Anti-Westernism in Question: An Interview with Cemil Aydin on Pan-Asianism, Pan-Islamism, and the Idea of the “Muslim World” in History

The centrality of anti-Westernism as a subject of global debate is underlined with every new terrorist attack on the West today. Both the attack on a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as well as attacks in France and Germany over the summer engendered many civilization-oriented questions in the minds of people, as also happened in the case of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor. At the same time, Islamophobia as a major problem in the Western world is continuously affecting the daily lives of people. Even reading a book written in Arabic on an airplane can cause an awkward situation due to constant paranoia about terrorist attacks, as more than one passenger has discovered.

Following the historical roots of the political impact of anti-Western sentiments, we come across “a clash of civilizations” discourse which argues that conflict between Islam and the West is a result of a conservative reaction and response of Muslims towards both Western modernity and imperialism. However, the argument that Islam is incompatible with the Western modernization process raises question marks about why major non-Muslim societies as India, Japan, and China, as well as some European and American intellectuals also came forward with harsh critiques of the Western civilizational mission.

Non-Muslim communities and other religions have historically been disenchanted with European colonization and its claims that the white race and Christianity were somehow superior. This disenchantment makes us question whether anti-Westernism is a derivative of anti-colonial critiques or whether it represents a distinctively religious reaction to modernity. Such wider analysis is crucial in order to understand why anti-Western ideas persist in current times.

Ottoman pan-Islamism and Japanese pan-Asianism play a vital role in deciphering the influence of anti-Western ideas on global history. Both Ottoman Turkey and Japan struggled with the ideas about Western “the standards of civilization” around the same time. Do the events and ideological currents in these two empires help us understand anti-Westernisms today?

Cemil Aydin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum
Cemil Aydin, our latest guest to the Global History Forum

Our most recent guest on the Global History Forum, Associate Professor Cemil Aydın (University of North Carolina), takes up this issue in his earlier book The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought (Columbia University Press, Global and International History Series, 2007). The book offers a global history perspective on the roots of modern anti-Western critiques with a comparative focus on the Ottoman and Japanese experience in order to understand the importance of pan-Islamism and pan-Asianism in international history.

Aydın argues that modern anti-Western discourse developed out of a crisis of a single Eurocentric global order in the late 19th century, and that it did not reflect a traditionalist rejection of modernity in non-European societies. He also emphasizes how Asian and Ottoman intellectuals and reformers played an important role in universalizing the Western-rooted model of modernity and subsequently transforming this idea into a tool to criticize the Western “civilizing mission.” Thus, Aydın’s book occupies an important place in the examination of the historical roots of anti-Western ideologies while illuminating the international history of non-Western perspective.

The Editor-at-Large of the Toynbee Prize Foundation, Fatma Aladağ (TPF), recently had the opportunity to interview Cemil Aydın (CA) to discuss his path to writing The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia, some of the arguments of his book, the contemporary impact of anti-Western discourses on the world agenda, and his intellectual plans for the near future.

TPF: Welcome to the Global History Forum Professor Aydin! 

CA: Thank you!

TPF: Could you tell us about where you were born and raised? Where did you do your undergraduate work?

CA: I grew up in Istanbul in the 1980s, and started my undergraduate education at Boğaziçi University in 1987. I was lucky to have a set of amazing professors at both the Political Science and International Relations department, my concentration, and at History department. Boğaziçi University’s curriculum allowed us to take classes from different departments, which was not the case in other Turkish universities at that time.

During the period from 1987 to 1991, Turkey was re-entering into a multi-party democracy after the 1980 military coup. There was a vibrant intellectual life in Istanbul, both at the university campuses and café houses. Eurocentrism was one of the debates, coinciding with Turkey’s official application for membership to European Union. At the same time, Turkey was connected to the politics in the Middle East and South Asia from the Iran-Iraq War to the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion. Thus, reading Edward Said’s Orientalism in that context was very powerful as I could try to interpret what Said was saying in light of the new Western media discourse on Arabs, Muslims and Islam. Even though I was not reading any race theory, there was a sense of linking Orientalism with the re-racialization of Muslims and Arabs in Western media. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War was in my senior year. More important for our generation was the genocide against Bosnian Muslims just at the end of the Cold War. The publication of Samuel Huntington’s article on the “Clash of Civilizations“ around the time of that genocide both coincided with my MA work at Istanbul University.

American F-15 fighter jets parked in the Arabian desert during Operation Desert Shield
American F-15 fighter jets parked in the Arabian desert during Operation Desert Shield

TPF: When did your interest in becoming a historian develop?

CA: After my undergraduate degree in 1991, I first went to Malaysia with a fellowship to do MA work in Islamic and Middle Eastern studies for a year. That was an amazing experience because, for my generation growing up in Turkey, Southeast Asia was not in our mental map. That was a good cultural shock for me, and I had a chance to travel in places like Thailand and Indonesia as well. This experience convinced me that my education was thoroughly Eurocentric and I need to expand my horizon towards other parts of the world. Upon my return to Istanbul, I did an MA in Ottoman intellectual history to try to understand how 19th century Ottoman intellectuals conceptualized the globalizing world and Europe and the West.

It was after this MA that I decided to start a Ph.D. in comparative global history, with a focus on Ottoman and Japanese intellectual history. When I started my Ph.D. at Harvard, I began to focus on both Japanese and Ottoman/Middle Eastern studies to try to think about the experiences of the Muslim Middle East and East Asia comparatively and in terms of their connections. This comparative study led to my first book on Pan-Asianism and Pan-Islamism.

TPF: How did the story of global history start in your academic life?

CA: I think I experienced a global turn in my research interests after my MA thesis on Ottoman intellectual history, in which I focused on 19th century Ottoman intellectuals dealing with the Eurocentric international order and their view of Enlightenment and modernity. I did realized that globalization actually coincided with some sorts of regionalization. As the world was globalizing, there were these pan-national identities and ideologies like pan-Islamism, pan-Asianism, and pan-Africanism, and I was trying to make sense of them. There is something paradoxical that as the Ottoman Empire tried to be inclusive by eliminating distinctions between Muslims, Christians and Jews, and it tried to be part of the European Empires, yet the Muslimness of the Ottoman Empire became more important. Eventually, around the World War I, the empire ended up being identified with the imagined Muslim World – at least in terms of global perceptions.

There was something similar about China and Japan as well. These empires were trying to strengthen themselves and modernize, but while this was happening, the question of East-West, Asia-West, white race-yellow race, Islam-West or Islam-Christianity was becoming more crucial. So, with that realization, I started to immerse in a comparative study of East Asia and the Muslim Middle East and that’s how I got into global history. In other words, my research included these three regions; first, Europe and the West; second, the Islamicate world and the Ottoman Empire; and third, East Asia, Japan and the “yellow race.” So, to think about these three traditional historical fields, in the context of the last two hundred years, required some sorts of global history training or approach. When I started my Ph.D. program I was in search for methodologies and ideas about transnational and global history.

TPF: You went to University of Tokyo as a part of your Ph.D. at Harvard. What motivated you to visit Japan?

CA: In my Ph.D. program, I initially did three years of course work and exams before I started my field research. My fields were Japanese History, Ottoman History and German History, as well as Arabic and Middle East. In that context, I was lucky that Professor Akira Iriye was teaching at Harvard at that time; he is a pioneer of global history. Moreover, my advisors Andrew Gordon and Cemal Kafadar were also interested in global history. And I was lucky to have a colleagues and friends like [Toynbee Prize Foundation President] Dominic Sachsenmaier, who was at Harvard as a visiting Ph.D. student and then later as a post-doctoral fellow.

As a result, I had the chance to write a project about both the Ottoman Empire and Japan. Eventually my Ph.D. ended up being mostly on Japan and pan-Asianism. I went to Japan and focused on how Japanese pan-Asianists looked upon the Islamic World, Muslim societies and India. I wrote more on Okawa Shumei, who as a leading pan-Asianist also became a founding figure in Japan’s Islamic Studies establishment. There was a great interest among Japanese pan-Asianists in the Middle East, Ottoman Turkey and India as well. And I was trying to understand why Japanese pan-Asianists were interested in both India and the imagined Muslim World, what they do with it, what kind of arguments they developed about it. As someone familiar with the debate surrounding Orientalism, I also wanted to understand how Japanese scholarship of Asia and the Middle East compared to European Oriental Studies.

TPF: Today, however, you work at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. What was your transition from the Turkish to American academic atmosphere like? 

CA: One important aspect of American history departments that I appreciated was its coverage of the global. Perhaps it was not like that fifty years ago. Fifty percent of a good history departments in universities like Harvard or North Carolina is still devoted to America and Europe. But the other fifty percent covers Latin America, Middle East, Asia and Africa. That is an impressive achievement of history departments as they developed in America in the last forty years. This interest in covering different parts of the world encourages and allows a new focus on world and global history. I later found out that some of my mentors in global history and generations before me, such as Ross Dunn, Terry Burke, John Voll and Richard Bulliet actually fought this battle of re-orienting American history education away from a singular focus on Western story toward global history and world history. This may have started in the 1980s, but it was already underway 1990s, and it is strongly visible in today’s history departments all over North America.

Professor Aydin's first book, "The Politics of Anti-Westernism: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought"
Professor Aydin’s first book, “The Politics of Anti-Westernism: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought”

TPF: What would you say about the main differences or similarities between Turkish academia and American academia?

CA: In a Turkish history department, unfortunately, we don’t expect to see a professor of African History, or scholar of China or India. I think this is a big problem. In many of the Turkish history departments, more than half of the professors would still be teaching just Ottoman and Turkish history; and I don’t understand why Turkish university student do not have a chance to learn about the rest of the world (except Europe)! However, that is not unique to Turkey as German, French, Italian, Iranian or Indian history departments may also have the same problem.

This all meant that it was a great advantage for me that in Harvard’s History Department, I could find professors, graduate students working on the different parts of the world and when they wanted to talk to each other – of course – global history emerges naturally in that framework. We used to complain that it is still the historians of Asia, Africa and the Middle East who are trying to talk to historians of Europe and the US, and there is less curiosity on the part of Europeanists or Americans to talk to us about the rest of the world, but this may be changing. At my current university, UNC-Chapel Hill, global history is now an institutional track of both undergraduate and graduate education.

TPF: Now, if we go back to your book that you wrote after your dissertation: How did a dissertation on Pan-Asianism turn into a comparative work of global history, and included Pan-Islamism?

CA: Initially, I wrote my dissertation on Japanese pan-Asianism. However, for the book project, I combined my research on Japan’s Pan-Asianism with Ottoman pan-Islamism in a global context. So, the book is dealing with one major puzzle about both the Japanese and the Ottoman Empires. Both were ruled by imperial elites whose main concern was to strengthen the empire, establish its sovereignty and legitimacy in the international arena, and to make it a part of a club of powerful European empires. From the perspective of these elites, the world would be an imperial world and both the Ottomans and Japanese would be part of it. In other words, imperialism did not seem something that should be opposed.

My puzzle was how race and racism became a question for the Japanese and the Ottoman elites. Istanbul and Tokyo were not necessarily anticolonial, and they could accept that Russia, Britain, France rule over Muslims and Asians as long as these European empires also allowed them to rule over their own subjects. So, I then realized that this imperial world in the late 19th and early 20th century has an irrational aspect and it was overcome by the logic and language of race and geopolitics.

Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909)
Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II (r. 1876-1909)

TPF: What do you mean by this?

CA: The Ottoman elite began to worry about the so-called “Eastern Question” and its impact on diplomacy and discourse. But the Eastern Question was also about racism against Muslims, which affected the rights and struggles of all the Muslims in the colonies of the Britain, Russia, Dutch, and French empires. At the same time, the way European empires categorized and talked about Muslims in India, Algeria or Central Asia began to closely affect the Ottoman Empire’s legitimacy and sovereignty. As a result, the issue of Muslim peril and Pan-Islamism became closely connected with how European elites and publics perceived the Ottoman Empire. I need to note that Muslimness became racial in the late 19th century. That is an interesting turning point of world history; the formation of an imperial world order in the second half of the 19th century produced and faced the challenge of racial and geopolitical perception of global humanity.

TPF: Could you explain more how “Muslimness” intersected with this rise in racial consciousness?

CA: Islam was not just a religious or faith tradition by 1890s and the early twentieth century. Being Muslim became very similar to being black, yellow or white. And the Ottoman Empire was worried about this, because it directly challenged its legitimacy to become an acceptable good empire ruling over Christian subjects. As the Muslims in Africa and Asia were seen as inferior in terms of a lack of civilization that required the Western “civilizing mission” or the “white man’s burden,” the Ottoman Empire was also seen as a bad empire, because it was ruled by a Muslim Sultan and Caliph. Abdul Hamid II, for example, became an “evil figure” in European imagination and the Ottoman Empire became what [William] Gladstone called “anti-human specimen of humanity.”

Before I get to the comparison, I also noticed that extraordinary new connections emerged between the Ottoman Empire and Muslims in Asia. The Ottoman Empire was an empire primarily in Europe first and then went to the Middle East – and it never ruled over India, Afghanistan, Indonesia or Malaysia. Around 1890s and 1900s, however, Muslims in India, Indonesia or Afghanistan began to see their destiny as connected to the destiny of Ottoman Empire. Indian Muslims closely followed all the developments in the Balkans, Bulgarian nationalism, Serbian rebellion, Ottoman-Russian War or even the war in Crete.

I was very surprised not only why these new connections emerged between the Ottoman Empire and Indian Muslims, but also how they did when they did. This was partly about the power of new transportation and communication technologies in the age of steamship, telegraph and printing. And yet, the racialization of Muslims had something to do the crisis of empires in general. And I see something very similar happening in Japan with regard to ideas of the “yellow race,” Asian civilization and Japan’s connection to the rest of Asia. So, even though Japanese elites – then allies of the British Empire –defeated China and treated Chinese like Europeans were treating China, Japan became a symbol of the Asian “yellow race” after Russo-Japanese War. Their victory became seen as a first victory of an Asian-Eastern race against the white Western race. In fact, that war in 1905 was a truly imperial war and Britain was an ally of the Japanese Empire. I was very surprised about why Indian or Turkish nationalists began to interpret that war as a racial conflict. So, my research turned into comparative study of Japan and Ottoman Empire dealing with this question of race and geopolitics.

TPF: What motivated you to write this book along the way?

CA: Before I finished my Ph.D., September 11 happened in America. It was my last year as a graduate student. I had a fellowship in a room at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard. And Samuel Huntington, the man who wrote about “Clash of Civilizations,” had an office in that center situated just across my office. I was very struck by people who were interpreting September 11 in terms of clash of civilizations, as clash between Islam and the United States’ Christianity. Suddenly, the debates I was hearing in the corridors of the Center for International Affairs and in the broader public seemed very similar to idea of clash of civilizations I was writing about in the context of Pan-Islamist and Pan-Asian thought from 1905 to the 1920s or 1945.

TPF: What kind of examples can you give about the “clash of civilizations” discourse?

CA: First, I should note that there were many other historical actors who talked about the “clash of civilizations” during the period from 1905 to the 1920s. And the good example is the Ottoman Empire’ declaration of Jihad against Russia, Britain, France and Dutch, but not against Italy, Austria-Hungry and Germany. Japanese empire also declared their own jihad on behalf of Asia and the yellow race against the whites in 1941 after Pearl Harbor. I was struck by why Japan and Ottoman Empire became so involved in question of clash of civilizations and clash between races. The Ottomans did it in World War I, the Japanese did it in World War II. Ottoman and Japanese elites regretted their holy war declarations after defeat, and tried to forget about it.

In short, the same people who declared jihad in 1914 actually established the Turkish Republic, then blamed Enver Pasha or a couple of extremists. Figures like Atatürk and İsmet İnönü, the founders of secular Republic, were military officers of the Ottoman Army who were fighting for jihad because they grew up with ideas of Pan-Islamism. The same thing is true for Japanese pan-Asianism. This was not a crazy idea advocated by ultra-nationalists. Pan-Asianism seemed like a realist geopolitical idea embraced by very Westernized Japanese elites during the 1930s. These elites also abandoned pan-Asianism after WWII, and then blamed some so called “extremists” for it at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. So, at the end of the book, I was trying to tell people that the Ottoman pan-Islamism and Japanese pan-Asianism actually were not anti-Western, and were part of a dominant geopolitical and racial ideas about the international order. But I was also trying to understand the long-term connections that existed from Enver Pasha and Tojo Hideki to Samuel Huntington or George Bush.

TPF: So, is not the title of the book—“The Politics of Anti-Westernism”—misleading?

CA: Yes, inside the book I argue that neither pan-Asianism nor pan-Islamism was truly anti-Western and anti-modern. In fact, the main intention of Ottoman and Japanese elites was to try to belong to the European Eurocentric imperial settings. They were perceived as anti-Western and anti-modern within Europe, but in terms of content, they were not. In this sense, imperial-era Pan-Islamism and Pan-Asianism were also very different than late Cold War Islamism or radicalism. Even though my earlier book covered history until 1945, I have been aware of the present concerns about explaining the re-emergence of Pan-Islamism or Islamism in the 1980s. Pan-Islamism gained a new meaning during the 1980s, coinciding with the rise of Iranian and Saudi-sponsored projects of pan-Islamism. Meanwhile, the racism against Muslims in Serbia and all over Europe that led to the genocide in Bosnia in the 1990s prompted a defensive mobilization of Muslim publics to help the Bosnian resistance.

There are, of course, long-term connection between Ottoman era Pan-Islamism of the 1890s to the Iranian-Saudi era Pan-Islamisms of the 1980s. And this connection continues in European racism against Muslims as well. I think we are still experiencing this irrational imagination that all the Muslims are united and they belong to an “Islamic world.” So, I was trying make sense of the present by looking at the past experiences of the Ottoman and Japanese Empires.

TPF: I also wonder about the methodological challenges you faced while writing this book! What kind of archives and sources did you use to compare history of these two empires? 

CA: Because I work mainly on intellectual history, there are so many journals and magazines and texts available in the libraries of Harvard, Istanbul and Tokyo. So, I read these texts and I tried to contextualize them. Part of my job was to detect the key ideas and concepts and see the evolution of these concepts and ideas. I also examined how these ideas are used by political elites.

While doing that, I did not just carry out a comparative study, but attempted to do a connected study. So, I focused on what Japanese Asianists said and wrote about the Ottomans and Muslims, and vice versa. What did the Muslims in the Middle East write about China and Japan? There, I think that inter-Asian connection are important and that is one of the ironies and paradoxes of late 19th and early 20th centuries. Even though we see this period as the period of Western hegemony, it also coincided with the peak of inter-Asian connections. There were more connections between Turkey, Iran, Egypt and China, or India, Japan in the 1890s than ever happened in history. The more Egyptians, Arabs, Persians or Turks were Westernizing, they were also writing more about India, China and Japan; similarly, more and more Japanese and Chinese began to think about Arabs, Muslims, and Turks as their fellow Asians after 1880s.

In sum, by examining who wrote these texts and what they did about their ideas, I had to contextualize the boom of inter-Asian intellectual and political connections from the 1880s to the 1940s. In addition, I also looked at the actuals encounters among different intellectuals and political leaders from Asia. They were equally important and increasing thanks to steamships, telegraphs, journalism. So in many cases, global history became a very useful methodology for me to make sense of these connections and going beyond the area studies of Middle East, Islam and East Asian field, because historical actors were more transnational and mobile than these areas studies assumed.

TPF: If we return back to the details of your book, we see that reformist intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire and Japan during the Tanzimat Period and Meiji Restoration Period desired to attain the same “universal modernization” as Europeans had. How did these elites reconcile their beliefs and traditions with this type of modernization, given European modernizers’ claims about the superiority of the white race and Christianity? How did these elites manage public opinion?

CA: How non-European intellectuals talked back against European claims of civilizational superiority was an important part of my research, although I wrote less about it. I focused more on geopolitics and race, but there are two very important things happening in the late nineteenth century in this context of inter imperial geopolitical conflicts, rivalries and alliances. One is a new intellectual construction of the idea of Islamic civilization or Asian civilization, and the second one is the new way of thinking about Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism as world religions. There are parallels and differences in the way how this happened in the context of the Muslim West Asia and non-Muslim East Asia.

Let me start with the differences; because East Asia was primarily racialized by skin color, via yellow race, skin color racism became easier to overcome in the long-term after World War II. Its irrationality can be more clearly seen today. However, racism against Muslims was not primarily based on skin color, although having a brown skin was an often used attribution for Muslims. To racialize a group of people through their religion, Islam, made anti-Muslim racism similar to anti-Semitism—Jews were also racialized through their religion.

Racialization based on their faith tradition had to be rejected by Muslim intellectuals, because, simply speaking, nobody wants to be inferior. So they responded and talked back by multiple arguments about Islam’s civility, and comparability to or even superiority over Christianity. They talked back against the European Orientalism, but also Muslims talked to each other. In that process, Muslim modernists created a new understanding of Islam as a civilized, universal religion that is better than the ideas about Christianity advocated by missionaries. So, there emerged a new conceptualization of Islam in relation to polemics against Christian missionaries as well as Orientalists.

An Islamic manuscript on opthamology. Discourses about the equal status of "Islamic civilization" vis-à-vis Western civilization prompted reimaginations of a "Golden Age" the grandeur of which the nineteenth-century Islamic world needed to recover, argues Aydin
An Islamic manuscript on opthamology. Discourses about the equal status of “Islamic civilization” vis-à-vis Western civilization prompted reimaginations of a “Golden Age” the grandeur of which the nineteenth-century Islamic world needed to recover, argues Aydin

TPF: Can you provide an example of how this worked in practice?

CA: Well, one of the most powerful books in the late 19th century, the Spirit of Islam, was written by an Indian Shia pan-Islamist, (pro-Ottoman but also pro-British intellectual) named Sayyid Amir Ali. Writing a book like that, and simplifying and represent the “spirit of Islam” for a Western audience, was completely new. Before late nineteenth century, Muslims did not talk on behalf of an essentialized and globalized Islam. Only in that context of imperial globalization and racialization that many Muslim intellectuals began to imagine that Islam was a united religion and compatible with progress, science and modernity. Islam was also supposed to be universal and capable of responding to Christian apologetics. So, pan-Islamism became the new way of thinking about Islam. A new notion of global Islamic civilization also linked story of Istanbul, Baghdad, Delhi and Andalus together to create a story of the Golden Age of Islam and its decline. These intellectuals such as Syed Ahmad Khan, Mohammad Abduh, Jamaluddin Afghani, Namık Kemal, Shakib Arslan, and Rashid Rida were extremely important for creating a new way of talking about Islam and Islamic civilization, and they had a long lasting effect that persists until today. Similar things happened for Buddhism and Hinduism in late 19th century.

TPF: We see the defense of the Ottoman Empire against the West. They sent bureaucrats to Orientalist congresses and reformed their military and administration to prove that the compatibility of Islam with modern civilization during the nineteenth century. However, European politicians and intellectuals insisted that the East could never be integrated into the “international system” because of racial, cultural, and geographical factors. They utilized a “civilizing mission” discourse to colonize non-Westerns countries. Can we not then say that the challenge of non-Western societies to Europeans was a reaction to the West’s own actions?

CA: Yes. European racial thinking was also weakening the imperial visions and legitimacy. Colonized societies like Indian Muslims wanted more dignity and equality and more rights within British Empire. In fact, in the earlier period, many of the Muslims were not necessarily against the Empire. For example, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, one of the leading Muslim intellectuals in India, wanted to reform the British Empire in India and Muslims at the same time to make them compatible.

Could the British Empire be more inclusive and allow Muslims, Hindus, Christians to have the same or similar rights? I think there is an amnesia about that racialized imperial moment in 1880s and 1890s when many colored people of the European empires above all wanted to reform their particular empire, not to abolish it or end it. After all, there were more Muslims and Hindus in the British Empire than Christians. So, for the Muslims under imperial rule, critiques of the Western empires associated with Pan-Islamism was a kind of challenge to imperial racial thinking and discrimination, but not necessarily anti-imperial.

Critiques of the European empires by Japanese and Ottoman imperial elites had differences from the critiques expressed by colonized subjects, because these were sovereign political entities and they had autonomy. Their discontent was about unequal treatment in international law and in international power politics. Even when a wealthy Ottoman and Japanese elite member traveled to Europe, they were also subjected to the same type of racial discourses and discrimination. The Ottoman Empire ruled over Greeks, Armenians, and other Christians, and anti-Ottoman Christian nationalism often demonized the Muslim dynasty that ruled over them, as barbarian infidels ruling over civilized Christians.

TPF: Yet at the same time, these “Muslim dynasties” were seen as potential protectors of Indian Muslims or Dutch or French Muslim subjects.

CA: Precisely. It is still fascinating that, in the early Abdul Hamid II period in late 1870s, there emerged a connection between the destiny of the Ottoman Empire and destiny of the colonized Muslims in India. This is a development that requires global political and intellectual history to make sense of it! In the 1840s and 1850s, there was no such connection. When, for example, Indian Muslims and Hindus rebelled against the British rule in 1857, the Ottoman Empire did not side with the rebellion. They supported their British allies.

Ottoman diplomats on the world stage – Ottoman Ambassador Yusuf Zuya Paşha in Washington, DC in 1913. In spite of such traditional diplomatic relations with Western powers, however, by the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was seen as a potential guardian of Muslims living in European colonial empires, argues Aydin.
Ottoman diplomats on the world stage – Ottoman Ambassador Yusuf Zuya Paşha in Washington, DC in 1913. In spite of such traditional diplomatic relations with Western powers, however, by the late nineteenth century the Ottoman Empire was seen as a potential guardian of Muslims living in European colonial empires, argues Aydin.

TPF: But Japan also had a strong relation with Britain, right?

CA: Yes, Although Japan always sided with Britain until the mid-1920s, what Tokyo should do vis-à-vis Asian and yellow race identity was an important debate for the Japanese public. Only in the late 1930s did the Japanese government pragmatically embrace pan-Asian ideas and discourses. However, before the 1930s, Japanese intellectuals and elites knew that their yellow race mattered in the way they were treated and perceived, or in the way they were discriminated, but they did not have to do something geopolitical and military against the West because of this. Japan’s revolt against the Eurocentric world order had more to do with their failures in the Manchurian incident than their belief in a “clash of civilizations,” but that belief in conflict among white race and colored races shaped their policies and propaganda in the context of Japan’s own imperial crisis in mid-1930s. In short, I don’t think that there is any natural rejection of modernity or Western culture in Pan-Asianism as well as in Pan-Islamism. These were not traditional responses to modernization or Western hegemony.

TPF: Since some Pan-Asianists or Pan-Islamists support continued connection with the West while others support breaking all links with Europeans, can we say there are different groups within Pan-Asianism and Pan-Islamism?

CA: There are, of course, different and competing varieties of both Pan-Islamism and Pan-Asianism. However, I want to note a historical rupture in this context. Because pan-Islamism after 1970s is associated with Islamism, conservatism or ultra-nationalism, we are mistaken attributing that kind of conservatism to early pan-Islamism. That’s very wrong! The early pan-Islamists were not traditionalists, or conservative. For example, they did not try to impose Sharia on all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Indian pan-Islamists also did not want Islamic law to be only law in whole British India and impose their values on Hindus. On the contrary, Pan-Islamism was very proud of Tanzimat reforms and Ottoman cosmopolitanism. There were no vision of a Cold War style Islamic state in early pan-Islamism as they were still imperial projects, and comfortable with existing empires.

So, in Turkey for example, there remains the assumption that pan-Islamism is an internationalism of only the Islamists, but there was no Islamists in the 1910s. The Second Constitutional Period Pan-Islamists were radically different than Islamism in the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt or Jemaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. It has no similarity with Hizb ut-Tahrir, Al-Qaeda or Taliban as there was no fundamentalism among Pan-Islamists in the early twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, one could be pan-Islamic and a cultural Westernizer or positivist at the same time. I think a great example would be Celal Nuri İleri, who wrote a book on “Ittihad-i Islam” (Muslim Unity) and he is known as pro-Westerners and almost Darwinist in Turkish intellectual history. Ahmed Rıza, who was a follower of August Comte, could advocate civilizational, geopolitical Muslim solidarity against European racism and imperialism. We need, in short, to distinguish Cold War Islamism from imperial-era pan-Islamism.

TPF: What are the relations between religion and Ottoman Pan-Islamism or Japanese Pan-Asianism? While Pan-Islamism focuses on the Muslim world, Pan-Asianism comprises diverse religions, especially Buddhism. What was the role of religion during this period?

CA: That’s a very important question! That may be explaining some of the unique and peculiar aspects of pan-Islamism. It is a geopolitical or racial thinking based on religious affiliation. In the case of Asianism, Asia is a continent and you can attribute Asia a civilization, but not a single religion. Within Asia, there are multiple religious traditions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and Muslims. If you have three levels of thinking on Asianism, you can think that geopolitics is pan-Asianism, civilization is an Asian civilization, race is yellow as well as the brown race but religion could be multiple.

For pan-Islamism, all of these were actually referring to Islam as a primary marker, so civilization is Islamic civilization, religion is Islam and geopolitics is the Muslim world. Overall, these three layers constituted the basis of Western racial thinking on Muslims in the imperial era, in the sense that Muslims were seen as members of a threatening Muslim world, belonging a completely different civilization and practicing an inferior religion. That means that the racial otherness and inferiority of a Muslim is confirmed on three levels as a civilization, as a geopolitical political affiliation and as a religion. That may be one of the reasons why pan-Islamism survived longer than Pan-Asianism and Pan-Africanism.

Pan-Islamism might be similar to pan-Buddhism, but pan-Buddhism was not the main framework for geopolitics. So, in terms of similarities between pan-Buddhism and pan-Islamism, one thing is clear; both Muslim and Buddhist intellectuals were empowered in the age of globalization. Both had a chance to connect, talk and formulate a response to missionary Christianity and Western thought on behalf of a Buddhist and Islamic tradition. For example Buddhist were different up to 1880s and 1890s, and different branches of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, China and Japan were not always in touch with each other. In 1880s and 1890s, Buddhists were traveling, talking each other and they were also reading and responding to European and American scholarship on Buddhism. As a result, in 1893 Buddhists appeared as this kind of united front in Chicago World’s Parliament of Religions defending Buddhism as a civilized, rational, global religion in relation to Christianity.

Something similar happened with Islam. We often mistakenly assume that Islam was always a monolithic, universal religion, but there were many different lineages, and traditions of diverse interpretations, but eventually in the 1880s and 1890s there was a shift in terms of perceiving Islam as a world religion. And that’s thanks to a global context of Muslims being empowered by connectivity but also under attack of imperial racism and Christian missionaries.

Prop opposed to the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Such derogatory depictions of Muslims have their roots in the racialization of Muslims in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, argues Cemil Aydin.
Prop opposed to the construction of an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan. Such derogatory depictions of Muslims have their roots in the racialization of Muslims in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, argues Cemil Aydin.

TPF: When we look at the present, how ought we to understand Pan-Islamism in the twenty-first century? How can we understand terrorist attacks and Islamophobia in the anti-Western context?

CA: After World War II, racism based on skin color fell out of fashion—not immediately, but gradually. One could say that Adolf Hitler gave racism a bad name by treating Europeans with racial thinking and also exposing all the destructive aspects of racism within the European continent. So, together with the idea of white supremacy, gradually the idea of racial distinctions became unfashionable in politics.

However, something unique happened about the idea of the Muslim world, because Muslimness was not seen as racism based on skin color. Europeans did not think that their prejudices against Muslims was racial. As a result, they assumed that they do not like Muslims because of the problems inherent in their religion. The other important aspect of it is that colonialism in the Middle East and Muslim societies never fully ended. There was long period of wars from 1948 to the late 1960s from the wars surrounding Palestine to the Algerian War of Independence, where the issue of Islam and the West were continued to be played it out. For example, when the French Empire was fighting against Algerian nationalism, French figures argued that they were fighting against pan-Islamism and defending Western civilization against Islamic fanaticism.

More importantly, in the context of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s war with Yemen, Saudi Arabia gradually revived earlier pan-Islamic networks against Nasser’s Pan-Arabism. It is very complex story, but that is part of my next book. King Faisal of Saudi Arabia emerged almost like an Abdul Hamid II of the Cold War. He made Mecca and Medina centers of pan-Islamic networking and he really wanted to defeat Nasser’s challenge to Saudi legitimacy, and created a global network of Muslim internationalism.

TPF: You mentioned the 1980s as a turning point, though, no?

CA: Only in the 1980s, after the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and after Egypt seemed to betraying the Palestinian cause at Camp David, and after the Iranian revolution, do we see pan-Islamism resurfacing in world politics, especially in the competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is in the 1980s that we see some vision of pan-Islamism re-emerging with newer ideas of Cold War era Islamist political projects. Anti-Western fundamentalist versions of Al-Qaeda or other are coming out of the crisis of the 1990s in the region. Today’s new delusional versions of Pan-Islamism, as seen in ISIS’ self-declared Caliphate, do not look anything like in the late Ottoman Empire or even Faisal’s 1970s Saudi version. If ISIS fundamentalists were to see the Ottoman Caliph Abdul Hamid II, they will probably declare him as infidel and try execute him, because, for example, Abdulhamid was listening to opera music and had no problem with Western culture. So, there is an ironic repetition of some of the slogans of pan-Islamism and Caliphate, but in terms of context, it is completely different. None of the pan-Islamists of 1890s to 1920s could recognize Al-Qaeda or ISIS even as familiar Muslims.

TPF: In that context, what do you think about Pan-Asianism?

CA: For pan-Asianism, we do not see that kind of a revival in the post-World War II period, although there were still ideas of Asian unity, civilization, and solidarity in the context of the Bandung Conference. We might see the Bandung Conference as a last gathering of ideas and figures from imperial-era Pan-Asianism or Pan-Islamism. After the Bandung Conference, some ideas and memories of Pan-Asianism still survived in terms of an identity discourse, but there is no significant geopolitical Pan-Asianism in today’s world.

TPF: We have come to the end of our conversation but I want to ask that what are your plans for the near future? What have you been working on, recently?

CA: I completed a rather long chapter on the 19th century political history of the world, which first came out in German last summer from Beck Publishers (Geschichte der Welt. Wege zur modernen Welt: 1750-1870, published with Beck & Harvard, 2016.) In this chapter, I argued that there is a re-regionalization of the world in the late 19th century and the globalization did not mean the end of the importance of the region.

In addition to that, I also completed a manuscripts on this question of idea of the Muslim world and why pan-Islamism persisted and survived up to today in different forms. (The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global History, Harvard University Press, Spring 2017, forthcoming). I was initially planning to actually write the story of pan-Islamism, pan-Asianism and pan-Africanism after WW2, but after I started my research, I frequently faced this question: Why was it that, among these three different non-European, anti-Western pan-nationalisms, only pan-Islamism seem to persist and even revived. Thus, I tried to explain why the idea of the Muslim world as a geopolitical concept persisted through decolonization up to today.

TPF: We are looking forward to read them! Also, what have you been reading recently?

CA: I like reading recently on international law, but I also try to read more on gender in world history. There was always a weakness in my previous scholarship about incorporating gender as a methodology and it is not simply history of women, but thinking about history in gendered terms. I want to read more theoretically in my future books and want to be more aware of that. I am married to a feminist scholar of Islam and get her suggestions for a reading list on gender and feminism.

We at the Toynbee Prize Foundation were very happy have the opportunity to read and discuss on Cemil Aydın’s The Politics of Anti-Westernism in Asia: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought, published by Columbia University Press, as well as his forthcoming The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global History. Aydın’s book illuminates us on how anti-Western and later Islamophobic discourses as global issue in our era that influence social order and political decisions taken in various countries can be associated with pan-Asianism and pan-Islamism of the past. We would like to thank Professor Aydın for his contributions to the Global History Forum and wish him the best of luck in his future projects.

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