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Decolonising the Mind through Critique

We live in a time of technological wonder. I can communicate with anyone in almost any part of the world at the click of a button. I can even see someone who is in another part of the world. In fact, today we are poised waiting for the next advancement. We anticipate it like we anticipate tomorrow. In this sense our frame of mind, especially in the West, is radically different to those of earlier ages.

However today, with the marginalisation of traditional belief, there is an implicit faith in the ability of technology alleviating the ills of the world like poverty and disease, while the other big woe of the world, namely war, is considered eradicable through the spread of education and knowledge.

In this sense we carry a nineteenth century belief that we in the West have an overarching answer to world problems.

True to Gandhi, the West still entertains grand notions of its advancement and believes (perhaps benignly) that its position of significant technological progress obligates it to help others. Of course, where it can it should, but the problem with the West rests in its superiority complex. What this means is that the West is often blind to how other cultures can benefit it.

From the Rushdie affair of the eighties to the more recent cartoon fiasco, technology has helped thrust localised issues on to the world stage. In both these cases the traditions of the West and those of the Muslim world were polarised and their respective cultures (notwithstanding the generalisation) brought into contrast. The former usurped the moral high ground rendering the latter backward and unenlightened (see Rushdie). Be that as it may, it is not my intention here to redress the balance or to conceptualise freedom of speech in a manner more sensible than in its present absolutist form in popular opinion – a position defeated by its own impracticalities. Instead, it is to focus on a rather small aspect of our information space which has emerged out of an advancement of technology and a conviction that everyone has the right to speak.

With the rise of the internet in the past decade or so, we have all found ourselves drowning in the sheer scale of information out there. There is little doubt that great benefit has been had from the access to so much information and people. Yet a dark underside has also emerged. Read an article, and underneath one can also read the comments that have been posted up. This offers a perspective on one segment of society and its sentiments. How large this segment is, is difficult to say. If, however, these sentiments are read as products of society (which I do) then they may be taken as a reading of its health. This segment, be it large or small, reflects then in some part society’s beliefs and attitudes. Sadly, it is this fact that has struck me as particularly disheartening.

A while back, Inayat Bunglawala posted a blog on commentsisfree.com about a new forum that allowed senior Saudi Clerics to receive feedback on their fatawa, which was followed by a diatribe of intellectually impoverished commentary and counter-commentary. {quotes}What was being displayed was out and out arrogance and conceited opinion masquerading as clever analysis. One example attacked the Arab world for having ‘nothing to offer the rest of the world except the oil found under their feet’.{/quotes}

When one commentator posted something about Mathematics, Astronomy, and Philosophy as a response, the reply was: What have the achievements of the Indians and the Ancients Greeks got to do with Arabs or Islam? Have you mistaken their passing on other people’s achievements to barbaric Christians for inventing these things in the first place? My sigh was probably audible several streets away from my house. One need not be well read or particularly bright to question the implication of such a claim as – ‘the Muslims simply passed the knowledge found in one or another civilisation to Europe and others’. Such a claim would have to contend with the commonsensical conundrum of how it is even possible for a people to be in possession of some valuable pieces of information, to hold on to these for a few hundred years, and pass them on unaffected. If they were unable to grasp the importance of the information and therefore unable to develop it, as all knowledge needs developing, why would they preserve it, which is clearly a prerequisite for it to be transmitted a few hundred years later. The discussion, as I was reading it, was not particularly insightful or enlightening, in fact it was intellectually crude and at times laughable because it was presented in such a ‘know-it-all’ fashion. Later, on the same thread, a challenge was posted, ‘to any of you politically correct morons’: Tell me one thing the Arab world has created, innovated or invented within the last 25 years? It seemed from the very way the person had phrased his challenge that an explanation of the devastating effect of colonialism on non-western nations over the past three hundred years or more would be ineffectual. He or she would trivialise no doubt the severe disruptions caused in the political, social, and cultural spheres of colonised nations. But leaving the intellectual arguments aside, since it is plain for anyone to see that those who engage in commenting in this way are not out there to exchange ideas, it is more than obvious that there are self-conceited critics in the West for whom the world is as they see it.

Surely in this regard they are the least advanced and progressive of people. What’s more, such people are products of a culture which promotes the right of everyone to speak but seems to consider it unimportant to teach its members humility, etiquette, and just plain politeness. {quotes}The advancement of technology and the spread of information do not make for progress, as many westerners believe following the ideologues of the Enlightenment.{/quotes}

The chief tenet of the Enlightenment was that the growth in knowledge and science (we may say technology) is the key to human emancipation. Individuals as different as Karen Armstrong and John Gray have both noted that there is no necessary connection between a growth in knowledge and science and human progress. In fact, as many historians of the past and philosophers of history have observed, progress is an extremely elusive term. Yet the West has accepted almost unquestioningly the belief that progress is co-relatable to technological advancement. This speaks more of the historical experience of the West which has driven it closer to embracing the empirical paradigm. And though this paradigm itself has been adapted and modified considerably, the creed has remained essentially the same. The adoption of this paradigm has rendered the human subject in western consciousness (again, notwithstanding the generalisation) as a purely material entity.

Owing to this, the West has restricted its understanding of progress to concrete and empirically measurable things. In this restriction it has made a grave error. As human beings we all have a right to speak as well as a right to be heard. But this right comes with responsibility and we cannot command rights while being negligent of our responsibilities. One of these at the very least has to be of being cordial in our speech and towards those to whom we speak. What’s more, this cordiality is not mere etiquette but a necessary component of conditioning a mind which is conscious of its limitations and thus carries with it a degree of humility. Unfortunately, the simplistic belief in everyone’s right to speak has formed a synergistic relationship with technological advancements to make the public space incongruous and irksome. Underpinning the vigour of this relationship is the West’s configuration of man as purely a material creature. In its effort to better understand the human being, the West has moved further from its reality. In this regard the West has much to learn from non-western cultures. Ironically, it may wish to start with the Islamic world – pace Rushdie – where it is taught that if you have nothing good to say, then you should observe silence.

The reason for my not remaining silent is because I have always understood ‘good’ to also include constructive criticism.

If the colonial experience left the colonised with an inferiority complex which survives to this day, the former colonisers have been left with a superiority complex. To fully overcome the colonial experience both must exorcise themselves of these traits, and while it is no surprise why those in a position of feeling superior may not rush to loosing that feeling, the formerly colonised are in a position to lead the way. The more they deflate the egos of the former imperialists the more they decolonise themselves. And to this end, careful and well thought out critique is a potent methodological approach.




About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. Masha’Allah!
    Just to add (rather feebly) to the point of Muslim arrogance-
    The Muslim never should become arrogant, even when in front of non-Muslims as:

    1) Islam is a gift from Allah- it is not due to the excellence of anyone that Allah has Chosen to Guide him, but rather it depends on what he does with that guidance

    2) What counts is what the person dies upon- even if a non-Muslim is the worst person, the doors of repentance are always open for him if he turns to Allah and accepts Islam. Conversly, just because someone is a Muslim, that does not mean that they can rest on the laurels of what they may have done in the past, as happened with the nations before us, as Allah Says:

    “And they say, ‘None shall enter Paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian.’ Say, ‘Produce your proof if you are truthful.’”

    [al-Baqarah 2:111]

    Allah Admonishes us Muslims, Saying:

    “It will not be in accordance with your desires (Muslims), nor those of the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians); whoever works evil will have the recompense thereof, and he will not find any protector or helper besides Allaah.” [al-Nisa’ 4:123]

  2. In reply to Jo.
    Even if they were declared heretics or apostates in their theological beliefs, their contribution to human understanding about life, society, nature, the cosmos etc. are all valuable. It was in Medieval Christendom where such a division was unable to be made, and thus your sense of irony harks back to such a frame of mind. Be that as it may, these “heretics” (notwithstanding the vagueness of this) and their quest for knowledge was nurtured in an Islamic environment that took pride in intellectual pursuits. But you know what, lets just pause here for a moment. The point isn’t whose civilisation is “better”; the point is for any civilisation to improve in some way, a dialogue between people is important. So for example, Muslims and others should indeed adopt an ethos of punctuality, a virtue that the West seems to have developed well. This article is pointing out that unless discussion can be carried out amicably, “progress” (notwithstanding the vagueness of this) cannot be entirely achieved. In relation to this, the West does need to adapt its cultural priorities.

    With respect Jo, a superiority in the Middle East? I couldn’t confirm that, and if there is this sense of superiority, I dare say it is owing to an abandonment of Islam and thus on the back of oil money as opposed to Islam par se. I take exception to your point that the Qu’ran preaches Muslims’ superiority. The Qu’ran talks about the superiority of a Muslim – this is in the abstract sense. The person who submits to the will of God; the person who remains pious; the person who is not into showing off; who is humble before God and people; who is conscientious of him/herself and others; a person who fulfils the rights of those he/she is responsible for/to. And so on and so forth. From this angle, Islam (as a set of prescribed ethics) talks about the superiority (though that word is laden with a sense of arrogance) of a person only when they least exhibit a sense of superiority. Let me push this point home. In Jane Eyre (I hope you’ve read it!) Mr Brocklhurst and Helen Burns are two figures that represent two types of religious dispositions. Jane is not inclined to either type, thus affecting the readers’ inclination too, but Jane and the reader both would agree that of the two Helen is far better (“superior”). Yet Helen’s superiority is precisely in her sense of not being superior. So you see, superiority is genuinely more complex in relation to Islam, and presumably in any other religion since religions prize humility as one of the greatest virtues.

    I would (unsurprisingly!) disagree with you about the Arabs needing to challenge their fundamental beliefs to progress. Why is it so “obvious” that Islam is keeping the Arabs back? From where has this self-evident truth emerged? Islam is so much more than “cutting off the hand of the thief” and “women covering” – both of which are part of Islam but by no means its totality. Could it not be said that instead the fact the Arabs (and the Muslim world generally) are not crystallising the essence and the finer details of Islamic faith, is one of the causes of their “lack of progress”? This idea that Islam is an inhibiting force is one that is characteristically colonial. “Unless the world reproduces itself in the image of the west it will not progress” is a classic colonial maxim (in regards to this see the statement of Mable Sharman Crawford 1863, footnote 1 in article “Gods and Monsters…” on this site). The schism caused between Muslim leadership and Muslim masses harks back to the colonial experience. Please do not underestimate this point. As far as making history goes, well rest assured breaking from the conceptual restrictions imposed by Western imperialism is one of the first steps. Here is a quote from “Decolonising the Mind” (another article on this website) about the colonial experience and history, enjoy 🙂

    “—In such a state the elite find themselves cut adrift and alone constantly shifting between perceptions and expectations and in such a state they become detached from their fellow brethren caught in a kind of no mans land. Their priority and objective becomes the retention of power (afforded by the colonial presence) and the concern for themselves. ‘English knowing Indians,’ Gandhi says, ‘have not hesitated to cheat and strike terror into the people.’[8] Slowly the elite start speaking the words of the coloniser and illustrate a dependency on him for the very constructs of their thought. Their ideals, their values, their norms become the measure of the rest, and it is sufficient to try to indigenise the imports, but essentially they remain outside the cultural and philosophical self of the natives. This importation in turn ruptures the continuity of their historical development after invasion and colonisation. This intellectual division which is created within colonised communities is the real essence of divide and rule—”

  3. How true….
    How true this is….

    “What’s more, such people are products of a culture which promotes the right of everyone to speak but seems to consider it unimportant to teach its members humility, etiquette, and just plain politeness”

  4. good essay although it was quite long. Maybe you should use the space on the right side of this page so the article will seem shorter.

  5. 1-
    “What have the achievements of the Indians and the Ancients Greeks got to do with Arabs or Islam?”
    If one was to take vast majority of the “so called Muslims” who made major, contribution towards Human Intellectual prgress, were all declared to be deviants or apostates. I find it rather Ironic, especially when this site is maintained by the orthodox of ALL.

    You then mention “superiority”, untill today when you enter the middle-east you feel a sense of Muslim superiority. The Holy Koran strongly illumintates the point that Muslims are superior to the Non-Muslims (and the cliphate of Umar is a prime example of this). And many ayahs, mention that point clearly. If the west is to loose it’s so called complex, muslims must also lose their religious complex.

    Yes Arabs do have nothing to offer except oil, and I speak of Arabs today. Those arabs, or persians who had something to offer the west has preserved their teachings and taken them to a new level. And just like those scientists, Arabs today must also challenge their fundemental belief system before they are to progress. Please learn from your own history to make history.


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