Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

3
The Decolonization
of History

When the colonialists finally packed and departed from the countries they had ruled, their former subjects faced a new task. The present was saved, the future preserved from the colonialist grasp. There remained the task of liberating the past. The decolonization of history, as it was called, attracted considerable attention and energy in the new states of Asia and Africa. The line of argument was much the same in most of them and ran something like this. Ever since the advent of European rule, the writing of history had been controlled by colonialist historians and their native disciples. These historians had a purpose: to justify the establishment and facilitate the maintenance of colonial domination. This they did by blackening the pre-colonial era, which they depicted as an age of barbarism and backwardness, and whitewashing the colonial regime, which they presented as an instrument of enlightenment and progress. This kind of history, which was taught to both the rulers and the ruled, served the double purpose of demoralizing the latter and nerving the former for the sometimes disagreeable duties which they had to perform. A further aim was to divide the subject peoples by inventing fictitious national entities.

If, as was believed, this was a correct assessment of the historiography inherited from the colonial regimes, it was obviously unsuited to the schools and universities of the newly independent states. A new historiography was needed, which would rescue the forgotten—or rather the deliberately hidden—glories of the national past and set right the record of colonialism. In this way the citizens of the new states would attain the pride and self-confidence that come from the consciousness of one’s national heritage and would abandon the unjustified and undigni-

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