By OOI KEE BENG
Editorial for Penang Monthly, July 2014.
A CLEAR CONNECTION seems to exist between an economy’s health, on the one hand, and that society’s handling of religious and ethnic minorities, on the other. In fact, I would venture that one can best identify a society in crisis by studying the xenophobic tendencies in its majority group.
We see this as much in European countries today as in Asian ones, following drops in living standards and cultural optimism. Yet, the lesson to be learned from history is that any economy, at its most expansive period, depends on, and encourages, pluralism and mobility. Ethnocentrism, in turn, is an expression of a shrinking economy.
The resourceful Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror (1432-1481), a self-assured man of 21 years old when he entered the gates of Constantinople, rebuilt the economy of the great city that he seized in 1453 by welcoming peoples of diverse faiths and ethnicities. On that and later conquests the Ottoman grew to challenge all other empires and kingdoms for centuries.
The Caliphate of Cordoba (929-1031) on the Iberian Peninsula prospered greatly through its openness in religious and cultural matters. Inter-faith relations were cordial, and in fact, Jewish stonemasons helped to build the Great Mosque of Cordoba. That city was for a time the intellectual centre for the region, and it was there that ancient Greek texts were translated into various languages, helping to reintroduce ancient learning back to Europe and igniting the European Renaissance in Italian city-states in later centuries. Cordoba’s library was one of the largest in the world, housing more than 400,000 volumes. Under the Caliphate, substantive advances in science, history, geography, philosophy and language were made.
But a movement that started out in the Atlas Mountains across the Mediterranean soon came to control Moorish Iberia. The Almohad Caliphate (1121-1269) stemmed from the religious fervour of Ibn Tumart and his movement, al-Muwahhidun (Almohad), meaning “those who affirm the unity of God”. These Unitarians kept strictly to their doctrines and opposed plurality and laxity in religion. But in 1212, a decisive defeat at the hands of a Christian army precipitated the unravelling of Muslim control over Spain, and over the following decades, the great Moorish cities of Cordoba and Seville were lost to the Europeans.
Another interesting example of how xenophobia replaced tolerance to great detriment comes from the other side of the world. After 400 years of disunity following the fall of the Han Dynasty (206-220), the Sui (581-618) and the Tang (618-907) managed to unify the empire. The Tang boasted a cosmopolitanism that stunned the world with its effective urbanity and cultural prowess. Drawing on the pluralism and innovations of the previous centuries, its many achievements even provided the basis for much of what became Japanese culture. The growing global prominence of Islam at this time saw Muslim armies moving into East Asia, by land and sea. Be that as it may, Muslim armies were often allies of the Tang, be it against rebels or separatists. At the Tang capital Xi’an, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the world at the time, the Great Mosque was erected alongside temples, synagogues and other buildings for worship.
However, in its later period, Tang society began to turn xenophobic, after suffering rebellions, military defeats and natural disasters. It lost confidence and purpose. Massacres of foreigners soon took place, most notably in Guangzhou in 878-879 when 120,000 were killed by rebels.
Indeed, xenophobia is better understood as a socioeconomic phenomenon, rather than as an ideological one.