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Meet the thinkers on the cusp of awakening of Asia

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From the Ruins of Empire

The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia

By Pankaj Mishra

Doubleday Canada, 400 pages, $35

IN 1979, the French philosopher Michel Foucault proclaimed that the Islamic Revolution, then occurring in Iran, was "the first great insurrection" against the "global systems" of the West.

Few in the West would have recognized the name of the thinker regarded by Iranians as the progenitor of their revolution: Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897).

Al-Afghani was one of several Asian intellectuals who responded to the impact of western imperialism on Asian societies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The responses of these intellectuals are explored by Pankaj Mishra in a work that succeeds in its aim of opening up "multiple perspectives" on world history, but which is not entirely satisfying.Mishra is an Anglo-Indian journalist who writes for The New Yorker, The Guardian and other publications. He has published three previous books, including a novel.

The principal figures of his study are al-Afghani, an itinerant adversarial intellectual in the Muslim world, and Liang Qichao (1873-1929), who became "China's first, iconic modern intellectual."

These writers -- and there were others -- shared a dilemma: their societies, steeped in rich religious and cultural traditions, had been subjugated by the powerful nation states of the West.

How could they engage in the "self-strengthening" needed to compete in the Darwinian world of international politics? And what role, if any, would their moral and religious traditions play in this process?

Mishra convincingly demonstrates that these Asian intellectuals were seminal thinkers whose views influenced "the remaking of modern Asia."

However, he does not develop a systematic exposition of their ideas. Rather, their ideas emerge almost incidentally from his account of the vicissitudes of their careers.

Mishra says that al-Afghani was not a systematic thinker. But he left a body of published work, mostly journalism, which could be analyzed systematically.

It would be interesting to know, for example, what was al-Afghani's fundamental agenda: was he essentially a heterodox exponent of Islamic reform, or an anti-imperialist agitator? (Certainly in his later years he seems to have been primarily concerned with political activism.)

If there was a European figure comparable to al-Afghani, it was probably the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.

Both were peripatetic intellectuals and activists who participated in popular movements, and found themselves in trouble with the authorities in the various jurisdictions in which they were active.

Mishra concludes with a grim view of the future. The emerging economies of China and India will be competing with the West for finite resources; this could lead to military conflict that will make the war on terror seem "a mere prelude" to a century of violence.

The thinkers studied by Mishra stood at the cusp of the political and intellectual awakening of Asia, an event whose repercussions continue to play out in the international arena.

Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J7

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