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Iranian-American Professor Mohammad Marandi has argued that deeply questioning Western values such as liberalism, individualism, and capitalism, is difficult today because “our minds have been colonised”.
Marandi was delivering a talk at an academic conference in Istanbul, Turkey, titled “Western ‘Values’ and the Colonisation of the Mind”. The conference was organised by a body named “iHAK”, and held on the 9th of December 2017.
Date: 12 December, 2017
First of all I’d like to express my gratitude for being invited to this wonderful city. Istanbul reminds me very much of Iran, and the similarities as I’ve said before to my friends in Turkey is quite striking at multiple levels.
The point of start for me I think is interesting because it’s linked to events that we see today in Palestine and the issue surrounding al-Quds, and the notion of Western values and human rights and democracy. My argument here is not whether the United States or Western countries abide by human values and human rights. I think that many scholars in the West would agree to strong criticisms of the behaviour of Western powers and Western-dominated institutions, including the United States. But I think fewer would be willing to accept the notion of Western culpability, and moral culpability in particular, at the theoretical level, and to accept the notion that whether Western countries adhere to their values or not is one thing, but whether those values or at least some of those values that they promote actually are good for humanity, or harmful for humanity. And this in my opinion questions the whole notion or the whole narrative of the so-called ‘free world’ and the ‘civilised world’ as a binary or a part of a binary where the rest of the world is of course not free and uncivilised, and whether Western countries deserve the role of leadership in the international community.
I think that not only would many Western scholars disagree, but I think that many scholars from the non-Western world would disagree with my argument, and in my opinion, they are so adherent – some – to Western so-called values, that they are not willing to see anything existing beyond what we would call the ‘metropolis’. My question therefore is whether we truly question concepts such as liberalism, individualism, and capitalism in a proper sense. Not that we should negate any element within these ideas, but whether we should view them as positive per se.
Our minds have been colonised
One reason why it is difficult for us to critique them is because in my opinion our minds have been colonised. When the Conquistadors first went to the Americas and they so-called ‘discovered’ America – and you all know that there were already tens of millions of people living in (the) Americas who did not need to be discovered – but when they met them a number of interesting things happened. One was that in their logs, in their written statements, they had a great deal of admiration for the physical features of the indigenous population. The indigenous population were seen as aesthetically pleasing, as beautiful, despite the fact that they were much darker in complexion than the European invaders. On the other hand, among the very few documents left from the Aztec civilisation, because it was destroyed – and by the way the capital of the Aztec civilisation was what we now call Mexico City – at that time it was the largest city in the world. So they were not a backward, barbaric people – they of course had their negative attributes or at least their governments, their state, but they were people who had their own form of society. They on the other hand, in the very few documents that remain, that have been found, viewed the European invaders as very pale, even though they were from southern Europe. So the point isn’t whether the Europeans are better looking or the natives were better looking. The point is that when these two cultures first met, and hegemony had yet come to play in full force, values with regards to aesthetics were different. But once hegemony comes into play, once domination comes into play, then the darker the skin, the uglier, and also the less intelligent, because the surface and what lies beneath are interconnected. I’ll get to this later. So the point that I’m making is that hegemony influences the way we perceive ourselves and one another. It doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as essence in aesthetics, but what it does mean is that a great deal of what we consider to be essential is in fact cultural and influenced often by hegemonic values, for good or for ill.
The flexible positional superiority of the West
A second point is what I call or what many call flexible positional superiority in the West, and something that we do not take into account of. In the 19th century, Turks were considered to be, excuse me, they were considered in Western texts to have a tendency towards homosexuality, in the Romantic texts, poets such as Byron among others. And one of the signs of Western superiority to ‘Muslims’, because Turks were the ‘Muslims’, in the poetry and the texts they would often say the Turks, the Persians, the Moors, the Arabs, they were inter-exchanged, because it didn’t make really much of a difference, they were all the same. The Turks were considered to have a tendency towards homosexuality, and that’s why they were less civilised than their Western counterparts. But let’s move fast forward in the late 20th century. Now the non-Western world is considered to be less civilised because it is unaccepting of homosexuality. So the values have changed 180 degrees, but the relative positional superiority hasn’t changed, so it doesn’t matter if homosexuality is good or bad, the point is that the West would be dominant, not whether there was a tendency, that’s irrelevant and not important, so don’t be concerned about that.
Or for example, women in the West were considered to be more civilized than women in most of the world because they were more modestly dressed, again in the 19th century and early 20th century. Now, again this relative positional superiority continues, but their society and they are more civilized because they are free to wear as little as they wish. Now again I don’t even want to go into the whole issue of Hollywood now, Weinstein, and how the commodification of women in Western society and the sexualisation of the female body, what harm that has contributed to the West and the world, but the point is this relative positional superiority means that if the values change, they still have the upper hand in morality, even if it’s completely undermined.
How is this important? Because through hegemony it is not only the Western world that views itself in a particular way, but also the non-Western world, because of the power of culture. And when I say power I don’t mean it in a positive or a negative way, but the power of culture influences. There is a very famous novel in the English language by Toni Morrison, an African-American female novelist called The Bluest Eye. In it a young African-American, she wishes to have blue eyes, her name is Pecola. It’s a very bitter novel, very bitter novel, but her whole dream of beauty is for her eyes to be blue, which is impossible because of course, she’s African-American, and she’s even ridiculed by those African-Americans who have lighter skin. Why? Because it is imposed upon society that the lighter the skin, the better (and) the greater their value as human beings aesthetically and otherwise. It is imposed upon them. Remember what I said earlier on about the Conquistadors. Ultimately she goes mad. Why? Because she cannot reconcile that which she cannot have, and that which she is, because she’s been forced by society, and she’s ultimately accepted the notion that she is somehow inadequate. We can see this in how people in our part of the world and in other parts of the world, they operate on their nose, their eyes, how they permanently change the colour of their hair, not for the sake of change, but to look Western. You see it on the covers of journals and so on. You can see it in China, across the globe, across the world.
Western hegemonic values in academia
Even I would say, that we have the same problem in academia. So for example, as an academic at the University of Tehran, if I explain or if I discuss an Islamic philosopher or a Chinese thinker, a significant number of students would be disinterested, but if I was to explain Heidegger or go into Hegel or Derrida or someone else, students would look at me and think ‘he knows what he’s talking about’. Or if I have a particular accent. In fact let me give you, there’s one thinker actually in the West who is non-Western, who they do admire, and that is Gandhi, but sort of for the wrong reason, because Gandhi himself once famously was asked when he first went to England: ‘what do you think about Western civilisation?’ And Gandhi famously responded: ‘it would be a good idea’. But more importantly – in other words, he was saying that it’s questionable whether it is civilised because he refers to what happened in his homeland – but Gandhi was so highly respected because of his anti-violence policies, his pursuit of a policy which refrained from any form of violence, but those who studied Gandhi know that actually Gandhi used different militant organisations who were resisting British occupation as a tool for negotiations, he was basically saying to the British it’s either me or them. He never condemned them, so he’s a very complicated person in himself, but on the whole, when we study intellectuals, when we study – if for example I was to write an article in an academic journal, and I was to publish it in an Iranian journal, what would be the difference in reaction among students and colleagues than if it was published in an American journal? And in an American Journal obviously I have to write in a certain way, because I have to abide by certain standards – small example:
I wrote an article about the Iran-Iraq war, where in the West it is often said that Iranians, (in history books too and in other works, in other words in academic works), that Iranians carry these keys to heaven, these plastic, golden keys. I was in the war. You can find on YouTube footage of war, no one had keys to heaven. You can speak to hundreds of thousands of soldiers who were involved, and the families that were involved in the war, there are no keys to heaven. And I actually alluded to this in my article, which was to a very important American studies journal in the United States, which I won’t name here. And the referees – who were academics – said after reviewing the piece, that your article is fine in certain ways, but among the problems is that you say there were no keys to heaven – you have to prove this. Those of you who know logic or philosophy, you know that proving a negative is impossible. For example, if I accuse one of you of theft, right, if I say you stole something, you cannot prove that you didn’t. Proving a negative is impossible. I answered the editor of the journal – actually it was the Journal of American Studies so there’s no secret about it – but in any case, I told her that if I was to write an article that is saying that American soldiers in Iraq had keys to heaven, you would reject the article immediately, because you would say that it is irrational, Americans wouldn’t do such a thing. But when the same irrational notions are attributed to non-Westerners, you say to me that you have to prove that it is not the case. So when you write even for academic institutions, you have to change, and when you change, it also changes gradually the way in which you think.
So students, professors, ordinary people, at all levels, are influenced by Western hegemonic values. Not that it is always a bad thing, but I am saying that it should raise questions about how we judge ourselves. When we study at universities most of the books are translations. So we often mimic rather than be creative. Let me give you…because I am not sure how much time I have left…let me give you one more example, and that is that of Hegel. Hegel’s notion – his dialectic of historical progress, where thesis, antithesis, antithesis and so on. Hegel believed that Western civilization was the height of civilization, and German civilization at the height of Western civilization. And Marx was very much influenced by Hegel. Marx. Marx – and I don’t mean to criticise anyone here who is leftist – Marx himself was influenced by Hegel as I said, and that is the reason, or one reason, why Marx himself, who is considered to be a revolutionary, as someone who critiqued and attacked the injustices of class-based society, the Orientalism of Marx led him to conclude and to state openly, that the colonisation of India was a necessary evil, because Indians were backward, it was a village-based economy, and they needed to become a capitalist society in order for them to ultimately become a proletarian society, and to have a proletarian revolution and so on. So based on this Eurocentric world view, of superior moral values, and so on, he accepted this notion that colonisation was the right thing.
Now since my time is almost up, there is a lot more that I wish to say, but I want to stress that I’m not saying that everything Western is wrong, because as soon as I make these comments, many of my colleagues and Western colleagues, and some of my Iranian colleagues, are quick to defend, and say that you are rejecting everything and…no, that’s not the point. The point is that Western values – liberalism today as we see it in the United States had led to what we see. Individualism, the selfishness of individualism has led to global warming and the imbalances of the world, where we are moving towards total destruction because of this ideology. And liberalism and individualism at the personal level has led to the crises of values that we see in Hollywood today, which is the symbol of American values. And ofcourse, human rights mechanisms or organisations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty (International), you can talk about where they get their funding and there’s a lot to say, but for me the most important thing is that the values they promote themselves are not necessarily all the sort of values that are good for human existence, and the reality that we see today in Palestine, where apartheid is accepted by the Western world, and every time we discuss apartheid in Palestine, they ignore the comments, shows that something is deeply wrong. Thank you.
The ‘White Man’s Burden’
I just want to add a couple of things that I said within the context of the broader discussion that we’ve been having, and that is actually going back to what the Professor was saying about Kipling, who spoke about ‘the white man’s burden’. Why is it that Kipling thinks that the white man – and he sincerely thinks so – that the white man has a burden? That is because of the belief that either racially or culturally, there is a hierarchy. Remember again Hegel and this Hegelian notion. So the adult in the house or the adult in the room has greater legitimacy than the child. The adult may slap the child, the adult may abuse the child, but at the end of the day it’s the adult and the child. The adult has greater credibility. Why is this important? Because when a country colonised another country, one of the most important justifications is legitimacy. If a community is child-like, then they have less rights over the land, because they do not understand land, because they do not understand ownership properly, they do not understand what it means to rule themselves, they are not mature. And therefore there is a moral justification for colonisation – the same is true for hegemony. There is a moral justification.
A few years ago – I didn’t want to look it up during the session, because I thought it would be distracting – Amnesty International, in the 1990s I think, no sorry, in the first decade of the 21st century, NATO had a conference in Chicago I think, and Amnesty International held a session in Chicago – I think it was called ‘Stay the Course’. In other words Amnesty International was saying that NATO must remain in Afghanistan, for the sake of the women and so on and so forth. Who was the keynote speaker for Amnesty International? It was Madeline Albright. Madeline Albright, who was the Secretary of State of the United States during the period when Iraq was facing maximum sanctions.
She has a famous interview. As you know one million children died as a result of the sanctions. At that time when this interview was carried out with Madeline Albright – the Secretary of State of the United States – 500,000 had died. And the reporter asked her: 500,000 children have died as a result of your sanctions in Iraq, do you think it was worth it? And she says: yes, I think it was worth it. This mentality, in Amnesty International, Madeline Albright, in the Western world, is based upon this assumption of ‘a burden’. ‘The adult’.
Why the focus on criticising only ‘Western values’?
Question to Professor Marandi:
The fundamental question is that, who is the lawmaker here and what are the sources for the Westerners that they regard themselves as the natural and only lawmakers? What are the sources of this notion? How is it possible that someone can see (themselves) so much (as) naturally being the only carrier of the truth?
That’s a very complicated question. There are two things that I’d like to point out here, one is that this eurocentrism that you’re talking about is not necessarily only linked to the West. It’s because the West is the dominant force in the world – or has been over the past few centuries – that we put particular focus on this. Otherwise in communities, countries and regions across the world, tribes, villages…in Iran say one village against another, one race against another, one language against another, this is something that is a part of the human condition. It doesn’t mean that the West is all evil and in the rest of the world, everything is fine. No. Throughout the world, (and) our part of the world is full of injustices and serious problems and is full of hierarchy that is not based upon justice, whether it’s male-female, racial, you call it, there are numerous ways of looking at it.
The focus here is simply because this is the hegemonic power that influences all of us. (Edward) Said, as you made reference to speaks about this and so do many others, where do it start? Some believe it began with the Grecians, even Greece itself, whether that’s West or not is an open question. Some say it began with the Crusades, (or) the Middle Ages, (or) the era in which the study of the Orient was institutionalised in the late 18th and early 19th century. And there are reasons…people define themselves to a degree through otherisations, it’s natural, it’s not necessarily bad. Male-female, there are differences between the two, but it’s when the otherisation becomes a hierarchy of value, it becomes essentialised. Superior versus inferior, that’s when it becomes a problem.
Again, the point is not that everything that exists in individualism is bad, no that’s not true, (or) everything that exists in liberalism is bad (e.t.c.). The point is that these values are open to question, some of them are open to question. We have as non-Westerners – it’s not just the Islamic world – the whole of the non-Western world, in order to create a greater balance, there has to be a break from the past. Instead of Iran always looking to the West for university relations, for trade, for interaction, Iran has to look to Turkey, Iran has to look to Pakistan, Iran has to…unless we break this mould, where everything (in the West) for us is the centre, we are basically reinforcing this mode of thought. It does not mean again, that as rightly pointed out, that the opposite is good i.e. instead of Orientalism we should have Occidentalism, in fact that is just as destructive, and it is just as immoral as Orientalism.