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
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.
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