Colonial present

Published July 7, 2023
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

THE French state prosecutes a mini civil war against African and Arab populations. The Israeli Defence Forces bomb and kill Palestinians in the West Bank with complete impunity, again. And Pakistani youngsters smuggle themselves on fishing vessels at the risk of death to the coveted West, even as our rulers grovel for handouts from ‘donors’, and then celebrate when we get them. Who says colonialism is dead?

It is fashionable these days to take a stingy view of the past, to say that talk of colonialism and imperialism is passé. The argument is that we should take responsibility for our own failures and stop blaming the white man.

It is correct that aimlessly blaming the white man or anyone is neither here nor there. But acknowledging our colonial present is not about blaming anyone; it is about accurately identifying the roots of today’s structural crises so as to find a way out.

For Pakistanis — and other Muslim-majority societies — the words ‘colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ drip easily off our tongues when we talk of Palestine. Israel, and its principal backer, the US, have engaged in naked aggression to dispossess Palestinians of their lands and dignity for decades. The Israeli settler-colonial project extends deeper into Palestinian territory with each passing day.

But there is less clarity about the global implications of US-Israeli expansionism. It has been advertised that the Gulf kingdoms seek some accommodation with the Zionist state.

Indeed, the Gulf states are the quintessential example of how our ‘Muslim’ brethren are driven by the pursuit of profit; for them, it is literally kosher to do business with anyone, including Zionists.

Seen thus, it is not sufficient to simply voice outrage vis-à-vis Israeli crimes against the Palestinians — there must be a political-economic project to isolate Israel, just like that which squeezed apartheid South Africa.

‘Colonialism’ and ‘imperialism’ drip easily off our tongues.

Political-economic subjugation is also the root cause of the current fires in France. Long-term immigrant populations — the vast majority from France’s former colonial possessions in West Africa and the Maghreb — are rebelling against their unending trysts with systemic racism, class exploitation and other forms of discrimination. Whatever the immediate trigger, the scale and depth of the resentment demands acknowledgement of the deep-seated colonial legacies that afflict France today.

The French state has no problem assimilating Africans and Arabs when it comes to nation-state projects — most of France’s footballing success, for example, has been powered by brown and black players. But it also presides over ghettoisation, incarceration and property regimes that relegate brown and black French ‘citizens’ to second-class status.

France also has no problem continuing to extract resources from its former colonial possessions in Africa. The slogans of the French republic — liberté, egalité, fraternité — ring hollow in the face of such colonial modalities.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the jubilation at the IMF agreeing to give us a measly $3 billion shows how we refuse to grapple with our very own colonial present. Many insist the IMF and other donors have no role in our crisis. This is akin to turning one’s back on the truth that Pakistan is like many former colonies in Latin America, Africa and Asia whose economies, polities and societies continue to be shaped by neocolonial debt regimes.

Why, for instance, could our donors not have responded to last summer’s floods — and the approximately $40bn in damages incurred — by not giving us more loans, and instead, cancelling at least some of our existing debt obligations?

One reason is that our ruling class — led by the military est­ablishment — is simply not committed to undoing the political, economic and cultural structures that keep them at a table in proximity to the global ruling class.

The smug contentment at doing a deal with the IMF mirrors the contentment at issuing contracts to MNCs, one’s own companies and those of friends while sacrificing the resources and rights of the sons and daughters of the soil.

It mirrors the building of countless roads, expressways, mega water infrastructure and real estate schemes despite clear evidence that the colonial logic of conquering nature are disastrous. It mirrors the fiefdoms of sardars, the epidemic of enforced disappearances, and the war economies generated by the weaponisation of religion.

Deploying politically correct, liberal language to sanitise what is happening in Palestine, France, Pakistan’s own peripheries, or many other parts of the world is at best self-deception, and at worst, colonial apologism.

To acknowledge our colonial present is to at least reimagine political-economic projects of decolonisation that represent the only potential salvation for our youth.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 7th, 2023

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