Through Eastern Eyes

A book that roundly challenges the story the West has told about itself foe the past 100 years

A depiction of the 1905 naval battle of Tsushima, in which the Japanese fleet led by Admiral Togo defeated the Russian fleet led by Admiral Rozhdestvensky. ROGER VIOLET COLECTION / GETTY IMAGES
01 December, 2012

DURING A LONG SPELL IN CAIRO in the 1870s, some years before the British slipped Egypt into their pocketbook, the Islamic thinker and polemicist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani found himself under attack from his Egyptian critics. They felt he was being overly suspicious of British intentions. An earlier generation of Egyptians had been bewildered by the appearance of Napoleon when he sailed into Alexandria in 1798, eager for an Oriental adventure on par with the British one in India. Back then, Napoleon’s talk of “liberty” and “all men being equal in the eyes of God”, struck these Egyptians as sacrilege, if not outright nonsense. By the time al-Afghani arrived in Cairo, however, huge swathes of the Asian and Arab world (he lumped them together as ‘Easterners’) had come to respect the power wielded by these small European states. Accordingly, they began to question the weakness of their own political and religious customs and entertain the idea of abandoning them altogether to embrace the Western model.

But al-Afghani had good reason to be suspicious. In 1856 his religious studies had brought him to India and the swift, exterminating violence with which the British crushed the Rebellion the following year had profoundly affected him. He feared that English interference in Egyptian financial affairs was merely a prelude to British rule not only in Egypt but in the entire Muslim world. In his writings he looked to put the East on a new political footing, drawing on the wellsprings of a shared faith in Islam. (In India he invoked Hindu religious and legal texts with equal dexterity.) Accordingly, al-Afghani informed his Egyptian critics that they had been snookered. They had read too many English history books. Such books were “marked by the hands of English self-love, with the pens of conceit and the pencils of deception, and inescapably they do not report the truth and do not report reality”.

The West has always had a rousing story to tell about itself. The most gifted popular historians of the West continue tirelessly to produce variations on the imperial narratives of Edward Gibbon, Thomas Macaulay and Winston Churchill, celebrating the rise of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, and the civilising and heroic mission of the imperial project. Biographies and memoirs of presidents and prime ministers, admirals and generals, implicitly echo these enshrined themes of high-minded action and vigilant forward thinking. Indeed entire lives are lived, diaries and letters written and preserved, with such heroic models in mind, like replicating strands of DNA. Oftentimes these stories are even projected directly to one’s subconscious by Hollywood. (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer was Adolf Hitler’s favourite.)

By the end of World War II ‘Western Civilisation’ and/or ‘the American Century’ belatedly replaced ‘Empire’ as the muse of historians. The triumph of the Allies over fascist Germany and Japan (with the eventual defeat of Soviet Communism a belated coda), brought the narrative themes of upward progress through manly heroic action, right thinking, and the marvels of technology forward another century. (The fact that Germany and Russia were also part of Western civilisation is overlooked in this arrangement of plot points.) Though tragedies and calamities bedevil and waylay the Great Men of these stories, the trend is always towards the triumph of shared ideals. And, as Al-Afghani had observed, clever English pens and pencils could mesmerise even the most truculent of his co-religionists.

From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia; Pankaj Mishra; Allen Lane, 368 pages, Rs 699

Though From the Ruins of Empire opens at that transmogrifying moment when an Asian power first vanquished a European one—Japan’s 1905 triumph over Russia in the Battle of Tsushima—one of the many surprises of Pankaj Mishra’s new book is his shunning of the triumphalist mode, whether nationalist, pan-Asian, pan-Arab or pan-Islamic. Nor has he written a paean to the economic rise of China and India or the resurgence of Islam as a political force to be reckoned with. The critical events of the last century were not the two world wars, as two generations of Western historians have believed, but the “intellectual and political awakening of Asia”. In The Ruins of Empire Mishra refracts this Asian awakening through the vantage points of a cosmopolitan and contrarian cross section of Arab, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Vietnamese, Japanese and Indonesian writers and intellectuals, many of whom spent long periods of their lives in exile in foreign capitals.

Mishra finds these intellectuals in cafés and tea houses in Paris and Tokyo, in Cairo and Istanbul, in London and St Petersburg. There they are joined in fierce debate with their compatriots, mapping out alternate futures for their home countries. What is less clear from Mishra’s account is how much, given their lack of a common language, these Easterners influenced each other across their separate cultures. Yet he shows how their analyses of the plights of their homelands under foreign rule, published in exile newspapers and magazines, follow similar lines, as do their remedies and exhortations.

Two of Mishra’s previous books, An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (2004) and The Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond (2006), loosely mixed travelogue with journalism, memoir and critical reflection. His new book, billed as both historical essay and intellectual biography, is something of a departure. Gone is the voice of the literary ingénue, the wandering and well-read traveller. There is no facilitating guide at one’s side as one wades deep into the genealogy of anti-imperialist thought. The names of his two principal protagonists, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929)—not to mention the dozens of other minor characters who make appearances—are, he admits, largely unknown in the West. Though Mishra makes an effort to situate each of them, the sheer number of these names—the Syrian Abd al-Qadir al-Maghribi, the Persian Shaikh Ahmad Ruhi, the Vietnamese Phan Boi Chau, the Japanese Tokutomi Soho, to name just a handful—can be overwhelming; I sometimes missed the familiar voice of those earlier works. The searing historical events that radicalised these men (and they are all men) have often been framed, when they are considered at all, through a Western viewfinder. Mishra does his best to prepare his reader for the disorienting effect of considering these events from an Asian angle, if only by acknowledging the likelihood that the reader will be disoriented.

Yet in many respects, the story told in From the Ruins of Empire, however fragmentary, is as personal a journey as those undertaken in Mishra’s previous books. Just as al-Afghani and his Muslim contemporaries once studied the sacred texts of their faith for intimations of a new political and moral order, so does Mishra search among these earlier writers for his own intellectual patrimony. To do so, he travels back to the 19th century to uncover a new narrative for the 20th, one that might enable him to see more clearly what is happening now and what lies in wait ahead. But unlike most historians and biographers, he does not proceed there directly. Though generally chronological, the journey from the 1857 Rebellion against British rule to the postcolonial state is narrated circuitously, in thematic steps, circling round and back to his chosen watershed events.

Apart from the 1857 War and the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, among these key events are, in the Near East, the Anglo-Afghan wars, the devolution of the Turkish state out of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and, in the Far East, the rise of a militant and expansionist Japan and the long awaited Chinese revolution. For both these theatres, World War I and the fallout from the 1919 Paris Peace treaties form the fulcrum on which the book turns towards its conclusion. In breadth of vision and closeness of inquiry, Mishra has conceived an ambitious work in From the Ruins of Empire. It is also a complex one, filled with brief walk-ons, unlikely scene changes and an unexpected epilogue. At times I wondered if such an all-encompassing subject might have benefitted from a larger stage and more elaborate stagecraft—the book is just over 300 pages.

By arranging his narrative in this manner, however, Mishra is able to align the shifting ideological stances of his two principal protagonists with the historic, consciousness-altering events overtaking them. At the same time, he can trace the percolation of their influence, directly and indirectly, into the later, nationalist missions of those bold face names—Mao Zedong, Sun Yat-sen, Kemal Ataturk, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore, Ruhollah Khomeini, Mohammad Mossadegh, Sayyid Qutb, Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno—we are used to seeing in history books. He can also contextualise those latter day bold face names—Mohamed Atta, Osama bin Laden—we are used to seeing in the newspapers.


Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, a Shia born in a village in northwest Persia, is perhaps the more mysterious and compelling of the two; he was said to have used the names al-Kabuli and al-Istanbuli to enhance his appeal to his Sunni patrons. Educated first by his father, he went on to pursue religious studies in Tehran and at a number of seminaries in Persia and India. Much of what Mishra tells us of his wanderings across Asia and lengthy stays in European capitals comes from the surreptitious note-taking of British intelligence agents, reports to the Colonial Office written by consuls and police officers, and even the observations of a few writers, all working diligently on behalf of the all-seeing Empire.

Curiously, he becomes most vivid when described in their dispatches. An early report from Kabul fingers him as a likely Russian agent, fluent in Persian, Arabic and Turkish, not particularly religious but inordinately fond of tea. In 1883, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a poet and Arabophile, finds al-Afghani in his Paris garret, dressed in a stiff white collar, necktie and coat. He is attended by a “very curious party of strangers who quite filled the room—a Russian lady, an American philanthropist, and two young Bengalis who announced themselves as Theosophists, come, they said, to consult the great Shayk”. The mind boggles. In Kabul, al-Afghani had tried to interest the Emir in collaborating with the Russians to throw out the English. He is eventually imprisoned and deported. He next appears in Istanbul, seat of the Ottoman Empire, then keen to refashion itself as a European state and join the Concert of Europe. Here, too, after finding his way into the graces of the Turkish sultan, he is attacked by a Muslim clergy offended by his liberties with the immutable sacred texts. He arrives in Cairo and spends nearly a decade there inveighing against British designs on the Middle East and, before audiences of thousands, denouncing both fanaticism and political despotism as the twin evils of Islam’s fallen state. He also reads those English history books he finds so exasperating. Once again the eye of Empire finds him and once again he is expelled, this time to India, presumably where the British can keep closer tabs on him.

At each stage of his journey, al-Afghani’s message shifts and evolves in accordance with local conditions, historical developments, and the temperament of the King, Emir, Shah or Sultan he is trying to bestir into action against the English. Mishra traces each ideological adjustment and command performance; he understands the ways in which different circumstances gave rise to inconsistencies and outright reversals in al-Afghani’s thinking. He shadows him at his popular lectures and keeps an eye on his followers but, like the most gimlet-eyed of British intelligence agents, seems to know all along that al-Afghani’s story will not end well.

Later in life, after a successful boycott of a British tobacco concern in Persia, precipitating a fallout with the Shah, al-Afghani returns once more to Istanbul, where he is put on retainer and caged in the Sultan’s palace, a court bauble, forbidden from pursuing politics or publishing his writings. “His failure to make the Muslim potentates of his time heed his warnings gave him, towards the end of his life, the bitterness of the spurned prophet,” Mishra concludes, as al-Afghani belatedly realises that the “selfishness and ignorance” of despots would forever blind them: a conclusion with heavy resonance today.

A depiction of clashes on the streets of Beijing in August 1900 during the Boxer or Yihequan Rebellion. Liang Qichao’s response to the horrific violence took the form of an essay titled ‘On the New Rules for Destroying Countries’. DEAGOSTINI / GETTY IMAGES

China’s fate at the hands of Europe in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 was far crueller and more humiliating than any injuries suffered by the Ottoman Empire. Twenty thousand troops, drawn from all the major world powers, Japan among them, besieged Peking in an orgy of rape, killing and arson. Liang Qichao’s embittered response in his essay, ‘On the New Rules for Destroying Countries’, could, Mishra writes, have been penned by al-Afghani. Born in Canton to a genteel family of Confucian scholars for whom loyalty to the Emperor was an absolute, Liang’s writings and ideas would help bring down the Qing Empire in 1910 and provide the foundation for China’s eventual emergence as a world power. Like al-Afghani, Liang had an ambivalent relationship with the beliefs of his forefathers; he plumbed the writings of Confucius and Mencius for political guidance before abandoning them entirely. Only after losing his bearings in the revolutionary turmoil that followed the upending of the Confucian order did he understand that just as all out Westernisation had its perils, so did all-out revolution.

It is not an easy thing to challenge the story the West has told about itself, to wrest that narrative away from—speaking now as both a Westerner and American—those storylines that confirm once again the complacent verities we seem to have been suckled on. Mishra has studied the West with as much attention as Liang Qichao once did; he has travelled as widely as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. He has absorbed the geopolitical strategies of Western diplomats, bankers, corporate titans and generals, and the insights of the West’s most searching critics. Finally, he has noted our stubborn tendency to see in the global proliferation of our economic model—“the logic of development”—a confirmation of the universal good of our political values, despite much evidence to the contrary.

It is therefore somewhat startling to realise that, in the book’s epilogue, Pankaj Mishra has reserved his most devastating indictment for exactly those voices that emerged after the fall of Western Empires, the intellectual heirs to figures like al-Afghani and Liang Qichao. While the spell of Western power may have been broken, after all the fiery sermons and political posturing, all the coups d’etats, revolutionary manifestoes, 10 Year plans and utopian promises, the triumphalist story the West has long told itself remains intact. The ‘Easterners’ have failed to arrest the future that awaits a world utterly transfixed by the fantasy that the West has plied so tirelessly: the delusion that modernity and upward mobility is open to all. In Mishra’s view, Western Civilisation is less and less committed to any higher purpose beyond the freedom of unbridled consumerism. “The hope that fuels the pursuit of endless economic growth—that billions of consumers in India and China will one day enjoy the lifestyles of Europeans and Americans—is as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by al-Qaeda.” This is “the bitter outcome of the universal triumph of Western modernity, which turns the revenge of the East into something darkly ambiguous, and all its victories truly Pyrrhic”.

There are indeed a great many reasons to feel despondent. The scale of environmental degradation, the pace of climate change accompanying the mass merchandising of a Western standard of living, the explosion of civil strife among those left in modernity’s wake are ominous portents. Mishra’s evident disillusionment at the powerlessness of his ‘Easterners’ to redirect the march of history is unsparing. Yet I wondered if, in trying so hard to understand the present and divine the future, Mishra has shorted the possibilities of the past, including his own. In reading history with hindsight rather than considering it on its own terms, he runs the danger of betraying it—judging his protagonists as failures because they didn’t achieve the revolution he would have wanted. From the Ruins of Empire doesn’t acknowledge that history will always be something constructed, a vehicle as much for shared dreams and ideals as for tales of tragic folly.