CONFUCIANISM, ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY
By Abbas Zaidi
Recently Malaysia and Singapore saw significant academic activities devoted to Confucianism. The University of Malaya in Petaling, Jaya sponsored a seminar called "Islam and Confucianism: A Civilisational Dialogue." More than a thousand academics, intellectuals and students from Malaysia and abroad participated. The purpose of the seminar was a better understanding of "Islamic and Confucian civilisations."
At the seminar's end it was unanimously declared that the participants had learnt a great deal about the fundamentals of each other's religions [sic]. According to one luminary, "Such a dialogue will help check some of the myths and stereotypes that colour the relationship between the two communities". Another observed, "...[T]he dialogue brought together successfully two ancient and important civilisations, Islamic and Confucian, in a meaningful dialogue bereft of any animosity or religious chauvinism." Unanimous agreement was reached that Islam and Confucianism are both compatible and complementary and help to keep the Chinese (the Confucian community) and the Malays (the Islamic community) in harmony.
The second event took place in Singapore, where a Harvard Professor of Chinese History and Philosophy, Mr Tu Weiming, delivered the Wu Teh Yao Memorial Lecture. The thrust of Professor Weiming's talk was a rejection of the idea that human rights are a fundamentally Western concern. Confucianism, he said, has made a fundamental contribution to the concept of human rights. He added that the dominant intellectual discourse today draws on the ideals and achievements of the European Enlightenment, whose main thrust was a drive to explore, to know, to conquer and to subdue; hence the reaction of socialism, feminism and environmentalism. The Professor went on to criticise the East Asian nations for exhibiting the Enlightenment's materialistic mentality: an ethic founded on growth, development and exploitation. But then, in virtually the same breath, he declared that the best system for realising Confucian values in the modern world is the modern democratic state. Said the Professor: "The highest Confucian values could be better realised in a really democratic society instead of a dictatorial or authoritarian system...."
The problem with the Malaysian seminar was that it focused on the significance and stabilising quality of a theoretical superstructure without giving due consideration to its social genesis. East Asia is the world's fastest growing region. But its growth is economic rather than spiritual/religious. This growth represents the march of capitalism, and in capitalism things begin and end in terms of economic prosperity. There is nothing wrong with prosperity as such, but experience has shown that in the capitalist social arrangement money eventually becomes the god and money-making the religion. In the wake of the post- welfare world of capitalism, religions like Christianity, Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism will be allowed to exist only as long as they operate as rituals within the parameters prescribed by capitalism and do not challange the capitalist scheme of things. Church, mosque and temple are fine as long as they offer harmless weekend therapy.
As long as East Asia remains prosperous, there is no possibility of conflict between the Islamic and the Confucian civilizations (though it is not clear whether the word "civilization" is apt in this context). Let-sleeping-dogs-lie is the word as long as peace based on economic prosperity prevails. Hence, whether the two "great religions of the East" have a "constructive dialogue" or not is really of peripheral importance. But once economic prosperity starts to ebb and poverty and unemployment increase, there will be a clash between groups of people who will espouse any slogan for their cause: religion, race, son of the soil.
Religious systems are a matter of convenience; they might provide diversion or "spiritual" relief in a tense, monotonous or ruthlessly competitive socio-economic capitalist arrangement, but they cannot be a substitute for the true faith of capitalism. History substantiates this. Malaysia's and Singapore's own experiences are especially relavent. The bloody "race riots" in the late 1960s occurred without refernce to whether or not Confucianism and Islam are compatible; they occurred because the two countries had become stuck in economic quagmires. The Chinese community believed that the Malay community was usurping its economic opportunies, and vice versa. Here Pakistan's experience is worth noting: that country is almost 100 percent Muslim, and there is only ideology (Islam) operating there. But Pakistan is the scene of one of the bloodiest clashes in recent world history, and all the fighting parties have been Muslim. The reasons: poverty and unemployment.
As long as Malaysia and Singapore continue to enjoy an economic boom, the social compact will appear to work. But once a downturn sets in, it could be a different situation. Malaysian and Singaporean leaders have recently been warning their peoples that their economic advancement must not falter or else the social fabric of their nations would be threatened. A Malaysian friend recently told me of a fear common amongst Malaysians that in the wake of an economic decline Malaysia might turn into another Bosnia.
Professor Weiming's also argument fails on intellectual grounds because, while he condemns the dominant Western discourse, he himself appears to be a part of that discourse. He operates on the supposition--intrinsic in the Western idea--that the West's concept of human rights is superior to any other. But the question is not whether or not the Professor's assertion is true. It is whether the present-day ethic of human rights is intrinsic to the Confucian system as well. The answer is no, it is not.
Human rights do not exist in vacuum. What we know today as human rights are based upon Western ideals of democracy. Those same Western values are themselves profoundly affected by and bound up with excessive individualism, aggressive profiteering and ruthless competitiveness. The Confucian system has nothing to do with any of those values. Similarly, "human rights" is a concept alien to Confucianism. You cannot find a single statement on human rights within the Confucian discourse. Confucianism does not plead for rights but for duties and responsibilities, and those purely on the personal level. The fundamental issue in Confucianism is personalistic: the Superior Man versus the Inferior Man. Confucius sharply contrasted the Superior Man--whose standard is moral principle--with the Inferior Man, whose standard is individual profit.
Capitalism, the prevailing ideology in the West, is exploitative; its goal is profit irrespective of the social costs or benefits. It is a system based on individual self- interest without recognizing any sense of duty to the community. The welfare state was just a temporary strategm in the face of Soviet socialist ideology. Now that socialism is a dead letter, the very idea of the welfare state has become anathema. The reason that non-governmental charitable organizations exist is because capitalism is not capable of creating such institutions. They come about as the result of individual efforts, and some of them (like Greenpeace) now end up being dubbed post-Soviet leftists.
But profit meets only those needs that can find expression in terms of money. What, where, when, how and for whom to produce are all determined by the profit motive alone, whether or not such activity proves detrimental to the welfare of the community as the whole. To say, therefore, as Professor Weiming has, that Confucian values can best be realised in such a democratic society instead of in an authoritarian one, simply makes no sense. Confucianism originated, grew, flourished and has been influential in the East, where democracy has been an alien idea. Confucianism is by its nature feudalistic. It is typically Eastern in being personalistic (as opposed to individualistic) and family- oriented. Confucius' ideal is a sage-king, not a democratic politician.
For Confucius a ruler is nothing if he is not ethical. In the Eastern culture (China being a prime example) an absolute ruler (called "dictator" in the West) will attain divine status if he is truly benign or visionary: Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran, Z.A. Bhutto of Pakistan, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Deng Xiaopeng of China are a few notable examples.
To maintain that only a democratic--i.e. a "Western" democratic--system is capable of sustaining true Confucianism not only discredits the history and achievements of the Confucian legacy to the East but is a transparent attempt to rob Confucianism of its very roots and make its validity dependent on a Western rational. A purely Western concept (however good it may be in its purpose) can not be the sole standard by which to judge an intrinsically Eastern ideology.
There is nothing wrong with trying to join two different ideas into a unified perspective. But it should be done honestly and realistically. Confucianism and Islam can indeed co-exist peacefully if the right environment obtains. But there is nothing about them that would inevitably make them natural bedfellows. As well, Confucianism and democracy can learn a great deal from each other, but they do not need each other to succeed.
(Abbas Zaidi edited THE RAVI (1985), Government College, Lahore, and INTERFACE (1991), University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, before working as Assistant Magazine Editor, THE NATION, Lahore, where he tried his hand on every journalistic genre. At present he is based in Brunei with Shazia ("who determines my heartbeat") and two kids. Zaidi believes that in life--as in history and eventuality--it is chance, and not planning, that makes a difference.)