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Reintroducing colonialism won't rewrite history Open in fullscreen

Ruqaya Izzidien

Reintroducing colonialism won't rewrite history

A carving on the Israeli separation barrier between Bethlehem and Jerusalem [AFP]

Date of publication: 4 January, 2018

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Comment: The 'It wasn't all bad' argument put forward by privileged, establishment white men, is just another way of saying it wasn't bad for us, writes Ruqaya Izzidien.
Colonialism has been going through a painful rebranding. 

In recent months, barely a week has passed without a public defence of colonial legacy, from academics to journalists, and even the former UK Commissioner for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips.

Last September, the Third World Quarterly journal published "The case for colonialism" by Professor Bruce Gilley, of Portland State University. In the article, which was later withdrawn, Gilley argues that "Western colonialism was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found." 

He suggests that colonialism does not merit the bad name that it has had for the past 100 years, and proposes the reintroduction of colonialism in weak states.

The flames were further fanned when Professor Nigel Biggar of Oxford University came to Gilley's defence in November, adding that "apologising for empire is now compulsory". Professor Biggar will be heading the proposed Ethics and Empire project at Oxford University, which in December faced criticism from 170 international scholars, as well as 50 Oxford University academics.

Biggar claimed that the expectation to criticise, and apologise for, colonialism prevents us from seeing the positives, and from learning from history. But this is a false claim.

Criticism of colonialism is overwhelmingly a reaction to the prevalent nostalgia, tolerance and defence of imperial legacy. In 2016, a YouGov poll found that 44 percent of Britons were proud of Britain's history.

Former UK Prime Minister David Cameron refused to apologise for the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 during a visit to the city in 2013, later adding that there were good events in the empire's history to be proud of and to celebrate.

Perhaps to middle-aged white men, it may seem like there are restrictions on praising the empire, but it's easy to ignore what doesn't affect you

Perhaps to middle-aged white men, it may seem like there are restrictions on praising the empire, but it's easy to ignore what doesn't affect you. It is much harder for descendants of former colonised people to ignore the overwhelming nostalgia and ignorance of British colonial legacy, that is prevalent in education, the media and the entertainment industry - just look to the selective focus of productions like "Victoria and Abdul", "Victoria" and "Queen of the Desert", which chronicle stories of empire while conveniently avoiding actually discussing the empire.  

Professor Nigel Biggar defends "Gilley's courageous call for a balanced reappraisal of the colonial past." But let us be clear, he was not calling for a reappraisal, he was calling for a return to colonialism, and he has suggestions about how to achieve this.

"Western countries should be encouraged to hold power in specific governance areas... in order to jump-start enduring reforms in weak states." This suggestion already sets "weak states" at odds with "western countries", betraying the underlying white supremacy of this suggestion, and of colonialism as a whole.

It is not academic to condone an unequal and brutal political system that is to your benefit, it's oppressive conjecture and it's very easy to do. Perhaps middle-class white men should pay twice the tax percentage of everyone else, given the advantages that their sex and race offer them? It wouldn't be all bad.

"It wasn't all bad" is just another way of saying that it wasn't bad for us. Because that's what is at the core of this discussion. One of the key arguments that defenders of colonialism point to, is the advances in infrastructure and economy that came with foreign rule.   

Biggar points to Gilley's arguments to support this notion. "Among the virtues of colonial rule, as Gilley sees them, were often the formation of coherent political communities, reliable state institutions and therefore living-spaces where individuals and their families could flourish."

Contrary to Biggar's earlier assertion, the study of the effects - and alleged benefits - of colonialism is not censored. These studies exist and most conclude that although colonialism brought with it economic growth and improved health, it also directly contributed to the political and economic instability in postcolonial states.

Colonial authorities invested in infrastructure - railroads, bridges, roads and buildings - but history shows that these investments weren't particularly beneficial to the colonised peoples.

The infrastructure was either largely for the benefit of the extraction of local resources - such as the railways for the Anglo-Persian oil company in Iraq - and were designed with colonial needs in mind; or colonial taxation intended to fund advancement was actually a burden on local populations, whose payments funded the colonial government, as detailed by political scientist Crawford Young in "The African Colonial State in Comparative Perspective". 

I thought we were in the 21st century, where the enlightened consensus is that people have a right to elect their own leaders

Between 1919 and 1920 in Mesopotamia, those who could not - or chose not to - pay taxes were punished by the British colonial authorities with aerial bombardment.

Sure, colonialism wasn't all bad. Hell, let's bring back colonial legislation in Britain and watch as our local MPs bomb anyone who doesn't pay their council tax.

Yet, still Biggar sees fit to refer to Britain's "unwarranted guilt" over the "alleged" betrayal of Arabs during and after the First World War. Despite the breaking of political accords, despite the kidnapping and exile of diplomatic envoys, and the bombing of anti-colonialists into submission, Britain's colonial guilt is unwarranted.

If Gilley feels strongly that the alleged merits of colonialism deserve discussion, then he should live up to his own principles and not censor the crimes of British Empire. 

Today, discussions of the merits of colonialism are ongoing. Singapore is periodically dragged out in a model example of a flourishing former colony, much like the other, more successful, brown girl in my school was paraded in front of me as some kind of aspirational tokenism.

Read more: Perfidious Albion: Balfour at 99

Countries that embraced their colonialism, Gilley tells us, were much more successful than the colonies that did not.

Is this what counts for academia today? Countries that did not resist colonialism, survived it better?

More fool me, I thought we were in the 21st century, where the enlightened consensus is that people have a right to elect their own leaders.

Arabs 100 years ago were not obliged to sit back as Britain conquered Mesopotamia, and, today, we are not obliged to listen to woolly white men telling us not to resist if you want the struggle to be less painful.

Nobody is suggesting that colonialism cannot be discussed academically. But to debate its perceived advantages while disregarding the devastating ignorance in academia and wider society of colonial crimes, amounts to a whitewashing of the routinely violent, aggressive and racist colonial modus operandi.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specializing in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English, and her upcoming novel is entitled The Watermelon Boys.

Follow her on Twitter: @RuqayaIzzidien

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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