Re-Learning History

The education we receive, the fiction we read, the movies we watch, and so many other modern media which shape our minds, all indoctrinate us into a Eurocentric mindset and worldview. This way of thinking pervades the corners of our minds and influences how we think about nearly everything. It is not one wrong idea, but thousands of wrong ideas which we need to remove, in order to be able to think clearly about the world we live in. This is why de-toxification — replacement of the European WorldView by coherent and sensible alternatives — cannot be done in one step. My articles and posts are meant to challenge conventional views in many different areas.

One of the central pieces of the European worldview is the “White Man’s Burden” story. According to this story, the Europeans embarked on global conquest, colonization, and imperialism, because they realized that they were far ahead of the rest of world, and it was their responsibility to share the benefits of their advanced civilization with the rest of us primitive, under-developed, and savage barbarians. Even though this story has nothing to do with the reality of imperialism and colonization, it is nonetheless widely beleived, both by Europeans and by the colonized. Shashi Tharoor shocked both the British and their Indian sycophants when he attacked this narrative in his book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” which showed the real face of the British Empire, destroying the myth of a benevolent Raj which ruled India for the benefit and upliftment of the natives.

In order to undo the toxic effects of the Eurocentric WorldView, we have the unlearn many, many, standard narratives that we have heard and accepted without question. One of the narratives which needs revision is about the colonization and conquest of America, which is discussed in my article linked below:

Contested History: The Conquest of America

(post on LinkedIn, reproduced below, for readers convenience)

Published in The Express Tribune, August 24th,  2015; also on AZ News

History is not, as we have been brought up to believe, a boring collection of dates and events to be memorized. The authors of Telling the Truth About History record several bitterly contested accounts of history. One of them concerns the discoverer of America, Christopher Columbus.  In 1992, the 500th year celebrations of the discovery of America were spoiled by Native American protests against Columbus; a ruthless and greedy mass murderer, according to their accounts.  The discovery of the Americas was a watershed event in European history, as it provided access to virtually limitless resources, and was critical in the dramatic progress of the Western civilization. Thus Western historians have every reason to celebrate Columbus.

However, a closer look at the conquest of Americas is a story of un-imaginable brutality. These events, detailed in A Peoples History of the United States, bring tears to those sensitive to human suffering. Howard Zinn has done a tremendous service in re-writing American history from the point of view of the people, which leads to a perspective on events dramatically opposed to the picture one would get by reading standard texts which glorify the victors and ignore the vanquished.  What concerns us here is not so much the barbaric acts, but the fact that highly respected and knowledgeable historians have deliberately suppressed or de-emphasized these facts, to create images of heroism out of acts of savagery.

Upon arrival in the new world, Columbus and his sailors were greeted by the Arawaks who brought them food, water, gifts. The Indians, Columbus reported, “are so naïve and so free with their possessions that no one who has not witnessed them would believe it. When you ask for something they have, they never say no. To the contrary, they offer to share with anyone. . . .” More importantly, “They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. . . . They would make fine servants. . . . With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want. This is precisely what the Spaniards proceeded to do.

Bartolomé de las Casas was a young priest who participated in the conquest of Cuba but eventually became a vehement critic of Spanish cruelty. He writes that the Spaniards thought nothing of knifing Indians by tens and twenties and of cutting slices off them to test the sharpness of their blades. The entire population was enslaved. Men worked the mines, while wives worked the soil. Heavily over-worked, depressed and exhausted, Indians ceased to procreate. Husbands died in the mines, wives died at work, and children died from lack of milk and attention. . . In a short time this land which was so great, so powerful and fertile . . . was depopulated. . . . My eyes have seen these acts so foreign to human nature, and now I tremble as I write. . . . Las Casas provides the gruesome details of the genocide of eight million Indians.

These facts came as a shock in 1992 to a public taught to hero-worship Columbus. Harvard historian Morison dismisses the genocide in one sentence in his multi-volume biography: “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide.” Morison sums up his evaluation by saying that the outstanding qualities of Columbus more than make up for his minor defects.

Why does it matter whether we celebrate Columbus, or count him among mass-murderers like Genghis Khan and Stalin? The stories we tell about our past are of crucial importance in shaping our future. Celebrating Columbus, ignoring genocide as a minor issue, plays an important role in enabling the killings of millions of civilian in Vietnam, Iraq, Dresden, and many others. We realize Hitler is only reviled because he lost the battle; atrocities of similar magnitude by the Allies were ignored. There are no objective ways to resolve contested historical evaluations of achievements and failures. Nonetheless, these evaluations shape our values, and guide our actions.



This entry was posted in Eurocentric History by Asad Zaman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Asad Zaman

BS Math MIT (1974), Ph.D. Econ Stanford (1978)] has taught at leading universities like Columbia, U. Penn., Johns Hopkins and Cal. Tech. Currently he is Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. His textbook Statistical Foundations of Econometric Techniques (Academic Press, NY, 1996) is widely used in advanced graduate courses. His research on Islamic economics is widely cited, and has been highly influential in shaping the field. His publications in top ranked journals like Annals of Statistics, Journal of Econometrics, Econometric Theory, Journal of Labor Economics, etc. have more than a thousand citations as per Google Scholar.

12 thoughts on “Re-Learning History

  1. But the question remains then why not we highlight the Quranic History, seerah, Ashab us siyar, muhadditheen and mufassirien. It’s authentic, no doubt about it and with a message to deliver. Otherwise, history has always been distorted and shall remain like this.

    • I am talking about the history of the past 1400 years, and especially the past 300 years — this is not available from the sources you mention. Because there is no mention of it in our sources, we learn this history from European sources, which is extremely biased — called EUROCENTRIC history.

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