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Two steps backward

February 07, 2013

WHAT with the unending melodrama that is the democratic transition in Islamabad, it is hardly surprising that recent happenings in Mali and Algeria have passed under our collective radar screen.

We pay scant attention to Africa at the best of times, having imbibed — willingly or otherwise — the colonial gaze vis-à-vis the ‘dark continent’. Yet not so long ago many in this country recognised that our fate was inextricably tied to that of the ‘Third World’.

Regardless of how relevant 20th century political lexicon such as the Third World may be today, it is not difficult to make the case that it is still in the interests of working people in Africa, Latin America and many parts of Asia to struggle as one for wholesale political, economic and cultural changes in the contemporary global order. If nothing else, we should at least be aware of our place in this order.

It is now more than 11 years since the so-called ‘war on terror’ was launched in our very own backyard. The corporate media and Western governments have made a point of singling out this region, and Pakistan in particular, as the epicentre of ‘global terror’. Every once so often, however, an epic battle between the forces of good and evil (read: the US military and Al Qaeda) erupts in another part of the world.

While I am not a believer that geopolitical developments proceed according to a script, there is nevertheless a method to the madness. Just as our region is under the spotlight because of its strategic importance and natural resources, both cold and hot wars continue to rage across large parts of Africa for control over territory and vast deposits of minerals and fossil fuels.

Africa and Asia have been pillaged for at least two centuries by Western powers, initially as part of the civilising mission, later as part of the war against communism and, in the contemporary epoch, under the guise of fighting terrorism. The storyline has remained more or less the same even if the principal protagonists have changed to match the ideological requirements of each successive historical period.

Until recently only Europeans and North Americans took aim at the ex-colonies. But things have changed. It is now common knowledge that China has developed enormous material interests in Africa.

The scale of investments made by both state-owned and private Chinese firms across the length and breadth of the continent reflect the belief of the Chinese state that African economies will help meet China’s rapidly growing energy demands whilst also absorbing Chinese goods and services.

China’s investments in this country — and in other countries of the region — have also increased exponentially over the past decade or so. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that China’s growing economic stake is at the very least not unrelated to the conflicts unfolding both in this region and across other parts of the Third World.

It is quite remarkable just how little such matters figure in most of our analyses of ‘terrorism’ and appraisals of the wars being fought in the name of freedom and democracy. Most of the commentary about the military incursion into Mali led by the French military predictably emphasises the existential threat civilised society faces from Al Qaeda, and the need to counter this threat by all means necessary.

But what of the ongoing conflicts in Africa that precede the ‘war on terror’? It is as if the gory struggles for diamonds, oil and gas, and a host of other resources that have been a permanent feature of the post-colonial African landscape have been banished from our collective consciousness.

The truth is that wars have never been fought exclusively in the defence of an idea, whether it be religious or otherwise. Even if one makes the argument that ideological wars were a feature of the pre-modern world, things have changed decisively since the emergence of the capitalist world-system.

Both in this region and in Africa, there are more than a few brutal imperial adventures being waged in the name of fighting terrorism. And then there are the innumerable superpower conflicts that cannot even be dressed up under a civilisational garb. It is a measure of just how hegemonic the contemporary global order has become that so many otherwise thinking people simply refuse to dig beneath the surface and uncover why ‘terrorists’ keep popping up all over the globe.

Tragically many within the Third World who are willing to put forth some explanation for the proliferation of ‘terror’ have become increasingly unapologetic critics of their own people. While critiques of Muslim societies from within are imperative, by completely abandoning the anti-imperialist agenda in the name of civilisational survival our haughty liberal intelligentsia is reinventing the Orientalist wheel, and with a vengeance.

It is thus that the people of Mali, just like those of Waziristan, have been reduced to caricatures. Until the 1970s the intelligentsia of the Third World challenged such imperial caricatures, thereby contributing to progressive anti-imperialist political projects. Now that the intelligentsia has abandoned the anti-imperialist struggle, it is difficult not to wonder whether we have not taken one step forward and two backwards in the centuries since modernity exploded into our societies via European colonialism.

In the heyday of the anti-colonial struggle during the 1950s and 1960s, when both African and Asian colonies were throwing off the yoke of slavery, the celebrated — and controversial — freedom fighter Frantz Fanon captured the imagination of a generation through his writings on the psychology of colonial bondage and the prospects of genuine liberation.

Fanon’s argument was a simple one: that the imperative of liberation faced its most formidable challenge in the form of the ‘native intellectual’. Amongst the major contradictions of the colonial project was that it produced a native educated elite which would end up spearheading the freedom struggle. But without a ‘decolonisation of the mind’, this elite was likely to simply replace the departing colonial master rather than oversee a substantive overhaul in the political, economic and cultural structures of colonialism.

Fanon’s premonitions proved to be well-founded. The ‘kala sahib’ now rules the roost and has over time become increasingly alienated from, and unconcerned with, the ‘uncivilised masses’ that he once purported to represent. In Mali, Pakistan and across the periphery, the ‘kala sahib’ remains the most loyal lieutenant of the Empire.

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