‘Decolonial Dialogues’ at the University of Leeds

Dr Sarah Marusek of the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds reflects on a recent dialogue about decolonisation held at the university. She reaffirms the importance, topicality and complexity of this theme by articulating several critical views expressed by scholars from various disciplines and institutions at the event.

…la plus belle des ruses du Diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas!

— Charles Baudelaire

The call to decolonise academia has become a key demand for many youths around the world. However, when you speak to academics living in the Global North, some may object by saying that decolonisation is already a historical fact: it happened when the European powers decided to dismantle their oppressive colonial infrastructure that bled the peoples, lands and resources of the Global South. The argument here is that the physical withdrawal of European bodies during the mid-twentieth century is supposed to have symbolically ended these colonial relations.

However, the above quotation by French poet Charles Baudelaire is especially insightful here, and not because he was European. We must not forget the history of how humanity came to be in the present moment: who made the rules (white male Europeans) and for what reason (to justify the civilising mission, settler colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and capitalism). Each of these projects has relied on some version of White supremacy to justify itself. If racism is so deeply embedded in our ways of thinking, being and doing, then it must also be firmly entrenched in the institutions of modernity, from microeconomics to history to medicine to cartography to politics.

So, if the devil’s greatest trick is to convince the world that he does not exist, then surely the Europeans’ greatest trick has been to convince the world that Eurocentrism does not exist, even when it is foundational to modernity: embedded in our urban landscapes, institutions, politics, economies, arts, cultures, religions, sciences, languages and knowledge frameworks.

And if this is the case, what is the implication of decolonising our ways of thinking, being and doing? We discussed this question in-depth last year during a Sadler Seminar series organised by S. Sayyid, Professor of Decolonial Thought, and William Gould, Professor of the School of History at the University of Leeds. Titled ‘Decolonial Dialogues,’ scholars from Leeds and beyond reflected upon the possibilities and limits of a decolonial approach to knowledge production.

The coloniality of power is a concept, originally coined by Peruvian sociologist Aníbal Quijano, which refers to the living legacy of colonialism in contemporary societies. According to Gould, decoloniality is the spatial organisation away from the coloniality of power, or Eurocentrism. It is a way to question the alleged universalism of these particular ideas and practices, which in fact are located both historically and geographically. In this way, although we think of modernity as something with a distinctly secular character, Eurocentrism relies on key myths to sustain itself.

For example, Sayyid highlighted four mythical dimensions of Eurocentrism: (1) The West is the leading civilisation. (2) The West is an autonomous, internal entity that is self-contained. (3) The Western prototype of development has universal significance (for example, the never-ending search for a Muslim Pope or an Islamic reformation, a model of human progress that only travels one way—towards Eurocentrism). This is a template for history and disciplinarity, as well as for judgement, both spatially and temporally. (4) And finally, the idea that Eurocentrism is objective, positivist and rational. A new conception of Western rationality is therefore entwined into the narrative as the point of departure for everything else, responsible for the idea of science itself.

Decoloniality thus offers an important critique of essentialism, the latter which is both foundational to and a production of Eurocentrism (operating in the same way as Orientalism). It is what Sayyid calls the exotic impulse, where whiteness is imagined as something phenotypical. The most obvious danger of such an impulse is that it only makes sense from within Orientalism, not beyond it.

Questions of power are central here. Many in the Global South, for example in South Africa where I completed my post-doc, point to decoloniality as a way of overcoming the particular hierarchies embedded in modernity: the privileging of white, male, heterosexual, able bodies—the West—at the expense of all others. This is why South African women of colour look to decolonial horizons for gender, sexual and racial equality, and why decoloniality has inspired so many socially progressive groups working towards social justice. However, as Sayyid reminds us, decoloniality cannot be completely uncontaminated by power, because all we can ever have are different distributions of power. There will never be a society without hierarchies; a noncoercive rearrangement of desires is simply not possible. The opportunity that does arise is to choose different hierarchies, to formulate new binary relations, offering not universalism but decolonial pluriversalism. However, even from within any one pluriverse, questions of power and authority must still arise.

These questions help us to distinguish the decolonial from the post-colonial. Fozia Bora, Lecturer in Middle Eastern History and Islamic History at Leeds, explained that while post-coloniality provides critique of Eurocentrism, decoloniality is actually doing the work that the critique entails, putting it into practice. Jonathan Saha, Associate Professor of Southeast Asian History at Leeds, addressed the question of a decolonial pedagogy in the classroom, assessing the potential of safe spaces as an aspiration, while carefully determining how to criticise empire without attacking whiteness or white students. Here, he cited American author and activist bell hooks, who argues to bring experiences into the classroom, breaking down essentialism and exposing relationships; but Saha also stressed that this first requires a diversity of experiences being present.

Several scholars addressed the importance of maintaining the decolonial archive. Shahid Mathee, Lecturer in the Department of Religion Studies at the University of Johannesburg, spoke about his work on a people’s history of Timbuktu during the colonial era (1896-1960) using legal opinions (fatwas) as a historical source to create an intimate portrait of a people navigating modernity from a juncture previously unrecognised by Western academia. Stephen Small, Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, focused on the history of Black Europe, while Jack Palmer, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Leeds, discussed his research on the Zygmunt Bauman archive and the latter’s approach to the condition of exile and the West. And finally, Jesús Cháirez-Garza, also a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Leeds, reconstructed the history of Indian revolutionary Pandurang Khankhoje’s contradictory experience in the Global South.

Some of the other speakers included: Adriaan van Klinken, Associate Professor of Religion and African Studies at Leeds, who spoke about how sexual citizenship is being navigated in Kenya; Shabnum Tejani, Senior Lecturer in the History of Modern South Asia at SOAS, who discussed religious violence against cows and the politics of emotion in India; and Jason Allen-Paisant, Lecturer in Comparative Literature at Leeds, who reflected on the négritude thinking of Aimé Césaire.

We plan to hold similar ‘Decolonial Dialogues’ in the future, making the University of Leeds into a safe and vibrant space for thinking, being and doing decoloniality.

The full programme of ‘Decolonial Dialogues’ included:

  • William Gould, University of Leeds, ‘Decolonial Histories: New Projects and Perspectives’
  • Sayyid, Professor of Social Theory and Decolonial Thought; Head of School ‘Method and the Decolonial Turn’
  • Fozia Bora, University of Leeds, ‘Liberating Silenced Knowledges in the Decolonial Classroom’
  • Jonathan Saha, University of Leeds, ‘Decolonising Students: Imperial History, Engaged Pedagogy and the Re-arrangement of Desire’
  • Stephen Small, University of California, Berkeley, ‘Black Europe and the Legacy of Colonialism’
  • Jack Palmer, University of Leeds, ‘Bauman and the West: Exile, Culture, Dialogue’
  • Adriaan van Klinken, University of Leeds, ‘Citizenship of Love: The Politics, Ethics, and Aesthetics of Sexual Citizenship in a Kenyan Gay Music Video’
  • Sarah Marusek, University of Leeds, ‘Islamicate Liberation Theology: Faith, Love and Resistance’
  • Shabnum Tejani, SOAS, University of London, ‘Promises of Freedom, Paradoxes of Identity: Cow Protection: Violence and the Politics of Emotion in India, 1893-2017’
  • Jesús F. Cháirez-Garza, University of Leeds, ‘Arms, Arts and Agriculture: Pandurang Khankhoje and the Search for Solidarity in the Global South’
  • Yuval Evri, SOAS, University of London, ‘Between Fractions and Continuities: Judaeo-Muslim Andalusian Legacies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century Palestine’
  • AbdoolKarim Vakil, King’s College London, ‘A Distant Mirror?’
  • Mathee, University of Johannesburg, ‘The “in-marriage” doings of (Muslim) wives in colonial-era Timbuktu marriage fatwas: A resource for an Islamic law-coloniality conversation’
  • Jason Allen-Paisant, University of Leeds, ‘Animism and the human: Thinking with Aimé Césaire’
  • Sam Durrant, University of Leeds,’Creaturely mimesis: Animism in a planetary frame’
  • Marco Demichelis, University of Navarra, ‘Supremacism narrative and Islamic contemporary thought: A counter-hegemonic discourse?’
  • Shaheen Kattiparambil, University of Leeds, ‘A decolonial analysis of the foundational works of Abul Ala Mawdudi’