From the Ruins of Empire

Hamid Dabashi discusses Pankaj Mishra's brilliant new book

Text by Hamid Dabashi and Pankaj Mishra

Hamid Dabashi he most important aspect of From the Ruins of Empire is your exquisite ability to bring together a number of scattered materials, in the figure of these intellectuals - Rabindranath Tagore, Gandhi, [Sayyid Jamal-al-Din] al-Afghani, etc - that suddenly brings the conscience of Asia to light. It just existed like a magnificent golden nugget that you have excavated. To my mind, From the Ruins of Empire compares to works such as Américo Castro's The Spaniards or José Marti's Our America. How did it come about?

Pankaj Mishra I've been thinking about it on and off for a very long time, but it grew out of a kind of dissatisfaction with the shape of postcolonial history. A dissatisfaction both with the histories I was taught growing up in India as well the larger historical narrative in which those postcolonial histories were embedded, which is the history of western modernity. None of those histories reflected my aspirations, my own ideas of the people I felt myself in solidarity with. Someone like Tagore, for instance. He was included [in those postcolonial histories] as a great nationalist icon but we know that he was not a nationalist in quite that way. These were figures who had been excluded from official histories and who I felt very attracted to. So, in some ways, the idea of bringing them together did not really occur to me until I felt I had mastered some of these histories of the places that I felt I knew very superficially - and still do, in ways. A place like China, for instance, which I only started visiting in 2004. So it's taken a while for me to understand the particular intellectual history of that place, as it has with the particular histories of places like Egypt and Iran. But I think it was certainly prompted by this sense that the history of the postcolonial world was too selective.

HD There is a major psychological barrier that has hindered our generation and the postcolonial mode of knowledge production. It is that, habitually, we have a vertical conversation vis-à-vis European modernity - "the west and the rest". The trajectory of all postcolonial societies was judged against the standard of European modernity. So in a way the fabricated concept of "the west" becomes the interlocutor. The late Edward Said had a white interlocutor sitting in his mind, whom he was trying to convince of the fact that Palestinians have been wronged. He couldn't have been more persuasive or more eloquent, but he died convinced that he had failed to convince that fictive white interlocutor in his mind. But in your historiography, the west is no longer the interlocutor and this enables a different, horizontal conversation.

PM Absolutely. I think one of the major things to have happened that has made a book like this possible objectively is that some of those older concepts have weakened, and the concept of "the west" doesn't quite have the centrality, the persuasive power it used to. And that has allowed different kinds of thinking to happen, different kinds of political movements to appear - what you described as post-ideological movements and post-postcolonial ideas and ideologies. I think that is really the most important thing that has happened in the last 10 or 15 years. It's partly a result of economic globalisation, as well as the decline of the nation state's own sovereignty and increasing geopolitical differences between the EU and the US. So I think that fictive white person who was sitting in the heads of an older generation - that figure doesn't quite exist in the same way. I don't feel the need to persuade or have a conversation exclusively with that person. We have discovered other interlocutors.

HD Why do you think this happened? Postcolonialism is a mode of knowledge production. Colonialism happened, then postcolonial nation states emerged, and they become conducive to the production of ideologies - nationalism, third world socialism, Islamism, etc. These ideologies have exhausted themselves and postcolonialism has ceased to produce knowledge. This is what I call the end of postcolonialism and the result is postcolonial leaders running for their lives across North Africa and the Arab world. But this is from an epistemic point of view. My fascination with your work is that you begin from the ground up, and I wonder what happened in your own mind. The weakening of "the west" is something conceptual that you wrote about in your fantastic critique of Niall Ferguson's The West and the Rest but nevertheless there is a jump between realising that conceptually this idea is not producing any ideas, and going to the facts on the ground and beginning to fulfil this consciousness. How did that happen?

PM That's something that started to happen when I first went to Kashmir as a reporter in 2000, reckoning with the realities on the ground which were very grim at that time. I would date my political awakening in many ways to that particular visit, where I was confronted with the debris of the postcolonial ideology. I saw how a postcolonial ideology of secular nationalism had turned malign and had become extremely oppressive for the four million Muslims of Kashmir, who had embodied at some point - and they still do - a cosmopolitan idea of culture, a cosmopolitan idea of society. Here they were being asked to conform to a certain form of postcolonial polity which claimed to be secular but that actually concealed a very strong Hindu majoritarian element. I wasn't able to conceptualise all of this at that time but the visit evidenced the profound flaws of postcolonialism.

HD Let's talk specifically about the way you begin to build this cosmopolitan worldliness after your encounter in Kashmir in 2000. The problem with cosmopolitanism as an idea today is evident in the work of [Kwame] Anthony Appiah. Appiah says, "Listen, we're all products of the European Enlightenment - let's shake hands, go home and all live happily ever after". But as Timothy Brennan points out, what the likes of Appiah are talking about is not cosmopolitanism - it is Americanisation. The problem, however, with Brennan is that he thinks only American culture is capable of becoming cosmopolitan. That is, the contemporary map of the world is the map that is paramount in the minds of Brennan and Appiah alike. So let's talk about the cosmopolitanism that you begin to build from the ground up, namely somebody like Tagore or Sayyid Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani. Where did they come from? From where does that cosmopolitanism emerge?

PM An example [would be] the discovery of Benares, which has been presented to the world as the holy city of the Hindus. Very few people know that it was a great site of pilgrimage for Shiites all across India, and there are some very important Shiite shrines in the city. That was a discovery for me years after I'd ceased to live in the city. This was one of the many discoveries which made me think about these worlds that someone like al-Afghani belonged to, where he could be in a place like Cairo in the 1870s and 1880s and have as associates Syrian Christians from Damascus, Jewish playwrights from Damascus or Cairo or Alexandria. And all were engaged in a common endeavour, which was of creating an Arab public sphere, selling newspapers, arousing political consciousness. The Indians started early in a sense of meeting "the west", conceptualising "the west" and also conceptualising the idea of India in certain ways. But even looking back at someone like Ram Mohan Roy, who is described as the founder of modern India, how diverse and how wide his political sympathies were. He was interested in what was going on in Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal, not to mention what was happening in other parts of Asia. He belonged to a world, which was pre-modern in many ways, and could conceive of a kind of humanity, which is not sectarian in nature, which transcends a lot of the divisions introduced by political modernity, particularly the idea of the nation state.

HD That brings me to Muhammad Iqbal. I am always fascinated by Iqbal because, on one hand, I see him as the flowering achievement towards the end of the Mughal period but, paradoxically, I also consider him to be the founding figure of Pakistan. How do you view Iqbal?

PM I think because he changes so rapidly in his four decade-long career as a public figure it's very hard to get a hold on him. He starts off as someone deeply influenced by European philosophy then he gets attracted to Sufism and then he recoils from that, and later starts speaking more sternly of an Islamic state. I think it's probably unfair to look at people like Iqbal and try to locate a consistent ideology or a consistent set of ideas because these were people - al-Afghani is another such character -  who were responding to a particular and very dynamic reality and a very oppressive reality at the same time. And in their improvised responses often it's very difficult to find the kind of coherence that we are accustomed to seeing in, say, the traditions of western philosophy.

HD I would argue that the main difference between Tagore and Al-Afghani is that the latter is a chameleon. He goes to Iran and says, "I am from Afghanistan". He goes to the Arab world and says, "I am Iranian". For him identity, or at least postcolonial or colonial national identity, means nothing, whereas Iqbal is very much into identity. How would you account for this difference?

PM I think in that particular period, post-1919, you see a general hardening all across the Asian world of political identities. You see on the one hand the rise of hardline communism, and you also see within this period the formation of the first Islamist political groups and formations. With Iqbal, I don't suppose one can map very neatly his particular trajectory onto these larger developments. But I think they coincide pretty well in the sense that he was also responding to this shift, because he also started off as a critic of the nation state and nationalism yet he ends up being hailed as the spiritual founder of the state of Pakistan.

HD Exactly. In your book you make a very strong case for how, if we were to retrieve - as you do - this cosmopolitan word of the mid-19th century all the way to the early 20th century, that is the kind of response from which From the Ruins of Empire has emerged, rather than sabre-rattling fundamentalists. From somebody like al-Afghani, you go down the line to Mohammed Abduh, and then to to Rashid Rida, and ultimately to the establishment of the Muslim Brotherhood? What happens in that trajectory?

PM After 1914, a growing number of highly educated people were produced by educational institutions all across Asia - whether in China or India or Egypt or Turkey. The older political institutions were unable to respond to the aspirations of the new educated classes, whether it was the Ottoman empire or the sham monarchy in Egypt, or the imperialists running the show behind the scenes. The result was a shift in political allegiances among the new educated classes, and the growth of alternative ideologies.

HD Another thing I like about your narrative: it's not that European imperialism doesn't exist, but it is not the chief epistemic, conceptual interlocutor that everybody has to respond to. That is, you begin to tease out from our history a mode of conversation.  I would never dare to write anything about China, about its intellectual history and its political history, in a manner that will bring it into the bosom of Asia as it is. How did it conceptually happen for you?

PM I think a fortuitous entry into the history of modern China was provided to me by Tagore, simply by his going there in 1924 and his various dialogues with some of the most prominent Chinese intellectuals of that time. He started a conversation that even today is very easy for an outsider to understand; what Tagore was saying to someone like Liang Qichao and how Liang Qichao was deeply influenced by Tagore. Then there is the written history of the deep interactions between Chinese and Indian writers and intellectuals through the 19th century into the early 20th century. And then when you start to understand a little bit about China's modern political history, or even its history of the last 300-400 years, one realises that one is not just looking at China but a larger world in which China was central for a very long time - the Confucian world where the Chinese state conducted an inter-state relationship that was unlike anything that ever existed in Europe or America. These were relationships based on tributes, on cultural exchanges, not upon the sort of trade links or nation state expansions that we saw in the modern era. This was a completely different paradigm and a different sense of cosmos, with [elements of] Confucianism at its heart. Confucianism doesn't stay the same over the centuries, it is continuously being defined and interpreted, but it presented a world view that a lot of the Chinese modern intellectuals were shaped by. These are all people who had grown up in the old education system and then encountered "the west". These were the counterparts of the al-Afghanis and the Mohammad Abduhs who had also grown up, been trained and educated in pre-modern institutions and had then grown to think about "the west" and think about the position of their respective countries in a world dominated by "the west".

HD Let's talk more about Tagore, because he seems to be the hinge - conceptually, emotively and imaginatively [for From The Ruins Of Empire]. Tagore also came to Iran, and we have a narrative of his encounter with the leading Iranian poet of the constitutional period, [Abolqassem] Aref Qazvini. He knew what he was doing - he travelled to China and to Iran, he met with the leading intellectuals and conversed with them. Tell me about Tagore.

PM He's a fascinating figure in the sense that if you look at the present moment, what you describe as moving beyond post-colonialism, he was aware of that trap.

HD As early as when?

PM As early as the 1900s. He predicted that post-colonialism would be simply a mirror image of colonialism and he spent rest of his life basically warning Asian countries against that. And Japan served as the perfect example of that, in the sense that here was a country that wanted to catch up with "the west" as its primary interlocutor, and ended up being an imperialist country, ruining much of Asia and causing great human suffering across the continent before being firebombed and nuclear bombed into submission in 1945. So in the first half of the 20th century, which he witnessed, he could see that this whole notion of setting up nation states on the "western" model, these ideologies of communism or Islamism or any kind of fundamentalism, was going to be deeply disastrous. So in that sense, he's an extraordinarily prescient figure.

HD The political significance of Gandhi in colonial history and the post-colonial formation of nation states is so great that in a way Tagore recedes behind him. Gandhi as an idea, as an episteme, was far more politically potent for that particular post-colonial period. What is the current status of Tagore in India? 

PM Like Gandhi, he is revered. But I don't think his critique of nationalism is, which is very pertinent to where India is today. I don't think that is much heard of or amplified. He is very much in that sense a marginal figure, one of the great figures of India who did not quite fit the national mood or the trajectory at this time. But I think he remains an incredibly important figure. And funnily enough, the way in which I was introduced to Tagore was slightly roundabout because I wrote a book about the Buddha. And in the course of reading about the Buddha and reading around this figure and his ideas and philosophies, that's where I encountered Tagore. 

HD Had Tagore written about the Buddha? 

PM He had here and there, not systematically. But he had obviously absorbed... this particular tradition, as you start looking, at the tradition that begins with the Buddha, and maybe there were people preceding the Buddha we don't know about in which someone like [the 3rd century BCE Indian emperor] Ashoka features. Again, we are talking early about cosmopolitanism. Here is a man, an empire builder, who gives up his empire, gives up conquest, who embraces a form of social welfarism centuries before the European welfare state comes into being. Someone like Mughal emperor Jalal-ud-Din Muhammad Akbar, nominally a Muslim emperor and yet incredibly syncretic. Someone who knew he was presiding over a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious reality. These are examples of suppressed histories that we don't really talk about much or that don't form part of the dominant narrative. 

HD Let's talk a little bit about the question of knowledge and power… My fascination with someone like José Marti or Américo Castro is that we become conscious of this type of worldliness from within which we can think, act, etc. But nevertheless, the question of power remains. Marx's notion that the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class is still pervasive. Do you sense in our contemporary world - whether it is globalisation, post-globalisation, etc - that your kind of knowledge production can become part of the public space in which we talk? How can these kinds of consciousness become integral to our public sphere? 

PM I think one of the things that may be helping it is the state of political chaos in our societies, which is accompanied by a great deal of intellectual confusion. The old paradigm of "the west" having reached the summit of human achievement - modernity - with everyone else catching up, lies exploded due to various crises not just within "the west" but also the sheer scale of environmental crises that are about to overwhelm large parts of India and China who have elected to follow that particular path of development and globalisation. 

HD Let me ask you a question about language. You and I both write most of our work in English. Are we occupying English or has English occupied us? 

PM It's a question that constantly makes me uncomfortable. But when using English, you have certain advantages of addressing a very large audience and then, of course, the possibility that one might move from English into various other languages far more quickly than if you were writing in Farsi or Bengali. But I think that larger question about knowledge and power is still very important, because the vocabulary with which we operate now, whether it's politicians or editorial writers, hasn't changed. We are still stuck with all the paradigms of thinking there, and I think it will be a struggle to create a space in which notions and ideas of cosmopolitan worldliness or these suppressed histories become visible. But I don't think of it as a lonely struggle. 

HD The question of language does not make me uncomfortable. My concern is with the mode of knowledge production. How does the counter knowledge production that we are engaged in become part of the broader public discourse, so that it does not become an intellectual exercise in futility? Whether such a work is in English or Bengali is irrelevant, so far as it has a global context and a global resonance. Do you see that happening? 

PM Yes, very much so. I think in the last couple of years the Arab Spring has opened up a huge space in which everything is up for reinterpretation again. Just think about how many ideas and concepts have been devastated. You have written about this at great length. Such geopolitical events open up a space for the production of this kind of knowledge and, indeed, for the favourable reception of it. 

HD The phrase that I use in praising your book, "liberation geography", is the title of one of my chapters in the Arab Spring. It is a rethinking of geography that is liberating. Suddenly, the notion that "this is the centre and that is the periphery", which I have always thought was flawed, [is shown up to be exactly that] - there are as many beneficiaries of capitalism in India, Africa, Latin America as there are those disenfranchised by the presumed "centre". And I feel your sense is correct. Something is happening in terms of our imaginative geography. The inherited patterns are no longer satisfactory, thus your rediscovery of Tagore is a rediscovery of Tagore for now in this particular context. What is fascinating is that you are saying in effect that intellectuals such as Tagore were thinking along these lines before this trajectory began to unfold and produce itself. Do you see what is happening in the Arab Spring as a vindication of your thoughts?

PM Very much so. I think that whole journey of the post-colonial world, where we evolved a particular response to the challenge of "the west" by embracing pan-Arabism, socialism, etc. All those ideologies lie discredited and I think a real gap has opened up where we need to re-theorise certain ways of being which were defined fairly clearly by someone like Tagore, like Liang Qichao. There are many people who I didn't have much opportunity to talk about at length but who had known that this would be the particular impasse that we would be facing at a particular time in history because our cultures, our societies, were not suited to the model of the nation state or the western models of economic development. The tragedy is that we've had to go through so much violence and bloodshed to arrive at that moment. But I think that by not electing or throwing up a strong leader, and by having so many different centres of political dissent, the Arab Spring is avoiding a lot of the mistakes made by the second generation of anti-colonial agitators.

HD What do you think about Europe? The publication of your book also coincides with a bizarre period in European history. There is civil unrest from Greece to Spain, including student unrest in the UK, austerity measures, the Eurozone is imploding. If Greece wants to have a referendum on austerity measures, Angela Merkel can override their democratic will. How do you hope your book will be received in Europe?

PM I think there will probably be quite a lot of hostility because this is also a crisis that makes people who have invested a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy in the status quo very defensive. A book that suggests histories that transcend their self-flattering, self-congratulatory narrative of European exceptionalism can be seen as very threatening.

HD I agree. There is no doubt that people such as Bernard Lewis and Niall Ferguson feel threatened, but what about the facts on the ground - namely, that there are these extraordinary civil unrests from students in the UK, labour unions in Greece, Indignados in Spain. Something is happening on the ground, not just at the ideological level. Suddenly you have a place called Tahrir Square everywhere from Wisconsin to London. These movements are pre-ideological; they are not yielding to ideology.

PM I think Europe has been, to use a much abused phrase, provincialised, in that the old centre is now receiving inspiration from Tahrir Square, and grassroots movements in Madrid or Athens are deriving inspiration from what happened in the Arab Spring. This is a new reality altogether. Europe in the last 50 or 60 years has experimented with this rather grand idea of the European Union and created many more myths about the idea of Europe at the seat of democracy and reason. A lot of those also lie shattered. We see increasing instances of Islamophobia across the continent, we see a renewed rhetoric of national values, European values - a kind of cultural nationalism. I think they also add to this sense of crisis and the fact that, again, we need to redefine Europe, again we are at a moment of flux.

HD In that moment of flux, do you consider yourself in exile or a European?

PM Ah. I've never thought of myself as a European. It's hard for me to do that, partly because I spent a very small portion of my life here. But I have been educated by aspects of the European tradition, and part of what I have been very interested in doing is to find congenial traditions not just in, say, Indonesia or Iran or China but also in Europe's own history. In that sense I can think of myself as a European, thanks to the writers and intellectuals and philosophers that I feel very close to and that I have read all my life.

HD In that sense I also consider myself an American and a European. I am very much influenced by their ideas and I never thought Weber, Marx or Dickens were alien to me. The other part of it is the question of alienation. That is, I don't consider myself, living in New York, as an exile or as part of a diaspora. It is my home.

PM Don't you think that exile as an idea has been romanticised. I'd feel embarrassed to call myself an exile.

HD Exactly. Palestinians in refugee camps are in exile. I am not in exile. But Eurocentric historiography has run aground; it is not producing knowledge any more. So in a way your book comes out of that cul-de-sac; thus the implications of your book for Europe. It is not just something to be read in Iran or Egypt or China.

PM A couple of people who have read it here, outside of publishing offices, have given me a very encouraging response in the sense that they felt they saw the world in a different light altogether. Very few books, they said, had done that.

HD It also resonates. Not only in Europe, but with works like V.Y. Mudimbe's The Invention of Africa. There is an intellectual trajectory in which the book can be located. But in a historical, geographical context that shifts our geographical imagination in an unprecedented way. If we were to consider your book, as I do, as the beginning of a new conceptual framework of thinking about not only Asian history but history in general, what sort of subsequent studies would you would want to see coming out of it?

PM I would like to write in a more focused way about the history of Asia in the 20th century and to describe the particular ideologies and trajectories of different post-colonial nation states to bring it all together, because that's a period I rushed through [in From the Ruins of Empire].

HD Would you focus again on major intellectual figures or around events or movements?

PM I would probably focus on personalities, maybe a leader here or a thinker there. I keep coming across these characters, such as Syed Hussein Alatas, an utterly fascinating man, and I think how wonderful it would be to write about someone like him, who is known only to a few social scientists but who conveys the whole history of a multi-ethnic society in the last century. To describe the inner light of those societies. And I think that is the direction in which I would hope myself to move. I sense that in academia there is now a growing space for cosmopolitan histories. But the problem is that most of those histories are still confined to academia and only read by people in academia.

HD Well, in your book you really begin to conceptualise it. As I said the debate is not on the model of Timothy Brennan's critique of cosmopolitanism, which doesn't recognise the heritage of cosmopolitanism worldliness. Yours is not a reflection, not a reduction of European history, not even a reaction to European history.

PM For instance, someone like Zhang Taiyan, a Chinese philosopher I mention briefly in my book but who I am fascinated by, who used Buddhism as an intellectual resource to construct a very fascinating critique of modernity, of modern political institutions. That is the kind of work that I would like to read, where modernity is being criticised not in terms available within that whole paradigm of knowledge but from outside it.

HD That reminds me of another fascinating aspect of your work. When you talk about Buddhism or Confucianism, we begin to rethink Islam in light of Buddhism and Confucianism and, as a result, a period of history emerges in which Islam is integral to the public space but not definitive of it. So the religious-secular binary distorts the situation - it is part of the public conversation but is not definitive of it.

PM Essentially it is these binaries that we want to shatter, which have defined so much of our knowledge of the world, so much of our self-knowledge. §

From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra is out now on Penguin.

  • From the Ruins of Empire – Pankaj Mishra