Is the Islamic resurgence spreading to the whole of Asia?
In terms of the combination of Islam and modernization, Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia, is particularly noticeable. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic nation, and Muslims comprise a bare majority of the population. There has been a strong movement for an Islamic identity, considering with the country’s phase of economic development. One point to note is that the Islamic resurgence in Malaysia has not pitted the establishment against the forces arguing for change: the establishment has worked for the Islamic revival. Malaysia has set the year 2020 as the target date for the country to achieve developed nation status, making Malaysia a very interesting country indeed. If it succeeds in its aim, it will become a leader in the sphere of Islamic economic development.
The dynamism of the Islamic resurgence seems to be reaching Southeast Asia. In its initial periods Islam was essentially an Arab religion, but as Islamic civilization developed a wider variety of ethnic groups played an active part in the growth of Islam. Cultural centers developed in many parts of the world-cities such as Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad are in the Arab world, but other important centers such as Istanbul, Isfahan, and Delhi are not. However, Southeast Asia was not a center of Islamic civilization in the same way as the cities I have mentioned, as it was relatively late in joining the Islamic world. If Kuala Lumpur becomes a center for a model of Islamic development, it will mean a new addition to the list of older established cultural locations. Also, if Southeast Asia becomes a center for the Islamic world on a par with the Middle East, the world’s center of gravity could move towards the east. Islamic civilization has always continued to reform by gaining fresh energy in different eras from varying centers of activity, and from different ethnic groups. There is nothing unusual about the vitality of Islam in Asia, it represents the possibility of development in the future.
How do you think that Japan should interact with the Islamic world in the future?
The Middle Eastern countries of the Islamic world are very pro-Japanese. Japan is seen as a country that has achieved modernization while maintaining a non-Western style, which has contributed to this. Also, Japan has not been involved in the colonial history of Western Europe that affected Palestine and other Arab regions, and therefore there are no historical impediments to the building of good Japanese-Islamic ties in the 21st century. However, Japan’s support for the war in Iraq did seem to many people to be somewhat strange. It may have appeared inconsistent with the expectations people held of Japan. It is a difficult situation, and new initiatives are required to build good future relations. So far, the relationship between Japan and the Islamic world has been relatively weak, with the exception being in economic affairs. From now on, however, both sides will need to make more of a commitment to each other. There will be a need for an explanation, and understanding of, Japan’s standpoint on such issues as the nuclear threat from North Korea and energy security. Japan should formulate ways to strengthen friendship with the Islamic world, and promote mutural interests. In this way, good relations can be based on realistic understanding.
Since 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, some people have seen a threat emanating from the Islamic world, and this has contributed towards the idea that international society may be experiencing a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam. What contribution can Japan make to the present situation?
I disagree with the idea that there is a clash of civilizations. Japanese people see civilization as intrinsically good. Good cannot clash with good, and there can be no clash between civilizations. This thinking has evolved because Japan constructed its own civilization by choosing to adopt beneficial aspects of other civilizations. I call this a “civilizational fusion.” If you think of other civilizations as being covered with a hard shell, Japan’s civilization has a soft shell and it is malleable and adaptable. Japanese civilization is a bit like a transformer. Japan eagerly assimilated other civilizations into its own, but these were changed as they entered the country-the result was a very different civilization to what had originally entered. For example, Japan learned much from Western civilization, but the Western civilization that Japan absorbed and made its own is now different from anything that may be found in the Western world. Japan has continued this process of absorption and change for over 2,000 years, resulting in a rich accumulation of acquired culture and civilization. This stock of culture and civilization is something that should be put to use. Western civilization has its own self-image, as well as an image of Islamic civilization. The same is true of Islamic civilization. Problems are produced when these images cause bias and misperception towards the other. However, Japan as a third party is in a position to introduce new perceptions that have not been properly appreciated in the image that each civilization holds of the other, and thus dissolve the hard shells each may have. Japan could bring about a recognition of Islamic civilization as a civilization with a long tradition and enormous potential to enrich the entire human civilization; I believe the implications of this are huge.
– INTERVIEW BY HISASHI KONDO
YASUSHI KOSUGI is a respected scholar of Islam. He studied at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies, and graduated from Al-Azhar University in Egypt. He was a visiting scholar at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University, and is currently Professor of the Study of the Islamic World at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.