Against Decolonization

In 2022, Olufemi Taiwo published "Against Decolonization: Taking African Agency Seriously" in the African Arguments series by Hurst. The book is provocative and makes some valuable contributions. I also find that the book has some faulty arguments of the straw man and red herring types. For example, in defining decolonization the way he does (see notes below), it provides useful clarity of terms but also seems to disregard a lot of the nuance that the critiqued scholars have expressed. For example, the advocates of decolonization are said to argue that in "short, self-determination should inflect life in ways that are exactly contradictory to those of colonisation" (p. 34), which seems an over-simplification, at best. Another critique of the framing within the decolonization scholarship is the supposed absence of agency (writing about "the post-independence period as if native agency matters little, it at all, is a remarkable failing of the decolonisation discourse" (p. 38)), which seems an inaccurate portrayal of the scholars he quotes, such as Ngugi and Sabelo. Despite some critiques I have of the book, this is worth a read.

The book: "seeks to (1) identify blind spots in current scholarship and direct our attention to how they might be redressed; and (2) show how and why those alternative paths may actually lead to more insights than the existing, dominant orientations. In doing so, I call attention to the themes, thinkers, ideas, movements, programs and writings which are hardly ever referenced in discussions on decolonization. My hope is that expanding our horizons in this way may lead to more robust and, importantly, more accurate explanations of the challenges facing contemporary Africa." (p. xvi)

The terms and definitions: "We should not use the same terms to describe decolonisation1 (the struggle for independence and/or self-determination, the journey from colony to sovereign polity) as we do for decolonisation2 (the continuing dominance in the contemporary world of ideational structures, patterns of thought, etc. ascribed to colonialism)." (p. 40)

Seeming naïveté: "How good can scholarship be if it is blind to the experiences of a significant portion of humanity on account of their 'difference'? Can the 'best' scholarship really be produced if it conveniently ignores the ideas of a particular people and the products of their intellectual engagements with questions that have inspired other peoples to create philosophical models? ... Why not just insist that people write better histories of philosophy without reducing the problem to one of the machinations of colonialism?" (p. 57)

Language: "What is more, in much of West Africa, as part of modernity, English came with Christianity, and the embrace of this language by Africans was not a product of colonial imposition." (p. 125)

Framing: "I suggest that the preoccupation of many Africans with decolonizing is inseparable from our placing colonialism as the defining framework within which to understand and narrate African life and thought. Our past - designated 'precolonial' - is understood in terms determined by colonialism, and our future – postcolonial - is tied to our obsession with leaving it behind. How can we expect to do the latter while privileging colonialism in our own understanding of our history and letting it characterize our discourses beats me." (p. 151-152) 

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King of the Castle

I picked up King of the Castle by Gai Eaton (1990) largely by accident. I saw someone reading the book on a flight; both the author and the book brief sounded unique, so I ordered a copy. A few quotes:

"Since unbelief lies at the root of almost all that is said or thought or done in our time, it follows that the believer's critique of the modern world cannot be less than radical." (p. 18)

"Before our eyes in the course of decades, not centuries, a new kind of world is coming into being, a world populated almost exclusively by dependants; but dependent upon whom and with what safeguards? Whether those who control the machinery of the State, the leaders in one country or another, have seized power or been elected by a mass-electorate which votes only on immediate, bread-and-butter issues, and whether they are motivated by self-interest or good intentions, one thing is sure: they are themselves controlled by forces of change which they do not understand and, in obeying these forces, they are restrained neither by immutable principles nor by the weight of custom and tradition. The brakes have been taken off; and there is nothing to suggest that these people know where they are going." (p. 60-61)

"The arrogance of the West in relation to other cultures is decently cloaked in our time, for this is an age of polite falsities; but it has not been outgrown. The fact that non-Europeans are expected to adopt Western patterns of government and 'post-Christian' morality (as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations) is evidence of this." (p. 165)

"What the Muslims call the Holy War is in fact the opposition of the unified and God-centred man to the forces of dissipation and chaos both within and outside himself. Such warfare is likely, in our times, to provide a history of defeats and failures - at least so far as our environment taken as a whole is concerned - but this is precisely why we are told that less is expected of us than was expected of the men of earlier periods. Defeat does not matter, because it is by fighting this war that we become what we are, and the achievement of integrity is not dependent upon the quantitative and temporal outcome of that struggle. Our concern is only with doing what we are capable of doing. The rest is out of our hands." (p. 198) 

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The Powers of Mourning and Justice

Judith Butler's "Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Justice" (2004) was published in the "Radical Thinkers" series of Verso Books. The book is a series of essays written after Sept 11, 2001, collected in this short publication of ~150 pages (of writing, excluding Notes). In the Preface, the author suggests in the years following Sept 11 intellectuals and journalists did not uphold their duty to justice, wherein an injustice muted critical discourse and public debate. The specifics of the essays are less timely today, but raise general questions about power – power over media and what can be spoken in the public sphere, power over what can and cannot be asked or discussed, power over life and death, the power to decide whose life should be mourned and whose ignored. The creation of binaries of the with-us-or-against-us type, stifled the ability to engage, Butler for example suggest that opposing war was equated with sympathizing or justifying terrorism.  While the details have changed, the processes persist and the arguments in this book remain relevant. Worth a read.

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What is an American Muslim?

Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im's "What is an American Muslim? Embracing Faith and Citizenship" (2014) is an Oxford publication, written in what seems like a world away in terms of US identity politics. The book is largely not what the title reads "What is..." but rather "What should...". Although the author has produced some interesting works (for example, a 1995 book Human Rights in Cross Cultural Context), this one does not stand out. In the ten years since publication, there have been 26 citations, several of which are critical book reviews. This book sat on my shelf for some years, and I can't recall where or how this book came to my attention. Some (debate-starting) notes:

"To realize this vision of citizenship and meaning for themselves, and to uphold it for others, American Muslims must join general political and social life—in solidarity and common cause with other citizens—and begin exercising their rights to democratic self-governance. To earn the rights of citizenship, Muslims must assume the responsibilities of citizens. In engaging a proactive citizenship, American Muslims should seek to integrate on their own terms as persons and communities, rather than abandoning their religious self-determination through passive assimilation. This includes the constant evolution and reformation of American Muslims' identities in relation to national identity." (p. 6-7)

"The idea of an Islamic state that enforces Sharia as the positive law of the state is, from an Islamic point of view, both conceptually untenable and practically counterproductive. It is untenable because, once Sharia norms are enshrined in law, they cease to be the religious law of Islam and become the political will of that state. Moreover, given the wide diversity of opinion among Muslim scholars and schools of thought, enacting any of those norms as state law will mean having to select among competing views that are equally legitimate. Since that selection will be made by whoever happens to be in control of the state, the outcome will be political, rather than religious. Why will this process be counterproductive? By suppressing competing views, it will necessarily deny some Muslims their religious freedom. I am therefore advocating the institutional separation of religion and the state, while recognizing and regulating the unavoidable connection between religion and politics." (p. 22)

"My own answer for such questions, for which I believe to be religiously accountable, is that Islamic religious doctrine is historically contextual, a product of human interpretation, and not immutable or divine as such. Accordingly, I would first oppose the application of any Sharia norm as the positive law of the state, as explained in chapter 1. Second, I would oppose the community-based practice of dated human interpretations of Sharia that are no longer appropriate in today's context." (p. 172) 

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