Shared pasts, different futures
on why the Chinese don't leave bombs on the London underground
Many readers, writing to the editor, note that columnists spend a great deal of time describing problems but then stop short of presenting a solution. This is true. More often than not, writers have no solution to offer: either the problems are too complex or else another issue suddenly looms and off they go explaining that. A few weeks ago, in reaction to the London and Sharm El-Sheikh bombings, all we talked about was terror. Then the focus moved on to the deaths of King Fahd and John Garang and news of the Egyptian presidential elections.
But can we really take our minds off terror? There is nothing more relevant to the fate of Arab and Muslim nations than the disturbing fact that some of our compatriots and fellows in faith have taken it upon themselves to go on an international killing spree. Terror attacks pose an immediate threat to our political and economic development and sow seeds of mistrust between us and the rest of the world. We cannot afford to leave the matter aside until the next column of smoke clouds the horizon and yet more carnage is upon us. But it is hard to offer a solution without looking further into the problem.
One approach is to compare events across space and time. When similar events develop one can learn much from the parallels, or the lack thereof. It is not an exact method but it is the best we have.
In the case of terror there are two dominant views. One is that the frustration of Muslims over Iraq and Palestine and their anger at past colonialism is what drives them to extremism. Another is that a fascist strain of thought, fuelled by fanatical zeal, is spreading mayhem in the hope of controlling the region and the world. According to this view jihadists are fascists in new clothes.
Is jihad a reaction to colonial oppression? Let's look into cases in which other nations have suffered a similar fate. Take China, for example. It is a country of roughly the same area as the Arab world, and its population similar in size to that of the Muslim world. The Chinese once thought they were the centre of the world and the most civilised of nations. They were initially outraged when Englishmen, people coming from a little-known island at the end of the world, arrived in their country and demanded access to the emperor and the Forbidden City.
By the 1840s the British were trading heavily with China and developing a trade deficit. To offset the deficit the East India Company decided to export opium to China. The ample supply of opium was so detrimental to public health that the Chinese had to do something about it. A showdown with the opium traders led to what is known as the Opium Wars (1839-1842) in which the Chinese suffered a humiliating defeat. The humiliation of the Opium Wars was the beginning of the end for the Chinese Empire, in much the same way World War I brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and with it the end of the Islamic caliphate.
The Treaty of Nanking, signed by the Chinese in 1842, is reminiscent of the treaty colonial powers imposed on Mohamed Ali in 1840. The treaty gave the British legal immunity, even when committing crimes on Chinese territory. China was forced to give the British trading facilities in five port towns, Canton, Shanghai, Foochow, Ningpo, and Amoy. By the time the US, France and Russia got in the action China had been carved up for Western domination. Meanwhile thousands of Chinese were shipped to North America to work in conditions recalling those of African slaves.
As a result of the 1842 treaty Hong Kong and the nearby islands were separated from mainland China. Kowloon followed suit in 1869 and the so- called New Territories in 1898. By 1860 China, a Confucian country, had been forced to legalise opium and allow unhindered Christian proselytising. The territorial loss was also significant. Macau came under Portuguese rule and Taiwan seceded. Hong Kong remained under British control until only a few years ago.
Similar things happened to the Arab and Muslim worlds, though nothing as extreme as opium and slavery. And yet the Chinese did not kill people in London. Instead they went about acquiring the elements of strength needed in a modern world. Their reaction to the West was a far cry from ours. They didn't go about killing Westerners -- let alone compatriots and brothers in faith -- in the name of resistance.
* The writer is director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.