West and Islam are locked in a contest of values and culture, as Asia races ahead.
When United Sates President Barack Obama arrives in Delhi this Sunday he will come not only as leader of the free world but as leader of a declining civilisational force that traces its roots to ancient Greece and Rome. Obviously America and the West continue to dominate the global ecosystem: finance, trade, diplomacy, military. Those comprise the West’s hard power. Its dominance extends to soft power as well: Hollywoood, music, culture, consumer technology.
But no longer is this primacy uncontested. As I wrote in a recent book: While Christian Europe clashed repeatedly with Islam from the eighth century onwards, the West began its slow ascent in the 13th century. Education was the key to this ascension. Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne and Heidelberg – the great universities of the West – were all founded around this time as seats of ecclesiastical learning. They soon evolved into centres of science, arts and the classics. The scientific and industrial revolution that followed the Renaissance in Europe enabled the West to lay the foundation for its modern nation-states.
“India and China, meanwhile lay dormant, two ancient and weary civilisations in decay. Each was reshaped by contact with the expansionary West and by Islam. But their approach to outsiders was markedly different. China’s martial dynasties, confident in their Middle Kingdom self-image of being the centre of the world, treated upstart seventeenth-century British and Dutch emissaries with disdain and remained largely free of Western influence (except for coastal Hong Kong). India, fragmented and directionless, was plucked, piece by piece, first by Islam and then by the British Empire. Like a sponge, it absorbed these influences and remade them in its own mould.”
Islam, unlike the US, China and India, is not anchored to a nation. Its pan-national character ranges from regressive Saudi Arabia to relatively progressive Malaysia.
Islam though remains the big worry for America and the West. Its radicalised storm-troopers are deeply entrenched in Western societies. Of France’s 60 million people, more than five million are Muslim. Islamist cells with ISIS sympathisers are multiplying in Belgium, Germany and Britain. Several constituencies in Britain now have large Muslim concentrations that could affect the results of the British general election scheduled for May 2015.
France and Belgium are currently the only countries which ban the hijab in public places. However, provinces in China, Russia and Switzerland have recently imposed similar bans. The schism between Islam and the West is growing.
The two-day meeting in Washington between US President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron last week emphasised the importance of eradicating Islamist terrorism. Cameron was typically blunt, calling it a threat to the civilised world. Obama was more nuanced and stressed the importance of not stereotyping a community.
While the West and Islam are locked in a civilisational contest of values and culture, Asia races ahead. Despite its economic slowdown, Chinese GDP will grow at more than seven per cent in fiscal 2015. At that growth rate, a country’s GDP at constant prices doubles every ten years.
Indeed, long-term extrapolations of India’s GDP by Citibank exceed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poser to industry leaders in a speech on January 16: “Why can’t India be a $20 trillion economy?” Well it can, in about 15 years, at an average annual GDP growth rate of seven per cent.
Here’s how: India’s present GDP, as the Prime Minister noted in his speech, is $2 trillion at current exchange rates. However, by purchasing power parity (PPP), the norm used by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, India’s GDP is currently $6.77 trillion. At seven per cent annual GDP growth, the Indian economy would double to nearly $14 trillion in ten years and reach $20 trillion in another five years by 2030. That would place India in 2030 behind China, with an estimated GDP (PPP) of $48 trillion, and the US with an estimated GDP (PPP) of $35 trillion.
Unlike Indian pessimists, drenched in colonial angst who see India’s future through a dark lens, the US establishment recognises the challenge and opportunity resurgent India presents.
The challenge: a future entente cordiale between India and China will significantly loosen the West’s 300-year-old grip over global power. The opportunity: while China will remain a long-term threat to America’s hegemony, India can be locked into a tight, mutually gratifying embrace.
The similarities between India and the US are striking: democracy, diversity, open societies, Anglo-Saxon laws and the English language. China has none of these commonalities.
And yet, the American establishment, pragmatic as ever, knows the inevitable decline of Western civilisation can only be delayed not prevented. The second half of the 21st century will belong to the East, led by China, India and Japan, as decisively as the last three centuries have belonged to the West.
Islam is the loose cannon. It took the wrong fork in the road in the 12th century, after five centuries of great learning and progress, to embrace religious orthodoxy rather than modern education and democracy. Islamic societies around the world are today paying the price.
Unless Islam reforms and modernises, it will be a civilisational backwater while the heirs to the Indus valley, ancient Greece and China’s Middle Kingdom forge ahead.
Can India’s diversity – a strength – become a weakness if religious polarisation takes place? Can that stall India’s rise? In India, “liberal” Hindus argue that their forceful advocacy keeps fringe Hindutva groups in check. Liberal Muslims and Christians instead allow their extremists free rein. The argument is seductive but misleading.
Most self-declared liberal Hindus have actually, perhaps with the noblest intentions, succeeded in driving a wedge between moderate Hindus and Muslims by promoting a fraudulent version of secularism that appeases rather than empowers Muslims and validates their sense of separateness.
Secularism must integrate, not segregate, communities. If India is to achieve its full civilisational potential, Chiristians, Muslims and Hindus must treat as parallel their national and religious identities. Religion cannot supersede nationhood. That is the essence of modern, liberal societies.
As the West learns to deal with radical Islam – increasingly seen as morphing into mainstream Islam – it will seek ever-closer geopolitical ties with India. Plural, tolerant, diverse India, if it can shake off its age-old diffidence, will once again be the prize the rest of the world coveted three hundred years ago.