The Chinese, at behind-the-scenes conferences and discussions during the past few months, kept saying they were perplexed about the Muslim world’s — particularly the Arab world’s — inability to deal with the modern world. The Chinese and the Muslims, they repeated, had suffered the same humiliation and occupation by foreigners over the past two hundred years, but the Chinese and Muslim reactions to these experiences seem so completely different.
“We also suffered,” the Chinese said, “but now we control our destiny, and are doing everything we can to learn from these foreigners so that we can benefit from the modern world and ensure that we do not suffer this humiliation again. We Chinese ‘look to the future.’”
The Muslims, on the other hand, the Chinese stated, seem to have a different approach: Instead of looking to the future, they “are mired in the past,” more concerned about taking revenge against those foreigners whom they believe had humiliated and oppressed them.
It was because of this focus on the past, these Chinese intellectuals and leaders stated, that Arabs and Muslims were therefore unable to build societies which could participate in the modern world. “Revenge and victimhood,” these Chinese argued, could permanently cause “the Arabs and Muslim world” to “remain behind the West and Asia.”
These Chinese, many of whom had spent considerable time in the Muslim world and had gone to the trouble of becoming fluent in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, asked why our Muslim friends are “obsessed” (their word) with portraying themselves as victims. Victimhood, they said, gets people nowhere; what was necessary was to remember the past but put it behind you so that you could deal with contemporary problems.
The Chinese are practical: although they harbor deep resentment to what other cultures — specifically the Japanese — have done to them, they say that if they indulge in self-pity, they will never be able to improve their lot in this world.
The Islamic culture, however — and Middle Eastern culture in general — is acutely concerned with righting perceived wrongs. The Shari’a, in fact, sees the role of the ruler as one who “commands good and eradicates evil” — meaning it is more important to “correct” past wrongs than to think about how to improve one’s situation. First one must correct the evil, and only then may one concentrate on how to have a better life. Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad have focused much of their time and money fighting their enemies rather than building their societies. The Americans, before they invaded Iraq, tried to negotiate with Saddam to find a way to stop him from developing weapons of mass destruction and intimidating his neighbors, but Saddam would not compromise. To do so, from his point of view, would have shamed him, a condition to be avoided at all costs. Bashar al-Assad now seems committed to doing the same. Fighting evil, in their eyes, is a never-ending battle: they cannot — nor can, for that matter, the Palestinians — put their past perceived wrongs behind them. They therefore cannot turn their attention to any future. Middle Eastern leaders might want to eliminate Israel, or hire engineers to build buildings, but anything more elaborate requires importing foreigners — mostly Westerners or Asians for building airports, highways, or whatever.
The Chinese perspective, to quote the former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew, is that, despite “everything we do for our Muslims, they continue to remain at the bottom of society” — poor, backward and uneducated. ( Bernard Lewis, Notes on a Century…, pp. 245-246).
Could it be, however, that the Chinese suffering from a similar problem, guaranteeing that they too could have difficulties competing with the Western world when it comes to innovation?
In Chinese culture, one cannot question elders or people in position of authority about how and why they have come to a conclusion. In the West, we are encouraged to respect knowledge and position, but we are also encouraged to ask people how they have reached their conclusions. The Chinese are encouraged not to do so — both indirectly, by teaching their children from an early age blindly to accept authority.
Here, the Chinese and the Muslims share the same view — so that neither culture enables the abilities of its people that could help to invent new products. The Chinese and some non-oil producing Muslim countries can copy Western inventions; the oil-rich countries import from the West whatever they need.
Because the Chinese direct their energy towards the future, and rarely focus on past grievances, their approach possibly offers more hope for a better life, in which their people’s standard of living increases, and China — from their point of view — takes what they regard as its rightful place on the world stage.
By Harold Rhode