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The dangers of ‘decolonisation’

Long-read

The dangers of ‘decolonisation’

Why the academic left has sided with Hamas's anti-Semitic barbarism.

Doug Stokes

Topics Long-reads Politics UK World

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As the Sun rose on Israel on 7 October and a terrible darkness descended, Western commentators, activists and academics quickly took to social media. Not to condemn Hamas’s massacring of Jewish people, but to justify the violence as part of a ‘progressive’ karmic payback on the part of the world’s oppressed. This, they argued, is what ‘decolonisation’ looks like.

Hamas, the ‘elected leadership in Gaza’, has finally broken out of its ‘open-air prison and cross[ed] Israel’s southern border, striking at military targets and settler populations’, wrote veteran leftist Tariq Ali on the New Left Review on 7 October. Hamas fighters, Ali continued, ‘are rising up against the colonisers’.

As the extent of the slaughter across southern Israel was still emerging, journalist Najma Sharif said it represented ‘decolonisation’ in action – the most spectacular attempt yet to ‘free’ the Palestinian people from the effects of ‘colonisation’. ‘What did y’all think decolonisation meant?’, Sharif tweeted. ‘Vibes? Papers? Essays? Losers.’

Academics soon joined in. Mahvish Ahmad, assistant professor in human rights and politics at the London School of Economics, said of the Hamas massacre that decolonisation ‘is not a metaphor’. And an associate professor at McMaster University in Canada, Ameil J Joseph, also seemed to think Hamas’s massacre was decolonisation in action. ‘Post-colonial, anti-colonial and decolonial are not just words you heard in your EDI [equity, diversity and inclusion] workshop’, he tweeted.

Indeed, it has been striking just how many working in and orbiting higher education have been willing to justify the sadistic actions of an ultra-bigoted, anti-Semitic group of Islamists in terms of ‘decolonisation’. This illustrates the grip the narrative of decolonisation has over the leftist, academic imagination. To understand how this has happened it is worth looking at the ways in which the academic ‘decolonisation’ movement – as a simple-minded narrative setting up evil Western colonisers against virtuous non-Western victims – has been inculcated in universities over several decades.

Decolonisation on campus

To be clear, it’s important to distinguish between decolonisation as movement in the academy and decolonisation as the historical process that led to the end of Europe’s empires. When academics talk about decolonisation, they are generally not referring to the 20th century’s many national-liberation movements. They are talking about ridding the institutions in their own countries – usually the university or education system – of Western (aka ‘colonial’) influences.

The roots of decolonisation as a theory lie in the tumultuous world of French philosophy during the 1960s and 1970s. The work of philosopher Michel Foucault was particularly influential on what would become decolonisation theory, complete with its perverse romanticisation of an anti-modern, reactionary politics. Although openly homosexual, Foucault eulogised the less than gay-friendly Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979. He saw it as a radical challenge to Western forms of rationality and modernity. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini’s systematic liquidation of the revolution’s former left-wing allies did not stop Foucault from penning articles in support of Iran’s theocratic regime. He saw the Islamic Republic of Iran as an attempt to liberate humanity from the grip of materialism and capitalism.

Iranian Islamic Republic Army soldiers carry posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution of 1979.
Iranian Islamic Republic Army soldiers carry posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini during the revolution of 1979.

Frantz Fanon also played a central role in the development of decolonisation theory. The Wretched of the Earth, first published in 1961, was one of the first significant works to draw out the intersection between an anti-colonial politics antithetical to the West and an emergent identity politics. For Fanon, the Third World anti-colonial movements of the postwar era were challenging both imperialism and racism. He presented violence against Europeans as the self-realisation of the nations of the global South. To ‘shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone’, wrote Jean Paul-Sartre in his foreword to The Wretched of the Earth. It makes it possible to ‘destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses simultaneously: there remain a dead man and a free man’.

In their very different ways, both Foucault and Fanon romanticised the anti-colonial movements of the mid-to-late 20th century, projecting their anti-Western, anti-modern visions on to the likes of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. In the decades since, purportedly liberal institutions across the Anglophone world have become increasingly sympathetic to Fanon and Foucault’s anti-Western, anti-capitalist worldview. Indeed, many have given this worldview, expressed in the caricatured form of decolonisation theory, their seal of approval. Nowhere has this been more apparent than within British universities, especially since the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. As part of a post-BLM ‘liberatory agenda’, decolonisation has become a new orthodoxy.

On campus, decolonisation has largely been pursued culturally. Its advocates have sought to ‘free’ their higher-education institutions from the putative effects of ‘colonisation’, usually by purging reading lists of too many dead white Europeans. In doing so, decolonisation activists, like good Foucault scholars, have tended to reject notions of reason, civilisation and modernity as Western impositions.

Take Keele University’s Decolonise network. As its members argued in a 2019 document, decolonisation is not simply the ‘token inclusion of the intellectual achievements of non-white cultures’. Rather, it also ‘involves a paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and denial to the making of space for other political philosophies and knowledge systems’. These self-styled radicals complain that too much of what is taught at university ‘remains largely Eurocentric and continues to reinforce white and Western dominance and privilege’. They want their university to confront the ways it ‘structurally reproduces colonial hierarchies; confronting, challenging and rejecting the status quo; and reimagining them and putting alternatives into practice for the benefit of our academic integrity and our social viability’.

Approval of decolonisation as a narrative, theory and practice comes right from the top of universities. In 2019, Ed Byrne, the then principal of King’s College London (KCL), committed to ‘decolonise the curriculum and liberate education at King’s’. And Baroness Amos, the former director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), herself a prominent advocate of decolonisation, said in 2019 that decolonisation should apply as much ‘to science subjects as it does to arts and humanities subjects’.

Universities UK, which represents 142 universities in the UK, has also fully embraced the decolonisation agenda. In November 2020, it called on young undergraduates to audit their professors’ courses to ensure diverse representation within materials used in lectures and tutorials. And it urged universities to train staff in the ‘the concepts of white privilege and white fragility, white allyship, microaggressions and intersectionality, as well as racialised unconscious-bias training’. In so doing, senior university managers will inaugurate a truly ‘anti-racist’ university, it stated. UUK also asked universities to ‘commit’ to making sure that there will be ‘consequences’ when this drive for inclusivity is in any way ‘breached’.

The effect of the decolonisation narrative on universities’ curricula has been profound. Many universities are now battling the so-called Western colonisers’ perspective by incorporating ‘indigenous worldviews’ into their teaching, be it in the sciences or the humanities. So, as part of its decolonising journey, the Open University stated in 2019 that it will focus on ‘indigenous knowledge and ways of learning’, rather than ‘the colonisers’ perspective’. Also in 2019, KCL announced that it is developing its ‘indigenous-led’ research and teaching in an effort to include indigenous perspectives alongside ‘white, Eurocentric’ views, on areas such as medicine and traditional healing. One lecturer said this focus on indigenous-led research was ‘informed by the objective to decolonise at least part of the medical knowledge we rely on today’.

As part of its decolonisation effort, the University of Leicester even dropped its English language and medieval literature modules in 2021. Decolonisation activists said that the old curriculum had normalised and privileged ‘white history, cultural values, norms, practices, perspectives, experiences and voices’, and marginalised ‘other forms of knowing’. As Leicester University put it, decolonisation is the ‘beginning of a revolutionary process which seeks to create a higher-education system that is fully and racially inclusive and fit for the 21st century’.

Launched in 2019, the University of Kent’s Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies is even more expressly political. It says it wants to ‘decolonise curricula, with particular emphasis on pedagogical and methodological practice’, and ‘disrupt the colonial structures of settler states’ through the ‘centring of indigenous voices and anti- / decolonial activism’.

Then there’s the oldest staff-led decolonisation working group in Cambridge, ‘Decolonise Sociology’. It presents itself as a challenge to white Westerners. It claims it is seeking the ‘inclusion’ and ‘prioritisation’ of ‘authors from the global south across the curriculum’ and ‘in the required reading’. This will help ‘standardise’ the ‘use of whiteness as a concept, thus racialising white people’. This, it says, will help draw ‘attention to the problem of the extreme whiteness of Cambridge and the curriculum, and more emphasis on disrupting the reproduction of whiteness’.

Students demonstrate outside Oxford University's Oriel College for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue on March 9, 2016.
Students demonstrate outside Oxford University's Oriel College for the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue on March 9, 2016.

‘Decolonisation’, despite its radical posturing, is a thoroughly elitist project, which commands little in the way of public support. Given the publicly funded nature of the UK university system, this is a big problem. In 2021, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) found that only 23 per cent of the British public supported universities’ efforts to move away from a so-called white, Eurocentric curriculum. But this has only encouraged decolonisation advocates. Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), saw HEPI’s findings as evidence of the need to push on with the decolonisation agenda. ‘The level of hostility towards decolonising activity in UK higher education shows just how far we have to go to tackle systemic racism’, she said. HEPI itself was more cautious. It suggested that universities find a new way to dress up the decolonisation of teaching and curriculums as something else. It said that people ‘are more inclined to support changes to the curriculum when it is framed as a broadening of perspectives, rather than the removal of Western-centric viewpoints’.

The turn against the West

Higher-education institutions’ eager advocacy of ‘decolonisation’ has been a sight to behold over the past few years. Activists and academics have embraced this simplistic binary logic of coloniser-colonised, of evil West versus the virtuous non-Western other, and turned it into a moral crusade. And in doing so, they have cast aside so much knowledge and culture as the product of colonial oppression and white privilege.

In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, French philosopher Pascal Bruckner captures well the impulse driving the embrace of decolonisation within the academy. Nothing is more Western, he writes, than ‘hatred of the West’. The critical spirit, he continues, ‘devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism and takes a morose pleasure in annihilating itself’.

As Bruckner argues, this gleeful self-loathing is really a surreptitious way of asserting a sense of moral superiority. That’s why so many highly privileged individuals, working and studying in Western universities, take a ‘strange pride in being the worst’. Their self-denigration is a form of self-glorification. ‘Evil can come only from us; other people are motivated by sympathy, good will, candour’, writes Bruckner of this attitude. ‘This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history.’

As such, the decolonial critique, denigrating the West and elevating the poor ‘colonised’ other, provides its advocates with a sense of crude moral superiority. At the same time, it deprives those living in the non-Western world of agency. Indeed, it erases the complex ways in which non-Western states and civilisations have shaped their own history; and how they have pursued colonialism, extra-territorial conquest and engaged in brutal, barbaric behaviour themselves – in the past and, as we saw all too recently with Hamas’s terror attack, the present.

Literary critic Edward Said, himself a Palestinian, was an influential postcolonial theorist and contributed in no small way to the decolonisation narrative. But even he admitted to the blindspot of anti-Westernism, stating in Culture and Imperialism (1993) that there ‘are several empires that I do not discuss’. This included the Ottoman Empire, which dominated what we now know of as the Middle East up until the First World War.

People watch on as Hamas terrorists take part in a military show in the Bani Suheila district on July 20, 2017 in Gaza City, Gaza.
People watch on as Hamas terrorists take part in a military show in the Bani Suheila district on July 20, 2017 in Gaza City, Gaza.

In her criticism of Said, sociologist Jyoti Puri argued that solely focussing on ‘Western European imperialism and American neo-imperialism with dedicated fury is not representative of the full range of imperial legacies that still matter’. Were Europe’s colonial empires ‘in a different category of insidiousness from the Chinese, Russian, Ottoman and others?… The West did not have a monopoly over empire since empires emerged on all continents for thousands of years.’

Said’s selectivity indicates a broader historical myopia on the part of the decolonisation movement. It reduces world history and politics to Western villainy versus non-Western saintliness. And in doing so, it reproduces a patronising parent-child dyad, in which the West becomes endlessly responsible for all sins.

For much of the past few years, decolonisation theory has been confined to the cultural politics of universities. The effects on academic knowledge and learning may have been dire, but at least they’ve been confined to reading lists and curricula, canons and staff training. Tragically, as we’ve seen this month, this simple-minded logic is now being applied to wider world affairs. It has led assorted academics and the countless students they’ve taught to demonise Israel as a Western outpost and elevate Hamas as some sort of voice of the oppressed.

It is all too reminiscent of Foucault’s celebration of Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. Those immersed in the logic of decolonisation see Hamas and the broader Palestinian cause as a rejection of Israeli and therefore Western ‘colonialism’. Indeed, they see it as a radical rejection of the West in general. They show little interest in the actual political and social views of those they deem ‘oppressed’. They are merely using the likes of Hamas and the Palestinians to ventriloquise their anti-Westernism.

The inhumanity on display from so many immersed in decolonisation theory is an indictment of today’s academic culture. Too many have shown themselves incapable of seeing the Hamas atrocities for what they were – acts of anti-Semitic barbarism. They see everything through the narrow, abstract lens of decolonisation, categorising whole groups of people, from Jews to Arabs, as oppressors or oppressed according to intersectional ideology.

Academia needs to wake up. The radical chic of the decolonisers and the broader politics of repudiation is having profound and terrible effects on the world. Tolerance and mutual respect must be learnt and transmitted anew to each generation through our institutions and broader culture. If we fail to do so, we put our multi-ethnic, multi-racial society in grave peril.

Professor Doug Stokes holds a chair in international security at the University of Exeter and is a senior adviser at the Legatum Institute. His latest book is Against Decolonisation: Campus Culture Wars and the Decline of the West, published by Polity. Follow him on X: @profdws.

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Long-reads Politics UK World

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