by Steven Zhou
What happened earlier this month at the Paris headquarters of Charlie Hebdo has been commented upon ad nauseam; some really good pieces have resulted alongside some terrible ones. What needs to be said has probably been said already, and readers can look here and here if they are interested in what I have to say about the tragedy. The incident is being imprinted onto our collective psyches as an event with the clear-cut imprimatur of “Islamic terrorism.” Without going into the myriad stupidities and misunderstandings that mediate much of our popular interpretations of what happened, I dare say that the event is emblematic of much more than meets the eye.
The world is a transitory place, and the globalizing effects of commerce and travel have prompted many in the so-called “East” to migrate out of their geographical, social, political contexts, and into the Western world. This broad physical transition has resulted in the proliferating of communities in the West that represent ways of being that, at once modern in appearance, is the 21st century representation of pre-modern traditions that used to dominate mankind. The West’s primary alphabet of secular materialism is often unable to fully penetrate and comprehend the complete meanings of such modes of being, resulting in a kind of tension that makes it difficult for many to see the world through the migrants’ eyes. Islam, as is often the case in the modern era, finds itself caught in the middle of this interaction.
The miscomprehension of lived Islam in the Western world is directly related to the misinterpretations of the violent episodes of Muslim fundamentalism. It’s quite ironic that places like North America and Europe, where political repression of the dictatorial kind is supposed to be least pervasive, are often incubators for the least sophisticated sort of cross-cultural understanding. There are many barriers: institutional racism, historical baggage, personal prejudice, etc. But an opportunity does exist. Today, for example, it’s impossible to talk about the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China. The Communist Party censors all searches of it on Google, and other search engines. It’s very difficult under such circumstances to form a comprehensive history of China without Big Brother looking over one’s shoulder. So, ironically (some would say, with sadness), much of the great works on Chinese history, philosophy, and literature have originated in institutions in the Western world. Jonathan Spence’s seminal 1990 masterpiece In Search of Modern China is a primary example.
So goes for pre-modern traditions like Islam, which, like many other traditions, is most misunderstood in lands that have the most potential of accentuating its public comprehension. The most overlooked tragedy to result from centuries of imperial/colonial activity and its subsequent post-colonial effects is the degradation of one’s heritage. It is, to take one example, why the masterful 20th century writer Lao She, who wrote Rickshaw Boy (Noam Chomsky’s favorite novel when he was a child, incidentally), and who once taught at SOAS, University of London, ended up committing suicide after being humiliated by the Red Guards during China’s tragic Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A parallel can be made between this kind of tragedy and the bizarre post-colonial aftermath in the Muslim world, where, in certain countries, the Friday khutbah has to be of a certain flavor according to the state. Such strictures don’t necessarily exist in the so-called liberal, democratic West, which presents its own set of head-scratching oddities, tensions, and crudities.
Yet, within this cauldron of confusion lies an opportunity. As the post-9/11 West staggers onward in its own confused struggle to understand the “Other” (a generalization, I know), banal crudities have received far more favor than nuanced understanding or deep empathy. Detailed explications of certain traditional or religious principles are often seen as a kind of “liberal” obfuscation conducted in the name of superstition, backwardness, or pure ignorance. The negation of this pattern toward a one-off glossing-over of complex systems is where the opportunity lies for young, non-Western (or, perhaps, partly-Western) intellectuals (Muslims or otherwise) to reclaim their own heritage. Here, in the West, is where the staging point can be for the recollection of memory and history. Not to do so would be, in fact, to surrender any opportunity of narrating one’s own existence.
The present state of affairs reminds me (as a matter of contrast) of how the first emperor of China’s last dynasty (the Qing, 清朝), Emperor Kang Xi (康熙), who came to power in 1661, spent a lot of money and time wooing the Han Chinese intelligentsia, most of whom were loyal to the Ming Dynasty (明朝) rulers that the Qing displaced. Kang Xi, the representative of the nomadic Manchu people of the North (hence, Manchuria), ruled China for an astonishing 61 years. His problem was that the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty were not established by those who held the same Confucian traditions that the Han Chinese (who continue to make up the vast majority of China’s population) did, and therefore didn’t have the loyalty of much of the empire’s most brilliant minds. The Han see themselves as a distinct ethnic group who are central to China’s over-all makeup, and regarded the Qing as outside invaders to their long-established homeland.
Faced with this administrative challenge, Kang Xi didn’t impose a monolithic set of Manchu dicta to marginalize the traditions that featured centrally in the lives of his Han subjects. Instead, he treated the Confucian legacy (which, by then, had many centuries to permeate China) with the kind of sensitivity that’s quite uncommon among most rulers. He assembled a team of tutors (comprised of both Han and Manchu intellectuals) to teach him all the Confucian classics, and, in 1670, issued the “Sacred Edict,” a list of 16 maxims that summarized what Kang Xi thought it meant to live the Confucian life. Whisperings of his scholastic efforts were “leaked,” and, soon enough, many were praising his majesty’s intellectual precociousness and cultural sensitivity. Combined with nation-wide strategies to incorporate more and more Han minds into his orbit of power, Kang Xi made it clear that he didn’t want to caste aside thousands of years of complex philosophical tradition.
Without romanticizing the Qing emperor’s reign (it was not, after all, sensible to dissent against him, for obvious reasons), I wonder how many rulers in the democratic West even have the time to learn just a little bit about the traditions of those they claim to represent? Probably not many. So the work is to be done, then, by civil society—by those who, with one eye on their own past/tradition, dare to peek over the fence to see what’s happened on the other side. This is a crucial intellectual pluralism from which Western Muslims can benefit (if adopted), as the task of explaining one’s own self is often coupled with that of being in someone else’s shoes for a bit. This is the essence of being an migrant, or exiled person, I think: one who discovers him or herself not through narrow provincialism or angry selfhood, but through the painstaking, though worthwhile, interpretation of others.