Obama and the Colonial Myth 14 January 2016

It was a momentous occaision in Obama’s career, his last State of the Union address. One in which he quite rightly challenged both Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric and the over-inflation of Isis as an existential threat to the West (two issues which often go hand-in-hand). Yet it was still let down by a single remark that in many ways is emblematic of the failure behind US (and UK) relations with the Middle-East, Obama stated with his usual confident charisma that: –

The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

As many have already pointed out, this is factually incorrect. Whether in reference to the Sunni-Shia conflict, or the Israel-Palestine affair, the Middle-East has not been in the grip of millenia old conflict. But what struck me wasn’t simply that the leader of the United States was making historically inaccurate statements, but how common such beliefs were, and why they are made in the first place. Isn’t it enough to say there is conflict, why incorrectly date it back by centuries?

Well, perhaps part of the answer lies within old school ethnographies. When the first European researchers went out into Africa, South East Asia and Oceania, carrying out in-depth case studies of remote tribes and far-flung peoples, they often presented them as somehow ancient, eternal, and unchanging.’ This is how they lived, and this is how it always was’ these ethnographies implied, sometimes overtly so. But of course that wasn’t the case, these tribes and peoples had their lives changed unrecognisably as a result of British and European imperialism, but somehow, the impact of colonialism never figured as an object of study (until the work of the Manchester School, it should be stated).

As David Gellner, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford writes:

In their monographs they ignored or minimized the role of the colonial state: they described societies as if they were isolated and stable over hundreds of years (when in fact the social arrangements in question emerged only with the advent of colonialism).

Why did the early ethnographers do this? Well because they were complict in the project of colonialism. Such studies were only possible because of Empire, and the infrastructures it provided. Presenting tribal societies as stable and unchanging was a way of absolving the authors from any responsibility.

Returning to Obama, we can see why he may have a stake in describing conflict in the Middle-East as a sectarian war that dates back into history – it ignores the role of the US in Iraq and elsewhere in facilitating the context for these conflicts to emerge. It ignores the very active role the US has played in selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, or in orchestrating the 1953 Iranian coup d’état. It’s essentially a sophisticated way of saying “it was like this when I got here”.

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.