Are the Arabs Heading East?

Are the Arabs Heading East?

It is interesting to note that there are clear indications which show that the West is not fully aware of the realities of our life as Arabs and Muslims. This is seen in the appearance of such terms as conflict of civilizations and clash of civilizations over a number of decades. It is also seen in the West s relation with Asia which manifests itself, e.g. in military action and continued conflict in Afghanistan or tense relations with Pakistan and other Asian countries.

It is also interesting that the West had for many years been the colonial power in our Arab world as well as in Asia. But, despite all such long years of colonialism and subsequent drainage of the wealth of the countries under colonial rule, there has been no apparent real scientific understanding of the nature and culture of the Arab or Asian peoples.

Meanwhile, colonialism has caused a rupture in relations between the Arab and Muslim worlds which some call a historical gap. However, historians affirm that Arab-Asian relations have over the decades been based on a number of historical, cultural, commercial, civilizing and religious factors which established strong ties with the entire Arab world, Far Eastern and Central Asian countries and fostered ties among the Far, Middle and Near East.

Both Arabs and Asians suffered much under Western colonialism. Policies and economies were affected; languages changed; kingdoms transformed; civilizations rose and fell. Howeer, these changes have revealed that relations and interests among people are too strong to break down. That s why the historical Silk Road has been replaced with other road, sea and air routes, and the desire to maintain communication between both parties continued, as seen in the establishment of a number of institutions and publication of magazines, books and periodicals about common cultures or national cultures in each other s languages. There are a number of institutions for teaching each other s languages and Arabic teaching institutions in many Asian countries, in addition to religious communication among Muslim communities. These signs of communication reflect the historical dimension of these relations as represented by two great contemporary historical empires: the Muslim empire in Baghdad and the Tang dynasty in China 9AD.618-907).

The Spread of Islam

Similarly, the spread of Islam during that epoch played a key role in enhancing mutual interaction between the two regions. That brought about the spread of Arab culture with its intellectual and scientific progress, and many peoples were keen to learn the language of the new religion, which led to the rise of many scholars in different fields who were influenced by Arab culture and became icons of Muslim civilization. Relations between the two parties were further fostered by the economic aspect with commerce being its main element, which enhanced mutual cultural interaction.

These relations and the expansion of the power of the Islamic state led to the immigration and many movements of the citizens of both cultures, which brought about many signs of cultural interaction, among which was the migration of early Yemeni traders to some Asian islands, including Indonesia, in the 9th century AD. Hadramis thus settled there and played a major role in the spread of Islam and boosted trade.

Among the signs of Arabs movement into Asia was the spread of Arabic throughout Asia Minor: varieties of spoken Arabic in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan threatened with extinction. These dialects were spoken by many Bedouin and urban Arab communities living in Samarkand, Bukhara, Qashqadria and Sarkhandria (in present-day Uzbekistan), Khatloon (in present-day Tajikistan) as well as in Afghanistan. The influence of Arabic in that region led to the arrival of the first group of Arab immigrants as in the 8th century AD concurrently with the Islamic conquests, followed by another group from the Arabs of Balkh and Andkhui (in present-day Afghanistan). Under the influence of Islam, Arabic became the language of science and literature during that era. Most Arabs in Asia Minor had their own communities and did not encourage mixed marriages with local communities (but some such marriages did exist). That helped Arabic to continue among multi-lingual communities up to the 20th century.

Rift, and subordination to the West

The West took advantage of he decline of the Islamic state and major empires in China and India. Western armies invaded these countries, exploited their wealth and controlled their governments. This Asian region and the Arab world were gradually tied to European and American interests, which led to the subordination of the Arab region to the West.

With the disappearance of Western domination, the countries in both regions are today making considerable progress, some of which, such as South Korea, have achieved a high rate of progress. Other examples include Japan, China, India and a number of east Asian countries. Parallel to this is a forward march of progress in many Arab countries, which makes rebuilding bridges between the two regions in the cultural and economic fields extremely important at this crucial stage in human development which is witnessing two world phenomena: first, globalization, with its mutual interaction among different civilizations, along with a revolution in international communication; second, the formation of economic and political blocs by regional powers.

As a matter of fact, the Asian experiment combines many worthwhile development experiments which involved rebuilding their societies and basic and university education systems, which stresses the importance of development cooperation between the two regions and leads to the restoration of historical relations in the context of modernity whose signs have clearly be seen over the last two decades and both parties technological, investment and cultural developments, in addition to the contemporary history of bilateral trade relations.

Mutual benefits

The restoration of these historical relations requires that the Arabs rediscover Asia culturally, scientifically, socially and politically as soon as possible so as to foster these relations, which in the light of a number of changes, are closely connected to such scientific and economic growth and thus make mutual benefits the basis for such relations.

Many countries in the Arab region possess such resources and wealth that can make profitable investment in, and provide economic benefits for such Asian countries. Meanwhile, that will help the Arab side achieve considerable savings and enable them to obtain further technical and research expertise in the areas which the Asian countries have made remarkable progress. What ensures the success of such common experiments is that there is no history of colonialism between the two sides, in addition to the fact that they both witnessed periods of violence and invasion, but that did not amount to colonialism and exploitation of wealth characteristic of Western colonialism, which did not bring any benefits to the region s peoples and left them backward, with no developed education, scientific research, new production lines, modern road networks or any of the ingredients for modern progress in any society.

In this sense, Arab-Asian relations should be peaceful, not marred by any historical signs of mutual enmity, hatred or recriminatory desires. This means that the bridges between us and Asia are actually built, especially in view of the fact that there are a lot of shared ground and common factors which make Asia closer to us, as far as culture in particular is concerned.

Pioneering Asia experiments

There are a number of pioneering experiments in Asia today that are so successful that they have crossed national boundaries to the world at large. An example of this is Mahatir Muhammad s experiment in Malaysia, which has achieved impressive development results, with the country s cultural exclusivity maintained. Another experiment is the one in microeconomics attributed to British (Indian-born) Nobel Economics laureate Amartya Sen. Korea s experiment in the field of education is also worth citing. A highly advanced education system costing the Korean government 40% of its annual budget over thirty years has been designed, pushing Korea from the position of underdeveloped countries to that of advanced ones in world economy and social welfare in the record time of less than thirty years.

The education issue has played a central role in Japan s progress. In the period 1906-1911, Amartya Sen writes, education had as much as 43% of the budget of Japanese cities and villages in general. By 1906 it was virtually impossible to find any new conscript illiterate. In 1913, though Japan was still very poor and economically underdeveloped, it was one of the world s major book publishers ahead of Britain and double the share of the United States. This indicates how the early signs of Japan s progress appeared in the area of knowledge.

As many studies on Japan s progress experiment suggest, its economic development was to a great extent supported by developing human resources and education and training institutions, all of which reached a high degree of progress under the country s overall policy and favourable cultural climate. The studies also show that the Japanese experiment per se has inspired development efforts in all east Asian countries, and it can safely be said that such inspiration was behind the so-called East Asia s miracle .

Similarly, the experiment of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore s former prime minister, who is regarded as one of the greatest architects of the revival of east Asia, is also worth considering. He has carried out an outstanding experiment in his country s economic development, and gave minorities a sense of security and belonging and national identity in common with the majority of the population. This boosted Singapore s economic and social progress unprecendentedly. He was one of he principal advocates of reviving east Asia s values, particularly in terms of knowledge and democracy, and produced evidence that these values preceded the modern history of Europe and were established in the context of a considerable intellectual progress movement much earlier than European civilization.

As the above review shows, the importance of fostering Arab-Asian relations is in a large part based on the comparison and objective, serious investigation of these experiments and making use of them in local development experiments in all Arab societies.

In addition, an essential component of the Asian experiments is their modern experiments in democracy and adoption of a system of government compatible with their intellectual and religious philosophy based on cultural pluralism and multiethnic, multireligious co-existence, as in India, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere. This clearly shows the nature of the relationship between democracy and economic and political progress.

Reciprocal media

As the above reasons suggest, it is really incumbent upon us to shed new light on all aspects of the Asian experiment: India s communication technology and nuclear energy; Korea s unique experiment in democracy and modern industrial methods making it one of the world s major industrialized counties; Japan s educational, political, social and industrial experiment; Chira s huge economic resources; Malaysia s and Indonesia s cultural experiments based on pluralism and respect for others; and Singapore s unique ability to integrate minorities, in addition to other current literary, artistic and intellectual experiments of well-known icons in Asian communities at large which interact with similar ideas and experiments in the international community.

Our media should give wider press and TV coverage of the Asian experiment to keep Arab citizens familiar with Asia s experiments in the area of thought, arts, culture, literature and technologies. On its part, Al-Arabi has played a pioneering role in this respect through the publication of a number of illustrated explorations in recent years, with emphasis on the countries of Asia, big and small alike. The explorations investigated aspects of life in these communities, including their daily and social activities, traditions, culture, education systems, modern administration methods and peaceful coexistence. We still need to shed further light on these aspects, particularly in the light of modern advances in Asia s march of progress.

The efforts made by some Arab cultural institutions in carrying Asia s literature and ideas need to be doubled to present the ideas and literary works of contemporary Asian writers and artists. The normal relations with east Asia which we call for cannot ideally exist without a real mutual understanding based on knowledge of the diversity of cultures, creative ideas and talents of those intellectuals, particularly the younger generation.

On our part, satellite TV channels concerned with our Arab culture should be targeted at the Asian public, affirming the common historical relationship between the two sides. In this way, this media service will provide Asian viewers with news about Arab current affairs, particularly in the area of culture. It will also present our culture and civilization to Asian expatriates in the Arab world. In addition, we have to offer Arabic teaching facilities to them to help them interact closely with Arab culture.

Strategic dimensions

It must be stressed in this connection that such knowledge of Asia s culture has many strategic dimensions. Even investment won t bring about its desired effect unless entrepreneurs are familiar with the customs and traditions governing such culture, people s interests and desires and other relevant factors. It is not enough to get quick impressions of the West s worn-out theories designed to create such an image that serves its purposes.

Asia s progress can actually be a source of inspiration for development experiments in several Arab areas. Arab-Asian rapport can be a reason for hope for a different future for both cultures, even in the very near future under favourable conditions of rapport and dialogue. The future, with the hopes of development it holds and which the Arabs deserve, will find in Asia s experiments what boosts its hopes that it is possible to realize what today looks difficult or impossible if good intentions are kept to, efficient administration maintained and conspiracy theory given up.


Sulaiman Al-Askary

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