Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad made an important point recently with regard to democracy promotion in the Middle East. He did not mince his words, saying that democracy in the Middle East cannot be promoted over the dead bodies of Yemenis, Syrians and Iraqis.
Most citizens in the developing world are aware that with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, liberal democracy and market capitalism are being actively promoted by the West to all corners of the globe as a package to utopia.
What is hypocritical about democracy promotion by the West is that their policymakers find it convenient to ignore that it took more than a century for democracy to consolidate there. What is more, many Western countries still fail to protect the rights of minorities in their society. Even though the patron saint of democracy in the West, the late Harvard professor, Samuel P. Huntington, had cautioned that democratic consolidation required cultural requisites, Western leaders still insist on exporting democracy to fragmented societies.
There is no doubt that constitutional government with the maximum participation of as many citizens as possible is the political objective at which we ought to aim, but the world today needs such drastic political and social changes urgently.
The discussion of democracy promotion by the West must include debates on Islamophobia and the incompatibility of Islam and democracy. A coterie of experts on Islam has been assembled by the West and their main task, it seems, is to assert that “traditional” Islam is incompatible with democracy. This is a revival of the orientalist discourse, where the othering of the political system in Islamic and non-white societies is taken as an accurate representation of what is known as oriental despotism.
What is less known is that discussion on Islamophobia is premised upon epistemic racism and its derivative Eurocentric fundamentalism. Western social theories’ discussions on human rights and democracy seem to suggest that non-Western traditions have nothing of value to the human rights and democratic discourses.
Non-Western epistemologies that define human rights and dignity in different terms than the West are considered inferior and are excluded from global conversations about these questions. If Islamic philosophy and thought are portrayed as inferior by Eurocentric thinkers and classical social theory, then the logical consequence is that they have nothing to contribute to democracy and human rights and should be not only excluded from global conversation, but repressed as well.
The underlying Western-centric view is that Muslims can be part of the discussion as long as they stop thinking as Muslims and take the hegemonic Eurocentric liberal definition of democracy and human rights. Any Muslim who attempts to address these questions from within the Islamic tradition attracts suspicions of fundamentalism.
Western social sciences propose that Muslims are irrational and fatalistic and therefore, no knowledge can come from them. What is the epistemology that underlies the latter proposition? The orientalists’ epistemic Islamophobia often repeats the German sociologist Max Weber verdict on Islam in that it is only Christian tradition that gives rise to economic rationalism and thus, to Western modern capitalism. Islam cannot compare to the superiority of Western values in that it lacks individuality, rationality and science.
Rational science and its derivative rational technology are, according to Weber, unknown to oriental civilisations. These statements are problematic because historical facts have shown the influence of scientific development in the Islamic world.
Rationality was a central tenet of Islamic civilisation. While Europe was in obscurantist feudal superstition during the Middle Ages, the school of Baghdad was the world centre of intellectual and scientific productivity and creativity. Weber’s and the orientalist’s view of Islam reproduce Islamophobia, where Muslims are seen as incapable of producing science and of having rationality.
The incompatibility of Islam and democracy has, at its foundation, the epistemic inferiorisation of the Muslim world views. Today an artillery of experts in the West talks with authority on Islam with no knowledge of the Islamic tradition. The lies repeated over and over again in Western press end up like in Goebbels’ Nazi theory of propaganda, being believed as truth. The circulation of these stereotypes contributes to the portrayal of Muslims as inferior, violent creatures, thus its association with terrorism.
Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is the director of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies at Universiti Sains Malaysia
Published in: The New Straits Times, Sunday 3 March 2019
An important and timely book has eluded the attention of the thinking public. This could be attributed to the fact that the book was not given due coverage by mainstream media or poor marketing by the publisher.
Dominance of the West over the Rest by Citizens International is a must-read book not only for intellectuals and academics, but also the masses. The compendium of essays in this book aims to raise critical consciousness by deconstructing the Western knowledge system.
As most of us are aware, the Western knowledge system was transplanted by the West over the rest during colonialism. From resisting Western intellectual discourse to confronting conspicuous consumption, the book offers an insight into Western hypocrisy.
In devouring the book, one is reminded of what Frantz Fanon had written in The Wretched of the Earth: “Colonialism is not simply content to impose its rule upon the present and the future of a dominated country. Colonialism is not satisfied merely with holding a people in its grip and emptying the native’s brain of all form and content. By a kind of perverse logic, it turns to the past of the oppressed people, and distorts it, disfigures and destroys it.”
Apart from boasting a list of impressive contributors, the book is a rarity mainly because few intellectuals in Malaysia challenge the Western knowledge system.
Our universities, for example, tend to accept knowledge from the West uncritically.
The same knowledge is then passed on to students. Herein lies one of the strengths of the book: it urges the reader to question major Western paradigms, such as modernity, globalisation and neo-liberalism, which together are packaged as the necessary ingredients for a trip to the promised land of happiness.
Yet, when people do not buy it or have other ideas on how the economy and society should be organised, they become subject to direct and indirect violence. The crooked rhetoric that naturalises dominant Western paradigms as a universal global process and as something that developing countries should emulate hides its darker side, the constant reproduction of coloniality.
To uncover the perverse logic that acts as the underlying philosophical conundrum of modernity and the political and economic structure of colonialism, the book argues that we must consider how to decolonise the mind and the imaginary. Since the mid-1970s, the idea that knowledge is also colonised and therefore needs to be de-colonised, was expressed in several ways and in different disciplinary domains.
In the Malaysian context, the pioneering works in decolonising knowledge were laid out by one of its leading public intellectuals, S.M. Idris through Consumers Association of Penang (CAP) and Citizens International. Dominance of the West over the Rest is just one example of the many publications by CAP and Citizens International that aims to decolonise knowledge.
Decolonisation is a double operation that includes colonised and coloniser. The colonised do not have epistemic privileges of course. The only epistemic privilege is in the side of the coloniser, even when the case in point are emancipating projects such as liberalism or Marxism.
Colonised knowledge simply refers to Eurocentric categories of thought that carries the seed of emancipation and the seed of regulation and oppression.
A book such as Dominance of the West of the Rest reminds us of the importance of keeping the memories and histories of coloniality alive. We should not lose sight of the wounds and humiliation that were brought about by colonialism. In confronting the demons of colonialism, decolonial epistemic and political projects are absolutely essential.
Decoloniality means working towards a vision of human life that is not dependent on or structured by the forced imposition of a single ideal of society on those that differ, which is exactly what modernity does, and hence, where decolonisation of the mind should begin. Dominance of the West over the Rest tries to change the terms and the content of the discourse on, among others, modernity.
One might ask why do we have to change the content and terms of the prevailing discourse on modernity.
The answer lies in the fact that the discourse has been changed in the colonial world by liberalism and Marxism. Decolonising requires that economic, political, philosophical and ethical conceptualisation that makes Adam Smith and Karl Marx necessary (because Western categories of thoughts have been globalised through the logic of coloniality and the rhetoric of modernity) but highly insufficient.
Dominance of the West over the Rest explores the different politics of knowledge organising the darker side of modernity, the irrational myth that justifies genocidal violence within the layered historical frame established the process of emancipation, liberation and decolonisation.
By changing the terms and the contents of the discourse that heavily rests on Western categories, we will be able to delink from the hegemonic ideas of what knowledge and understanding are and, consequently, what economy, politics, ethics, philosophy, technology, and the organisation of society are and should be. Dominance of the West over the Rest has fractured the hegemony of knowledge and understanding that have been ruled since the 15th century and throughout the modern, colonial world by Western categories.
The writer is director of Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia.
Published in: The New Straits Times, Sunday 25 February 2018