the other hand, during the same period some of the bloodiest
conflicts in history broke out, among them the two world wars, which
killed millions of people. Also, despite enormous economic growth
and end of colonialism, poverty and poverty-related forms of human
degradation continued to afflict the wretched of the earth, most of
whom were found in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
20th century epitomised the leadership of the West. That leadership
had become a fact of history from at least the beginning of the 19th
century, when European powers completed their expansion into Asia
and Africa, reached its zenith at the beginning of the 20th century.
But then the empires received severe blows as a result of wars among
them, as well as from the freedom and liberation struggles in the
days one hears quite so often that the 21st century is going to be
an Asian century. Such optimism is justified because after several
centuries Asian societies are exuding great dynamism and progress.
East Asia, South-East Asia, China and now India are emerging as
engines of economic growth.
this contagion also affect the mainly Muslim-majority countries of
west and central Asia? But, more importantly, will an Asian 21st
century, characterised by economic growth and rapid
industrialisation and urbanisation, be very different from the 20th
century if it only replicates what was done in the last century?
will the 21st century not be a century of extremes, or perhaps of
stark contrasts between the successful and the failed; the haves and
the have-nots; the powerful and the weak? In other words, will it
not be a continuation of the Western century but with some Asian
people have been talking about Asian values as distinctly different
from Western values. In a nutshell the difference is supposed to be
between the individualistic ethos of the West and communitarian
approach to life in Asia. It is only with urbanisation and overall
improvement in standards of living that individualism became a
central norm in Western society. So, communitarian solidarity is not
only an Asian characteristic.
can even argue that individualism is not bad at all, as long as it
means that society accepts the rights of each person to make his or
her choices freely. It does not mean that individuals cease to think
in terms of their family and friends. On the other hand, community
pressures can be very stultifying and oppressive. It is therefore
important that the individual does enjoy autonomy.
think the main strength of Asian societies has been their ability to
handle cultural, religious and ethnic pluralism more successfully
than Western societies. Pluralism in West Europe dates only from the
end of the Second World War, while in the United States and Canada,
as far as non-Europeans are concerned, it started only in the 1950s
and in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s.
eastern and central Europe the communist regimes restricted the
mobility of people strictly, with the result that they were
ethnically homogeneous and minorities were suppressed. Consequently,
after the fall of the communist regimes, but especially when they
opened up for tourism and to join the EU, racist movements quickly
the other hand, Asian civilisations were largely pluralist. The
dhimmi system created space for Christians and Jews to live among
Muslims, though not as equals. Moreover, the development of Sufi
thought and brotherhoods mellowed down the harsh side of
monotheistic belief. God was conceived more as an object of love
than of fear.
South Asia the various sects of Hinduism provided scope for
diversity notwithstanding the tyranny of the caste system. The fact
that millions of gods and goddesses were worshipped, besides the
main Hindu pantheon, encouraged great plurality of local beliefs and
practices. Buddhism and Jainism provided outlets for further
diversity, and with the arrival of Islam and Christianity, and
indeed the birth of Sikhism, there was greater cultural
Chinese civilisation developed its own peculiar type of pluralism.
While Confucianism prescribed a civic code of ethics and was
patronised by the state, popular religion in the form of Taoism and
Buddhism created a possibility for greater cultural variation.
Asian nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore have always
been multicultural. Islam, brought to this region by Arab sailors
and merchants, did not erase their Hindu-Buddhist traditions
altogether, and therefore South-East Asia managed cultural and
ethnic diversity more successfully. Japan was the most ethnically
homogeneous society in Asia, and one wonders if that explains why it
was attracted to fascism more than any other nation in Asia.
main danger to Asian pluralism is the rise of religious
fundamentalism in many parts of this vast continent. Islamic, Hindu
and Buddhist fundamentalisms negate pluralism and are therefore the
contemporary protagonists of fascist ideas. They should not be
allowed to hijack the Asian Century.