East Asia’s ISIS problem

The ransom of the two Japanese hostages ISIS currently hold in custody in response to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s pledge of humanitarian aid to countries affected by the ongoing conflict in the Syria-Iraq region magnifies the escalating problem of radical Islamic fundamentalism, but more than that, it identifies the shared stake that modern nations have in stemming the tide of this dangerous philosophy.

Since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as a major force in global politics, the rhetoric launched by the various incarnations of the philosophy has been decidedly anti-Western in nature, with the United States and Israel as the primary targets and Europe as the secondary. The assumption has been that the liberal, progressive societies of the Western world placed themselves at fundamental odds with that of Sharia law in their toleration of unfettered expression and their willingness to grant large amounts of personal freedoms to their citizens, particularly in the case of women. This paradigm found geopolitical expression in the increasing entanglement that the Western world has accrued over the course of the past several decades, most notably with the formation and patronage for more than half a century of the state of Israel  and the military incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan by the United States over the past three decades.

However, this paradigm which pits Western liberalism against extreme Islamic fundamentalism on the basis of incompatible values and world view seems stretched to explain the increasing hostility between the Islamic world and what are considered the countries of East Asia. Indeed, China for much of its modern history since the founding of the People’s Republic of China had considered itself as a member of the band of countries at odds with Western values and had firmly set itself upon a course of development which resisted Western social influence whilst relying upon advanced technology and industrial practices to pursue a course of modernity which would put it on equal footing with the West while still retaining its system of socialism with Chinese characteristics. Though this legacy has been met with mixed results, indubitably China has indeed succeeded in resisting a Western-style democratic society in which individuals are given the right to challenge the authority of the reigning ideology and freely express themselves without fear of reprisal or censorship.

In addition, despite their more characteristic tolerance of individual expression and ideological diversity, the other major societies of East Asia (Japan, Korea, and Taiwan) remain quite conservative and traditional, at least in comparison to the West. At the very least, none of these powers has shown the same propensity toward geopolitical hegemony as have the Western powers, preferring instead to build economic spheres of influence while remaining outside the realm of international security (though in the case of Japan, this might be a result of the limitations saddled upon it by the international system rather than of its own free volition). The current crisis thrust upon the Japanese by ISIS comes rather as a result of its pledge of humanitarian aid rather than its intent to involve itself in the factional strife plaguing the Middle East.

China, on the other hand, finds itself increasingly at odds with the proponents of Islamic fundamentalism as it begins to occupy a space once thought of as the purview of the Western colonial powers. China has encountered increasing difficulty in maintaining its rule in the western Xinjiang province, a steppe region populated by the Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group completely separate from the majority Han ethnicity and making up a very small percentage of the total population in China. Beijing has increasingly come to fear terrorist attacks in the region, such as the bus station bombing late last year that killed several citizens and disrupted the tour of the area by high-level Chinese officials. In addition, China seems intent upon establishing a new economic regime in Africa, and while most of its activity is taking place in the sub-Saharan region rather than the more Muslim-dominated areas of North Africa and the Maghreb, groups such as ISIS will surely note the shift in the country’s once isolationist foreign policy to one more resembling that of the Western world at the height of its economic power.

All of these changes are not only indicative of a new East Asia where countries such as China, once content to focus on its own self-strengthening and rise from poverty, have now become normative standard-setting participants in the international system, but are also a major indicator of the core ideology of radical Islamic fundamentalist. Modernity itself, rather than simply Western liberal modernity, seems to be the major enemy of radical Islam, and its current incarnation in the rising geopolitical powers of East Asia (having now become predominately irreligious, materialistic societies themselves) will surely attract a similar ire in the eyes of groups intent upon resisting modern cultural currents and imposing a violent interpretation of the Muslim faith upon their people.

This needs to signal the much anticipated change in East Asian (particularly Chinese) thinking when it comes to the problem of extreme Islamic fundamentalism. For too long this has been thought of primarily as a Western problem, brought about by the West upon itself by its desire to impose its owns values upon the Middle East, and thereby radicalizing fringe elements of the Muslim population there to engage in violent jihad. Now, however, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is a problem which will continue to plague the modern world no matter who happens to be the iteration of modernity at the time, a problem that cannot be solved without all nations acknowledging they have a stake in its resolution.


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