Book review: “The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia” by Cemil Aydin

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Most people explain anti-Western ideologies in the context of the anti-colonial struggle and conservative and religious reactions to Western modernity and liberal democracy. In a fascinating study, Camil Aydin challenges this existing narrative of a liberal West vs. reactionary rest. He also argues that the West vs. rest narrative is often being reduced too much to religious elements, a notion that was heavily influenced by Samuel Huntington’s thesis on the “clash of civilizations”. How, for example, can we explain secular critiques of the West, or anti-Western ideas in the West itself? If the anti-colonial struggle strongly contributed to the rise of anti-Western ideas, why were they so strong in the Ottoman Empire and Japan, which have never been colonized?

Aside from studying the history of ideas, Aydin asks whether anti-Western thoughts are a reflection of discontent with current international order or a nativist rejection of Western-originated universal modernity. These are fascinating questions and the author tackles with in an elegant way, using the histories of pan-Islamic and pan-Asian visions of world order as excellent case studies.

Aydin’s historical account of the way leading policy makers in the Ottoman Empire perceived European civilizations is very well-researched and is required reading for any observer interested in the current debate about Turkey’s accession to the EU. Ottoman thinkers believed that they could become part of Europe’s international society by implementing meaningful reform. In the same fashion, Japanese reformers in the mid-19th century sought to disassociate race and religion from progress. At the same time, some European rhetoric indicated that racial and religious obstacles would make it impossible for the Ottomans to catch up with Europe.

This uncertainty also points to a central tension in Europe’s rhetoric that severely undermined the legitimacy of the Eurocentric world order: the universalist tones of the Enlightenment image of the West (all human beings are created equal) vs. the exclusion of Asia and the Muslim world from the “liberal promises of the Enlightenment” due to the supposed racial and civilizational superiority of the West over others. The latter notion (which came to dominate the way Europe saw the world as the scramble to colonize Africa began after the aftermath of the British occupation of Egypt) eventually lead non-Western intellectuals to attempt to delegitimize the imperial power structures of Western global order.

Aydin also nicely describes how Japan’s famous victory over Russia in 1905 galvanized nationalist thinkers across the Global South and led to a profound reflection among global elites on matters of race and civilization – even though Japan won partly thanks to British help. Strikingly, the author affirms that “the global moment of the Russo-Japanese War influenced international history by shattering the established European discourse on racial hierarchies once and for all, thus delegitimizing the existing world order and encouraging alternative visions.” Yet rather than offering an alternative to Western modernity, Japan merely showed that non-Western peoples were able to adopt the Western model without losing their own cultural identity.

Yet was there room for a pan-Islamisic or pan-Asian vision of solidarity? If religion could not be the defining common denominator, could the shared historical experience with Western expansionism since the mid-nineteenth century provide fertile ground for a grand non-Western project of cooperation? As Aydin shows, one problem was that what each considered genuine Asian values and Eastern spirituality relied on very different cultural traditions.

The idea of the West, Aydin points out in the conclusion, “was not first born in Europe and simply spread to other parts of the world. It was partly a product of reflection and rethinking by non-Western reformist intellectuals during the nineteenth century.” The author thus makes an implicit yet powerful claim that the history of ideas developed much more according to the logic of dialogue rather than through unilateral expansionism. For example, anti-Western visions of world order were born of the non-Western idea of a universal West in the 1870s. Later on, non-Western thinkers used the legitimating values of Western hegemony, especially the notion of civilized norms, against the excesses of Western powers in international affairs.

In a time when the public and academic debate is dominated by the rise of Asia and the decline of the West, Aydin raises essential questions not only for historians, but also for analysts of the most pressing contemporary issues in international affairs.

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