In recent years we’ve heard much about decolonialism or decoloniality. This is the idea that with European colonisation, a hierarchy of human beings has operated which has organised and justified the subordination of people of colour, and women. And now, restitution in modernity requires decolonising knowledge, education, symbols, ideas, social systems, and so on that retain the worst aspects of coloniality. This article isn’t about undermining the value of decolonaility movements but to argue that they’re now emotionally too caught up in post-colonial hangovers of sorts to have the clarity of mature thought, diplomacy and virtue that is necessary to deal with the issues. As painful as it might be for activists of populist decolonial movements to accept this, my argument is that a critical rethink of the problem space is essential to forge new strategies of liberation movement. Not least because attempts to put right historical wrongs cannot be achieved through rhetoric alone, and the moral motive needs to move beyond idealism to embracing the productive attitude of understanding a situation for what it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly. It matters because it could be the difference between prolonging the status quo or accelerating the opportunities for millions of people both at home and around the world.
A central question that decoloniality activists pose is: what would have been the history of colonised people in the absence of colonisation? Since we cannot turn back time we have to recreate scenarios and apply assumptions to explain what would have happened. It is here that a posterior look back can become very subjective, opening up room for all kinds of fair, and unfair, claims and counterclaims. What should interest us, though, as believers of the Islamic faith is seeking constructive ways to move things forward efficaciously.
So what is wrong about decoloniality today? I’d start with the language of populist decolonial rhetoric, which can often essentialise people into identities that they don’t recognise as true to themselves. This is not to take away the urgency of decoloniality, but quite simply to point out that it isn’t conducive to fruitful and robust outcomes, least of all winning hearts and minds. It is already well-recognised, for example, by the likes of Johanna Gotfried Herder (d. 1803) as early as the eighteenth century that people’s culture was the product of innate human creativity and ought to be approached through their own lenses. Today, it’s less about people being at war with one another, and we live in more diverse communities than ever before. And, power interactions are much more subtly juxtaposed; no longer are we talking about military colonial rule, human zoos or slaves being whipped in the field.
In this context, use of shorthand labels like ‘white man’ or ‘black man’ where used, consciously or otherwise, speak about motives and worldviews on the basis of skin colour which is simply far too crude, polarising, and has the air of feeding into culturally-specific stereotypes. The term ‘white-washing,’ also, which is far too casually thrown around, doesn’t even seek to take a look at what’s actually going on in the minds of those accused. The point is, using loaded descriptors, while satiated by their short-lasting cathartic effect, inevitably deters a ‘let’s fix it’ mentality and the space for liberation to be possible. The net effect is to protract the status quo, rather than curtail it.
A mature approach to decoloniality ought to be willing to bracket out subsidiary ideas, positions or minutiae without having to dispense an overarching direction of effort. Indeed, as a Muslim I’m minded to recognise that this is one of the great lessons of Islamic scholarship. Despite the tafsir work Al-Kash’shaaf being authored by the chief Mu’tazilite Al-Zamakhshari (d. 1144), later scholars appreciated its tremendous usefulness for probing the Arabic of the Qur’an while bracketing out its over-‘rationalising’ tendency in parts. It’s the same reasoning employed by Al-Bukhari who had the intelligence and insight to accept well known reporters from the Khawarij sect as they fulfilled his stringent conditions of trustworthiness (dabt) since the Khawarij believed in the literal doctrine that lying was tantamount to disbelief (kufr). The same can be said of Mawdudi’s tafsir; while littered with what is arguably highly unbalanced political ideology, it still holds educational value. Many works like these can be cited throughout the ages. The point is, when it comes to populist decoloniality movements, such a nuanced attitude is seldom seen. But this is precisely what is needed to identify real pain points and areas where progress can be made.
When we look back to examine the ghastly consequences of colonialism that linger on today, it’s worth remembering that we’re not innocent of today’s cultural filters, attitudes or ideologies. As an example, we often parade the phenomenal history and achievement of Muslims of Spain yet we should note that from a Christian perspective it was seen as a foreign imposition, enough to warrant Nasrid rulers to plaster the interior of the Alhambra palace with the words “There is no victor but God” and for the ghastly Reconquista butchery to last centuries. How do decoloniality movements reconcile such historical events (reverse colonisation of sorts) and where in history should the line be drawn? Why should decoloniality stop with the start of colonialism if there were plenty of pre-colonial tyrants and corruption already in evidence in colonised lands? And, how do decolonialists reconcile the moral worth of the many mutual or power-implying interactions between civilizations and cultural exchanges that have taken place in all directions, even during colonialism?
According to the sociologist Peter Berger’s analysis of culture, we project our own experiences onto the outside world (externalisation), then regard these projections as independent (objectification), and finally incorporate these projections into our own psychological consciousness (internalisation). Of course, we’re constantly adjusting ourselves in this way, and more often than not, we do so reasonably. To validate our assumptions and claims, it would be appropriate, then, to ask similar questions of decoloniality inasmuch as we do of coloniality.
Unless we do so, we risk falling into traps like the recent and now infamous report of ‘Allah’ embroidered on a Viking textile. Where, a small bout of journalistic hype and academic stretch were enough to fool others into uncritically accepting it as truth, it wasn’t until an independent Islamic art historian and archaeologist debunked it that others realised what had happened. Popular narratives of decoloniality can often be very similar. Today’s institutional racism and historic injustices are ready made frameworks for retrospectively attributing failures of the modern world only to the past while ignoring present causes. Little attention is drawn to the things which we can do within our own sphere today, for instance, to fix things.
We also risk activists relying on mass media to make their points and to galvanize public pressure, but in doing so, trap themselves into the journalist’s lack of nuance and investment to solve complex problems of society. This was very clear in Priyamvaka Gopal’s recent assessment when Cambridge University unfairly came under attack by decolonial activists, where substantive issues became, she observed, ‘…obscured in this facile attempt at stoking a keyboard race war with real-life consequences at a time when hate crimes are on the rise.’
A diversified media would no doubt help, but it’s not a guarantee. There will always be a need for erudite, nuanced and caring journalism and media, regardless of gender, race or belief. Equally, there is a need for greater introspective, and functionally ingenuous, decoloniality movements.