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Decolonising Civilisations

What may at first sight seem elementary or simple can turn out to be exceedingly complicated. Modern discourses on civilisation tend to be indebted to the Euro-American studies of assumed huge cultural blocs that have existed through time in geographic spaces. Eurocentric assumptions have imposed on the notion of civilisation an essential nature. The modern West and its heritage are invented in direct contrast to the malcontents of other surviving cultures. Decolonising civilisation necessarily occurs in such a binary. However, before I embark on what decolonising civilisation could look like in practice, I want to cover ground that has already been traversed countless times in popular media and academic studies. Edward Said’s Orientalism ran amok in the fields of Islamic and Middle East Studies almost forty years ago. The book proved to a bold challenge to that category of scholars called Orientalists. No mastery over the Orient was recognised. And contrary to the Orientalists’ ostensible pronouncements, they did not know better than the Muslim or the Arab about their culture, history or religion.

Indeed, the latter point is very well illustrated by the existence of a variety of Muslim intellectuals, scholars and academics who have rose to the challenge posed by the denigrating gaze of the Western Orientalist. From anti-colonial discourse analysis to Quranic studies, post-colonial Muslims have displayed a creativity that can easily compete with their counterparts around the world. While Syed Hussein Alatas’s The Myth of the Lazy Native is a learned exposé unravelling the ideals that informed colonialism to be nothing but ideology invested in the domination of the other, the Egyptian Muhammad al-Ghazali’s work on the Quran and hadith literature is a profound rethinking of how texts can be read invoking neither Foucauldian discourse nor Gadamerian hermeneutics. The scholarship of Halil Inalcik, the grandee of Ottoman Studies in Turkey, stands as a convincing effort to locate the Ottoman empire within an expanded Europe and not outside of its imagined borders.

No purist conception of epistemology can resist the multifarious reality of how knowledge is produced. And often in ways inadvertent to scholars with the intuitive acceptance of intellectual framework and categories. A diverse spectrum of influences and ideas did certainly influence Alatas, al-Ghazali and Inalcik during the twentieth century, a century of the great cultural exchange. For over half a century, these three figures devoted their creative energies to the scholarly scene of the Muslim world. Multiple paradigms of knowledge have also competed in their various disciplines. Provincialism of the kind found in Eurocentrism has taken a dim view of the intellectual products outside of the alleged boundaries of a West. Reason, democracy and the like have their origins in Europe, past and present, and any resemblances found elsewhere are found lacking or have their inspiration in their European archetypes.

Following the above digression, I return to my meditations on civilisation to illustrate the potential for a thorough-going decolonising of the notion. Civilisation runs the risk of being a catch-all word with inescapable dimensions depending on who is using it and to what end. The Spenglerian and Toynbeean studies of civilisations are an ambitious attempt to capture the entirety of the human story as an objective history leaving next to nothing untouched. A great deal of theorising at a high level of abstraction is sorely needed similar, if not greater, to that in the field of studying nationalism. The obstacles of grasping a phenomenon, though recent in age, wide in scale were somewhat alleviated by the work of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. Such a dizzying abstraction of the nation, according to Anderson, could only be conceived thanks to the transformation wrought by print nationalism and the simultaneous belonging to a nation epitomised in the appearance of ‘homogeneous empty time’. The nation is born in the age of the literate and anonymous mass society. How can we apply an adapted version of these same insights, sensitivity to the level of abstraction of civilisation, to a cultural tower of Babel without being doomed to repeat Orientalist or Occidentalist clichés about the other? William H. McNeill’s strangers who bring about radical technological change through contact with other cultures is a beginning but is not quite enough to move the presence of the ‘other’ to the centre stage in the creation of the ‘self’. In this account, stubbornly Eurocentric, change diffuses from Europe, giving rise to the modern West, to the rest of the world.

When the focus moves to civilisations, whether a clash of or a dialogue between, how can one establish an understanding of these elusive actors? Is a direct and unadulterated understanding possible of civilisations in the first instance or are the categories of knowledge with which we make sense of them merely a product of interpretation and thus momentarily true? While I do not have space here to pursue in more detail the epistemological implications of both questions, I want to bring attention to how we produce knowledge about a people, culture or a civilisation through the possible avenues of knowledge-making. A humanist or liberal perspective that largely leaves undisturbed the universal claims of the Enlightenment perpetuates the binary between the secular and the religious to the disadvantage of the latter. Different cultures can tread onto the European or North American mainstream. But they are considered simply to be avant-garde with their political challenge to the Eurocentric hierarchy of knowledge neutralised. In this situation, religion is still perceived to be the domain of the superstitious that one day will be transcended or privatised if only the right type of education is provided.

The decolonising of scholarship requires a critical perspective that cannot and should not be equated with a return to a pre-colonial culture. Although an appalling historic legacy of colonialism in the Muslim world exists, the path to anti-Orientalism is strewn with good intentions that may lead to an inverse stereotyping in the shape of Occidentalism. Replacement of one type of ethnocentrism (Eurocentrism) with another (Afrocentrism, Islamocentrism, Arabocentrism, etc) cannot provide the panacea for the hitherto stifling of alternative perspectives. The basic assumptions of the self, national and civilizational, are up for grabs in a contest within a post-colonial cultural space. No less mythical, the assumed superiority of the pre-colonial pristine past denies the sheer plurality and fluidity of the human story. There does not exist a crystal ball to fathom a purist version of the self in either the future or even the past for that matter. Upon closer scrutiny, the cultural space of any human community opens itself up to the paradox of the creative roles of strangers who are at once foreign and familiar.

Mohammed Moussa is an assistant professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University in Istanbul. He has written on Islamic political thought, the Arab uprisings and the politics of the Middle East.