Reform … Where Did Others Begin?

Reform … Where Did Others Begin?

A lot has been written about reform in our Arab world, which confused us rather than showing us the correct path. This is a state which requires that we do not act on the spur of the moment in the hope that that would help us come closer to the target reform, which we Arabs have undoubtedly become in pressing need of, though we differ on its priorities.

  • Reform began in India on the basis of equality of citizenship, peaceful dialogue and self-reliance.
  • What concerns us in the West's experiment is political freedom, rule of law and scientific and industrial excellence.
  • Can we condemn enlightened ideas because they were behind the most appalling massacres in man's history?

Last spring, I took part in the Arab Reform Conference at the Alexandria Library, the second conference organized by the Arab Reform Forum which includes a large number of distinguished intellectuals from different Arab countries. The conference was entitled "Successful Experiments", in reference to the host of efforts of civil society organizations.

Nobody belittles the contribution of such efforts; however, describing them as successful, implying perfection, makes one a bit reserved, for success is something definite that can't be achieved in public action, as every step leads to a further one. The target is moving all the time, as long as there is a wide gap between us and others in the world, hence this multitude of calls for reform at all levels.

Despite my observation of the many calls for reform at this serious conference and other symposiums and conferences as well as different audio, visual and print Arab media, I feel that the simple question was not properly asked: where to start?

I asked myself this question, but instead of answering it I asked a follow-up question: where did others begin? As usual, the 'others' which readily comes to mind is: the West. However, in actual fact the West is not alone in the forefront of the world today, as there are other highly successful experiments in the East, including that of a Muslim country which I have previously referred to in several editorials: Malaysia. It is perhaps inappropriate to elaborate on this experiment in spite of my deep admiration of it and of its great theorist Mahatir Muhammad. But I can sum up its success as far as the achievements I have previously referred to are concerned: educational development, promotion of the values of work, diligence and perfection among the Malaysian Malay majority following the example of the Chinese minority, and the revival of that majority. Though Malaysia's experiment is not highly commended as far as political democracy is concerned, its share in reform may not be ignored at several levels which are related to the essence of democracy and widen its scope, including economic and social reform and citizenship rights.

A horse flying high

Malaysia is not the only experiment in the area of reform in the East; there are former and later ones. A salient example I'd like to start with is India, the world's most populous democracy, whose governments are democratically elected through ballot boxes and electronic voting. It is self-sufficient in food production for its over a billion population. Furthermore not only is it a large producer of computer software, but as has recently been published, it is also breaking into the field of microchips, the brain of computer technology. The Indian writer living in America Shidnad Ragghata describer it as "the horse that flew high", which it actually is.

By "flying high", the writer means advancement in the information industry in which India occupies a pre-eminent, mounting position. This advancement, he says, started in 1978 when the Janata Party was in power and software engineering companies were founded. That claim is like describing a tree from its leaves only, as if it were without benches, a trunk or roots. The roots of India's 1978 computer initiatives go back to deep roots in the struggle for political, economic, social as well as religious reform. Mahatama Gandhi might be the most famous of these roots. With his simple but deep symbols of struggle: non violent civil disobedience, passive resistance the loom and goat (bearing the slogan of self sufficiency in food and clothing), Muslim and Hindus equal citizenship rights and fraternity, Gandhi introduced social, political and religious reform based on peaceful dialogue, non-violence and real independence not only of colonialism but through self sufficiency as well. It's true that religious fanaticism killed Gandhi through the bullets of a Hindu extremist who shattered his dream of unity of the sub-continent on the basis of religious tolerance when it was partitioned into India and Pakistan. But the emergence of independent India under the leadership of Nehru, a prominent disciple of Gandhi, made Gandhi's reformist principles grow and flourish in the garden of the new reality of free India. Gandhi's promotion of equal citizenship rights, peaceful dialogue and self-reliance made his pupil Nehru side with democracy and insist on educational reform which has made India's school and universities models of good education, not only in what was called the third world, but in the whole world, including the West.

From these reform initiatives, which look simple and self-evident to Gandhi and Nehru respectively, the Indian horse flew high, not only into the sky of science and technology but also into the horizon of political democracy. This may naturally lead us to another more famous Oriental experiment: Japan.

The enlightened emperor

In his look 'The Discovery of Japan', the English written Ian Buroma, who spent many years in Japan and wrote a number of books about it, says that the Japanese reawakening is associated with a strange story which began on 8 July 1853, when the American fleet commanded by Calbriath Perry arrived in Japan seeking to open its market to American goods. The Japanese people have been isolated from the rest of the world for two centuries. That isolation was imposed on Japan by its rulers to prevent western missionaries from spoiling their subjects and avert any western invasion. As the Japanese response was unfavourable, the American commander bombarded Japan's coastal cities with his large ship guns to open them to the US trade by force. However, it seems Perry's guns missed their targets. When his hopes dashed, he threatened that he would not leave Japan's ports unless he met Japanese senior officials, and gave the Japanese a one year ultimatum to surrender and open their markets.

The American roughness went parallel to another roughness, namely of those who dominated the Japanese at the time not the emperor or his family, but a group of feudalists headed by the Shogun, who was the actual ruler of the country. He lived in Ido (present day Tokyo), while the emperor, who did not rule but just represented continuation of the ancient Japanese culture, lived in the old imperial capital Kyoto.

Thousands of the poor, oppressed and backward Japanese majority suffered famines and died there from. There awful conditions didn't change when the American commander came back to the Japanese shore upon the expiry of the ultimatum a year later and the Japanese markets were opened to western goods. The writer claims that was the start of Japan's openness to the world, but acknowledges that there was no real openness until the regime changed and the Meiji regime came to the throne. The word 'Meiji' means 'enlightened governance'.

The Meiji dynasty adopted the following slogan since 1868: "We should not imitate the West, so that we can be similar or equal to it". To put this slogan into practice, the enlightened emperor (Meiji Tenno) enacted new reform laws and sent students on scholarships to well known universities in Berlin, London, New York, Washington and Paris. It's worth mentioning that he directed such students saying. "I want you to acquire all the West's knowledge, to grasp everything and carry it back to Japan to benefit from and build our future progress on it. We have to catch up with those conceited Europeans, who despise Asians and look at them as barbarian and half civilized".

The Meiji Tenno's aspiration naturally faced difficulties. The Shogun-connected feudal class didn't like his reform and opposed the loss of their privileges and influence. They revolted twice against him in 1847 and 1877, but were defeated by the imperial army, hence he had the sole power in the country. He cancelled the Shogun post which had challenged his authority and supported the feudalists who oppressed the citizens. The Meiji Menno's interest in modernization, continued along with the Japanese people's new freedom and regaining of their human dignity. That stimulated their creativity in all fields: agriculture, industry, armament, health and construction, with education, on top of the list, of course.

The Meiji Tenno succeeded in modernizing Japan in a record time, not exceeding four decades of his rule, from 1868 to 1912, during which Japan achieved remarkable though western style affluence, which triggered a negative reaction later, as there were frequent calls for return to the Japanese original traditions. Such a move faced a different one calling for adherence to western lifestyles. This conflict continues to date, but it is an identity conflict not undermining two basic achievements: democracy, and scientific technological advancement with returns that compare with the world's strongest economies.

It goes without saying that the rapid, significant rise of the modernization movement produced, inter alia, a powerful army which incited it to be involved in a devastating, costly war. But such wars made new Japan take a new reform course following its defeat in World War II. It abandoned the 'modernization for the military' and adopted the 'modernization for welfare' approach, as reflected in the so-called 'welfare state' and free 'human creativity'. Some call this later stage the second Japanese revival stage; however, it has no doubt built on the strengths of the first revival and eliminated its weaknesses, insisting, so far, on being an almost wholeheartedly anti-war country.

The English writer wanted to imply that the Japanese revival was a western invention. The West might have had a marked influence on the Japanese reform and revival experiment; however, when the invention excels its inventor this indicates that the invention was in fact self-invented.

A look at the West

I've delayed talking about the western experiment and preferred to begin with experiments from the East, not in sympathy with the current public mood at this moment of confusion in the Arabs' history, but to stress that reform is a necessity brought about by peoples like us and its attempts coincided with ours, like Muhammad Ali's experiment in Egypt. As the West is a major experiment in the history of human progress, we can't ignore it as we see where others began their reforms.

The West's experiment with Europe lying in the heart old and new alike has begum its reform course since the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance. Some divide Europe's and the West's reawakening in general-including the USA- into three stages reaching to the current stage which some call the modernism stage, whereas some insist on calling it the post modernism stage. Anyhow, it is characterized with wide democratic freedoms, established legal guidelines and decent standards of living for its citizens, the minimum of which is a dream for a large sector of third world peoples. What concerns us in the West's experiment are its achievements in the areas of political freedom, rule of law, scientific and industrial advancement and their effect on man's social and human conditions.

The first stage in the West's reform goes back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries after the end of the Dark Ages, to the Renaissance, which literally means revival and rebirth. It was in effect a rebirth following the Dark Ages during which the church practiced corruption and tyranny and was characterized with stagnation. It put human affairs in closed, dark theological boxes and shut the windows of opinion, knowledge and creativity, and oppressed its opponents and suspected ones with different forms of punishment, the mildest being burning.

Differences were not restricted to religion but extended to cover any new worldly discovery. Only through a dramatic change and revolt against all practices of the Middle Ages was it possible to get out of that darkness and injustice. The Renaissance was a period of revival of the Greek Roman intellectual and philosophical heritage, giving rise to a rational management of man's life, and getting rid of the church's superstitions and myths. Clear cutting lines were drawn between the fallacies of the past and the aspirations of the present and future in the fields of politics and social, economic, scientific thought and culture. An essential feature of that age was the Reformation as advocated by Martin Luther and Calvin, the main elements of which were rejection of mediation between God and man, raising the level of knowledge to the human experiment and mental effort. All that led to the rise of a new age called the Enlightenment, which represented a large step in the formation of the current stage in the West. As Hegel says. "The basic principle of the modern times, in general, is self-freedom", i.e. the relationship in particular at two levels: cognitive (rational awareness) and scientific (practice of freedom). It was from such freedom that the freedom of thinking and criticism evolved. That's why this age has been called "the Century of Criticism". It is an extensive criticism of all things, aspects, institutions and ideas, subjecting all these to reason.

Parallel to this, history was firmly believed to have a specific purpose-moving forward all the time. All that led to the rationalization of nature, history and politics, and reason has therefore replaced theology in the interpretation and accountability of things and ideas.

The Enlightenment and its philosophers must definitely be given the credit for the numberless significant gains that humanity has made; however, they went too far in glorifying and idolizing reason as it produces nothing but progress and happiness for mankind. As writer Ali Karim wrote in a paper on the Internet. "Over the years, the mind itself was the cause of crises and problems for man, society and nature-colonization and plundering of the wealth of peoples outside the West, genocide, using science and scientific and technological product destructively, waging two world wars-are decisive evidence of that and of the relativity of the mind and its capability as well as of the fallacy of the purposes of some enlightened thinkers in certain areas Later, those facts led western philosophers and thinkers-mainly those from the Frankfurt School, in addition to Nietzshe and Michel Foucou to question the enlightened mind from a critical viewpoint.

The third stage in the West's reform experiment was the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution. Most European history books are in agreement that the origins of modernism go back to two 18th century events: First, economic; second, political which put the West-after the transformation brought about by the Renaissance and the Reformation on the road to development, which was different in kind from the other societies of the world.

The first event was the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The second was the French Revolution, which influenced the American Revolution. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that by any standard of judgement the achievements of the Industrial Revolution had a more considerable impact on all aspects of society than those of all previous centuries combined, and the future and the new became extremely important, hence the past became subject to the present and the future.

The Industrial Revolution produced densely populated cities and an ideal industry and established the principle of individualism. It built relations on the basis of work and utilitarianism rather than traditional inclinations. It also built institutional work on the basis of law and in the public interest and created a favourable atmosphere to activate the role of individuals in the body politic as 'citizens', as well as economic mobility and consumerism.

The Industrial Revolution was the first pillar on which society built its modernism, then the French Revolution built the second pillar. It had introduced a far-reaching change and a strong reaction against injustice and oppression and established the state-nation based on reason and law. Its major achievements included the Declaration of Human Right, setting up a modern constitutional democratic system and division of power as in modern democracies.

What's next?

As I attempted to answer this question: where should Arab reform begin? I found myself ask a follow-up question: where did other begin? In my review of the key experiments in the history of contemporary peoples I didn't make any comments of my own, and the only comments were from available research. I didn't mean to give a precise answer but rather to suggest different courses which peoples in the East and West followed. We may accept some and reject others depending on differences of identity, culture and historical experiment. Reform is a specific process; however, it embodies some features which we have in common with other nations. To return to the first question, that will be the subject of a forthcoming Talk of the Month.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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