Verses on Decolonization
Current events in the international sphere, including the emergence of the Islamic State, invite us to think about de-westernization after the Cold War and decoloniality after decolonization.
If a point of reference is needed, the 1955 Bandung Conference is a good one. China was under the leadership of Mao Zedong, and Zhou Enlai, first Premier of the People’s Republic of China, was among the personalities from 29 emerging African and Asian states represented. Russia was not invited.
Bandung’s message was clear: neither capitalism nor communism, but decolonization. Yet, China was the only communist state in a meeting proposing decolonization from capitalism and from communism. In the view of the organizers (Sukarno, Nehru, and Nasser), China did not belong to the Second World, but to the Third.
Bandung was not interested in postcolonialism. At the time, postmodernity was not a concept upon which the postcolonial piggybacked, nor was it an academic concern. It was a state issue: political and economic. No academic was invited to Bandung. Afro-American writer Richard Wright attended, impressed by the conference announcement he read in a newspaper in Paris. He wrote a memorable book, The Color Curtain (1956), a play on words combining the Soviet “red curtain” with the “people of color” attending the Bandung conference. In his inaugural speech, Sukarno even stated that Bandung was the first international conference of people of color in the history of humankind. It was.
It was also decolonial. But there was another word, less evident but complementary, floating around during the event: “de-westernization.” De-westernization became the preferred word for two types of project. One was among Muslim intellectuals, since Islam was not and could not have been colonized like India or Algeria. Yet Islam did not escape the impact of colonialism. Malaysian thinker Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas included a chapter on the de-westernization of knowledge in his book Islam and Secularism (1978), equating de-westernization with the Islamization of knowledge. (It should be clear today how the Islamization of knowledge is but one direction the process of de-westernization has taken.)
More recently, de-westernization has been revamped in the sphere of political philosophy to characterize the change of direction undertaken by states that are delinking from the mandates of western institutions. Singapore’s public intellec-tual Kishore Mahbubani characterized de-westernization in these words:
“To understand de-westernization, it’s important to first understand westernization, and it’s important to understand the psychological impact of the 200 years of western colonial domination of the world. Most Europeans are aware of the physical colonization of Asia that took place, but they’re not aware of the mental colonization that took place of Asian minds. And for a long time, many Asians believed the only way to succeed in life is to completely become a carbon copy of the west; to become a clone of the west and of course, it was reflected very much in the mood of triumphalism that you saw at the end of the Cold War.”
China, like Russia, was never colonized. Like Islam, which spread over several nations and continents, China and Russia did not escape coloniality. Today, both states are leading the march of de-westernization while also leading the BRICS, having “moved” from the Second and Third World to lead de-westernization in the First.
But de-westernization is no longer a question of east and west, or south and north: BRICS countries are in the north (Russia), the east (China and India), the south (Brazil and South Africa). Together they form a transcontinental organization that has disrupted the twentieth-century belief in east-west partitions; First, Second, and Third World hierarchies; and the south-north divide after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Three Worlds partition. Such partitions are the consequences of global linear thinking and international law.
As Carl Schmitt unapologetically stated, international law partitions the globe to the benefit of Europe (and the United States; Schmitt made this statement in the early 1950s). Thus, global linear thinking and international law regulated and assisted the sustained process of global westernization from 1500, when international law emerged as an instrument of global regulation, until 2000. For Mahbubani, this process lasted for 200 years of British imperialism in southeast Asia. In the Americas, the count is 500.
We are not in a new Cold War. Communism is not an issue. We are experiencing the radical confrontation between de-westernization and re-westernization in efforts by the United States and the heart of the EU to preserve the long-lasting privileges created by westernization. Decolonization has failed, mainly because—as it was conceived during the Cold War—it did not challenge the political theory and political economy sustained and promoted by liberalism and socialism, both siblings of the European enlightenment. Decoloniality after decolonization promotes delinking from both, while de-westernization embraces economic colonialism—capitalism in the vocabulary of liberals, neoliberals, and Marxists alike—in order to delink, politically, from westernization.
One open question today is how the sphere of art might respond to this global world order. After the Paris massacre, we were told this was a crime against humanity. Yet, voices from Beirut and Russia were quick to respond: we, the non-west, are humans, too; so are the civilians being targeted in Iraq and Palestine. This is the most pressing issue of our time, the effects of which will stay with us for several generations. Decolonization failed because we lost our humanity.
We must learn to delink. The conversation must move beyond north-south, or east-west. The reason is that in the twenty-first century, colonialism is over and postcolonialism is meaningless.