The debate over suppressed history

A controversial row is dividing Norwegian and European historians and researchers these days: decolonization of academia. What does it actually mean? Some seem to think that it is a matter of giving credit where credit is due; to all the unsung heroes of non-western background who have been suppressed or banned from official accounts. Others see it as an attempt to introduce non-scientific methodology in areas where it cannot possibly do good, in medicine or the natural sciences. We talked with an outspoken proponent of decolonization, the historian of ideas Dag Herbjørnsrud, and asked him to specify what the movement is trying to do.  When did this movement of decolonization start, and why has it become an issue now?

Dag Herbjørnsrud (born 1971) is a Norwegian historian of ideas, author, and founder of Center for Global and Comparative History of Ideas, and a former political columnist for Al-Jazeera’s English website.

Dag Herbjørnsrud: The event that sparked much of the current decolonial debates was the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue at the University of Cape Town, on April 9th, 2015. One student, Chumani Mawele, started the protest exactly one month earlier, arguing that the “The Thinker”-looking statue of the colonizer, one of the founders of the apartheid ideology, does not represent him nor the students of today’s South Africa. The students started the peaceful civil disobedience campaign #RhodesMustFall – and after a month of discussion, the Council of the university conceded. Later, the students expanded the campaign to include the right to affordable education.

The decolonize campaign spread to Europe as well: At the University of Cambridge, a group of scholars began discussing how one could “decolonize” its English literature syllabus last year – not only focusing on the texts of white males. Academics around the world are now asking: Is the Canon we teach really a selection of the best texts available? And: Is the history of the different disciplines presented in a neutral, scientific way, or how much of the colonial and biased legacy from the last couple of hundred years is still present?

Oxford University Press is now establishing the “New Histories of Philosophies” series with professor Christia Mercer and Melvin Rogers as editors. London University has started to offer the course “World Philosophies,” and Dr Meera Sabaratnam was the one who held the introduction at the seminar on “Decolonising the Academy” in Oslo, June 8th. In Norway, a “Decolonial Research Group”  was set up at The Norwegian University of Science and Techology some months ago, a platform for discussing “the legacies of colonialism from ethical, sociotechnical, literary, and cultural perspectives.” They recently held their first public workshop in Trondheim, and soon after, the student organization SAIH (The Students and Academics International Assistance Fund) did a very well attended seminar in Oslo. This fall, several books are published internationally: One of them is the anthology “Decolonising the University” (Pluto Press); Sussex-professor Gurminder K. Bhambra is one of the editors.  I studied postcolonial literature in the 90s, what is different now?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: You’re right: Decolonization might look like postcolonial studies all over again. And of course, classics like Edward D. Said’s Orientalism (1978), Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak” (1988), and Samir Amin’s Eurocentrism (1988) are an important background for today’s development.

Still, I would say that the decolonizing concept brings new energy to the debates: Instead of a narrative where “postcolonial” succeeds the colonial era, a bit like Neo-romanticism arises as a consequence of Romanticism, the concept of decolonizing rather makes us think: No, we need to reject the colonial ideology altogether. We need decolonize! The problem is the ideological colonial narrative that is all around us. The task is to erase the colonial legacy from our mind sets – in order to get a more balanced and scientific approach to our past and present.

In other words: Decolonising the Mind. That is also the title of a book published in 1986 by the Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. His main concern was language; the right to speak, write, and use one’s native language instead of only colonial languages like English. I think Thiongo’s concept has this transcending power that could be applied to most of the Academy of today. In 1999, New Zealand professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith published Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous People. This is a ground-breaking book that uses the Maori experience with the colonial system in order to bring us forward toward a more non-colonial and global perspective.
As I see it, there are often one or more of these three demands when it comes to decolonizing:

1) A more balanced presentation of the world’s scientific history within the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. The Academy should not only be based on a Eurocentric or Protestant/Catholic narrative.
2) A less Oriental account of the world outside Western Europe/the US. For the last decades this region has been given the mythological name “the Western Countries,” seemingly meaning “white”, but too often the complexity and diversity of Europe and the US are not acknowledged.
3) A more subject critical evaluation of what we study, and why. In several disciplines today, European men have been canonized and given quotas just because one has not bothered to look for earlier or better writers and scholars.

There are other perspectives as well. Student organizations have been working in order to help establish the Indigenous University in Colombia – and last year the Native and Afro-descendant Peoples of Abya Yala thanked a number of Norwegian institutions for their support. So, decolonizing can mean different things depending on the discipline, the place, and the context. But I think the most contributions can be included in the three points above.  You have written a book called Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment (2016, new edition in 2018). Why did you decide to write this work?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: After some twenty years in the media, and some three co-authored books, I got a bit tired of all the myths and simplifications in the media and the academy. So, instead of asking others to give a non-colonial presentation of the world’s global knowledge – arguing for a new Renaissance – I just wrote the book myself. I founded Center for Global and Comparative History on April 6th, 2015, three days before Chumani Mawele started his more successful campaign in South Africa. In May 2016, just before I was to turn in my manuscript of my book, Bryan W. Van Norden and Jay L. Garfield published a column in the New York Times arguing for diversity, and this column resulted in the book Taking Back Philosophy. A Multicultural Manifesto (2017). So, I guess you might say that these topics of diversity, global perspectives, and non-colonial thinking were in the air several places in the world.  Could you give us some examples of characters that have been neglected by official historians?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: Oh, that would take weeks. But of the English texts I have published on these matters, I could mention the Aeon essay “The African Enlightenment”: It covers the Ethiopian rationalist philosopher Zera Yacob (1599–1672) and his student Walda Heywat. In his book, The Inquiry (1667), Zera Yacob argues against all religious laws that are contrary to reason, whether they are Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Indian. He argues against laws that says menstruating women are impure, as it “impedes marriage and the entire life of a woman, and it spoils the law of mutual help, prevents the bringing up of children and destroys love.”

Zera Yacob stated that woman and man are “equal in marriage,” and he put forward a universal argument against slavery and discrimination “All men are equal in the presence of God; and all are intelligent, since they are his creatures; he did not assign one people for life, another for death, one for mercy, another for judgment. Our reason teaches us that this sort of discrimination cannot exist.” This is far beyond anything Kant wrote, a hundred years later.

The Aeon text became one of the most shared essays on the web last December/January, and it was translated and published in some of the foremost papers and magazines in Brazil, Iran, and Italy. So, it seems that there might become a global awakening. More people understand that the human culture has produced so much more exciting than the ethnocentric and national canons we have been fed. The Aeon text also covers Anton Wilhelm Amo (ca. 1703–1755), who was born and died in today’s Ghana. As a young child he was brought to Germany – and he ended up teaching philosophy at Halle and Wittenberg and writing treatises in Latin.

One could of course mention hundreds of names from the Chinese, Indian, Arab, African, and Latin American cultures who have contributed to the world heritage. When it comes to the natural sciences more recently, I would like to mention the Indian physicist Satyendra Nath Bose (1894–1974) whose work on quantum mechanics provided the foundation for Bose-Einstein condensate.  Bose’s contribution was misrepresented in the curriculum at the University of Oslo, and I’m glad the result of the discussion is that he is given due credit for his important work. Bose’s article was actually rejected in the UK, so he sent it to Albert Einstein, who immediately recognized his genius derivation of Planck’s law. Einstein translated the text from English into German, and Bose got it published. The rest is history.

When it comes to the theory of evolution, I think it should be common knowledge to know that Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) – who also can be named a founder of sociology – proclaimed that humans descend from apes: “The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking.”

When it comes to history, I think it is important to know that The Battle of Vienna (1683) – and the rest of European history for that matter – never was a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam. My second Aeon essay, “The Real Battle of Vienna”, highlighted how the Sunni Muslim Tatars of Lithuania and Poland have been vital for the defense of their countries from 1397 and until the Nazi invasion in WWII. In general, the encyclopedias, the media, or the standard text books do not mention such facts; maybe such facts are not deemed as important, but they are.

“Battle of Vienna 1683”, painting by Józef_Brandt  What about this argument presented by your opponents that SAIH will introduce dangerous medical treatements or perhaps set back the progress of research?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: Those accusations against SAIH and others are way off target. True, The Daily Mail and other UK colonial defenders have had some vicious attacks on the students who wanted to mention Kant’s racism and terrible views upon women. But the claims from some academics and media pundits have been rather embarrassing for the image of Scandinavian debate. Wouldn’t decolonization have to take into account the peculiarities of each academic discipline? Can we have a decolonization of medical science, for instance?

Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980–1037), modern portrait

Dag Herbjørnsrud: Yes, one has to be precise. And medical faculty postdoc Tony Sandset has stressed exactly that point. According to Maren Sæbø, a journalist and historian specializing in African affairs, the medical research institutions do not prioritize sickle-cell disease, of which 80 percent of the cases occur in Sub-Saharan Africa. That is one way to decolonize medical science – to give priority also to the health problems among minorities in rich countries and to diseases in countries that have been colonized. In addition, I think all medical students should be taught that the Persian polymath Ibn Sina (980–1037) wrote The Canon of Medicine (1025) – which was the standard medical textbook in Europe for over five hundred years, until the 18th century. If the upcoming doctors and researchers know that they are following in the footsteps of a Muslim from today’s Uzbekistan, the father of modern medicine, I think that will have positive effect on attitudes and actions as well.  Another argument presented by your opponents is that you, by adding to the official canon, will push out familiar faces. These characters, some claim, are essential for understanding our own history?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: That is a valid point to discuss. One answer would be: Look at the books written by professor Arne Næss for exphil (the introductory courses at the Norwegian universities) in 1953. He did not push out familiar faces even though he included Chinese, Indian, and Arab philosophers. It is the Canon of the last decades that has become more narrow and ethnocentric. For example, Goethe was inspired by the Persian poet Hafez, dedicating one of his latest major works (West-Eastern Divan) to him. Both Martin Buber and Martin Heidegger translated and utilized the thinking of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi in their writings. The British translated a lot of Indian texts into English while they occupied/colonized India.

I would say such things changed for the worse after WWII. Ironically, when the former colonies became politically independent states, the former colonizers seem to have lost interest in their intellectual production. So, the political decolonization did not result in a mental decolonization. Take a look at the historian William McNeill’s bestseller The Rise of the West. A History of the Human Community (1963). It neglected or Orientalized the world beyond “the West”. But in 1991, in a new foreword, McNeill admitted that his former scope and conception was “intellectual imperialism,” an expression of “the postwar imperial mood”, and a result of “residual Eurocentrism.” Unfortunately, not too many are as self-critical as him. When history is written it may trace either chronology or influence. Some ideas emerge, only to be forgotten and then re-appear at a later date. It is the same in nature, the eye has been re-invented many times by evolution. Could you give us example of such an idea, and tell us why it is important to study these historical «dead ends»?

“Akbar With Lion and Calf” (ca.1630)

Dag Herbjørnsrud: One example is the atheistic and secular school of India, Lokayata (also known as Carvaka). It is the world’s oldest known atheistic and materialistic thinking, more than 2500 years old. We have texts about such natural thinkers, like Jayarasi in the 8th century and the Muslim Mughal emperor Akbar in the 1580s. But atheism became a “dead end” during colonial times – the 17th–20th centuries were actually very religious. I think atheism/Lokayata is an example of an idea/school that can reappear more forcefully now in the 21st century. Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya’s collection on this is so great – and just a week ago, Ethan Mills published a very exciting book on a closely related topic, scepticism, namely Three Pilars of Scepticism in Classical India.  Some claim that decolonization should only be relevant for certain cultural spheres. The Chinese, for instance, should perhaps be allowed to use their own thinkers instead of the western ones. What are your specific goals with decolonization? Are you trying to change our common global knowledge, or are you calling for more space for individuality?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: I’m trying to change, or rather improve, our common global knowledge. I think we need to expand our knowledge both in its breadth and in its depth. A hundred or two hundred years ago, the educated people were proud to know about the world. For the last decades, it seems like we in Europe have become less interested in the global history if ideas. The global perspectives of Arne Næss was removed from the curriculum lists, and the UiO master program of both the history of ideas and cultural history has been defined purely as part of “European culture”.

This idea of “cultural spheres”, that only the Chinese should know about the Chinese, is really new and dangerous. Yes, Europeans still know about the peace message of Gandhi and Mandela – but there is so much more – like the cosmopolitan “universal love” philosophy of the Chinese thinker Mozi (3rd c BCE).

Luckily, people in Africa and Asia get to know about Europe, but it is dangerous that Europeans in general are not taught much about the rest of the world – at least not in a non-Oriental or non-colonial way. This narrowness feeds extremists and populists. In his main work of 1543, Copernicus proudly quoted Arab scientists and stated that he relied on Egyptian calculations and Indian numbers. Such pre-colonial world-views are seldom these days. But I still believe in change.So many excellent academics are working for the better – for example Peter Frankopan, check his bestseller The Silk Roads (2015), and Wendy L Belcher, Sarah E. Bond, Dorothy Kim, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Peter Adamson, and Chike Jeffers. Why do you think there has been so much opposition to the decolonization project within Norwegian academia?

Ibn Rushd, as represented in an old Italian depiction

Dag Hebjørnsrud: One reason is that some scholars feel threatened. After all, the philosophy departments in Norway basically teach philosophy only within a European Catholic-Protestant tradition. So, Europeans like the Muslim Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and the Jewish philosopher Maimonides – both from what is now Spain and born in the 12th century – are excluded. Ibn Rushd was included in the Canon by both Dante in 1320 and by the painter Raphael in 1511, but now, he’s not presented as a European anymore.

In addition, Norwegians have for generations been taught that they have been “colonized” by Danish and Swedes. Norway’s unions with its neighboring countries had nothing to do with colonialism, of course. But Norwegians are not being taught that Norway was heavily involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade; shipping over 100,000 Africans to the Danish-Norwegian colonies in Ghana and in the Caribbean (St. Thomas, St John, and St Croix) from 1672 to 1814. And it’s not yet part of general knowledge to acknowledge that the Sami people for centuries have been treated in a colonial way by the state, like the indigenous people in Canada or the Maoris in New Zealand.

Without facing such facts or realizing the historical suppression of the Jews and the Roma people, it will also be hard to face such a debate on decolonizing the Academy.  Let us say that you are successful in your efforts. What will be different in our western academia?
Dag Herbjørnsrud: Well, it’s not about me; it’s about us. What kind of academia would we like? Several loud voices seem to fancy a more nationalist, ethnocentric, and colonial curriculum – based on a white identity ideology. I would prefer a more balanced, global, scientific, and non-ideological presentation of the past and the present. In short: decolonized and non-colonized reading lists. There is a long way to go. But there is still hope.

Dag Herbjørnsrud is the author of  Global Knowledge. Renaissance for a New Enlightenment (2016, new edition in 2018), a work hailed as “An enormously important project” by Norwegian social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen. The book is a journey into the history of ideas, from India’s secular lokayata-philosophy, via Copernicus and the woman who wrote the world’s very first novel, to The Matrix. 

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