The intellectual challenge facing the Islamic movement: decolonizing the Muslim mind

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Colonialism is now usually understood as a period of history when the European and American powers forcibly and physically held and exploited territories throughout what is now called the “Third World”, from which they drew fabulous wealth. This organized plunder by the Western powers began with Spain, whose adventure throughout the Americas was funded by gold stolen from the Islamic caliphate that Spain had destroyed in al-Andalus. Spanish colonialism soon gave way to other colonial powers, and by the end of the 19th century most of the world was physically colonized and exploited by Europe and America (the latter is itself a former British colony that became a colonizing power).

A key impetus for colonization has always been plunder, plain and simple. However, to all those who participated in colonialism, it was not necessarily the most personal reason. Although greed and racism were always present, and plunder was the end result, other factors played an important role. For Christian missionaries, colonialism offered access to previously unavailable “heathens,” all thought to be ripe for the “civilizing” mission of Western-style Christianity. For travellers, “adventure” (today known as “tourism”) was a key feature of the colonial prospectus. In fact there were probably many and various motives for various colonizers to act at different times. It is perhaps misleading to talk of all this only in terms of “colonialism,” which implies it is the same for all times and places, because in reality one could examine colonialism in many different times and places. Japan, for example, entered the colonial game late and had a somewhat different way of going about it (no less brutal, however). Japan’s competition with other colonial powers was a key feature in what was to become the East Asian theatre of the second ‘world war’ (1939–”45).

In the 20th century two massively destructive ‘world wars’ virtually levelled Europe and Japan, and weakened the colonial powers (except America, which was strengthened and able to maintain its colonial status for a while longer). After 1945 a wave of “independence” movements emerged, independence generally being taken to mean the time when the colonial powers physically left. However, the systems the colonizers put in place –” for health, education, science, technology, law, etc. –” ensured that the formerly colonized, supposedly newly independent peoples would not do anything very different from what the colonizers had intended in the first place, so that the ‘third world’ would remain subordinate to the Western world. This ongoing condition of continuing the policies and ways of life that were initially forced upon the ‘third world’ under direct colonization is what is usually called “mental colonization.”

The title of this article is from a book, Decolonizing the Mind, by Ngugi Wa Thiongo, a Kenyan educational activist who identified the problem of colonialism in the context of African literature, and who worked to revive local languages and knowledge. Ngugi was part of a broad-based decolonization movement that grew from the early 1950s to the late 1970s, which was a peak period for the national independence movements; several important books from the period remain relevant today. The Colonizer and the Colonized, by Albert Memmi, an Algerian psychologist, makes the argument that colonization destroys both the colonizer and the colonized, and in the end is of little benefit to either. Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s classic book Occidentosis describes what can be seen today as a form of mental colonialism. He develops the idea, in an Iranian context, that ‘third world’ peoples have been struck with or infected by a disease that leads them to become infatuated with the West at the expense of their own history, culture, outlook and traditions. There are many other similar works from the period, and they all describe and analyse what can be called mental colonization. Much of what those books described forty years ago has not improved; in some cases, it has actually got worse. For readers who are interested in studying some of those works, but who do not have access to the books themselves, some excerpts are available online in the Multiversity Group (groups.msn.com/multiversity).

Decolonizing the mind remains important for everyone who believes that colonization is not in the best interests of what is now called the Third World, which also includes the Muslim world. However, there are those who have no complaints with British, American or other forms of colonialism, so to them the whole debate is incomprehensible. This is because one achievement of colonization was that it co-opted local elites to take over after ‘independence’ in the guise of “looking after the interests of the local people”; yet all these elites ever really did was safeguard the interests of the colonizers, who continue, as they had in the past, to plunder the resources of their ex-colonies. Because local elites benefit from this plunder, they will see little reason to decolonize. But if one looks around the world today, there is another wave of decolonization that is posing tough questions for the West, which had purported to bring “progress” and “civilization,” while all it really ever brought was a system that would insure its own domination over the Third World. Colonialism destroyed local cultures and local ways of living and knowing, including farming, medicine, agriculture and education. Peoples of the Third World today are challenging what replaced their indigenous systems, and finding ways to re-develop their own knowledge-systems. It is important to remember that this is not a new movement; decolonization is happening in the world today, but began a long time ago.

The decolonization movement, in many places, is a movement toward the local. Of course, nothing can be completely local in the age of globalization, so it is also important to maintain a broad perspective. In fact, one sure way to begin decolonization of body and mind is to think beyond the trap of national governments and national liberation. The lessons of history have shown that, once physically liberated from their colonizers, the newly “independent” states often just continued on the same line established by the colonizers. This is what has been described by John Mohawk, a Native American (Seneca) philosopher, in terms of three degrees of subjecthood. First, there are “good subjects,” those who continue, without question, the ways of thinking and acting imposed by the colonizers. Then there are “bad subjects,” those who seek physical liberation from the colonial yoke, but who for the most part think and act in the same way once they are in control, using the same sciences, economics, health and educational systems that were imposed under colonialism. Most movements of national liberation fall into this category, the goal being just to gain control, complain a little, but not really change anything much. Finally, Mohawk sees possibilities in becoming “non-subjects,” which means finding ways to think and act outside the Western framework, outside colonialism; these ways might even be incomprehensible to the West, which he sees as a positive feature. The first two possibilities evolve around the West, while the third evolves within its own sphere.

Western education is a key factor in maintaining colonized minds, even to the point that it may be difficult or impossible for people to imagine surviving without a formal Western education. The crucial question to ask is, “What is the goal of education?” Answering that question leads to bigger questions, such as, “What kind of person do I want to be?” Some people want to be American, or French, or British, so they choose a form of schooling for that goal. While it may serve them well personally, such a goal is not necessarily in the best interests of anyone else. Beyond that, it is certainly a stubborn illusion of colonialism that the type of schooling one gets in the West is somehow better than what is available elsewhere. Reflecting on the purpose of education can help to see beyond the colonial mantra that “West is best,” and will often lead to the realization that what has actually happened is that colonialism has systematically devalued all other forms of knowledge and understanding, so that colonized peoples cannot see any other option but to seek knowledge and insight in the West.

Various ‘communications’ media also play an important role in perpetuating the condition of living with a colonized mind. In fact, most generally do two things: they perpetuate the kind of thinking and inequities that ruled the world under colonialism, and they introduce new forms of colonialism that may be less directly connected to the original forms of colonialism, but are no less damaging. For example, the media introduce consumerism, which is a form of colonialism because it introduces an economic system that benefits global corporations, most of which are based in the former colonial power-structure, and which in many ways have become the agents of colonization today. So, to understand the media and colonialism, one needs to understand how the media today promote consumerism and corporate power, and how consumerism benefits, in most cases, the former colonial powers by way of the corporations, and how it enjoins others to partake of those benefits in a very limited and illusory way. There are several ways to analyse this, and only a few can be noted here.

First of all, it is a fallacy that regional “independent” news media such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya are significantly different from their Western counterparts, such as CNN and the BBC. These regional media are basically bad subjects, complaining a little but not really questioning the foundations of colonialism. Sure, they may show more images of mangled Muslim bodies than the Western media want to admit exist, but in the end they are only perpetuating a way of seeing the world through television, a style of speaking and discussing, a format, that is virtually identical to that of the Western media. They only differ once in a while on some selected content. Is this not colonization? Is this not removing the possibility of conveying news and information in other ways? Are not the mass media replacing other forms of communication? The mass media, which include entertainment and advertising, are part of what has been called the “mental environment,” and to the extent that this mental environment is being controlled and shaped by a few forces that basically think the same way, at the expense of other ways, it is colonization. Most of the “independent” governments ruling the former ‘third world’ today, including the Muslim world, are participating in the media-perpetrated colonization of the minds of their youth. They allow entertainments from the West to flood the mental environment by means of television and the print media. These governments do not have the power to prevent the hedonistic culture that is being promoted throughout the world, including many Muslim communities in North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, Malaysia and elsewhere. Sadly, young Muslims today know everything about singers and actors, but they ignore or lack knowledge about the Palestinian struggle or the ongoing colonization of Iraq. But looking toward governments to solve this problem is part of the problem: almost all governments today are part of the colonial system, either as good subjects or bad subjects. The hope lies, then, with the non-subjects, those people who are thinking and acting beyond the sway of colonialism, modernism, globalism and all the systems invading non-Western societies today. At the same time, governments do wield some power, by controlling the military and the economy, to some extent, so they cannot be ignored completely. However, it is a cruel irony of colonialism that as local governments move more toward limited democracy and forms of popular political participation emerge, colonialism in the form of economic globalization is steadily undermining the ability of national governments to make meaningful independent decisions even for their own economies.

Language also plays a role in mental colonialism, although it is more difficult to deal with. English is the language most often associated with colonialism today, and it is fast becoming a global language, often at the expense of local languages. All languages encode reality in a particular way, by using metaphorical and rhetorical structures to represent physical objects and life experiences. English is no different. To become thoroughly decolonized, then, one has to learn, or relearn, another language. This is what Ngugi Wa Thiongo realised many years ago. He decided to stop writing in English and to use the local African languages of his people instead; he was involved in establishing schools in Kenya that promoted local languages. The problem was that the Kenyan government at the time, although “independent” from its former colonial masters, saw his movement as a threat to national hegemony, so he was run out of the country. His story demonstrates two things: first, there are people who recognize that language, in the end, is a key feature of colonialism, and decide to act on that; second, that national governments, even ‘independent’ ones, fear real decolonization. This is sadly apparent today, for example, as when the governments of states in which Muslims now live continue to fall over themselves to cater to the whims of the Americans, revising school curricula and promoting foolish entertainment, most often at the expense of local languages and cultures.

In a manner of speaking, then, our minds are under occupation, in much in the same way as our lands are under occupation. This problem deserves constant vigilance, and needs to be thought about and acted upon daily. An important step toward decolonizing our minds is to focus on the higher realities, those that all religions teach, since the ultimate colonizer is the life of this world. To put it simply, a colonized mind is one that thinks that what is in the best interests of the greedy elites running the world is actually in everyone’s best interests: a thought that enters in the first place through the door of attachment to this world. The easiest way to detect how these interests work, and to avoid their temptations, is to ask the simple question “who benefits?” from even the most ordinary activities. This question can be asked and answered in a number of ways, including taking stock of how daily activities affect the attainment of ultimate salvation, which is a common theme of many religions. One could also take a lesson from tribal peoples who have also recognized the problem. Among some Native American tribal peoples (the Haudenosaunee of New York and Ontario, for example), it is important to ask, “How will my actions today impact those who will live seven generations from today?” Whatever the goal, salvation in the next world or the well-being of future generations in this one, these questions are useful ways to tackle the challenge of refocusing our colonized minds.

One reason why many peoples of the ‘third world’, Muslims included, cannot think in the way necessary to decolonize their minds, is that they no longer follow or even respect their own traditions. Part of this is the result of colonization: we have lost confidence; we have become uncertain of ourselves, even ashamed of who we are, because of the constant chorus telling us that we are backward, repressive, violent, and a host of other accusations. But who is making these accusations? No people in the history of humanity has been more backward, repressive and violent than those who are telling us what to do today, the proponents of Western ‘civilization’. How many people did they kill in their world wars last century? 100 million? 150 million? Perhaps they ought to look more carefully at themselves before they accuse Muslims of anything; regardless of whether they do so or not, we must.

Islam, as most Muslims know, is a way of life, an ethical code and a body of law, not “just a religion”; within it are many features that can become part of living a decolonized lifestyle. This should not, however, be offered as a simple da’wah-oriented set of prescriptions, or only in terms of halal and haram, as many Muslims, unfortunately, have done. Outside those contexts, Islam has much to offer the decolonizing wayfarer. For example, look closely at the way we eat, the clothes we wear, and the dwellings in which we live. Seen in terms of halal and haram, they might seem perfectly acceptable. But how close are these foods and clothes and homes to the way of life that Islam advocates for the believers? Beyond halal and haram, what does it mean for individuals and families to be Muslim in the world today? Does it mean acclimatizing to whatever situation we find ourselves in, and pulling out a few ahadith to justify this and that, or does it mean taking a really long, hard look at modernity, ‘civilization’ and ‘progress’, and interrogating them in terms of the overall system that is Islamic wisdom?

Because decolonizing the mind can be an enormous project, it has become necessary to develop multiple strategies, and for everyone to do what they can in any way they can. If governments or other large entities can help, great; if not, then they should get out of the way: in this case we must simply ignore them as much as possible. Rethinking food and clothing, for example, is an important way to get started on the path toward decolonization, because, as several thinkers have shown, what we eat and how we dress affects our mental, physical and spiritual well-being. (A good article on the connections between clothing, colonization and spirituality is available in the Multiversity Group). It is also important to learn from the experiences of others who have tried to decolonize, and also share the lessons that we have learned from our own activities. Again, this is not necessarily or primarily for the purpose of da’wah, but as a way to help Muslims to look inward and to understand the situation they are in, and also to link up with fellow travelers who may be from different religions, cultures and traditions.

Decolonizing the mind will not be an overnight success, but there are some things anyone can do straight away, once the true nature of the problem is understood. So let me state the problem as succinctly as I can: we are, all or most of us, thinking and acting in ways that are destructive and often not even logical, but which continue to benefit a small global elite. In order to force us to remain colonized, we have been alienated from our humanity, our environment, our traditions and our religions, in the name of progress, civilization, globalization and a host of other euphemisms for colonialism. It is in the interest of the controlling global elites that we carry on not understanding the nature of this problem and the extent of what has been done to us and our societies. So an important first step is to learn to recognise how colonialism is affecting your daily life. You can watch less television and tell more stories; you can eat more organic food and avoid processed foods; you can wear handmade clothes and discard fashionable fads. You can sit in front of a computer and write, or stand in front of a classroom and urge people to wake from their colonial slumber. Those who prefer collective action can get involved in a movement that is acting on behalf of the environment or the disenfranchised. There are many things to do, and no one can do them all, but it is necessary to begin, choose at least one activity, and dedicate yourself wholeheartedly to it.

This may be hard to swallow for those with colonized minds, but another important step toward decolonization is to take your children out of school as quickly as you can. Forget all the idealistic nonsense about “seeking knowledge” by “going to school” or “getting an education.” These are extremely limited ways of seeking knowledge, and many people have already realised it. For example, there is a growing movement in India today called the “School Walkouts.” Check with the Multiversity Group for news on that, and also visit the website for Shikshantar, an organization in Rajasthan that is involved in this movement. The process of “deschooling society,” as Ivan Illich put it in his classic book of the same name (which is available online if you search for it), is an essential feature in recovering our humanity from those who have taken it, who are the same people that continue to steal our resources while we wander the halls of their schools and institutions.

Regaining a sense of health and well-being is another, perhaps the most important, task for those interested in decolonizing their minds. For instance, homeopathy and certain forms of traditional medicine have been shown to cure or treat complex ailments such as heart-disease, high blood-pressure and even cancer, not to mention the day-to-day aches and pains for which most of us run to a doctor and get a prescription. At the same time, high-tech Western medicine is becoming a global business in which billions of dollars are invested, so it may seem unlikely that corporate interests will support any alternative medicines, especially if they are cheap and easy. Corporate interests will support whatever makes them money, and there is a global tourist industry today for rich people to get heart-bypass operations and other surgical procedures from Europe to the Persian Gulf. But that business need not involve us at all, except as a useful demonstration that the wealthiest people are often the most sick, in both mind and body. The rest of us can practise alternative medicine or homeopathy, or traditional healing, beyond the sway of global corporations. Perhaps more important is protecting these traditions and medicines from abuse and patenting, which has been studied very carefully by many scholars in the Third World (Vandana Shiva in India, to name one). Concerned readers can learn more about these activities from the Third World Network and the Consumer Association of Penang (Malaysia). Both have a variety of programmes and publications that are useful tools for decolonizing minds.

One wonders whether another indication of living with a colonized mind is that Muslims give so much importance to the laws and charters of the United Nations when we have our own laws, principles, ethics and priorities from Allah (swt), His Messenger (saw), the Qur’an and the Islamic tradition. But in a world where not everyone is a Muslim, and where not all Muslims follow their own wisdom, the UN and other transnational organizations continue to hold out some prospect for global action, even more so once they are liberated from the clutches of the Security Council, which almost always acts in the interests of the colonial powers. While the UN has at times been used by the enemies of Islam, and against the interests of much of the ‘third world’, it is important to note that in the 1960s and 1970s that ‘third world’ almost gained control of the UN. In the absence of effective global Islamic organisations through which to work, some Muslims still hope that the established transnational actors, the UN being only one, though it is seriously hampered by the Americans and other colonial bullies, will begin to live up to its rhetoric eventually.

Finally, Muslims and the followers of other religions are increasingly wondering whether “the end is near”; there are a lot of “end of days” predictions floating around the internet today, from various quarters. But historically people have always thought that their problems were clear portents of the end of the world. The only thing we can be sure of is that only Allah knows when that day will come, or when the Awaited Savior, and any other promised salvation, will arrive. It is surely a sign of our colonized minds that, just because Western ‘civilization’ has been exposed in all its barbarity in Iraq and Palestine, by complicity or direct action, or just because the global economy is faltering, or because Americans are realizing they are living in a miserable police state, we do not realise that all this does not necessarily mean the end of the world for everyone else (or indeed anyone else). In fact, this is perhaps the most opportune moment to look outside the weird West, its spheres of influence, and especially its immense problems, to where alternatives and hope still wait for us to go looking for them.

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