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Mahbubani: Asians Puzzle Over U.S. Fundamentalism

History and culture have helped the region push religion out of the public sphere, so it can surge toward modernity.

By Kishore Mahbubani

Newsweek International

Nov. 13, 2006 issue – Most Asians are unaware that Christian evangelical movements have gained enormous political power in America. And if they were to learn this, they would be mystified. Their images of America remain the old ones: scenes of Hollywood and sexual permissiveness, secularism, money worship and devotion to modern science and technology. None of these squares with an America under the sway of fundamentalist or evangelical Christianity.

Asian intellectuals would be especially mystified. They have fully absorbed the Western narrative that

modernization should be the fundamental goal of contemporary societies. Deng Xiaoping chose his words carefully when he launched his economic reforms—dubbed the Four Modernizations—in 1977. “It does not matter whether a cat is white or black,” Deng said famously. “If it catches mice, it is a good cat.” With modernization was meant to come a pragmatic and secular state that focused on economic and social development. Both China and India—each in its own way—decided that they needed to shed their ideological straitjackets and work pragmatically to lift up their societies.

The big lesson that Asians thought they’d learned from the West was that reason and faith should be kept in separate boxes. Many Asians believed that religion and superstition had held their countries back while the West leaped ahead, even if few would have been as outspoken as Kemal Ataturk when he said: “The fez sat upon our heads as a sign of ignorance, fanaticism, obstacle to progress and attaining a contemporary level of civilization. It is necessary to … adopt in its place the hat, the headgear used by the whole civilized world.”

As East Asians moved decisively toward secularism, they were helped by the cultural fabric of their societies. Neither Confucianism nor Taoism inspires deep religiosity. The Confucian culture is attached to the world of today, not tomorrow. By contrast, West Asians (despite Ataturk’s lead) have found it harder to emulate the West. Islam penetrates more deeply into the souls of its adherents. In recent centuries, many of its followers have moved away from the spirit of skeptical inquiry that inspired the scientific revolution (even though the Islamic caliphates nurtured this spirit). Hence, the spread of fundamentalist movements in the Islamic world is not surprising.

For different reasons, China and India today have a vested interest in restricting the political space for religious movements. The sudden emergence of the Falun Gong surprised the Communist Party of China. It reminded its leaders of the Taiping rebellion—a civil war (1851-1864) inspired by fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It also provided an early warning that the biggest threat to the Communist Party’s political control and legitimacy could come from a religious movement.

Beijing is thus naturally wary of U.S. evangelicals, some of whom have been at the forefront of urging Congress to act against China. In 2005, after the West learned about the China National Offshore Oil Co.’s plan to raise $10 billion from Wall Street, much of it for oil investment in Sudan, articles blossomed in evangelical publications about the threat posed by this massive infusion of capital. Letters went out to large investors, and sympathetic political leaders blasted the stock offering as “blood money” that would aid Sudan’s attempt to eradicate the population of Darfur. As a consequence, the Chinese company could raise only $3 billion of its goal—a demonstration of the power of American evangelical movements.

India faces a different challenge. Traditionally, religion has occupied a larger part of the Indian soul than of the Chinese. Indeed, India is a veritable spiritual rain forest. The early Indian modernizers therefore saw the removal of religious superstition as critical for India’s development. Nehru said: “The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation and the preservation of vested interests.”

Gandhi shared the Western view that the church and state should be kept separate. He said: “Religion is a personal matter which should have no place in politics.” He even went further and told a missionary: “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it.”

India has also seen a revival of fundamentalist Hindu movements. But they are balanced by deep traditions of religious tolerance, going back millennia. Indeed, India may have planted the seeds of secularism even before the West. As Amartya Sen argues in “The Argumen-tative Indian,” “It is worth recalling that in Akbar’s pronouncements of four hundred years ago on the need for religious neutrality on the part of the state, we can identify the foundations of a non-denominational, secular state which was yet to be born in India, or for that matter anywhere else.”

With China, India and other non-Islamic Asian societies moving deeper into secularism, future historians will be puzzled why two contrasting societal poles—America and the Islamic world—have allowed religious movements to influence their political and even scientific agendas. U.S. evangelicals have launched a passionate campaign against stem-cell research and persuaded the Bush administration to oppose it. Over time, many Asians will begin wondering whether America is still moving toward modernity.

By contrast, Asian businesses today are passionately committed to scientific research. According to the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Asian share of global high-tech exports rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2001, while the U.S. share declined from 31 percent to 18 percent. The late Nobel laureate Richard Smalley predicted that by 2010, 90 percent of all scientists and engineers holding Ph.D.s would be living in Asia. Could this be partly because Asian schoolchildren have no difficulty learning Darwin’s theory of evolution, while American educators battle over whether creationism should also be taught in American classrooms?

It would be a mistake to assume that religion is a spent force in Asia. In addition to growing Christian evangelism, there are strong revivals of Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim movements. Last year, when I attended the commissioning ceremony of my son as a second lieutenant in the Singaporean Army, I was astonished to find the occasion blessed by clergy from 10 faiths: Bahai, Buddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Taoist and Zoroastrian. In virtually no other country would one see such religious diversity. But this diversity is managed by keeping religion out of the political space, not inside. Perhaps it’s time for America to study Asia’s best practices.

Mahbubani is the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and author of “Can Asians Think?”

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