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Opinion

August 29, 2018

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European intellectuals and the East

Asia and Europe are fundamentally different from each other in social, cultural and historical terms. Differences in the climate and environment of both continents have shaped their respective customs, rituals, cultural practices, etiquettes, and living standards.

During ancient times, people in both continents weren’t entirely aware of each other. However, this began to change when the channels of communication were strengthened in the 15th century and European travellers, merchants, missionaries and diplomats visited Asian counties. Some of them stayed for long periods of time to study and get accustomed to the culture of Asian societies.

After returning to their homeland, they wrote books that chronicled their observations and experiences. These books were avidly read by those who were curious to discover the mysteries of the East. Intellectuals in Europe were especially interested in the political systems that were prevalent in Asian societies and took a keen interest in understanding the role of the ruling classes in these cultures. The information provided to them through these travellers was sufficient for them to draw parallels with their own political systems and cultural values.

In his book, titled ‘Orientalism and Islam: European thinker on Despotism in the Middle East and India’, Michael Curtis analyses the opinion of European intellectuals about Islam and the political systems in some countries. In this article, we will examine three intellectuals in the West who expressed their points of view about the way of life in the East: Montesquieu, Edmond Burke, and Alexis De Tocqueville. These intellectuals judged Eastern politics through the lens of their own political environment.

Montesquieu, a French thinker and the author of the ‘The Spirit of the Laws’, studied the Ottoman Empire, the Persian kingdom and the Mughal era. According to Montesquieu, all these empires were despotic because there were no political institutions to challenge the authority of the ruling monarch. He firmly believed that the executive, the judiciary and the legislature should be separated from each other in order to keep absolutism under check.

Montesquieu examined three political systems and the differences in the role they played in politics. In a city republic, people participated in political affairs and played an important role to decide political disputes. In a monarchy, rulers needed the support and cooperation of the aristocracy, which helped them administer the affairs of the state. In a despotic system, rulers enjoyed unlimited power and little or no space was given to any class or institution to interfere in their rule.

Montesquieu identified the despotic rule with the Ottoman, Persian and Mughal rulers, who wielded a considerable amount of power and enjoyed absolute control over their dominions. Their rule was further supported by religion, which exhorted people to be loyal and faithful to their rulers.

Since all agricultural land belonged to the rulers, the feudal class of these countries depended on them and had no power to challenge their authority. This despotic attitude influenced society and those who had privilege and power behaved like autocrats. In the family structure, men were considered to be the dominant figures. They didn’t tolerate any disobedience, especially from woman. In most scenarios, women had no say in family matters and silently obeyed the male heads of their families.

Exemplary punishments were used to crush any form of rebellion and opposition. As a result, fear prevailed in society and there were no opportunities available to display individual talents and creativity. Under an increasingly despotic rule, any form of progress was impossible in the various spheres of social and cultural life.

Montesquieu also explored how the environment had an impact on people’s habits. In a hot climate, people had a tendency to become somewhat indolent and unproductive. Many of them lacked initiative and ambition, and became passive to endure absolutism without any challenge.

Once he had declared these three Asian kingdoms absolute, Montesquieu stated that he preferred the European system as it was far more enlightened and liberal. However, some research scholars criticised Montesquieu and accused him of making assessments about the Asian political system on the basis of incomplete information and rash judgments. Therefore, his observations weren’t entirely reliable.

There was a discussion in the British parliament about Mughal rule when Warren Hastings, the first governor-general of the East India Company, was impeached due to his involvement in corrupt and despotic acts in India. Edmund Burke, who was a prominent member of the British parliament, hurled a series of accusations against Hastings in this regard. In the speeches that he delivered in the House of Common and the House of Lords, Burke argued that the East India Company had dismantled and defied the established traditions that kept India economically prosperous and politically peaceful.

He accused Hastings of committing political blunders, especially in light of the accusations levelled by Maharaja Nandakumar that Hastings tried to bribe him. Maharaja Nandakumar was later executed him after the Calcutta Court found him guilty on the charges of felony. Hastings was further accused of exploiting Chait Singh, extorting money from the widows of Nawab of Awadh, and helping the ruler of Awadh to fight against the Rohillas. Burke condemned the rule of the East India Company as it had destabilised the Indian political system.

Hastings’ lawyer defended him, arguing that Mughal rule from the time of Timur to that of the present ruler was despotic, inhumane and absolute. Therefore, Hastings decided to follow Mughal traditions to rule India. The Indian people were accustomed to the harshness of Mughal rule and weren’t ready to accept the enlightened and liberal system that was prevalent in Europe. Hastings was eventually freed from all charges. However, the discussion whether Mughal rule was despotic or not was strongly debated, and the role of the East India Company and its use of autocratic authority were also condemned.

The third intellectual is Alexis De Tocqueville who authored ‘Democracy in America and the French Revolution’. He wasn’t just an intellectual, but also a politician who actively participated in key political decision-making. This was the age of imperialism and the European powers were colonising Asian and Africans countries in the name of ‘civilisation’.

In 1830, France attacked and colonised Algeria. This act was fully supported by Tocqueville. In the case of Algeria, the French method of colonisation was quite different. The emphasis wasn’t just to colonise the country and extort its resources, but to also eliminate the Algerian identity and assimilate it politically, socially and culturally with France. French immigrants were encouraged to settle in Algeria to occupy landed property and completely dominate the local population.

Tocqueville supported the proposition that Algeria should become a French province and adopt its language, religion and identity, and assimilate itself with the French civilisation. He repeatedly argued that having a colony reflected how great France was. Therefore, he encouraged France not to abandon the policy of colonisation.

Tocqueville probably had the American model in mind when he made this suggestion. Under this model, the local American population was confined to reservations and the whole country was Americanised. Similarly, Tocqueville wanted to erase the Algerian identity and, therefore, insisted on the dominance of French rule in all aspects of life.

In modern history, it is evident that the people of Algeria had to fight a bloody war of liberation to put an end to French rule. France was compelled to reluctantly withdraw from Algeria.

In addition to these three thinkers, other European intellectuals have also indicated their prejudice and racial superiority through their work. Most intellectuals supported European imperialism and justified its despotic rule. The concept of oriental despotism strengthened European control over various colonies and encouraged colonisers to commit acts of barbarity.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.

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