5 ways education can free us from colonialism

Colonialism has undeniably affected the Arab World. For some of our leaders, it’s instilled a subconscious inferiority complex that hinders diplomatic dialogue with European “influencers”. It’s also made a lot of our countries dependent upon the financial resources and various other “maintenance services” of countries like Britain and France. One of the biggest issues with colonialism, however, is the relative “price” that we give to Arab life and suffering compared with the perceived value and prestige of Western European civilians.

Ultimately, victors write history, and they will develop a worldview that inevitably places their own people at the centre of gravity.

Crusaders are not quite jihadists.

The Spanish inquisition was not quite a genocide.

Perhaps it is this sense of disenfranchisement, disconnect and disempowerment at the fringe of Eurocentrism that has led many of us Arabs to use colonialism as a “trump card” to explain and disregard all of our suffering.

“I don’t have a job because of my name” – “I can’t travel without feeling like everyone’s staring at me” – “we are at war because of Sykes and Picot”… sound familiar?

In quite a sadistic manner, the trump card of colonialism is as much satisfying as it is defeatist. It absolves us of any responsibility as we seek to gain a level playing field when it comes to socioeconomic progress and development. There is much truth in the claim that colonialism has hindered our progress in the various ways quoted above –  but ultimately, it is now down to us to rise to the occasion and at least try to make the best of a dire situation.


The Japanese colonial psyche


World War II, after the explosion of the atom bomb in August 1945, Hiroshima, Japan. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)


Nagasaki today (Photo from: JW Web Magazine)

In 1945, the United States launched two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tens of thousands of Japanese civilians burned alive – many also died of dehydration and radiation. Their skin literally draping from their bones. The effects of the atomic attack are still evident today, with many carrying protracted injuries to the body.

Following World War II, the Allied Powers colonised a surrendered Japan, demilitarised the nation, changed its fundamental religious constitution and introduced market “liberalisation”. Human rights abuses were swiftly dismissed with a greater objective of “introducing” Japan to the “free” world. As the market opened, farmers managed to get a hold of land at relatively lower rates, leading to millions becoming land owners.

Japan’s first free elections were held in 1946. The country’s first elected Prime Minister, Shigeru Yoshida, focused on rapid economic development at the expense of independence from America’s economic and military influence during the Cold War. This concession became known as the Yoshida Doctrine.

For many, the end justified the means. The US began decolonising Japan in 1949. Since then, the country has rapidly industrialised and become the world’s 4th largest economy. By taking a concession in the short-term, the Japanese government managed to maintain a longer, more sustained independence from formal US colonialism. Others, however, still believed that Yoshida’s response to colonialism made Japan look totally spineless. But what does this mean for the Arab World?


The Arab colonial psyche

The Japanese example shows us how a nation can reorganise itself and respond effectively to colonialism. The Japanese challenge America in many technological industries today. This begs the question: why do Arab nations seem to fail to respond to historic colonialism in a productive and progressive manner?

Japanese and Arab cultures are fundamentally different. This may come down to psychology, culture, infrastructure, or a combination of factors. I believe that sorrow and tribulation are innate characteristics of Arab culture in recent times. Some of our best pieces of literature and musical compositions have been totally embedded in the theme of sorrow and remorse. Think about it: Oum Kalthoum, Abdul Haleem, Yara, Cheb Khaled…

Gulu lummi ma tbkish (Tell my mother not to cry)
Yal manfi (O exiled one)
Waldek rabi ma ykhalish (God will not disown your son)
Yal manfi (O exiled one)

Yal Menfi (O Exiled One) – Akli Yahiatene

De là je pense à toi le bled mon pays (Of you, I think of you, the nation, my country)
Ya Assima avec ses treillis (The capital with its trials)
Est-ce là le prix d’une liberté? (Is this the price of freedom?)
D’une liberté oubliée avec ses tueries (A freedom lost with many murders)
Le bled se pourrit (The nation is rotting)

Bladi (My Nation) – Freeman

Sorrow and remorse are powerful tools. They can be used to render the individual totally complacent, or can be very powerful motivators for self improvement. Maybe it’s time to accept colonialism has happened, and to find advantages where we can, and deal with the situation in the best possible way.

The Arab world is rich in resources, has a high (and, unfortunately, largely unemployed) youth population, and is – for better and for worse – located at the centre of the Eurocentric map. Essentially, it becomes a matter of organisation: who is in charge and how are these resources being distributed? That is what the Arab Spring should be about – applying pressure and questioning our postcolonial structures – and this is why we need to ensure it is a success through a psychological as well as a structural revolution. The change in regime, if it is to be successful, must be holistic and must commence with the individual.

The postcolonial psyche often manifests as a vicious cycle. Postcolonialism can make us feel totally powerless, which in turn reinforces the effects of historic colonialism. But we can we break this cycle in a manner comparable to the Japanese by asking the right questions through appropriate educational initiatives.


Policy recommendations

Improved education:

  • 1. Government campaigns should make Arab citizens proud of their heritage through various initiatives which are careful not to exacerbate nationalist sentiments
    • This would challenge the idea that the oppressor is the only source of valuable knowledge and information, bolstering a sense of liberty from the colonial narrative
    • This would also make Arabs even more aware that they have a history that transcends their colonial past
  • 2. Government campaigns should aim to tackle the stigma surrounding cultural and philosophical studies by subsidising students who choose to follow these domains, particularly in Gulf nations
    • Critical thinking methods would help citizens reach their own destinies and question postcolonial structures

Exposure to education:

  • 3. Government campaigns should aim to promote inclusive education by tackling discrimination against various characteristics
  • 4. Culture and citizenship lessons should be compulsory subjects at school from early secondary years, where students can also learn about other cultures, religions and philosophies that challenge colonial narratives
  • 5. Sanitary conditions and facilities must be improved at schools in ungentrified areas, particularly for young girls who sometimes do not attend school because of a lack of sanitary resources

Of course, these reforms would be challenged by more conservative adherents of the status quo, particularly by those who benefit from the power structures built (at least partly) through historic colonialism. So additional thought is required as to how NGOs could incentivise governments into accepting such reforms, as well as which NGOs could subsidise these reforms without posing a diplomatic threat to various Arab regimes.

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