Pankaj Mishra is known for his anti-imperialist Weltanschauung. He writes in a magnificent style, weaves gripping narratives and does not mind ruffling a few feathers. His commentary on Niall Ferguson’s book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, became one of the most popular pieces of his writing, resulting in a spat between the two writers with diametrically opposed world views. Mishra recently spoke to the Herald about the concept behind his book, From the Ruins of Empire.
Q. How did you become interested in the history of western imperialism in Asia?
A. I suppose right from the moment you start thinking of yourself as someone who wants to be a writer, an engagement with the history of your country and region becomes imperative. Nothing is given to you in the way it is to, say, a writer in England or America. Their history and their place in the world is so clear and sharp, they only have to inherit it from others. But we, the people in India and Pakistan, are still in the process of working out our place in the world. Our national histories are full of distortions. They are not the most important guides for telling us about ourselves. So, when you start thinking seriously about writing, then you have to develop an interest in history.
Q. Some people have described From the Ruins of Empire as a response to Niall Ferguson; others view it as a continuation of Edward Said’s intellectual tradition. Which one of these two descriptions comes closer to your idea of the book?
A. Neither of them actually. I started thinking about this book long before I had read a single word written by Niall Ferguson. I can see how other people might see it as a response because it obviously highlights Asian voices, which are conspicuously absent from the kind of histories that people such as Ferguson have authored, the kind of histories that have become very important in the West, though they exclude, almost entirely, some of the most important, interesting and resonant voices from Asia. So, in that sense, it can be seen as a rejoinder but I certainly did not intend it to be that way because, frankly, I wrote a review and I think that is enough in terms of what I want to say about the whole school of imperial history writing at the moment.
Q. It appears that by focusing too much on history, you have largely ignored contemporary social trends in the Islamic world such as the rise of a new business-minded middle class that, according to Vali Nasr, will be instrumental in winning the battle against religious militancy and in shaping Muslim societies in the future. Your book, on the other hand, presents a bleak picture, claiming that “Islam remains a gigantic powder keg, likely to blow up any time.” How do you view the social trend that Nasr has mentioned and do you agree with his assertion?
A. I agree with that only up to a point. These predictions about business communities in the Muslim world can only come true if economic trends are looking up and if you are looking at flourishing capitalist economies in this region. Nobody today can say that Egypt is going to be a flourishing economy in the next five to 10 years. Nobody can say that about Tunisia. You can probably say that about a few of the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia or Malaysia. But you can’t even say that about Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world.
There is also an aspect of the modernisation theory here which assumes that the more prosperous people grow the more they secularise. I completely disagree with that. In Turkey that whole model doesn’t work. People can grow rich, commercial-minded and also become devout and political at the same time. So I think it is a pretty complex picture. And let’s not ever underestimate the role of Islam as a source of political solidarity and as a source of ideas about morality and justice in Muslim societies everywhere. Any political prediction that underestimates this role is likely to be wrong.
Q. Asian intellectuals were against the idea of imitating the West. What kind of political alternatives could Asian countries have developed to distinguish themselves from Europe’s imperialist states like Britain and France?
A. They could have evolved a better model if they had the opportunity. Their choices had radically shrunk by the middle of the 20th century when these nations began to become independent. Almost all countries that were previously part of large multinational empires or enjoyed a degree of autonomy were forced into this artificial model of the nation state. The formation of the European nation state was preceded by incredible violence. We are witnessing the same thing, maybe not on that same scale but certainly to an alarming degree, in large parts of Asia where much of national energy and resources have gone into holding on to territory and suppressing various ethnic minorities or religious groups that want to break away and exercise self-determination. So that is just one area where things could have worked out differently.
Q. It is not surprising that some western commentators describe you as a left-wing polemicist. But you also attracted bitter criticism in India. Why do you think that happened when you’ve written an original account of Western imperialism in Asia and have taken a highly credible view of it?
A. I think a book such as this [From the Ruins of Empire] which rubs up against conventional wisdom is bound to attract criticism and I would have been very disappointed if it hadn’t. People in this part of the world have come to know about a certain kind of imperial history in which Asian voices are completely excluded and the virtues of western empire are elaborated upon at great length. So, a history that suggests that some of the most educated and intelligent people in Asia did not see it this way at all and, in fact, were bitterly critical of European imperialism, its racial hierarchies and economic exploitation often comes as an unpleasant surprise to a lot of people here who have invested a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy in thinking themselves as a source of political wisdom.
Also, in places like India, there are a number of people who think it is very important to stand with American ideologies. So I think this notion that people in the late 19th century in India, China, Turkey or Egypt were thinking of other alternatives to this western model of politics and economy comes as a surprise to these Americanised commentators who are either ignorant of these intellectual histories or see them as quite threatening to their own ideas about the world.
Q. What are you planning to write next?
A. I think one of the things the book lacks is a sense of the present. Obviously, I could not have done that because it is a book of history, essentially. However, it rushes through the last 40 or 50 years and I keep thinking of a book that also selects some representative figures from places like South-east Asia, Java, Malaysia, Japan and China and describes their political and intellectual journeys in the post-1947 period. But that’s just an idea at this point.