Dr. Syed Farid Alatas is a sociologist who has done extensive research on alternative models of Sociology, especially based on Ibn Khaldun’s theories. He teaches at National University of Singapore. His research area is fundamentally premised on the notion of decolonization of knowledge. His important books are: Democracy and Authoritarianism in Indonesia and Malaysia: The Rise of the post- Colonial State and Alternative Discourses in Asian Social Science: Responses to Eurocentrism.
Muhammed Noushad interviews Dr. Syed Farid Alatas in Calicut, Kerala.
I would like to begin with an autobiographical question. Your father Syed Husain Al Atas was one of the pioneers to write about the need for dewesternising knowledge. And your uncle, Syed Naquib Al Atas, has had the path-breaking work ‘Islam and Secularism’ with its ideological critique on the epistemological crises in the Muslim world. How did their thoughts influence you in developing an orientation towards “Alternative Discourses” against Eurocentrism?
Long time back, my father was very concerned about imitation and uncritical following of the west. He came upon the idea of “the captive mind” in the 1970s; he used to write several articles and give lectures. He put those ideas into practice when he wrote his seminal work, The Myth Of The Lazy Native, which is a critique of the colonial construction of the natives – the Malaya, the Javanese and the Filipinos – that they are lazy. This work which came out in 1977, was one of the works cited by Edward Said in his Orientalism. Said devotes a few pages to discuss my father’s work. So, when I was growing up, the atmosphere in the house was always very conducive. Though I often saw my father quite disgusted about the practice of imitating the west blindly, he was never anti-western. In fact, he was a great admirer of some western writers and sociologists. He was a strong apologist for uncritical imitation and slavish mentality towards the west, in terms of ideas and culture.
What I learned from my uncle was again about the problems of Orientalism. When I was a teenager, he used to criticize Orientalists whenever I visited him. Of course I didn’t understand what he really meant. When I started my university education, I started understanding what he used to tell me when I was a kid. He was mostly criticizing the way the Orientalists understood Islam, Muslims in South East Asia and how the understanding of the west differed from the understanding of Muslims about certain practices of Islam. Naturally, I developed an appreciation towards the problems of Orientalism. My father led me to think about other possibilities. He practiced alternative sociology in his book with the theories of Ibn Khaldun. Since my childhood I had started hearing his name and was fascinated by it. But I never knew what he did and thought until I seriously read him in the university. I found myself very interested in him and started seriously working on him. For me, the importance of studies on Ibn Khaldun is that I am not just doing a critique of western sociology, but giving a model of alternative sociology, one can say the Khaldunian sociology.
Decolonization of knowledge often remains a vague idea for many people. What is it exactly? Is it synonymous with indigenization of knowledge?
I understand people have difficulty in understanding decolonization of knowledge and properly comprehending its concepts. I don’t think somebody has defined it in a scientific, systematic way. Decolonizing knowledge simply stand on the premise that our minds have been colonized in various ways. And we have to liberate our mind and its processes. Some people, a lot of people, do not use the term decolonizing knowledge, nowadays. They use other terminology, but all of them have almost the same thing in mind. Some people use decolonizing knowledge in the metaphorical sense; they don’t think the mind is virtually colonized. Throughout the third world, there are various movements, speaking about developing some kind of alternative to the dominant western social sciences. Some call it decolonization of knowledge, others call it indigenization. Some call it nationalization. In Taiwan, there was a movement to Sinicize social sciences. In some Muslim circles, it is Islamization of knowledge, which is also about dewesternisation. Christians have developed Christian social sciences. So, all these different ideas about alternatives don’t mean the same thing. For example, if you take the example of indigenization of sociology, what Taiwanese mean may not be equally shared by Indians or Filipinos. These are very amorphous ideas, often very vague. In many of the cases, the problem is they don’t actually do indigenization, rather they talk about it. But what does it exactly mean? There is a need for clarity. Is it about using indigenous terms? Does indigenization mean rejecting western social sciences or western concepts? Is it a problem that to be met in the level of epistemology or methodology or theories? These things are to be worked out by the people who talk about the need for indigenization.
Do you mean to say that the idea of decolonization of knowledge remains at the level of a proposal, whereas practically, as you have written at places, the institutional and theoretical dependency upon the west continues? When a third world scholar makes a research plan, how could she devise a strategy to get rid of the west’s intellectual imperialism?
A third world scholar doesn’t need a particular strategy. If your mind is not colonized, if you are aware of the problem, you can make an effort to be intellectually independent and do the work. For example, in my work on Ibn Khaldun, I developed a theoretical framework from his writings. At times, I have looked at it critically, too, recognizing the need to integrate concepts from western sociology. He has some very important and unique ideas and theories, particularly about the rise and decline of the state. But the problem is that he doesn’t talk about economy. It is as if what he is talking about happens in an economic vacuum. As his use of economy is very simplistic, we need to bring in concepts from modern social sciences, for example, Marxism and its concepts on the mode of production. They can be combined with the Khaldunian model, so that you strengthen the Khaldunian theory. This can be done individually or collectively. No academic institution may ask you to do it. But as long as your institution allows you to do it, there is no issue. You can think about it, write it and even get published in international journals so that you get recognition in all circles. That is not the issue. The problem is the method by which I do – in my case, I believe I have done quite a lot and my works have been translated into various languages – is not academically followed after. It has no impact on the university where I teach, apart from some of my students. The curriculum remains unaffected. What you have is the status quo. Our third world universities are aspiring to be the top universities in the world to be ranked in the international rating. Our Vice Chancellors are obsessed with international ranking, not with serious, genuine scholarship. When you model yourself after top western universities, you are not interested in dismantling the academic dependency. However, in many universities, they give you academic freedom. So you can work out alternative discourses. I think India has produced the most brilliant alternative voices in contemporary social sciences. There are scholars like Sudhir Kakar and Ashis Nandy and new disciplines like Subaltern Studies.
You’ve elaborately written about the issue of ‘relevance’ or ‘applicability’ of western social sciences to non-western societies. I am interested to know how the academic administrators responded to this call. Don’t you think those who are in power – educational ministers, university administrators etc – have to open up their minds to alternative ideas and discourses?
Of course, I think they have to. But they do not. Honestly speaking, they are not interested. For example, in my university, no administrator ever took an interest in discussing my ideas or works. Apart from a few colleagues, no administrator, none of the head of the departments, none of the people who had a role in curriculum development ever took an interest.
Does it mean that even at the top level of academicians there is a lack of awareness about academic dependency? Or are they just satisfied with the status quo?
They do not see the problem. I think they are aware that there are people who talk about academic colonization. They think that people like me are stuck in the colonial days. They think we have already transcended this problem, we are not imitators and there are no relevant problems of Orientalists.
In the larger context of decolonization of knowledge, how do you evaluate the Islamization of knowledge project, particularly Ismail Raji Farouqi stream?
I evaluate it as an extreme reaction to western knowledge hegemony. It is a kind of nativism, which is at the same time, lacked mastery and seriousness towards western knowledge. I believe when they proposed this idea, they did not have any serious understanding of the western social sciences. Those who talked about Islamic sociology didn’t have a serious knowledge of the existing body of knowledge that western sociology had created. Unless you are well-versed in the theoretical traditions of the western social sciences, you can’t even produce a convincing critique of that. At the same time, this school of Islamization of knowledge didn’t seriously look at the knowledge tradition of Islamic heritage, too. I think they had this simplistic idea of applying some basic Islamic concepts to western knowledge. It was a sort of naive understanding of Islamizing disciplines: Islamic sociology, Islamic economics, Islamic anthropology and so on.
Still, Islamic Economics appears to be practically successful, to a large extent.
The most successful attempt in Islamization of knowledge has been in economics. Successful in the sense that they have created a body of theoretical knowledge. But this itself shows the weakness of the project. Islamic economics, in my mind, is conventional economics with all its faults, dressed up in Islamic terminology. The conventional economics has its hypothetical deductive model with its bourgeoisie nature. It is a product of capitalism and hence never critical of capitalism. Islamic economics also happens to be pro-capitalism. It doesn’t have a serious critique of capitalism, the kind of critical theories developed by Marxism and its thinkers. They have worked on the concept of alienation, understanding it as a basic sociological process of capitalism. They have a definition of exploitation, it is not just an emotional outburst, it has to do with the labor theory of value. The Islamic economists haven’t done any of this. They don’t have a critique of capitalism, other than very shallow ones. They propose Islamic economics and Islamic banking system as alternatives, but to begin with such claims won’t be enough. They say capitalism allows differences and disparities, so we will fix it through zakat. This is naive. The west has done far better than many Muslim countries in terms of bringing about equality. In many Muslim countries, we don’t know how zakat is being spent. Anyhow, what Islamic economics tend out to be is an apology for capitalism. It is ideological in the sense that Islamic economics fits in the global capitalist system. It can exist side by side, because it is abstract and theoretical and it has no impact. It doesn’t really challenge the system. The Islamic banking system, of course, is being put into practice as part of Islamic economics. But it itself is accommodated into capitalism.
I would like to get your comment on the way sectarianism has influenced Muslim intellectualism.
First of all, some of the sects do not have a vibrant intellectual tradition. Salafis and Wahabis are examples. In fact, their ways of thinking run counter to developing intellectual traditions. They are so influential that they inhibit development of alternative, creative intellectual traditions in the Muslim world. That is one way to look at the problem of sectarianism in the level of knowledge. You often find un-intellectual or anti-intellectual orientations in Islam are spreading. Such anti-intellectual sects become dominant and influential with enormous resources. They influence universities and students and researches through funding. The other problem of sectarianism is to do with the Sunni Shia conflict. It is a big problem as it creates a big division in the Islamic scholarship. In the cases of normal sectarianism, you have the possibilities of mutual interaction, but here you lack it. You take the case of Shia Muslim social thought and Shia philosophy. There are great scholars like Ali Shariati, Murtaza Mutahari and Allama Jafari whose contribution to the evolution of social theory and the philosophy of social sciences is vital. But they are generally not read in the Sunni world, which is a pity. Their writings are very erudite, relevant and very necessary for Sunnis to read. This hardly happens partly because Sunnis are prejudiced against Shias. They regard Iranian tradition of scholarship as an alien one. Even among people who are not overtly anti-Shiite, their view of Shiism is somehow strange and narrow minded. They are not interested to learn about Shia thoughts on various things. I think Sunnis will be intellectually poorer if they don’t understand what Shiites have to say about various things.
Now we have the stream of political Islam. How do you look at the influence and impact it made on Muslim intellectualism, particularly on contemporary social sciences?
Generally, the political movements in the Islamic world, from Jamat-e-Islami to Ikhwan al-Muslimin have not been very positive towards developing alternative intellectual traditions or autonomous social sciences in the Muslim world. But it will not be fair to put all the blame on them. They were not positive because, first of all, it was not their primary intention to create alternative disciplines. Secondly, these kinds of movements are a normal feature of our society, so will you have them. You will have extremists and parochial religious movements in all societies. But yet, their presence doesn’t prevent the emergence of creative knowledge in those societies. Because, such societies provide you a space for alternatives. The problem in Muslim countries is not that there is political Islam. It is quite natural for political Islam to exist and we shouldn’t argue against them. The problem is there are no alternatives; there is no alternative to politics and governments, the ruling elites. And there is no space for alternative knowledge, too. Sometimes, the governments even flirt with Islamic political groups in order to counter other groups and thus attain a balance. Saddam did this. Governments often let Islamic groups work legitimately so that they can watch them, use them and suppress other alternative groups.
Let’s look at the Arab Spring. Do you see an intellectual awakening? How is it going to influence the Muslim intellectualism in the long run?
Usually, intellectuals and great ideas precede revolutions. That is how it has always happened in history. Mao preceded Chinese revolution. Shariati preceded Iranian revolution. A host of French thinkers preceded the French revolution. Of course when a revolution takes place, if it is a genuine revolution, it develops in certain directions, and it produces a new generation of thinkers. But, I don’t see any thinkers preceding the Arab Spring. What happened there was not preceded by new ideas. Can we see any thinker like Shariati who came up with really new ideas and seized upon people and used those ideas to inspire them towards a different society? In Egypt or Yemen or Syria, this is not happening. I am not saying that what they are doing is not right. But it is not a revolutionary kind of thing.
You have an interest in inter-faith dialogue, too. Muslim world has a lot of preachers, but most of them, at least those who dominate, happen to be aggressively self-righteous in their attitude towards other faiths. Is it an ideal way? What kind of an inter-faith dialogue you propose to?
Of course there are aggressively self-righteous Muslim preachers and they have got a lot of followers and admirers. There are also a good number of Muslim leaders who are very committed to inter-religious dialogue. They are all over the world. Some of them do very good work; some of them are based in the west. They have done a lot to improve the image of Islam and made very close genuine ties with the Americans and the British and people from other parts of Europe. That is there. One of the big obstacles or deficiencies is that in this dialogue, Muslims have not developed an expertise or mastery in other religions, whereas the leaders of other religions, certainly the Christians and Jews, have developed mastery over Islam. You will see a number of Catholic scholars and even priests who have PhDs in Islamic studies. For example, Father Thomas Michael is a Jesuit priest from America, who researched under the supervision of Fazlur Rahman from the University of Chicago. He knows Arabic and his thesis was on Ibn Taimiya. There are several Catholic priests and Jewish scholars of his standing. How many Muslims are there? First of all, how many Muslim mullahs have PhDs? There are many ordained Catholic priests with PhDs in Islamic studies, which is a very good thing. How many Muslim scholars have PhDs in Christian studies, know Hebrew and read Greek commentaries of Bible? Extremely few. This imbalance is the problem. You cannot talk with equal erudition.
Is that why many Muslim preachers often behave with arrogance and aggressiveness, during inter-faith dialogues?
Because they are defensive. Then there are others who are not defensive, but they are not able to discuss ideas and discourse at the same level of the Christian scholars. For example, if we want to have a series of Christian Muslim dialogue, putting fifty Muslims and fifty Christians on two stages, there will be several Christian scholars who know Arabic and have PhDs in Islamic studies, but on the Muslim sides, how many scholars will be there with such status? One or two. Even they are not famous or established. The result is that you cannot have an equal dialogue. You know there are Catholic scholars who know the Quran very well; they will be familiar with the great tafsirs, Sufis and philosophers, having been read their works in Arabic and Persian. How many of the Muslims know the Bible that well? The dialogue will be uneven.
In one of your speeches, you mentioned that there is a noticeable shift in the old prejudiced attitude of Orientalist writings. Can you elaborate?
There is still Orientalism today, but it is not the same Orientalism that we had in the past in the 19th century or early 20th century. That Orientalism was characterized by Orientalist scholars having prejudiced, negative views about Islam, which clearly came across in their scholarship. They believed that Islam was a bad religion, a fake religion, and that Islam encourages violence, it is against women and human rights and so on. Quran is a confusing text, they thought. And very often we notice their researches had to do with the colonial powers and the colonial interests. Today, many of those western scholars who study Islam are studying out of genuine interest. I would say, many of them, probably most of them, are not against Islam. If they are against Islam, it doesn’t encroach on their scholarship. They keep it with themselves, and this is because of the training. They are trained to be objective and to set aside your personal views and at least not to affect your research. As a result, there are many objective researches done by western scholars on Islam, and if there are problems, it is not because of prejudice, but because of theoretical and methodological problems. So, the Orientalism today is not characterized by prejudice, rather it is characterized by a neglect of the non-western concepts. It was also true about the Orientalism of the past, but today enmity or prejudice is not a dominant feature. For example, when they study Ibn Khaldun, they praise him as founder of sociology, recognize his genius, but, restrict Ibn Khaldun and his work to itself, not as a source of new ideas to use and apply. That is a way of neglecting Ibn Khaldun altogether. That for me is a major feature of Orientalism today.
Muslims had a great tradition of establishing and running great centers of knowledge across the Muslim world. Where did Muslims leave that tradition and why they are left behind intellectually?
Those days, the great knowledge centers were supported by great rulers. Today, none of the rulers in the Muslim world are inspired by history. None of them are inspired by Harun Rasheed or Khalifa Maimum or any other Abbasid or Uthmaniya rulers. Most of the Arab rulers, for instance, are illegitimate rulers. Their primary concern is to maintain power. So, naturally, they are not interested in any other creative thing.
You mentioned that there are various streams in the decolonization project. What is the possibility of pluralism here? Could people of different cultures and orientations work together?
Yes, of course. And such a joint effort is lacking. A lot of efforts are going on different parts – in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. Indians, Filipinos and South Africans are very active in this endeavor. In Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, Morocco and certain parts of Turkey, there are strong movements. We have people working in various parts of the world, but with no coordination. People in these countries do not know each other and no idea about what others have been doing. This is the problem.