Sam Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations is now being made operational in the Middle East, thanks to the neo-conservatives’ vision of the West triumphing over Islam. The end game that most right-wing observers look to now is a conflagration that sees the West take on Islam, supported by a coalition of willing allies in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile, Islam counts on its army of the faithful to lend support.
Be that as it may, I believe that both the West and Islam overestimate their hold on, if not their importance to, the Chinese and Hindu civilizations. The prospect of World War III, rather than forcing them to choose sides, is more likely to cause policy paralysis, despite the fact that both India and China stand to benefit from the conflagration. While it is in their interest to cause an outright war between the two sides, they are more likely to engage in navel-gazing.
Neither the West nor Islam has covered itself with glory as far as China and India are concerned. While the Chinese would consider the West as hurting it more particularly in the past 100 years, for India the balance tilts more against Islam. This observation is more pertinent when seeing the eventual place the two societies envisage for themselves in the world. It is interesting to note that while their philosophies are different, the basic outcome has been the same, namely that both China and India were splendidly isolated from the rest of the world in the heyday of their civilizations. There is little moral justification for either country to support the West or Islam.
Early Indian and Chinese explorers found little to occupy them in their journeys outside of their countries. The contact between Chinese and Indian cultures led to the export of Buddhism from India. In a study of Buddhism’s reach, we can gauge how the two cultures would react to a changing world.
The India that Prince Gautam was born into was dominated by the Hindu system, albeit one run by the principles of Manu, rather than the more egalitarian Vedic culture. The doctrine of Manu was a product of the Aryan conquest of the ancient peoples of India, including the Dravidians in the south of the country. In this world, with its multifaceted rituals and barbaric animal sacrifices, the arrival of Buddhism portended substantial changes. The language of the ruling classes, Sanskrit, was quickly subsumed by the language of Buddhism, Pali.
As the first great emperor of India, Ashok, converted to Buddhism, ancient Hindu culture suffered its first real shock in 1,000 years. The response was revolutionary more than evolutionary, with the country’s ruling classes quickly removing public practices forbidden in Buddhism, such as animal sacrifices. The kinder, gentler culture that arose from this period did not have to wait long for its turn to revenge. The ascetic principles of Buddhism were simply incompatible with running a large country that was already a melting point for various races. This failure to impose discipline was to cost Ashok’s followers dearly, ending the dynasty barely 100 years after his death.
Still, the damage to Hindu culture was done. With a weaker resolve at the center, regional kingdoms became more powerful, in a development that was not to reverse for 1,000 years. That left the individual kingdoms more vulnerable to the onslaught of a new group of invaders from the West, namely Islam. As smaller kingdoms quickly crumbled against the onslaught of Islam, Hindus took refuge behind the apparently cosmetic differences. They were also helped by the historical fact that while Islam unites in times of defeat, victory is often fatal for Muslims.
Thus it is that from the 9th through the 13th centuries Islamic conquerors of northern Indian states usually found themselves under siege from their co-religionists. The most famous battle of all during the period featured the Mughal leader Babur against a Muslim ruler, Ibrahim Lodi, on the other side of Panipat. Furthermore, to pay for the various battles, Muslim rulers had to impose various taxes on their populations. I believe this was the main reason for their lack of enthusiasm in converting the Hindu population to Islam. The second reason was of course the ultimate in scorched-earth policies that history has ever known, namely the mass incidents of sati (female suicides) in kingdoms that Muslims conquered. In any event, Islam left alive a culture that would in future pose a great threat.
Buddhism also weakened the patriarchal Chinese culture, but did provide a benefit in that it acted to homogenize cultural practices across the country. Thus people in southern China could relate to their northern cousins more than previously was possible, because of the role of Buddhist monasteries and temples. The common schools for monks, in Tibet and other places, provided China with its first glimpse of mystic as against practical religion.
The key development in China’s history, though, was under the Emperor Qin, who unified the country through substantial warfare combined with a common language. The resulting monolith of an empire was able to shrug off the Muslim warlords from Central Asia with relative ease, particularly when compared with the problems that a splintered India down south faced. For this reason, Islam generally treated China and its culture with grudging respect, quite unlike its view of other cultures.
This state of affairs remained for a long time, until the West gained enough technical mastery of weapons first developed by China to take on the Chinese empire. It is at this point that China’s relative insularity was to go against the country – a failure to observe and learn from the decline of Hindu civilization against Islam. The Western conquest of China followed a pattern similar to that of India’s decline, namely gradual wars in the periphery that weakened central authority, finally culminating in an assault across the country.
There are today not enough Christians or Muslims in China to push the country in the direction of supporting either the West or Islam in any global conflagration. However, a resurgent West poses more of a threat to China’s patriarchal culture, which is not very different from the centralized authority-driven culture of Islam. Given that, it is more likely that China would tilt toward supporting Islam, as its weapons-proliferation efforts over the past few years have shown.
The missile used by Hezbollah this month to sink an Israeli ship was an Iranian variant of a Chinese Silkworm; similar ancestries can be established for many of the medium- and long-range weapons currently in the hands of Islamic tyrants. It is also noteworthy that the only working nuclear weapons in the Islamic world belong to Pakistan, and are almost entirely reverse-engineered from actual Chinese bombs. This leads me to conclude that an escalation of the conflict in the Middle East would eventually necessitate the West to demand adequate support from China, failing which the country itself could become a target. The waxworks of Beijing are likely to grant enough concessions to the West to avoid being attacked, and then lie in wait for their revenge.
The Indian situation is more precarious. While much of the country’s right-wing intelligentsia would push it to war against Islam, there is enough of a fifth column in place to thwart the country’s historic quest for vengeance. India’s Muslims number more than any other country’s in the world with the exception of Indonesia. Add to these the populations of both Pakistan and Bangladesh, and Indian military might is in essence boxed in.
Neither the Indian air force nor the army can offer much assistance to the West. The only aspect of Indian military that the West may benefit from is also its least developed one, namely the Indian navy. I do not see the likelihood of India playing any role in a direct confrontation between Islam and the West, and therefore it is more likely that it sits on the sidelines waiting for the West to do its job.
Next: China and India in World War III