'With Asian hands'
Anouar Abdel-Malek advocates the strengthening of ties with South East Asia as an antidote to a West in decline
This week the government of Egypt welcomed Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Bin Mohammed. That this visit has taken place against a backdrop of increasing global polarisation between those forces of domination and of evil that seek to cast the Eastern and Islamic worlds at one of its extremes compels us to attend to the message of this prominent statesman.
Mahathir began his political career as the leader of the radical youth wing of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). From this platform he entered the fray of Malaysian politics, becoming an outspoken critic of Malaysia's first post-independence prime minister, Tunku Abdel-Rahman, occupying several government positions and rising through UMNO ranks until he became its deputy president in 1978. In 1981 he became prime minister, a post he continues to occupy today.
On becoming prime minister, Mahathir has steadily forged an increasingly prominent position for his country within southEast Asia, Eastern Asia, the developing world and international affairs. A pioneering spirit from the school of national self- determination and autonomous development, he dreamed of a greater Eastern Asia extending from Japan in the north to Indonesia in the south. While devoted to the message of Islam as a religion and civilisation, he believes that adhering to this legacy must go hand in hand with modernisation and social transformation. He is thus a staunch opponent of fundamentalism. In a multi-ethnic country that consists, among other groups, of approximately 30 per cent indigenous Chinese located primarily in the state of Penang, one of his great strengths has been the ability to rally together diverse and autonomous regional entities and to combine the essences of Chinese Confucianism and Asian Islam, which represents 80 per cent of the world's Muslims.
Herein resides the substance of Dr Mahathir's message: "To build the history of Asia with Asian hands". For hundreds of years Western centrality had so peripheralised Asia that Eastern Asia began to refer to itself as the Far East. In practical terms this meant that the West has compelled Asian people "to divert their focus in international relations from the legacy of the past to building strong relations for the future", especially between Japan, Malaysia and SouthEast Asia.
Beneath the heading, "20/20 vision", Dr Mahathir declares: "Governments have an extremely important role to play in development. Success depends on finding a suitable form of rule, good organisational management and clear goals... Conversely, the country that does not know the goals down to the last letter will not be able to accomplish much."
Today, the Malaysian prime minister maintains, the West feels threatened. Until the 18th century (or at lEast until the end of the 16th according to the pioneering historian Joseph Needham), the Orient was more advanced than the West. Then the West began to catch up and surpass the East through colonisation, the domination of the sources of raw materials and the opening up of markets. Most countries in Asia did not, however, fall completely in thrall to Western culture. On the contrary, they preserved their own particular heritage, which will ultimately save them from the decline we witness in the West today.
Against this background, Mahathir states his philosophy for a revival of Eastern civilisation as follows: "We seek only to promote coexistence and mutual prosperity... These traits are also traits of the people of Malaysia, an Islamic nation which has demonstrated, over the long run, its openness and willingness to embrace other cultures." He adds that this spirit of the acceptance of others, inherent in Islamic civilisation, contrasts sharply with the aggressive intolerance of mediaeval Christianity towards other religions, then the ideological embodiment of the West's notion of its own superiority.
The message of the dynamic Malaysian leader can, perhaps, be summarised in a word: sovereignty. Sovereignty, here, embraces all fields of political, social, economic and cultural life, and is to be pursued boldly and without compromise. Sovereignty must also always be combined with a spirit of tolerance and flexibility, and this requires overcoming fundamentalist rituals and modes of behaviour.
Accordingly, the greatest imperative for the peoples and nations of Eastern Asia is to rally together. This, however, must take place within flexible organisational frameworks such as ASEAN, which brought Malaysia into that hub where the interests and ideas of Confucianism converge, with China at its centre but also embracing Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the sphere of Islamic civilisation in Asia and the East in general.
For three decades, since the beginning of the 1980s, history has confirmed the rise of that sphere of convergence to become the focal point of the resurgence of Eastern civilisation. This, alone, compels us to realise the vast potential available to us from interacting, keeping pace and allying ourselves as much as possible with those rising forces located at the heart of the process of formulating a new world.
We should thus contemplate a two-tiered plan of action. Firstly Egypt, along with like-thinking forces in the Arab world, should strive for closer cooperation with Asian organisations in the fields of politics, economics, culture and defence, a process that should begin by participating in ASEAN. Secondly, we should work towards creating a mechanism to clarify a vision of contemporary Islamic civilisation that will bolster the sympathetic and noble-minded forces in the West against the malevolent claims and designs of the advocates of the inevitable clash of civilisations. Such a mechanism, which could comprise, for example, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran and Malaysia, might accomplish much in this regard.
From these two bases it will be possible, indeed necessary, to examine the compatibility between, and possible convergence of, the values and principles of Confucianism and Islam, the two most important ideological tributaries for shaping a modern, contemporary East. In the course of this process it may be possible to answer the perplexing question: Why did Huntington, formulator of the clash-of- civilisations theory, choose these two spheres -- Islamic and Confucian civilisation -- to represent the West's major enemy at this crucial historical juncture? It is certainly a question to bear in mind during Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed's visit to an Egypt seeking to outline its strategy for the beginning of the 21st century.