Dialogue, debate or disagreement?

If it was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who preached that the East and the West are inseparable, it was Rudyard Kipling who became famous for advocating the idea of their perpetual incompatibility. Today, the foremost characteristic of any East-West discourse continues to be a wrangle over a mutual cultural misunderstanding. The 'West', the East Asian studies scholar Martin Bernal has suggested, is as much a construction as the 'East' of Edward Said's Orientalism. Likewise, Victor David Hanson, the author of the influential book Why the West has Won: Carnage and Culture fron Salamis to Vietnam, wrote in 2002 that "the East continues to stereotype the West, with not a clue about its intrinsic nature." Hanson mockingly portrayed non-Westerners as baffled by a "mysterious Western paradigm – the freedom to speak freely". For Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma, Occidentalism, or the popular understanding of Western cultures, constitutes "a cluster of images and ideas of the West in the minds of its haters". They infer that what is really hated about the West by those who only know it from afar is its secularity and rationalism. But do such vague notions on either side really hold any water in today's globalised context?

Let us begin with the West and its vision of the East. Despite the extensive and constantly growing firsthand knowledge accumulated by the West about the non-West, far-away events, whether in Jordan or Egypt, in Guatemala or Kenya, still frequently come as a surprise to many Westerners. It is as if those who have been brought up within the orbit of Western civilisation, much as they may know about politics and economics, geography and anthropology, have not yet discovered the inner recesses of the non-Western mind, and thus are still groping for understanding. The West has always seen the East through Western eyes, never striving to see it in the eyes of the East. In a recent lecture, the forthright assertion made by Pope Benedict XVI that the central tenants of Christianity are unquestionably European was considered to be a logical extension of his advocacy of a robust rejection of Islamist-inspired 'terrorism' in Europe. He went on to say that this could be countered only by shoring up Judaeo-Christian values and contesting the over-secularisation of public life, the hallmark of the West. When he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict had despaired of the West's "hatred of itself". The West, he had observed, "no longer loves itself; in its own history, it now sees only what is deplorable and destructive, while it is no longer able to perceive what is great and pure."

The context is charged because, in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, there is a tendency within much Western commentary to conflate radical Islamism with both 'terrorism' and a perceived hatred of the West. If one could smell a hint of Islamophobia in the comments of the Holy See, along with a cultural and religious anxiety, the reception of the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, which first appeared in a Danish newspaper in September 2005, is a case in point. At the time, many radical Muslims cited this as another example of the attacks of 'the West' against Islam. That the cartoons were not republished in several countries, including the United States and Britain, did not exonerate these countries of the charge of being complicit in this act of 'the West'.

Liberalism bogey
In any such discussion, of course, one of the most influential books on the subject is Edward Said's Orientalism, a polemical masterwork that challenged the accepted scientific and intellectual paradigms that continue to underlie much Western study of the Orient. It also attacked Orientalism and its academic structures as intellectual adjuncts to the economic and political domination of East by West. For example, Orientalism was a necessary intellectual justification for the colonial enterprise, rather than merely being the objective pursuit of knowledge and scholarship. Said was a consummate musician himself, and scholars such as Gerry Farrell (Indian Music and the West, 1997) have stated that Said's contention that the Orient was "almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences" is apt, as Indian music in the West has so often functioned as the backdrop for exotic and romantic fantasies. As much of Indian literature, including the Kama Sutra, came to draw the attention of the West through translations, translations themselves came to be viewed as one of the significant technologies of 'colonial domination' in India. Said argues that translation serves "to domesticate the Orient and thereby turn it into a province of European learning."

But in fact, what is the East, and what is the West? And what, for that matter, is the Orient and the Occident? The West has been demonised, the East mystified. But in the view of this writer, these are all geographical, cultural, historical and, above all, notional entities and worldviews. It is interesting to see the vast body of literature that exists on the subject, which points to a varying degree of conflict existing between say, Confucius and Aristotle, the Bhagavad Gita and the Bible, the Upanishads and Emmanuel Kant, Buddha and Christ, Taoist naturalism and Greek science. Is the West predominantly Anglo-American, as the East is predominantly Sino-Indian, as convention would hold?

Furthermore, does the West actually present a different set of cultural assumptions, which have ushered the first light of democracy, universal suffrage and individual liberty? And if we assume that the people of the East must remain beholden to the West for having been lent some of the 'ennobling' values of life, the issue becomes increasingly problematic, for it draws upon histories of Western imperialism, the Kiplingesque dictum of the 'white man's burden'. But that would be revisionist history, many warn. And Said himself admitted that it is Western hegemony that puts a gloss on things Oriental.

First, let us take the instance of liberalism. Many of the thinkers to whom Western scholars turn for understandings of the term – Burke, Mill, Tocqueville, Smith – were until recent decades largely unknown in India, or at least largely unread. Amartya Sen observed in The Argumentative Indian that "a great many departures in science and mathematics occurred in India from the early centuries of the first millennium which altered the state of knowledge in the world," and that "some of the earliest open public deliberations in the world were hosted in India." Sen also questioned whether Western modernity would have been possible without Arab, Indian and Chinese contributions in mathematics and science. He believes that "it is through global movements of ideas, people, goods and technology that different regions of the world have tended, in general, to benefit from progress and development occurring in other regions."

Though democracy is a far better option for governance than say, autocracy, a trait to which many Eastern societies are known to be prone, Western-style democracy is today being discredited in many parts of the Islamic world. For instance, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia, as well as large chunks of West and Central Asia remain opponents to Western-style democracy. In addition, a notable caveat is always the fact that, in many countries where democracy is most advanced, economic and social conditions remain unequal. Democracy coexists most comfortably with market capitalism, after all, and market capitalism thrives on inequality. Meanwhile, Washington seems to be largely abandoning its long-term goal of democracy in West Asia, beginning to suggest that 'victory' instead be defined as "achieving representative government, not necessarily democracy". Ironically, the US, a defender of its self-styled democracy, knows well that elections in many Arab countries would produce politicians with extremist worldviews, certainly differing from the US's own. In India, meanwhile, the citizenry gets immature rabble-rousers, casteists, crooks and obscurantists as its elected representatives.

In fact, over the past half-century, a significant number of success stories in the developing world – say, in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Chile, Indonesia or even China – has taken place under what would generally be considered liberal authoritarian regimes. The bungled experiments with capitalism, meanwhile, so inextricably linked to the idea of the West, have helped to install authoritarian rightwing and populist leftwing regimes in Russia and Latin America, respectively. In such cases, neither democracy nor capitalism appears to constitute a cure-all.

Superiority bogey
Is it possible to historically locate the beginning of Western civilisation? Many suggest that it was born in about 675 AD, following the breakdown of its parent, the Hellenic civilisation represented by the Roman Empire. It is therefore a little over 1300 years old. The anarchy that followed the breakdown of the Roman Empire was its first challenge, until it was countered by the Papacy, the most powerful agency of medieval Christendom. In around 1475, the parochial medieval city state gave way to nationalism, with the emergence of the characteristic modern Western political institution. According to the historian Arnold Toynbee, the rise of the nation state towards the end of the 15th century marks the beginning of modern Western civilisation. But the non-Western world was not anxiously waiting for the birth of the modern Western civilisation so that the latter could civilise it, though the imperialist and Orientalist propaganda has been that it was the West that salvaged the East from barbarism. This is where a certain element of propaganda is potentially at work, as Western historians, it is alleged, have traditionally taken a dim view of non-Western accomplishments – say, in astronomy and medicine, not to speak of philosophy and literature.

Is this cultural anxiety a result of an assumption of cultural superiority or the loss of it? Amartya Sen has challenged the commonplace prejudice that the West has "exclusive access to the values that lie at the foundation of rationality and reasoning, science and evidence, liberty and tolerance, and of course rights and justice." He cites two figures to back up this contention: the third-century BC Emperor Ashoka, who renounced empire-building and attempted a new form of governance based on Buddhist principles of compassion and tolerance; and the 16th-century Mughal Emperor Akbar who, by arguing for a religiously neutral state, set up the "foundations of a non-denominational, secular state which was yet to be born in India or for that matter anywhere else." Sen points out that Akbar was stressing religious tolerance and upholding reason over blind faith at a time when, in Europe, Giordano Bruno, the Italian astronomer, was being arrested for heresy before being burned at the stake.

On the other hand, the Muslim dilemma today stems from the fact that Islam achieved its intellectual peak during the 13th century, when Western Europe was just emerging from the Dark Ages. The Islamic world at the time had philosophers, men of science, fine libraries, and a rich and varied culture. But after this flowering, the ummah seemed to go to sleep under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Islam did not reawaken until the 19th century, when the Empire began to disintegrate as it came into contact with the West. The latter, meanwhile, had leapt from the Middle Ages to the era of nationalism, industrialisation and democratisation.

In India, the East-West dialogue remains more intricate than meets the eye. Many of the great sons of India, such as Raja Rammohun Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Satyajit Ray, are products of a European consciousness and a European spirit of liberalism. Take the instance of Mohandas K Gandhi. On the face of it, he was wary of the West, writing as he did, "India's destiny lies not along the bloody way of the West … she must be strong enough to resist it for her own sake and that of the world." Yet Gandhi always recognised the other West as well, the marginalised and the dissenting. His originality lay in how he evolved his borrowings from the West to a unique Indianness, suited to the homespun variety of his political creed. He dabbled in British and European law and politics, had connections with the theosophists and studied Christianity. His readings of Ruskin, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Carlyle, Chesterton and others helped him to shape his ideas of non-conformism within the larger tradition of European dissent. On the flip side, just in case we wonder why Gandhi is an Eastern icon in the West, it was two famous Westerners again – namely, Romain Rolland and John Haynes Holmes – who spread his name to the West.

Totem bogey
Again, a caveat is in order. The assumption that any society trying to be modern needs the West to set out a model for it, mistakes Western modernity as the only form of modernity. Pankaj Mishra's Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond (2006) cites examples of unassimilated forms of Western modernity, how totems of the West – such as a junket to New York, helicopter rides, and the freebies and frills of power – make a politician in India desperate lest he or she is forced to return to the dingy lane, "the meanness and insignificance from which the profession of politics has rescued them." He also discusses how the rich young Hindus clad in Benetton t-shirts and Nike shoes are trained to wage a 'holy' war against Muslims. Mishra says that secularism, another textbook import from the West, has been used as "the only useful basis on which the centralized government in (New) Delhi, in the name of modernity and progress, establishes its authority over a poor and chaotically fractious country." In Tibet, Mishra mocks the Chinese government – officially atheist and strongly opposed to an independent Tibet – which cannily discovered that Tibetan Buddhism could "be packaged and sold" to Western tourists.

Today, we often mistake some of the totemic hallmarks of the West for being Western. Its purported love for unbridled capitalism, money-making and creature comforts, for instance, its mindless acquisitiveness, its idea of individual liberty and sexual freedom, its sheer dependence on technology – each of these gets doled out routinely. This stereotyping of the West – as materialistic, inimical to the family system, and lax in morality – continues today in popular fiction, commercial films and television serials. The idea that Western women are 'loose' gains currency through the stream of pornographic films available underground. Such stereotyping is as much vice of the East and as it is of the West.

How these totems are warped is perhaps best understood when hordes of Afghan mujahideens take to state-of-the-art guns, manufactured with Western technology, while living in one of the world's most hidebound societies. Indeed, technology, that much-vaunted Western form of modernity, is regularly used by even the fiercest of al-Qaeda ideologues, for instance for Osama bin Laden to sit in a cave in Tora Bora and electronically broadcast his rants against the US and Western civilisation. The Cold War, encompassing the atomic and space ages, represented the high-water mark of scientific rationalism. Yet at that time, rational means appeared to be serving irrational ends. Was technology getting out of control, taking on a momentum of its own and providing a common enemy against which East and West would have to cooperate to avoid self-destruction? The 'bunker-buster' missile lobbed by America on Afghanistan and Iraq were certainly as much a product of Western technology as, say, the arms bazaar of Rawalpindi.

But what has taken place in the Subcontinent as an imitation of the external façade of the West continues to sit ill with the circumstances on the ground. We consider putting on a pair of jeans, or going to the bars, as being somehow Western. In hugely populous countries such as India and China, the issue now is how to transform these populations into Western-style consumer societies, which all told is a far more serious business than ending up with a glut of people swigging beer, filing for divorce, driving cars or having sex outside of marriage. While rape in the US and Britain typically has more to do with physical and mental trauma, in India and Pakistan it is still thought of by many to be a question of sullying honour, thus offering little room for social rehabilitation for the victim. While health and education are basic entitlements in a Western society, Southasian public policy on such issues, as well as the region's infrastructure and social institutions, compare poorly.

For many, the basic grouse against the West will continue to be that it tries to subsume all other cultures within its fold. Post-9/11, there is already a huge corpus of anti-Western literature, pigeonholed sometimes into anti-Americanism, from places such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine – seats of mighty Eastern civilisations. Mishra's take on Tibet reminds one of a poster by Coca-Cola some years back, which showed various historical world leaders, from Caesar to Lenin to Hitler, beside a bottle of Coke. The caption read, "Only one launched a campaign that conquered the world." Along these lines, we are now hearing a rising tide of anxiety about architectural sameness – mainly Western-style high-rises – taking root in the major cities of the world.

Indeed, barring perhaps a few feudal societies, there is no country left in the world that has been exempt from a fusion of the East and the West. Blame it on globalisation, on the rise of Internet or multiculturalism, but Oriental or Occidental 'purity' is as much a myth as racial purity. Japan, known as an Eastern success story, is today touted to be the most Western country of the East, buoyed by the technological inventions of the West; the Westernisation of Turkey and China are other cases in point. In the end, as Pankaj Mishra notes, nothing that Karl Marx said about Asia will ever be as influential or widely disseminated as the recent idea in the West that free-market capitalism has finally awakened India and China from their long Asiatic slumbers.

~Prasenjit Chowdhury is a freelance writer in Calcutta.

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