and left out a lot of things.
The other thing that influenced me was the post-9/11 political climate in the West. How such a wide range of politicians, policymakers, journalists and columnists could re-embrace the delusions of empire – those you thought had been effectively shattered by decolonisation 50-60 years ago; how they could bring themselves to believe that the Afghans and the Iraqis were just longing to suck on the big sticks proffered to them by American soldiers, as [decorated New York Times foreign affairs columnist] Thomas Friedman inimitably recommended…
All this was just staggering to me, and people like myself who share a reflexive suspicion of armed imperialists claiming to be missionaries.
So neither the neo-imperialist nor the post-colonial accounts of the world seemed accurate. Both had suppressed or neglected a whole range of ideas and personalities in the Asian realm, and I felt that it was time to look at them again, to see what they had to say to us.
BF: There is a tendency, among members of the Western foreign policy establishment and intelligentsia, to reduce international phenomena to simplistic and ahistorical rhetoric and concepts – e.g. 9/11 = Muslims hate our freedom.
Were they to acquire a spontaneous interest in the matter, what might these characters learn from a study of al-Afghani, Liang and other late Asian thinkers that would better position them to interpret contemporary Islamic terrorism, the Arab Spring, the rise of China?
(The US ambassador to Afghanistan would presumably at least be spared further donations of $25,000 to the restoration of al-Afghani’s grave, which as you explain in the book occurred as a result of a fleeting post-9/11 conviction that the man represented an exemplary moderate, liberal and West-compatible Islam. You object: “The mercurial and brilliant al-Afghani was anything but this bland figment of sanguine imagination.”)
PM: Yes, a lot of money could be saved, and spent on worthwhile programmes in both the West and in Afghanistan, if the simple moral equations – mini-skirts versus Taliban beards – were replaced with an engagement with the history of the West in Asia, and the no less tormented history of post-colonial Asia.
One of the problems with these pseudo-culturalist and quasi-psychological accounts and binaries – these barbarians hate our freedoms etc, liberalism versus Islamofascism – is that they are unaware of their own long history.
Asians who felt the sharp edges of Western “values” such as liberalism-and there are many such figures in my book – knew very well these ideological tricks: foreigners justifying their brutal domination and racial humiliation of Asian peoples by pointing to their supposedly higher values of “civilisation”.
This is of course only one of the many things that Western policymakers could learn through reflecting on al-Afghani and Liang.
However, the most important and very simple lesson there for American and European commentators who for a long time have assumed that everyone in the world is just waiting to become like them is this: how Asians have conceived over the last century and a half of their place in the world dominated by a small minority of white men.
This is what my book seeks to describe. In this basic quest for dignity and equality and release from humiliation – so obvious yet so rarely discussed – are grounded all the events that you speak of, whether the Arab Spring or the rise of China.
So unless you grant that people have conceived of their own fates, made their own trysts with destiny, without regard for what the West wants or how the West sees itself and judges non-Western peoples, you’ll always be a little bewildered by everything that happens in the world today, and will end up falling for simple, self-flattering notions like “they must hate our freedoms”.
The book addresses this massive incompatibility of historical memory and self-perceptions between the West and Asia.
Click here to read the full interview at Al Jazeera.