Hazem Saghieh

On ‘Colonialism’ as an ‘Original Sin’

While colonialism, including the settler variant, is obviously an acute and vicious problem in Palestine and for Palestinians, this does not mean that decolonization is a universal issue that all of humanity must contend with. In fact, this assumption goes against the popular claim that Palestinians are suffering at the hands of "history’s last colonial project."

It seems that the universality of colonization and decolonization is being portrayed as conventional wisdom, or rather a snapshot of the current state of the world. Books and articles about "decolonization" are published, conferences are convened, it is chanted for at protests, and academic curricula at prestigious universities are changed to incorporate it.

Is the world being asked, then, to relaunch independence movements and expel colonialists?

Some "post-colonialists" hit back with: this time around, the "non-white" world is being subjected to cultural colonization. Political independence has indeed been achieved, but what the history of colonialism has done and continues to do must be contended with. It has turned our identities away from themselves and turned us away from them, and it has imposed and continues to impose the conditions that determine how we see ourselves and the world. Through the education system, cultural industry, and media, a colonial conception of the world has been formed, and an alternative one must confront it.

But the overwhelming majority of the literature associated with this school of thought is written and published in English, which is supposedly an essential conduit of colonial influence! If the demand is to make the "subaltern speak," as Gayatri Spivak (a prominent Indian academic based in the United States) put it, we only hear him speaking in English, and occasionally, in French, and all of his work is issued by the "white man's" universities and publishing houses.

We could perhaps conclude some lessons from the life story of the Kenyan novelist Ngugi wa Thiong'o, the most renowned novelist to come out of East Africa. He became a prominent figure in cultural decolonization movements, spearheading a campaign to abolish teaching English literature at the University of Nairobi, where he had been a professor, and to have it replaced by works written in African languages, some of which are only spoken. He also threw himself into a project to establish an African theater free of European influence.

However, in 1999, Ngugi was arrested by the Kenyan authorities and imprisoned for nearly a year without trial, during which he was allowed only one hour of sunlight a day. Nonetheless, he responded to his country’s authorities, from his cell, by escalating against English "cultural imperialism," announcing that he would write exclusively in his native language, Gikuyu, and changing his original name, James Ngugi.

In 2002, he returned to Kenya, which he had been exiled from after he was banned from teaching and his family was persecuted, only for him and his wife to be assaulted and have their home robbed two years later. And so, he ended up teaching comparative literature in California, where his works, penned in his native language and translated into English, are taught, published by prestigious publishers, and acclaimed by American newspapers and magazines.

But haven't we heard something like this noise before? Yes, we have. In the early 1960s, Ghanaian President Kwame Nkrumah coined the term "neocolonialism," and in 1965, he published a famous book entitled "Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism." If Lenin believed that imperialism was "the highest stage of capitalism", then Nkrumah found in "neocolonialism" the highest stage of imperialism.

By virtue of his theory, slandering political independence as nothing more than "a national flag and a chair at the United Nations" became popular. The reality, this narrative claims, is that colonialism persists through control of markets, tastes, exports, and development projects.

In other words, political independence was pronounced dead in the name of economics, and then in the name of culture. In both cases, it was claimed that real independence had never happened and that "colonization" is not a thing of the past, nor even a phenomenon that continues to this day, but a permanent, core part of our being.

Who knows if, after economics and culture, a third clash could break out, maybe over bodybuilding or child-rearing.

This use of colonization seems to resemble the original sin of the Christian narrative as it had been introduced by the Apostle Paul and developed by St. Augustine. As a result of the sin Adam committed the day he was tricked by the serpent, humans were banished from paradise and have been plagued by misery generation after generation. They will be miserable forever, because what happened cannot be repeated in reverse, and therefore, those who wish to atone for their sins are not afforded the chance to do so.

Nowadays, since national liberation and independence movements have yielded miserable and heart-wrenching results, colonialism must be immortalized and perpetuated further. And so, for parties that define themselves solely as anti-colonial, keeping a dead colonialism alive becomes necessary in order to justify the life of the party that derives its meaning solely from opposing it.

We can use a graph to illustrate that the less a country that had been colonized in the past has achieved, the more it cries out against colonialism, and vice versa.

Thus, decolonization is impossible to achieve because colonialism, everywhere except for Palestine, has been dislodged. On top of that, colonization should not be dislodged even if it did still exist. Those demanding that we rid ourselves of it are unlikely to do so while it remains their raison d'etre.

Really, what would they do if they recognized decolonization, or if they did decolonize?