You know the story. Prince Hamlet grieves the untimely and mysterious death of his father and resents Claudius, his uncle, for marrying his mother and taking over the kingdom of Denmark with dictatorial glee. But then one day, Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his father who names Claudius as his killer and demands vengeance. Beset by indecision, torn by grief, and vexed by his troubled relationships with his mother, Gertrude, and potential girlfriend, Ophelia, Hamlet eventually hatches an elaborate plan to expose and punish Claudius. In this most archetypal of Shakespeare’s tragedies, all hell breaks loose. People die spectacularly bloody deaths to end a morality tale about deception, betrayal and the abuse of power.
Surely the moral and aesthetic appeal of this story is universal – transcending time, place and culture. At least that’s what the Oxford-trained American anthropologist Laura Bohannan decided to demonstrate during her fieldwork among the Tiv in Nigeria in the mid-twentieth century. During a lull in her research, Bohannan began to despair as the Tiv villagers held daily booze-soaked storytelling sessions while waiting for the swamp waters to subside before resuming with their farming. On their part, the villagers could not understand why Bohannan did not join in and preferred to pore over her notes and academic tomes. The elders soon challenged her to do some storytelling of her own, which prompted a lightbulb moment – why not share the story of Hamlet? Surely these villagers, with their proud oral traditions, would be dazzled by this most celebrated of stories by England’s most beloved playwright of all time?
Every story hinges on a problem or a challenge that the protagonist has to overcome. So wouldn’t the death of Hamlet’s father and the marriage of his dastardly uncle to his mother be enough to produce a crackerjack plot? Not for the Tiv elders. They applauded Claudius. ‘In our country also,’ they said, ‘the younger brother marries the elder brother’s widow and becomes the father of his children. Now, if your uncle, who married your widowed mother, is your father’s full brother, then he will be a real father to you.’ So for them it was a good thing that Claudius took charge of the country and married Gertrude! Just like that, the central moral conflict in Hamlet was turned on its head and became a straightforward virtue.
Bohannan was stunned and things continued going downhill. The Tiv quibbled about almost every element of the story. They were especially stumped by ‘ghost’ as a concept. Surely Bohannan meant that what Hamlet saw was an omen sent by a witch? No, Bohannan explained, it was a ghost – ‘someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him’.
The Tiv objected. ‘One can touch zombies.’
Bohannan tried again. ‘A “ghost” is the dead man’s shadow.’
Again the Tiv objected. ‘Dead man cast no shadows.’
‘They do in my country,’ Bohannan snapped. Despite their incredulous smirks the Tiv villagers begged Bohannan to continue.
At the end of the session, the villagers said they had thoroughly enjoyed Hamlet but gently reminded Bohannan of the ‘errors’ she made in telling it. They invited her to tell more stories but they would ‘instruct’ her in their ‘true meaning’ so that she could impart her newly found wisdom to her own elders when she returned home.
This anecdote is taken from Bohannan’s much-anthologised short article, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’. On one level, it is a cautionary tale about how meanings can get lost in translation and how our perceptions and expectations are shaped by our different perspectives. But it also questions the assumptions that some people make about universality – ‘Surely Shakespeare transcends all boundaries?’ – and how these assumptions come to exist in the first place. It is a delightful reversal – it is the Tiv villagers who relentlessly challenge Bohannan’s cherished beliefs about a major work by a white, male, English playwright from the sixteenth century. Personally, it’s also a bit of a revenge fantasy in response to every privileged, white – yes, I’ll go there now – Westerner who has ever told me that the Qur’an (or Islamic art or anything else perceived as ‘Islamic’ and therefore ‘non-Western’) is boring, incoherent or irrational compared to the Bible, Shakespeare or, I don’t know, Michelangelo. But I’ll come back to that later.
At this point, it is worth noting that 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. There have been numerous celebrations of his lasting contributions to the English language and literature, ‘Western culture’ and, indeed, the world. Do you know what kept Nelson Mandela going throughout those horrible years of incarceration on Robben Island? The Collected Works of William Shakespeare. Mandela – Nobel Peace laureate, son of a Xhosa chief and anti-apartheid hero, whose mother tongue was not even English. That sort of thing.
Shakespeare is interesting like that. Apart from being feted as a literary legend, he is celebrated for his enduring influence on Western culture and world civilisation. He is big in China, India, the Arab World and Latin America, with his plays adapted to address local audiences and circumstances. In many Arab countries, for example, Othello has morphed into an analysis of Orientalism or a tragedy about gender violence. When this happens, though, can we say that these works exert their influence because of Shakespeare’s status as a Western genius, or have they been transformed into something else? When Hamlet is played as a Che Guevara-type revolutionary in an Arabic adaptation, is this still Shakespeare as we know him or is it Shakespeare gone post-West?
In essence, post-West is an idea which suggests that something has been reconfigured. But exactly what that ‘something’ is must be investigated further to conclude satisfactorily that it has indeed been reconfigured or perhaps undermined.
This is not the first time the word ‘post’ has been attached to a concept to contend that a paradigm shift of sorts has occurred. There’s the ‘postcolonial’ – the idea that the world as we know it still grapples with the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. ‘Postmodernism’, initially describing trends within twentieth century Western architecture and visual art, refers to the broader intellectual movements that critique taken-for-granted wisdom in various disciplines, including philosophy, history, linguistics and literature. It suggests that ‘grand narratives’, which provide meaning and sense of direction, are dead. Now there’s even the notion of the ‘post-secular’ – the proposition that the decline of religion has been reversed, or that religion was never on its way out in the first place.
Each of these concepts has its strengths as well as its own problems. Postcolonial criticisms can veer into simplistic and dangerous ‘blame the West’ arguments which play into the hands of former colonies with their own home-grown, post-independence authoritarian governments, from Zimbabwe to the Caribbean. Postmodern theories have been criticised for being circular, jargon heavy and disconnected from the real world. In the subtitle of his masterly deconstruction Postmodernism and the Other, Ziauddin Sardar described it as ‘the new imperialism of western culture’. Post-secular perspectives about the resurgence of religion (or that religion never receded to begin with) can often overstate the case – can we really claim that the West is already ‘post-secular’? And often, concepts such as these contain unexamined assumptions about the parent ideas they are meant to depart from. What exactly is ‘secular’ or ‘modern’?
This does not mean that these concepts are useless. If they are fuzzy, then they force us to reckon with this fuzziness and to investigate if or how the picture can be made clearer. Yes, intellectual sloppiness produces sloppy concepts but intellectual rigour can result in sharper analyses that helpfully explain underexplored or hitherto confusing aspects of life. So exploratory or inchoate concepts such as ‘post-West’ – along with the ‘postcolonial’, ‘postmodern’ and ‘post-secular’ – can be what the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once referred to as bon à penser, or ‘good to think with’.
But who on Earth decided which parts of our spherical planet could and would be designated as the ‘West’? Deciding on North and South is pretty straightforward, but for a planet revolving around a north-south axis surely notions of west and east can only be relative? Yet something called the ‘West’ does exist in our imaginations and it is not merely a geographical area – it is understood as a civilisation with its own self-understanding and superior outlook, distinguishable from the non-Western world. How did this idea of the ‘West’ come to take on these meanings in the first place? This complex question is deftly tackled in Jasper M. Trautsch’s essay, ‘The Concept of the “West”’.
Trautsch clarifies that contemporary notions of the West actually contain two distinct conceptual origins. The first was the concept of the ‘Occident’, referring to a ‘cultural community’ in Western and Central Europe, which was developed at the turn of the sixteenth century and ‘found its imaginary Other in the (Muslim) “Orient”’. ‘Western civilisation’, however, emerged as a concept only in the nineteenth century to divide the European continent into two political groupings – the liberal ‘West’ and the autocratic ‘East’. It was only in the twentieth century that both concepts merged to inform the idea of the ‘West’ as a political bloc of liberal democracies and a cultural community with a shared historical and religious identity.
As Trautsch demonstrates, concepts that seem stable and eternal can be inconsistent and deeply contested. It is worth being reminded that in the early days, the United States of America was also considered Occidental Europe’s Other (albeit to its west, with Russia being its eastern Other). The positioning of the US as a paragon of the West is thus a relatively recent phenomenon. And Germany, anchor of the European Union, was once considered to be neither here nor there in terms of its Western credentials. In fact, the First World War was portrayed in France and Britain as an epic battle between ‘Western civilisation’ and ‘German barbarism’.
If the idea of the West contains these significant ambiguities and inconsistencies, then what of the ‘East’? In her essay, ‘Where is the East?’, Amrita Ghosh argues that Benjamin Disraeli’s famous uttering, ‘the East is a career’, ‘still becomes the best possible answer to analyse’ the term’s ‘discursive multiplicity’. For the British, the East properly came into existence beginning with the exploits of the East India Company and soon encompassed faraway China and Japan. With imperial expansion, however, came confusion. As Ghosh points out, India was sometimes lumped together geographically with Ethiopia, which was variously placed in Africa or Asia. Britain’s growing influence in the Indian subcontinent also elevated the geopolitical importance of the journey eastward, hence the invention of the ‘Middle East’. In 1948, the United Nations defined the Middle East to be spread across three continents – Africa, Asia and Europe – and including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Greece. Yet, as recently as 2004, the administration of George W. Bush adopted the term to refer to the region extending from Morocco to Pakistan – talk about an expanding midsection!
Beyond the spatial, the concept ‘East’ is laden with other paradoxes. Like the concept of the ‘West’, it defines an imagined topography through particular values, aesthetics and ways of being. The East was invariably portrayed in the West as exotic, mystical and primitive. The quality of exoticism could range from the benevolent in reference to China and Japan to backward in reference to India and violent and irrational in reference to the Middle East. And in colonialist or imperialist portrayals, rarely was the East ever cast as the West’s equal in politics, culture or economic advancement.
How the West came to dominate the East is well described by Roger van Zwanenberg. In his essay, ‘The Struggle for World Power’, van Zwanenberg narrates the story of Western imperialism with a focus on monopolistic European trading companies. From this perspective, the rise of the West and its domination over the East was driven primarily by economics and gradually became embroiled with military and political interests. These tangible aspects of colonialism were ‘bolstered by the idea that Western man had a superior civilisation and was part of a superior race – non-European peoples of “colour” were considered inferior’.
In van Zwanenberg’s Marxist analysis, the peoples who were colonised fought bitterly against Western domination but it was always an uphill battle. They were up against a system propped up by a monumental slave trade and rapid technological advancements. European colonialism sowed the seeds of its own destruction, however, by exacerbating nationalist intra-European tensions which led to the First and Second World Wars. And this, van Zwanenberg argues, is what led to the US eventually bursting onto the scene as the new global-cum-imperial power. Far from being a beacon of freedom and democracy, he contends, the US continues to manipulate international trade and exploit the world’s resources to prop up Western domination. In response to those who might argue that advancements in digital communication will nurture more democratic alternatives, van Zwanenberg contends that monopoly companies actually control vast information networks so that they can bypass national governments and public scrutiny. ‘Then and now,’ he insists, ‘monopoly power posed and continues to pose a major threat to people’s aspirations for a truly representative and participatory democracy.’
Small wonder, then, as Gordon Blaine Steffey argues ‘an obituary of the West is untimely and as deliriously naïve as prophecy’. In ‘PostWest Anxieties’, Steffey argues that the post-West, ‘like the West wherein it first draws breath’, is a bit of a shapeshifter. It changes before your very eyes the moment you think you’ve grasped what it looks like. Like the West, the post-West is a bit of a mythical creature, too – ‘there is no object to which it must or could correspond’. How the picture of the post-West takes shape depends very much on how different people see the West – as ‘lost, transformed, overcome, dispensable, usable, or redeemable in its projection’. Visions of the post-West can thus be apocalyptic. They can signal decay and destruction, becoming a warning of how the West is presently digging its own grave – for example in being too relaxed about immigration. Or post-West visions can be utopian, of a world imbued with wisdom originally inspired in and by the West. As circular or paradoxical as this might sound, in both sets of visions the post-West is a Western construct. It emerges out of the same ‘sociopolitical paradigm’ that succours dominant conceptions of the West. For Steffey, the way to overcome global power imbalances is not by celebrating the coming of the so-called post-West, but through mutual learning and listening between the West and its Others.
However, this kind of mutual learning and listening is easier said than done. Especially if one discovers that one is a bit of a shapeshifter, too. When I was seven, I said something that amused the mother of one of my classmates. It was after the last bell had rung, and all the boys were waiting for their parents or school buses to pick them up and go home. I was chattering away to my friend in Penang Hokkien, a local variant of the Hokkien Chinese dialect spoken in northwest Malaysia. My friend’s mother was confused that I, a Malay-looking boy, was speaking to her son in fluent-but-strange Hokkien. She did not know that I am mixed race, and that members of my extended family speak Punjabi, Tamil, Malay, and various dialects of Chinese, including Hokkien, Hakka and Mandarin. So, in Hokkien she asked a typically Malaysian question, ‘What are you, exactly?’ I had to think about it and eventually answered, in Hokkien as well, ‘I’m English.’ (The Hokkien expression I used, ‘ang moh’, is an epithet which actually means ‘red hair’ and generally refers to white Europeans.) When my mother arrived, the two mothers started talking and both ended up bursting into tears of laughter about my quip.
In hindsight, this category confusion was perfectly understandable. My extended family is multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual, but my own immediate family primarily speaks English. My parents perpetuated this confusion when they referred to American television shows like Little House on the Prairie and The Incredible Hulk as ‘English programmes’. But this was also understandable since they were using language to distinguish the various programmes on television – we also watched ‘Malay’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Hindustani’ and ‘Tamil’ shows sometimes. These technicalities – which were undoubtedly linked to the legacies of British colonialism – profoundly shaped my self-perception. The Malaysian education system shook me up, though – I was soon forced to accept that I was not ‘English’ and it also became impossible to claim multiple ethnic backgrounds. I was officially Malay and that was that. And at that stage in my life this felt a bit disappointing, to be honest. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Dr David Bruce Banner were not Malay. The kids in my favourite Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl stories were not Malay. And Shakespeare was definitely not Malay.
In fact, I was so entranced by Anglocentric Euro-American literature, music and television that it took ages to even realise that there were hardly any racial Others – and certainly no Muslims – in these cultural universes I wanted to belong to. The more I became aware of this, the more it seemed to lend credence to the anti-Western rhetoric espoused by some of my Islamic Studies instructors in school. Still, as a kid who had Abba, the Famous Five and Mary Poppins hardwired into his subconscious, I could not be fully convinced that white people were bad. Instead, life became a struggle between my Muslim, ‘Malay’ and ‘Western’ selves. East was East and West was West – never could the twain meet. It did not get any easier when I went to university in Australia, where the virulent anti-Semitism, anti-Western rhetoric, misogyny and homophobia I encountered in the Muslim prayer room was matched only by the Islamophobia and racism outside. I felt torn and even at war with myself at times. Discovering Ziauddin Sardar’s Introducing Muhammad was therefore a bit of a lifeline – it showed me that there was another way to think about Islam, science and Western civilisation. It also made me even more incensed with all the bigots – anti-Western and anti-Muslim – I’d ever encountered in my life for withholding this information from me.
In this way, the concept of ‘post-West’ is bon à penser on multiple levels, not least the level of personal experience and identity. My experiences are the product of the meeting of the so-called East and West and yet they are also constantly threatened by the collision between the two. Perhaps the political scientist Samuel Huntington was right up to a point in that civilisations can and do clash – but only if we want them to. They can also enrich each other if we let them. Sadly, this mutual enrichment remains unrealised and even appears impossible in so many national environments now, especially with countries that are meant to step in as new post-Western superpowers.
We need only consider Russia, likened in Julia Sveshnikova’s essay to ‘a vulgar, clumsy bear that everybody wants to avoid’. Even that description might be too kind. In the EU and the US, the mass media largely portray its president Vladimir Putin as a kind of over-the-top Bond villain. And it’s not hard to see why – Putin’s leadership has coincided with the increasing harassment of human rights activists and independent journalists and the suspicious deaths of political opponents, alongside the annexation of Crimea and military incursions into Eastern Ukraine and Syria. Sveshnikova argues, however, that whilst Putin and his allies might claim to be standing up to the West and resisting US domination, their words and deeds are symptomatic of an existential-like insecurity on a national level. She contends that ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian leaders have tried unsuccessfully to forge a viable, positive national identity. This political failure has laid the ground for the emergence of an aggressive Slavophile nationalism which thrives on sticking it to the West.
To develop more nuanced insights, Sveshnikova looks at the complicated and contradictory ways that Islam has formed part of Russian identity from the pre-Soviet era to the present. The picture is somewhat surprising – the kind of manipulation and surveillance that Islam is subjected to under the guise of counterterrorism in Russia is not comparable to what happens in the US and Western Europe. Although Muslims form a minority, Islam has been part of the Russian national landscape from pre-modern times. In the first millennium A.D., Vladimir Sviatoslavovich the Great, the ruler of Kievan Rus’, allegedly almost made Islam the official religion but ditched the idea because the religion forbade the consumption of alcohol. In 2003, Putin even declared Russia ‘an Islamic country’ and in 2005 it joined the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), albeit with observer status. That would simply not happen in the US or any EU member state (which technically still includes Britain but not for long). In relation to this, Russian intervention in the Middle East does not actually unite Russia’s Muslims in opposition to Putin – the range of their political attitudes seems to reflect that of the wider population. But while there are possibilities for the emergence of a positive, multi-layered Russian identity, this is constantly stunted by the state’s disastrous economic mismanagement, internal political repression and international sabre rattling.
China seems to be far more adept at balancing these different elements in its quest for power, albeit precariously, as argued by Jalal Afhim in his essay. As Afhim puts it, China’s ‘no enemies’ policy might not result in a post-West but it is certainly reshaping the world. For instance, China is reaching out to its neighbours with promises of economic aid without political interference and supports an independent Palestinian state. This contrasts markedly with the political conditions that form part of many US aid schemes and the US’s steadfast pro-Israel stance in the Middle East. Yet alongside this promising global picture, there are serious concerns about China’s internal management of human rights, democracy and the status of minorities, especially in Xinjiang and Tibet.
As with Sveshnikova, Afhim focuses on China’s management of its Muslim population to analyse its evolving geopolitical position, especially in light of a potential rebalancing of relationships between the Middle East, the US and China. China’s domestic policies appear alarmingly anti-Muslim, particularly towards its restive Uyghur population, yet its national landscape – like Russia’s – has been shaped by the presence of Islam for more than a millennium. Afhim observes that throughout the eight years he lived there, he did not once see ‘a single film, television programme, or advertisement which featured a Chinese Muslim character’. Ignorance about Islam is also widespread. At the same time, it is hard to accuse the Chinese authorities of singling out Muslims since the Communist republic is officially secular, after all. Afhim suggests instead that Han-Uyghur tensions are driven by a strong desire by the Uyghur to defend their cultural and political autonomy, which happens to include the right to practise Islam. Other Muslim groups such as the Hui have succumbed to greater degrees of acculturation and are therefore not seen by state authorities as a problem. Nevertheless, Afhim cautions that there are younger Hui who are ambivalent, feeling that they can neither fulfil the aspirations of older Hui nor fully belong in mainstream Chinese society. The problem with rebellious young Uyghur is more serious, with increasing numbers reported to be joining armed militias like Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. So the future of China as a post-Western superpower depends significantly upon how it solves its internal Muslim puzzle.
China and Russia are not the only challengers to the prevailing world order. They form only half of the BRIC label – one of the more popular acronyms coined to describe the rise of non-traditional powers. Yet the BRIC label is flawed – Russia and China technically are established powers. They have both been permanent UN Security Council members with veto power since 1945. They are both nuclear powers as recognised under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. If there was a post-West race of sorts, China and Russia would already have a head start compared to Brazil and India. So we now need to pay attention to how Brazil and India can try to shift the balance of global power.
Brazil’s shining moment could have been the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but this was overshadowed by a protracted and bitter political crisis in the wake of President Dilma Roussef’s impeachment. In a year that should have bolstered national pride, the political stability and democratic consolidation of the decades following military rule unravelled dramatically. This was not the same Brazil of 2009, which proudly greeted the announcement that the 2016 Games would be awarded to Rio. Back then, President Luiz Inacio ‘Lula’ da Silva proclaimed, ‘now we are going to show the world we can be a great country.’ In hindsight, that pronouncement was pure hubris – the country’s colossal political crisis has been accompanied by a massive corruption scandal and a deep recession.
What about India, then? India, as Shiv Visvanathan argues in his lyrical essay, is on the verge of being thwarted by ‘sheer mediocrity’. In a letter written from the future, Visvanathan reflects on what could happen to India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been voted out of power circa 2020. Post-premiership Modi, in this scenario, did try to convert India into a superpower while he was in government but only managed to raise it to secondariness. He pumped money and resources into science and technology but ignored the importance of the humanities and social sciences. He eschewed opportunities for India to become a pioneer in the fight against climate change. He erased India’s intrinsic Muslim heritage by demonising Pakistan, distorting Islam and further marginalising India’s Muslim minority while promoting an aggressive Hindutva identity. He chose to resent Nepal’s transition from Hindu kingdom to democracy instead of leveraging upon it to forge more cooperative relations with the wider South Asian region. Visvanathan’s is as much a post-West as it is a post-Modi narrative – a cautionary tale for an India that is missing opportunity after opportunity to change its destiny.
To be fair, post-independence India’s founding leaders also grappled with questions of national identity and global positioning. Jawaharlal Nehru had his own dilemmas about whether he belonged to the East or to the West, an ambivalence expressed politically in his founding and leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement. Yet at the beginning of the twenty-first century, leaders such as former Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh of the Bharatiya Janata Party described the history of India’s ambivalent foreign relations with the US as ‘fifty wasted years’. It almost appears that for India to rise above secondariness, it will first have to shake off second guesses, premature regret and political sectarianism. As sketched by Visvanathan, India’s predicament could well be captured by the beginning of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:
To be or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them.
It seems one BRIC country, China, provides even a tentative possibility for a post-West alternative. Does this mean that the West – with all the problems that the term contains – is here to stay? Only if it does not self-destruct, is one way to answer the question. The year 2016 has already seen multiple shockwaves reverberating throughout the US and the EU – the string of terror attacks by supporters or sympathisers of the so-called Islamic State in Paris, Nice, Brussels and other European cities; the biggest mass shooting in US history at Pulse, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender club in Orlando by another IS sympathiser; the murder of the British Labour Parliamentarian Jo Cox by a man with Far Right sympathies; the British referendum vote to leave the EU; growing anger about police violence against African American men and the backlash against the fatal shooting of three police officers in Baton Rouge; and the confirmation of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate – a man who wants to see his political rival Hilary Clinton sorted by his gun-toting followers, ban Muslim immigration and build a wall to stop the alleged flow of Mexican ‘illegal immigrants’. Taken cumulatively, maybe these are signs that the West is going to hell in a handbasket after all. And that’s only a partial list.
So is the West, as Jim Dator claims, dead? Not hitting a plateau, not in decline, but dead already. By this, Dator does not mean that China or India or some other superpower or civilisation has replaced the West. China wants nothing but to become ‘America on steroids’ and India has been struck by the ‘lethal combination of two fundamentalisms: neoliberal economics and nationalistic Hinduism’. The BRIC countries and other transnational configurations are dead, too. It’s all kaput because of what Dator calls the ‘Unholy Trinity’: ‘1) the end of cheap and abundant energy; 2) the swift rise of environmental challenges beyond any hope of prevention; and 3) the grotesquely unfair and unsustainable global neoliberal economic system’. But for Dator, all this is a sign of hope, not despair. ‘What a wonderful opportunity for creativity and hope lies before us!’ he writes. ‘The need for true, cooperative, and radical creativity has never been greater.’ It is up to us to stop whinging and to construct ‘the new normality’, otherwise our futures will be colonised yet again as they have been before. This is certainly one way to look at things. At its best, it is a liberating, empowering vision, but there is also a risk that it could be read as over-ambitious prophecy. What Dator actually wants is to motivate us to work towards a post-West world of peace, inclusiveness, justice and wisdom; and thus usher viable and prosperous futures for all.
However, we ought to take the narratives of decline and fall with a healthy dose of scepticism, as Boyd Tonkin argues. There is definitely something going on in the world now, Tonkin suggests, but different people interpret that something differently, depending on their perspective. It’s a bit like Bohannan and the Tiv squabbling about Hamlet. So, as Tonkin points out, we now have books about why China already rules the world and why it will not, and about why the West still rules and why it soon will not. With all these narratives of rise and fall or civilisational growth and decay, Tonkin encourages us to ask, ‘whose “West”, and whose “East”?’ For we must always remember that ‘West’ and ‘East’ are historical, cultural and political constructs and that their meanings continue to be constructed by different people for different ideological ends. And it is imperative to distinguish between the constructions that are acts of the powerful and constructions by the powerless who are speaking truth to power.
Perhaps ‘post-West’ can be a starting point for new avenues of self-reflection, as explored by Andrew Brown in his essay, ‘Is liberal democracy a religion of peace?’ Brown deconstructs the idea of liberal democracy – so often trumpeted as a Western achievement and ideal – and traces its partially religious roots, specifically within Christianity and Islam. While contemporary ideals of liberal democracy emerged from secularised understandings of human dignity in religions like Christianity and Islam, they are still implemented inconsistently, partially, and sometimes even violently by self-professed liberal democratic states. More importantly, Brown points out that the impulse by Western powers to spread liberal democracy throughout the world shares uncomfortable similarities with the civilising mission of European colonialism in a previous era. Back then, as with now, ‘the spread of peace and order – and their later maintenance – become a process that is itself neither orderly nor peaceable’. For proof, we need look no further than the moral justifications by US and British leaders for military intervention in Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing, horrific consequences for the invaders and the invaded.
For Brown, this does not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater – liberal democracy remains a sound ideal and the impulse to reform society for the better is not something to be dismissed. Brown gives the example of slavery – it is always wrong and it is right to resist it. Yet resistance to slavery has also seen its own internal contradictions and violent tendencies. This does not diminish the higher ideals of opposition to slavery. Brown argues that perhaps what happens is that the ‘expansion of sympathy’ has the paradoxical effect of ‘narrowing our tolerance’. We expect the people whom we accept into our moral universe to keep within its acceptable boundaries of conduct. Welcome can therefore turn into intolerance towards those who flout or seek to destroy our moral rules – this can manifest itself in anti-Western jihad in some contexts or in politicised counter-terrorism measures specifically targeting so-called jihadism in others.
So post-West as a concept remains speculative and it obscures as much as it explains. However, it is not the concept itself but its slipperiness that can open our minds to new ways of thinking. Scepticism about ‘post-West’ should therefore also entail scepticism about what is the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ in the first place. The essays in this issue of Critical Muslim tackle these questions from geo-political, epistemological, philosophical and personal perspectives. Implicitly or explicitly, they caution against any kind of smugness or self-satisfaction when we do inevitably slip into talking about the West, the East or the post-West. And implicitly or explicitly, they acknowledge that global politics, economics and cultural expressions are currently dominated by something called the ‘West’. But they engage with ‘post-West’ as an idea to address these concerns afresh.
It is reminiscent of the way Bohannan was forced to look at Hamlet anew after engaging with the Tiv elders. In that instance, it did not mean that the Tiv ended up with the upper hand – Bohannan’s telling of Hamlet occurred within a particular social setting with its own power dynamics, after all. The people who challenged her were mostly the village elders and villagers who knew that they were intervening in the presence of their leaders. Might Bohannan have encountered different responses, for example, if she had related the story in confidence only to the younger Tiv men and women? Perhaps they would still be puzzled about several plot points, but might they have identified more closely with Hamlet’s youthful rebellion? And might the elders have reacted differently if they were told the story by a white man? What if they were told it by an African American man who had never set foot in Nigeria before? These questions indicate that there is much to interrogate about big assumptions and grand narratives – e.g. ‘Shakespeare is universal’ or ‘the West is best/awful/still powerful/in decline’ – from the perspective of people’s lived experiences.
Finally, it’s okay to admire Shakespeare without forsaking a multi-layered critique of the world order. As the poet Robert Graves once said, ‘the remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.’