HONOLULU — With all due respect to his office, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia got it wrong when he suggested in Tokyo in mid-December that the Japanese help Americans and Europeans to understand Islam.
More important, the prime minister missed the point of what Japan really could do for Islam: Japan could be a constructive model for turbulent, poorly-governed and poverty-ridden Islamic nations to emulate in modernizing their politics, economies, and social orders.
After delivering the keynote address to a symposium on Islam at the United Nations University, Mahathir responded to a question by saying: “I think Japan has a very good role to play. What we expect of Japan is balance. You have no quarrels against the Arabs, you have no quarrels against the Jews, you have no quarrels against anybody.”
The problem with the prime minister’s suggestion is that the Japanese know even less about Islam than the Americans or the Europeans, save for a handful of scholars, diplomats, business executives and the relatively few Japanese who are practicing Muslims. The Japanese would thus have little standing if they sought to persuade the West about Islam.
On the other hand, Japan would have much to offer Malaysia and other nations in the Islamic world that stretches from Indonesia in Southeast Asia to Morocco fronting on the Atlantic Ocean. The initiative, however, would have to come from within those nations just as it did in Japan after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
Like many Muslim leaders, Mahathir blamed the West for oppressing Islam and preventing Muslim nations from experiencing prosperity and benevolent government. “Antagonism toward the Muslims and their countries continued” even after the end of colonialism, he contended. “The Christian Crusade against Islam has never really ceased.”
Yet some Muslims have asserted that Islamic leaders themselves have failed to foster progress despite the wealth that many Muslim nations have acquired by selling oil. In particular, a U.N. report on Arab human development written by Muslim scholars last July found the lack of good governance a primary reason that Muslims lag in modernizing.
The report, which by implication addressed issues in all Muslim nations, not just the Arabs, cited three glaring deficits in the Islamic world: freedom, empowerment of women, and knowledge. In freedom, which included political processes and civil liberties, Arab nations had the lowest score in the world’s seven regions.
Further, the researchers found that “one in every two Arab women can neither read nor write.” A senior U.N. official, Rima Khalaf Hunaidi, herself an Arab, asserted: “Development that is not engendered is endangered.”
In knowledge, the report found that, beyond large-scale illiteracy, Muslim investment in research and development is less than one-seventh of the world average. Access to the Internet and information technology is the lowest in the world.
It is in overcoming these deficiencies that Islamic learning from Japan could prove useful. When the Japanese decided to modernize to fend off and then catch up with the West, they looked to the West for education, industry, technology, political thought, banking and other financial institutions and just about everything else — except religion.
In the ruling oligarchy that led the way were rip-roaring disagreements, with some favoring, for instance, the American educational system while others argued for a German system as a form with Japanese traditional values as the substance. The German system won out in this case.
A striking phenomenon was the absence of foreign capital. Japan floated only two loans abroad. The sweat of the Japanese labor force built the nation’s economy. Japanese, though, scoured the world for technical assistance. Western advisers were hired, but once Japanese technicians had acquired the needed skills, the Westerners were thanked, paid off and sent away.
Perhaps most significant for Muslims, the Japanese modernized by taking things from the West, swallowing some, “Japanizing” much and rejecting what didn’t fit. Japan became a modern nation without losing its cultural soul.
While in Tokyo, Mahathir told the Japanese that Asians “need to work together and they need leadership.” He said: “Asians are looking east at Japan. Yes, we can learn from your mistakes but we would rather learn from your success.”
Perhaps Mahathir, who is known to favor imaginative projects, could establish in Kuala Lumpur an Islamic center for the study of Japanese modernization.
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