“To preserve, explore and study Britain’s cultural heritage associated with the former Empire and today’s Commonwealth.” These were the words “princess” Anne said at the opening of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in 2002. It sounds romantic doesn’t it? It conveys the sense of starry-eyed travellers off on an adventure to delight in the exotic oddities of quaint pre-modern peoples, outside of history, static in outlook. This is Eurocentric ideological power. And for this reason many believe – without even realising it – that only Europeans can make history and only Europeans can develop and have human agency – whether that’s political, religious or intellectual. Eurocentric power is also the reason behind why non-European crimes are highlighted and most European crimes – except the Jewish Holocaust – can be swept under the carpet. The uncomfortable truths have to be put out there since someone needs to hold a mirror up to European ethnocentrism because people have suffered in the past and continue to suffer today.
Columbus sailed the ocean blue and painted the land red
A lot of us have heard this before:
“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; he sailed through sunshine, wind and rain… “Indians! Indians!” Columbus cried; his heart was filled with joyful pride…the Arawak natives were very nice; they gave the sailors food and spice.”
This is what children are taught in the so-called “New World” of the Western Hemisphere. It is also what is taught to children designed to be satraps – myself included – in the non-European world in order to preserve mental colonisation and construct societies that cater to the hegemony of European ideological power. Nice guy that holidaymaker Columbus. Right? Wrong.
It’s cliché to say that history is written by the victors but clichés are also truisms. What about the losers in history? Can we ever recognise their pain? Christopher Columbus has a lot to account for, and it is shameful that unsuspecting children are made to recite a poem that glosses over the history of many peoples in order to sustain a ‘civilisational’ myth. Columbus should be held responsible for triggering the annihilation of entire peoples when he ‘discovered’ lands occupied by millions of people for tens of thousands of years. Native Americans suffered genocide that almost led to their extinction.
It is insulting to the educational tradition that the accounts of Bartholomew De Las Casas, a 16th Century Spanish historian and Dominican friar, are left out of textbooks. Las Casas arrived as one of the first European settlers in the Americas. Initially he played a part in the atrocities against the Native Americans but then his conscience led him to oppose it. He transcribed Columbus’s journal and chronicled the first decades of colonisation and genocide against the indigenous peoples in his works A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies and Historia de Las Indias.
Columbus also started the transatlantic slave trade or the Maafa – the African Holocaust which also includes the Arab slave trade. This was a project that ran from the 16th to 19th centuries and was one of the most continuous and brutally efficient systems of bondage ever seen. Over twelve million men, women and children were forcibly sent to the Americas as a source of free and forced labour. There were so many that were sent that Africans who came by way of the slave trade became the most numerous immigrants in both North and South America before the late 18th century.
Apart from how nice the Arawak natives were the only thing that is true about the children’s poem above is the significance of the date 1492. Ramon Grosfoguel, a decolonial scholar at Berkeley University, highlights the significance of that date for two reasons: Firstly, it marked the European imperial expansion into Islamic Europe – Al-Andalus in the South of Spain. This was the concluding conquest of Islamic Europe by the Spanish Monarchy that led to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from the region. Secondly, the year also marked European colonial expansion into the Americas by Christopher Columbus. More importantly, these developments were not coincidences but were strategically planned out. Columbus went to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to discuss a trip to “India”. However, they told him that first they wanted to unify all of Spain including Al-Andalus before they allowed him passage.
Soon after this we had the formation of an international division of labour with core countries and periphery regions. And this is the world-system that we live in today. That year 1492 was also the year a new system of social classification – a racial system – of the population of the world came into being. This new system created the Western/European vs. the non-Western/non-European distinction. Europeans were seen to be ‘fully human’ and superior to non-Europeans and non-Europeans were seen to be ‘sub-human’ or ‘non-human’.
When the Europeans arrived in the Americas in the 16th century and saw the indigenous population, questions of ‘humanity’ or ‘who is fully human’ formed their core debates. The recognition of humanity took the form of “having a soul” and this was only reserved for the Semitic religions – that is Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
The racial system is a social construct and was rationalised and turned into biological categories by Europeans using science – a phenomenon known as scientism, or science as ideology. This is the legacy that we have been left with so that we now have to continue to talk in these terms because of the huge power asymmetry that still exists. You cannot just press the reset button and pretend to start again because the social and economic damage has been done.
On December 5 2013 Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid revolutionary, passed away after a long hard struggle tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality. After his death, Eurocentric ideological power was in full swing attempting to co-opt him into the Eurocentric narrative by ignoring the racial system which led to centuries of black suffering and the circumstances requiring his struggle. But you cannot sprint to freedom; you cannot even take a long walk to freedom; you can only crawl there and that struggle is hard. We can pretend that this is all in the past and that everything’s okay, but it is not okay. In South Africa whites are still in full control of the economy and poverty and disenfranchisement are pushing people to alcohol abuse and even more dangerously to Whoonga, a deadly street drug spreading across impoverished townships.
There is no empowerment here and we risk seeing short-term thinking again where power holders will no doubt blame the victim again and again for their circumstances even though they put them in that position in the first place.
It is easy to say that all human beings are born free and equal but maybe, just maybe, the Enlightenment is a myth. Whether it’s Kant, Hume, or even Marx, many sanctified European thinkers internalised racism and when they spoke of freedom or equality, they were speaking only about whites.
What about those static pre-modern Muslims? Can we ever recognise their pain? According to the United Nations, 70% of the world’s refugees are Muslim. They have now been stripped of their narrative and are polarised between imitators who desire to fully assimilate themselves into European “success” and reactionaries who are more concerned with acting out Islam to an external rather than living it with the peaks and troughs of human life. Who knows anything about Islam? Who knows that if it wasn’t for Muslims – who preserved the works of the Greeks – there wouldn’t have been any European Enlightenment? How many people know of the extensive influence Muslim thinkers like Al-Ghazali, Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd had on Europe? How many people know that the first ever university was established by Fatima al-Fihri, a Muslim woman? And how many people know that it was Islam that saved Jewry?
We must recognise the pain of Srebrenica, the pain of the Gaza massacre or the daily pain that the Rohingya endure. Who has ever heard of the Rohingya? They are a stateless and unwanted Muslim ethnic group in Myanmar. They are routinely murdered by Buddhists and their plight is known as the hidden or silent genocide. The United Nations describes the Rohingya as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. It’s no surprise if you haven’t heard of them. They don’t fit into the European narrative. Since terror is an abstract noun, power, another abstract noun, will place it where it wants it. To maintain its story, European ethnocentrism will place terror on Muslims just like it placed it on Mandela. It can never place it on Buddhists. We see a theme emerging; there is now a gold rush to Myanmar and multinationals will flock to the country. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s hypocrisy has been very disappointing. But like Malala – not Nabila Rehman – she is the darling of the West because she tells their story.
The problem with modernity
Las Casas described the Native Americans with high admiration. They were seen to be very hospitable and had an extraordinary belief in sharing. In contrast, all Columbus wanted was gold and he represented the Europeans who were dominated by a materialised conception of religion, kings, and an obsession for wealth. The political philosopher John Gray writes:
“It’s not only indigenous peoples that have been crushed under the wheel of human advance…there’s a pattern here, which has been repeated at many points in history. Driven by their beliefs, Europeans in late medieval and early modern times launched crusades against the heathen, while waging savage religious wars among themselves. Later, it was political believers who tried to convert the world by force. Often these campaigns have been accompanied by a good deal of plunder…”
A cynic might say that history teaches us that if you want to get rid of violence, you’ll have to get rid of human beings. But maybe, just maybe, if we make a sincere effort to accept peoples, recognise their pain and look at them through their eyes, we can make a real effort to live in a safer world.
As brothers and sisters in humanity, we cannot afford to place the Jewish Holocaust outside of history. We cannot pretend that it was some “evil mystical space disease” that temporarily visited us. If we do this, then we will continue to create hierarchies of suffering that will dehumanise others that have suffered. There is a deeper problem here and it has to do with modernity. Fascism, communism and democratic capitalism were all Enlightenment projects that led to needless suffering. The era of modernity was born of genocides and genocidal acts and unless we see the process as a whole, we will repeat history again and again. It is okay to forgive but we must never ever forget. And forgiveness can only come after the recognition of one’s pain.
An alternative genocide memorial
On 19th January 2014 the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) will be holding its fifth annual Genocide Memorial Day. It is a day focused on remembering man’s inhumanity to man. The remembrance is not limited by the background of either the victims of the genocides or the perpetrators of any of the genocides. It rejects the notion that there is a hierarchy of victim depending on their background. More importantly, IHRC aims to highlight the processes that lead to genocides and genocidal acts so as to flag up potential for future crises. As IHRC is a campaigning organisation, it uses this commemoration to analyse the climate that can lead to an environment where ordinary people can become part of a genocidal machine. It also looks to develop tools and changes in language and education resources that don’t just deal with history but deal with how we can change the way we act and speak about others. It is also there to deal with legacy issues such as reparations for slavery that will never go away, especially since we have a precedent in the form of a reparations agreement between West Germany and Israel. Kwame Nimako describes the struggle as an ongoing project of liberation as there has only been emancipation from slavery by law.
Anyway whatever happened to the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum? Well it closed down in the autumn of 2008. The director of the museum, Gareth Griffiths, was dismissed amid controversy surrounding the disappearance of some 150 artefacts, with some sold without the owners’ consent. Maybe there’s something ironic about that.
Adam Majeed is a London – soon to be Hong Kong – based writer and editor focused on social theory, philosophy and international affairs.
This year’s Genocide Memorial Day will be held on Sunday 19 January 2014, at 3pm GMT in London, with GMD events in Paris and Amsterdam www.genocidememorialday.org on the same day. The London event will be broadcast live on www.ihrc.tv
This article was first published in Ceasefire Magazine.