The Benedict XVI controversies and “Asian Values”

Paul Bograd

Posted on September 16, 2006

The current firestorm over remarks by Pope Benedict XVI may seem an odd segue to a commentary on Asian Values, but there is something very instructive in how this controversy is playing out. In fact this would be an excellent case study in how real global dialogues will evolve in the 21st Century. By “Real” I mean important dialogues as opposed to interesting or entertaining dialogues.

Admittedly, “Asian Values” is only an ancillary part of the fallout to the Pope’s remarks but since this site is called AsianPundit, I wanted to talk about Asia.

First, let me congratulate the Pope (Not that he is waiting to hear from me, but my compliments to Popes past, present and future have been few, so let me give credit where credit is due.).

From where I stand, by raising the issues that the Pope raised, he potentially advanced the real global dialogue that surely must take place between Islamic and other cultures. The real nature of the contemporary divide between Islamic culture and other cultures is the fundamental questions of the legitimacy and contemporary meaning of the Koran’s directive and Islamic belief in “conversion by the sword.” Now to set the record straight, my personal belief is that the vast majority of the world’s Muslims do not accept the literal meaning of “conversion by sword;” but a significant, well-armed and well-funded minority of Islamic radical religionists do accept and act based on the literal directive of “Conversion by Sword.” (By the way, I am not so sure that in the historical perspective “conversion by the word” is any less dangerous than “conversion by the sword.” Remember folks “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword,” or something like that.).

Since the current global dialogue between Islamic Culture and other cultures is a dialogue that largely dances around this fundamental question, we cannot hope to find a lasting, productive, relevant and non-violent common ground unless we are addressing the root causes.

I am not trying to simplify this dialogue. The causes and motivations of the radical religionists, which are as diverse as global economics; global consumerism, the technology and legitimacy of the 21st Century information and communications infrastructures and even the fundamentals of human sexuality are among other causal matters.

I am saying that the current dialogue is too polite, too sensitive and too simplistic to be productive.

Whether by intention or by accident, in his illumination of what really divides these cultures, Pope Benedict XVI may have advanced the global dialogue to a point that it is a lot closer to a common acceptance. Hopefully we will also now be closer to a dialogue of real importance.

So What Does This Have To Do With Asian Values You Ask?

I have been around Asia long enough to understand how fundamentally different the cultures of Asian Nation States really are. I think a lot of what was described during the last decade by leaders like now Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew, as “Asian Values” really were synthetic justifications for behavior unacceptable to much of the western world (And I am not sure he was so wrong to make these justifications.).

However, there does seem to me to be one “Asian Value” that is pretty common across Asian cultures. This is the absolute avoidance of direct or linear engagement. Whether it is in response to business, political, spiritual, social or even romantic interactions, it is pretty common for Asian cultures to approach the engagement in every way possible to avoid a direct confrontation. Maybe it is a superior way of avoiding insult or injured feelings, or maybe it is psychological avoidance of conflict, or maybe it is just outright deceit. But in general terms, if confronting differences and problems can be avoided by not talking about them, then they won’t be. In fairness, the notion of “Asian Values” has had its historical share of successes.

But the year 2006 is a very different time than even the history of five years ago. The challenges and threats facing Asian societies are immediate. The technologies of communications as well as the realities of economic and cultural integration have made these challenges so profound and so immediate that there is simply no time for the niceties of avoiding direct engagements and confrontation. As an individual I must admit that I admire this “value” of conflict avoidance, but my individual feelings need to take a back seat to confronting and engaging the real threats facing Asian societies.

I can imagine you thinking: “What are these threats to Asian Societies that this paranoid lunatic is imagining?” Well among others these challenges/threats are:

•The widening societal divisions between those individuals with the resources and education to prosper in an integrated economic and cultural world and those who are left out.

•The widening national divisions between those nation states with the resources and capital to prosper in an integrated economic and cultural world and those who are left out.

•The inability of political, civic and social institutions to keep pace with global communications and economic and cultural integration. These political, civic and social institutions have historically provided the checks, balances and protections necessary to allow free market capitalism to succeed in nation states as diverse as the United States, Japan and Chile. As free market capitalism expands in a borderless global manner, political, civic and social institutions must expand in an equally global, borderless basis in order to create a socio-political permission structure that will allow market capitalism to prosper.

Of course these are only a few of the challenges to Asian societies that I believe are immediate and profound. There are many, many more challenges and threats that may deserve higher priority.

But just these few challenges that I have mentioned are challenges that we can meet, if we are willing to confront them honestly, directly and immediately.

Maybe this is a “New Asian Value” that we can all agree to?

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