Friday, June 27, 2008

Terrorism Beyond Islam

There's just one thing that most Americans and Osama bin Laden seem able to agree on: that the attacks on the World Trade Center arose somehow from Islam. Whether the purest form of Islam or the most perverted, it so enveloped the hijackers in religious zeal that the centrality of Islam to the attacks is hard to deny.

So let me try.

It is easier to try that here in East Asia. The kind of defiant and violent antagonism to the West that we now associate with Islamists was for centuries linked instead to places like Japan, Korea and China.

The vocabulary of the rejectionist movements varies with the country and the time -- the Koran in today's Saudi Arabia, Kim Il Sung ideology in today's North Korea, and a mix of Confucianism and secular xenophobia in the Japan, China and Korea of the 17th through 19th centuries. But these religions and ideologies seem to reflect something deeper: frustration at the humiliating choice faced by once-great civilizations heartsick at the pressure to discard bits of their own cultures to catch up with the nouveaux riches in the West.

East Asians killed those who came to them, of course, rather than taking jet planes to kill infidels in their home countries. But the (sometimes feigned) superiority of 17th-century Japanese, Koreans and Chinese, the all-out rejection of Westernization, the glorification of their own culture, the brutality inflicted on those perceived as pro-Western -- all these are remarkably parallel with Osama bin Laden and those like him in the Islamic world today.

Today Westerners come to Japan and soak naked in the glorious outdoor hot springs. But similar pools were used to torture Christian missionaries. Francisco de Jesus, a Spaniard, suffered fairly typical hospitality after his arrest in 1629: he was executed by being plunged into a boiling pool for 33 consecutive days.

Richard Cocks, a 17th-century English visitor to Japan, described the country as ''the most puissant tyranny the world has ever known,'' adding about the treatment of Japanese Christians, who were seen as a fifth column for Europeans: ''I saw 55 of them martyrized at one time in Miyako. Among them were children of five or six years, burned alive in the arms of their mothers.''

Yet none of this was really about religion. Indeed, Hideyoshi, the Japanese ruler who first banned Christianity, supposedly had earlier toyed with the idea of becoming a Christian himself, deciding not to when he learned that he would then be limited to one wife. Rather, it was about social conservatives trying to protect their way of life from a Western onslaught.

Of course, the faith of Al Qaeda's warriors runs deep and makes it easier to accept ''martyrdom.'' But Muslims have no monopoly on suicide tactics; think of all the Japanese kamikaze pilots in World War II.

When I lived in Egypt in the early 1980's, I often heard in the voices of anti-Western Muslims a mix of emotions -- pride in their past civilization, frustration at their present poverty, scapegoating of the West -- that echoed when I moved to Asia and talked to North Koreans or hard-line Chinese Communists.

Unfortunately, antagonism to Western-style change leaves countries lagging further and further behind. I once came across a 19th-century Chinese account of a goldsmith who challenged the powerful craft guilds by flouting their rules so he could boost production and gain market share. The other goldsmiths were outraged, so 123 of them banded together to punish him. One had the bright idea that if they bit him to death it would not be a crime, since no one bite could be shown to be the fatal one. Thus each goldsmith took a bite out of the entrepreneur, and none were allowed to leave without showing bloody gums. It was an early setback to Chinese economic reforms.

Eventually, Asia did transform itself, of course, beginning in Japan in 1868 with the Meiji reforms, which ended feudal rule and led to widespread Japanese modernization. In country after country, contempt for the West became something closer to a bear hug, or at least -- of all things -- ''practical.''

The Islamic world today is ripe for its own Meiji period, and it should find the experience of Asia reassuring. The lesson of the Far East is that it is possible for a troubled civilization to regain its footing only by integrating sweeping change into its society, and that this embrace of modernity does no dishonor to a national heritage.

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