Today’s events in the Muslim world chaotic and incoherent if we fail to account for the past two hundred years of modern history and the entanglement with colonialism and then the emergence of post-colonial nation-states. Often, Muslims are instructed to let go of the past and stop complaining about colonialism and using it as an excuse to explain away the current state of affairs. The logic goes that colonialism has ended and the Muslim world has been independent for the last 40-60 years. Thus the argument goes to offer the conclusion that the Muslim world should take responsibility for its own affairs and inherent failures rather than continue to blame colonialism and the West in general.
Such argument, if accepted, also gives credence to the orientalist trope postulating the inherent inferiority of the Muslim world and the inability to deal with its serious problems. The thesis is centered on the assumption that colonialism has ended with the withdrawal of colonial troops and the achievement of independence across all parts of the Muslim world with the exception of Palestine (prior to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Russians and Americans also Iraq). This assumption hinges on a very rudimentary and ignorant understanding of colonialism and its multi-layered approach to control and domination. The military component is a small part of a larger and complex epistemologically entangled structure the intent of which was to achieve total control and domination with and, for sure, without the presence of boots on the ground.
The crudest control structures are those utilizing material chains to force the human physical form into confinement within a space and restrictions on movement. However, the most sophisticated structures operate on the mental sub-conscious level and attempt to achieve total domination over the mind and the intellectual capacity to conceptualize the self and its agency in the world. In these structures, the control is over the mental abilities to conceptualize and draw the needed mental maps of the world and the solution to its multi-faceted problems. The extent of colonial success can be measured by the level of mental adherence to colonial structures in the colonized population and its intellectual production that continues to replicate its internalized domination despite the removal of the physical chains.
Thus, one way to rationalize the colonization becomes a very simple equation that you are colonized because you are inferior and susceptible to external domination and control. Such a view assigns responsibility to the victim and colonization is rationalized in a Darwinian type of structure and the survival of the fittest being the operable logic. Furthermore, the argument only examines the outer form and visible outcomes rather than paying attention to the over-all structures that made it possible for the colonial project to register successes and to be transmitted over generations. Even when states advance on the material levels they are still structurally subject to colonial discourses since the measures of success are subject to a colonial typography and not outside of it.
A second aspect to rationalize continued colonial discourses is located in a religious debate offering Islam’s supposed backwardness as the reason or cause of colonial domination and control as well as the source of current problems. This produces the constant colonial demand for an Islamic reform epistemic that can/may transform Islam into a projected ‘enlightened’ modernity that is informed and measured by a colonial Eurocentric yardstick. To be modern and reformist is to accept Islam’s inherent inferiority as set per colonial discourses and then embark on a colonized reform mode that answers all the questions that are not asked by or for Muslims in the first place.
Certainly, the colonial epistemic is racial and material emerging out of specific European historical experience that is then universalized and transformed into the norm to be emulated across the world. The structure gets imprinted in the educational, development and ‘civilizational’ projects across the global south and made operational to reproduce and regularize inferiority with or without the presence of colonial boots on the ground. The colonial power asserts and maintains its superior nature because of an inherent biological and intellectual evolution that created the needed human pre-conditions for civilization, which is for sure found lacking in the colonized populations of the South, Muslims included.
In this context, the colonial project far from seeking to elevate the sub-human into a fully ‘civilized’ human is centered on maintaining the Eurocentric racial, intellectual and religious hierarchy intact while constituting the superior race as an object of material deification. The deification imprinted on the colonized mind is so powerful and all encompassing thus rendering the post-colonial period a mere reflective image constructed within the same mentally formed colonial epistemic. The more the colonial is the thought to be in the distant past the more it asserts itself in the present but in more complex and distorted ways. The past is never past as long as it continues to be reproduced and acted upon in the present. We are in the ‘present colonial’ despite hypothesizing of a colonial past.
A Muslim today is a byproduct of a colonial mental mapping that makes it possible for the person to see him/herself only through a projected colonially constructed imprint. To ask who is a Muslim today is a difficult question since self-identification and entanglement with an idealized past ‘tradition’ is navigated through a colonial topography that produces and reproduces a dynamically constructed inferiority matrix.
Seeded colonial debates about the Islamic ‘tradition’, ‘reform’, ‘interpretations’, ‘gender roles’, ‘power’, ‘state’, ‘economics’, ‘violence’ and rights are all colonial imprints and operate within the colonially crafted epistemic rather than being an expression of Muslim agency. Further, the constant demarcation between political Islam and Islam, Sufism and non-Sufism, modern and traditional, extremist and moderate are all shaped by colonially crafted binary epistemic relating to religion as theorized and experienced in the European context that is then universalized and constituted as the norm for all ‘sub-human’ colonized subjects and distant colonies to emulate. Islam in the colonial framework is the constant ‘sub-human and uncivilized marker’, rather than being representative of a coherent and fully developed system having its distinctive epistemology and meanings.
The mental colonial project fosters an imitative imprint on the mind of the colonized to be nurtured into producing a state of self-helplessness and exclusively remedied through constant intervention by the colonial master or his internally assigned and intellectually trained (miss-educated) agents. We have interventions in every facet of life, under all pretexts and rationalizations including humanitarian imperial projects and the new modes of utilizing the NGO’s industrial complex to push softer neoliberal civilizational projects.
You, the colonial subject, is unable to develop because it is you who is unable and not ready to do so and not I, the colonial master that is disrupting the progress so as to keep the flow of wealth to the north. Today, the colonial master/consultant/advisor says you can aspire to be ‘me’ once you let go of your backward ‘tradition’ and imitate what I have accomplished for it is the only road to become a superior and emerge out of your darkened inferiority. This colonial project is operative in politics, economics, social relations, media and religious discourses in the colonies. The outcome is an eraser of the mental framing and epistemic structures that existed and supported colonized societies for centuries to be replaced by a colonized knowledge rooted in structuring internalized inferiority.
‘I am inferior therefore I can’t’, would become the operable imprint on the colonized mind and needing the agency of the colonial master to start-up any initiative and draw meanings out of his/her life. Even when the colonized think on his/her own they are but recalling the colonial knowledge imprinted on the mind and become even more imitative despite thinking that they have achieved independence or asserted ones own agency. In this way, the colonized become doubly victimized in the colonial process, once through direct colonization and the second by dominating the sub-conscious to produce a false agency and a false self-identification. The world becomes colonial in the post-colonial and independence is shaped by the colonial epistemic and to never stray away from it. The first act of Muslim de-colonization is in the mind and it involves first emptying out the colonial, post-colonial and Eurocentric nationalist edifice then setting out to imagine a de-colonial Muslim world and through it shape the future.