The West Doesn’t Get It

To understand the behavior of Asian governments, we must see the world through their eyes; this requires changing our focus

Opinion | Nicolas J. Firzli | May 2010

In recent weeks, U.S. diplomats and foreign policy experts have expressed surprise at the reluctance of key Asian powers such as Turkey and India to join in their efforts to isolate Iran. Neoconservatives such as former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John R. Bolton and Victor Davis Hanson, military historian and Rumsfeld confidant, are appalled; they say America has gone soft "as it is intent on reaching out to Iran and Syria" and that President Obama’s "generosity" is being reciprocated by ingratitude from Ankara to Beijing:

"The global goodwill President Barack Obama enjoyed on taking office last year, has often failed to translate into foreign-policy wins," wrote Jay Solomon and Peter Spiegel in The Wall Street Journal in March.

Earlier this month, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan (leader of the AKP, a moderate Islamist party) met with French officials in Paris, at a time when Washington, Paris and London are pushing for a new round of sanctions against Iran in the Security Council– of which two Middle Eastern countries, Turkey and Lebanon, are non-permanent members. French officials were taken aback by Erdogan’s interview in the conservative French daily Le Figaro, where far from showing sympathy with the European position, the Turkish Prime Minister called for renewed dialogue with Tehran, and insisted it was high time for Europeans to realize "Turkey is ahead of many EU countries in many respects."

That U.S. and European officials seemed surprised that Asian countries would oppose a new round of sanctions against Iran is probably more important than the Iranian nuclear crisis itself. It will certainly have broader and longer lasting consequences: it reveals the depth of political incompetence and crass ignorance of many Western policy makers, who were led to believe that "Sunni" Turkey, "Hindu" India and "Communist" China could easily be enrolled in their crusade against Iran, a radical Shiite regime.

To understand the behavior of Asian governments, we have to see the world through Asian eyes:

"For us in Asia there have been two epochal events in this century," wrote Harrison Salisbury, in The New York Times (Aug. 18, 1966). "The first was Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905. The second was China’s atom bomb. The first lesson was taught by Japan in 1905. It demonstrated that an Asian country could master the West’s weapons and use them to defeat the West. The second lesson was taught by China. It demonstrated that Asia could equal the West even in the most advanced military technology".

Only by changing our historical focus can we understand why Iran is adamant about gaining full mastery over nuclear technology, and why its neighbors (except for Israel) generally oppose the adoption of a new round of sanctions against Tehran.

Here, culture is key: unlike the Hebrew Old Testament or the Gospels, the Koran and the works of early Islamic scholars (many of them Iranian Sunnis such as al-Ghazali and Biruni, the father of modern astronomy) stressed the importance of physics and engineering and adopted a resolutely atomist worldview in line with the scientific tradition of Ancient Greece. Far from being obscurantist clerics, Iranian, Indian and Arab theologians viewed scientific enquiry as a moral obligation: Utlub il Eelma wa law fil-Seen – seek knowledge even if you have to travel to China to find it, says an ancient Islamic Hadith. In this perspective, Asian and Muslim people and their governments simply don’t understand why the West won’t allow them to acquire "the most advanced technology" and resent the condescending attitudes of U.S. and European officials who try to warn them about the "Iranian threat."

Last month, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up aboard packed subway trains in Moscow, killing 38 people and leaving more than 60 injured, according to the FSB, Russia’s security service. The Russians were astonished to learn that the perpetrators of this horrendous crime were young women from the Caucasus, where Russian troops have been fighting Islamist insurgents for more than a decade.

A study of the ideological underpinnings of the Russo–Japanese War of 1904-1905 can help explain the current situation in the Caucasus: Back then, Islamic scholars across the Caucasus and Asia rooted for General Nogi Kiten, the Japanese ideal of a soldier who defeated the Russians at Port Arthur. Turkish journalists even "gladly informed [their] readership of the Japanese emperor’s alleged conversion to Islam following the Japanese victory over Russia," wrote S. Hanioglu, in his book Preparation for a Revolution: the Young Turks, 1902-1908. Thus, Nogi’s call for self-sacrifice and holy war against the "white invaders" resonated with many in Edirne (the birthplace of Turkish nationalism), Istanbul, Tehran and Delhi. As long ago as 1905, a decisive attitude has been documented: "When the news was brought to [Nogi] that his eldest son – the pride and hope of every Japanese household – had been killed in the battle of Nanshan," related historian J. Scherer in 1905, "‘I am glad he died so splendidly,’ the father said. ‘It was the greatest honor he could have.’"

Reading General Nogi’s words, one cannot but think about the striking similarity with many of the speeches of Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, spiritual leader and secretary general of Hezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Islamist political and paramilitary organization, which is backed and funded by Iran. Following the 2006 war with Israel, Nasrallah told his followers to stand fast, insisting that he wasn’t afraid of dying, and reminding them that his oldest son, Hadi, had been killed by the Israeli occupiers ten years earlier, and that he didn’t "encourage his young son to join the fight… but could only be filled with pride on the glorious day he died a martyr."

Today, some foreign policy experts call for new wars abroad in the name of "freedom" and, in the words of Morton Abramowitz, former U.S. Ambassador to Ankara, accuse Turkey of being, "soft on the Iranian nuclear program and harsh on Israel." But Europe must find within itself the courage and wisdom to heed the prescient call of the great French orientalist Louis Massignon: only by truly understanding Asian and Muslim culture will Europe succeed where medieval Spain and modern Russia have failed.


M. Nicolas J. Firzli is Director of the CEE Council, a Paris-based economic strategy think-tank. 

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