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The Movement To ‘De-Westernize And De-Colonize Knowledge’ In Universities – OpEd

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A brief Facebook exchange with a proponent and activist of a new theoretical fad to “totally re-Islamize” knowledge.

I had a very interesting and engaging Facebook conversation with an academic person, Syed Farid AlAtas, in Malaysia, perhaps a university teacher of Social Studies he was, on his belief that we need to “decolonize knowledge,” and we need to speed up this movement called “decoloniality.” That the complaint is that American and European sources of knowledge are too “parochial.” We must then “de-Westernize” knowledge altogether so that we can be more liberated in our thinking and our actions. In short, we can no longer be slaves to and our mind held captive by “Western knowledge.” So goes the ideological battle cry.

He seemed to be quite well-read on the history of Islamic thought. I sensed that his area of interest is essentially the “decolonization of Western knowledge”.  He seems to be an active speaker in Malaysia these days, promoting this movement. A good contribution to critical dialogue, I suppose. He believes that we should all move away from reliance on American and European (and I suppose Western) sources of knowledge and focus on “native sources” though by nativity he meant sources from Islam primarily.

Below is a summary of our dialogue on the meaning of “de-colonizing and de-Westernizing: knowledge and what I uncovered in the process.

Of Language and Reality of de-coloniality

This academic said that “decoloniality” is not limited to language only but other spheres.

Decolonisation of knowledge doesn’t simply have to do with language. It’s about being creative and cosmopolitan in knowledge production rather than restricting oneself to American and British sources. Decolonisation of knowledge should not be confused with nativism which is another form of ethnocentrism, like Eurocentrism. (SF AlAtas, September 23, 2021 Facebook page, Revamping Malaysian Education)

So I responded:

How can the “decolonization of knowledge” not have everything to do with language if the latter is the symbolic system of meaning that structures reality, explained reality, and even deconstructs reality. That Language is Thought and Thoughts, psychologically, defines reality? This may mean if the language of the post-industrial and information age is rooted in the English Language of today, how would “decolonizing or delinking it with reality help us grasp today’s scientific and technological reality? This is what confuses me of the “decoloniality” fad and theoretical fashion shoved down the intellect of the natives.

The American and British sources of knowledge, framed from their epistemological evolution are in themselves cosmopolitan and creative, contrary to the “parochiality claim” mounted. They are a history of the evolution of ideas, from Medieval times, if you may, to the current character of advanced knowledge that propels advanced science and humanism. To tell the students not to reply on American and European sources for research, and to go back to “Native/Cultural Knowledge” might be a meaningless venture when today’s world is a highly scientific and cybernetic one. A case in point: One can promote the old Malay script of Jawi extensively and excavate Old Malay manuscripts to dig for “cultural knowledge” in the name of “decolonizing knowledge” and to delink them to “Western knowledge”, but what is the end goal? To rely on what to become what, as a society? To de-evolve? To go back to pre-colonial times? The non-scientific irrational world? The world of unverifiable, via human intellect and scientific reasoning, “data collected through intuition and claims of divine revelations and sayings of soothsayers”?

Hence, my confusion of this argument on “de-coloniality” and to “de-colonize the intellect”. Doesn’t it sound like a fad that has transformed into a fashionable nothingness, epistemologically speaking? Don’t we like what the Americans and the Europeans bring to the table, in this world of hyperloops, blockchain technology, space travel, Internet of Things (IoT), neural links, and Mars landing? Do we want to bring our society to the time of pre-colonialism? To 6th. Century Arabia or the times of the bloody conflict in Karbala?

Is the American and British view parochial?

The champion of de-colonialty then proceeded to write responses about the problem with the source of knowledge coming from America and Britain:

American and British traditions of knowledge production can be extremely parochial in the way they deal with foundational knowledge. An example is the way social theory is taught. It is taught in a Eurocentric and androcentric way, leaving out the contributions of women and non-Western thinkers to social theory in the 19th century, as if only a few white males like Marx, Weber and Durkheim thought creatively about society and deserve to be founders of social theory. That’s being parochial. (SF AlAtas, Facebook post reply, 23 September, 2021)

I responded:

Not necessarily parochial, American knowledge as you claimed. Pragmatism governs the ideology of knowledge production. The knowledge that produces useful artifacts for society. Befitting the dominance of liberal democracy. The problem with the so-called decolonization movement, or fashionable theorizing if you may, is that it is only of value as anti-thesis to a thesis, essentially Marxist dialectic in the application and revolving around the idea of “critique of society and its cultural practices” rather than produce ideas that move nations. Today, it is the Age of (Relative Declining) American Enterprise and global capitalism that provide jobs and move nations. American pragmatism at work. Scientific inquiry and application at work, Not parochialism.

The faddism of the “decolonization movement” has been heightened of late after the Black Lives Matter episode that became a hashtag of global proportion. I think the Malaysian social science community too picked that whiff and started to mount their understanding of how then to “decolonize and westernize and de-whitenize” knowledge. So, the decoloniality movement got its inspiration from the whiff of what happened in Baltimore that summer of the protests of BlackLivesMatter. Then we now have the Critical Race Theory movement and some whiffs of it in Malaysia.

The interest to promote the writings of Marxists such as Ali Shariati, Antonio Gramsci, Paulo Freire, and the like whose writings were useful (then) to overthrow regimes. But there is still a confusion of what constitutes “Eurocentric Thinking” or “Asiacentric Thinking” or “Afrocentric” or “Alaskacentric” or whatever when thinking is thinking and whoever produces knowledge to analyze phenomena, using the scientific method, gets to be applauded or criticized, doesn’t matter whether they are male or female, black or white, Mao Tse Tung or Stalin.

And as for women theorists “left behind” in the process of being acknowledged by history, I don’t see much relevance if we accept the fact that women were not part of the formal educational process that helped produce theorists. We could still lament it, but I do not see any major concern whoever wrote the Romantic Age novel Frankenstein, or who penned Genji-Mono-gatari or The Tale of Genji, or whether a woman led the 100-year war in France, or whether the earliest modern schools in Indonesia were started by Raden Adjeng Kartini. What is important is what is produced and of what utility is the artifact and whether it is borne out of the appreciation for human freedom to think and create.

I feel that the decoloniality movement is shallow and could not withstand epistemological scrutiny to render it defensible even at its early stage of conception. I am reminded of American Nobel Laureate TS Eliot’s depiction of men in one of his poems, Hollow Men, when we speak of “de-Westernizing knowledge.”

Is the truth about Islamization of knowledge?

I had this question too:

If the goal to “decolonize” and “de-Westernize” knowledge is to Islamize it by throwing metaphysical and epistemological holding grounds beneath, and next to have the “no-longer-secularized knowledge” be the basis of all forms of knowledge, and next this new worldview be forced upon all educators and educational institutions be built with the iron cages of this structure of parochialism imitating as universalism, where then would the idea of “local knowledge” be useful? Meaning: if Islamization of knowledge also means Arabization of discourse, where would other denominational knowledge indigenous to “this region” fit in, if everything has to be Islamized? I am still thinking how of this logic of hegemony.

But how did this idea become institutionalized? Herein lies the story of ideologies, institutions, and institutionalization.

The International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), set up during the incubation period of the International Islamic University of Malaysia. ISTAC, was set up to “Islamize” knowledge and to give ideological support to the Islamization Agenda of the 1980s. A good study of the role of institutions in shaping the thinking of the nation. What have we seen, after 40 years of the work of “decolonizing knowledge and de-westernizing” it, replaced by another ideology? Sociologists would find this question interesting looking at it as the role of education as social reproduction. The conveyer belt of society. Or the difference between ideology and indoctrination translated into the inner workings of the process of educating.

How do non-Muslims feel about the extent of Islamization, now leading to the pushing of the agenda of the full implementation of the Sharia law? How will our Malaysia education system continue to change, viz-a-viz English Language competency and mastery of the Sciences preferably taught in English?

Another question I had after reading all of the above: How can the Islamic esoteric knowledge of Islam (the ilm tassawuf) be turned into a model for public education encompassing the lives of non-Muslims as well when tassawuf is primarily (and most importantly) a private practice in itself? Is this not a fatal flaw of the idea brought by the early proponents of the Islamization process? The claim that a deeply particular and private understanding of Islam is to be made acceptable to the public? A cultish form of Islam to be made an educational paradigm for the masses? Help me answer this.

Boko Haram, then?

Albeit brief and incidental, I had a fruitful discussion concerning my inquiry into understanding this theoretical faddism called the “de-colonizing and de-Westernizing knowledge” movement. It is taking roots in Malaysian universities and I believe the academic and non-academic communities are talking about it in great length. Of course, in cyberspace this is also a trendy topic. A healthy conversation going on but still, the question is: how do you divorce “Western knowledge” from your intellectual life, because you are protesting against colonialism. If you are a teacher in a school or the university, what will you tell students about the sources you prefer them to use, other than those coming from US, British, European, or in general “Western” sources? So that you can liberate their minds from being a captive of the West. So that you can replace it with “Islamic knowledge” as the most complete paradigm of knowledge as what these promoters of this movement are insisting?

BOKO HARAM – this word came to my mind at the end of my thinking about my confusion. It means, in Hausa/Nigerian Language, “Western Education is a sin.”  Is this what the thinking fad in Malaysia is all about? Getting rid of the Original Sin of the thinking of human beings, in general?

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Dr. Azly Rahman

Dr. Azly Rahman is an academician, educator, international columnist, and author of nine books He holds a Columbia University (New York City) doctorate in international education development and Master's degrees in six areas: education, international affairs, peace studies, communication, fiction, and non-fiction writing. He is a member of the Columbia University chapter of the Kappa Delta Pi International Honor Society in Education. Twitter @azlyrahman. More writings here. His latest book, a memoir, is published by Penguin Books is available here.

One thought on “The Movement To ‘De-Westernize And De-Colonize Knowledge’ In Universities – OpEd

  • September 27, 2021 at 4:14 am
    Permalink

    Interesting. Knowledge does not have a nationality or religion. Knowledge is suppose to be exploratory and nuetral. The storytellers may have thier perspectives thus we need many perspectives to get a complete picture of issues. Considering that when Baghad and other Islamic learning centres were great they seeked out knowledge from Greece to China and Etihopia. Jews, Christians, Muslims and others all worked together. Islamic knowledge grew out of many sources and exchanges.

    Universities should encourage students to explore different sources and perspectives so decolonization of knowledge does not really make sense.

    Reply

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