Myth of Oriental Despotism

Development: Myths and Truths describes 12 myths about development.  Materialism Versus Idealism –  covers the first 3 myths: Central Myths of Eurocentric History: Covers myths 4,5,6 regarding the Rise of the West.  Myth 7: Racial Superiority of Whites: This post covers Myth 8, which states that governance systems in Europe in infinitely superior to those of the East. Addendum: I found a pair of videos (5m Explains the Myth, 7m Debunks the Myth)  – They are linked at the bottom of the post.


According to this myth, Europeans developed the best political systems of governance, with democracy and rule-of-law, while the rest of world was ruled by arbitrary dictators, who inflicted their will upon the people. To understand the truth, it is useful to look at the recent invasion of Iraq. It was justified on the pretext of bringing the benefits of democracy to the people of Iraq, and freeing them from an evil dictator. However, the entire infrastructure of the country (hospitals, schools, factories, power plants) was destroyed, and more than a million civilians were killed, in the quest for control over the oil reserves of Iraq, the real reason for the war. In exactly the same way, the idea that the East is governed by evil dictators, and lacks democracy, has always been an excuse for colonization and exploitation of the people.  Many authors cited in Development: Myths and Truths  provide a detailed discussion of this, with references to the literature on the subject.  For instance, Armagan (Myth of Ottoman Despotism) documents how the idea of “despotism” has been used for centuries as a means for slandering systems of government which differ from western systems. Balahnova (2005-6) provides a lot of examples demonstrating that there were some democratic states among Eastern societies, and even in the societies where the royal power was really strong, the kings were limited in their desires by law. And even such social categories which we consider slaves were protected under the law.

Edward Said’s (1978) book “Orientalism” is the classic study of how myths about the East were manufactured in the West. The unfortunate part is that even the Orientals learn their own history from these western accounts and therefore end up believing these myths. Thus, they believe that democracy was invented in the west, that our societies have always been autocratic, and that this is one of the reasons that we are “backwards”, and will remain backwards.


Entirely contrary to the enlightenment myth, the world was not in darkness when the Europeans managed temporarily to forge peace among themselves by agreeing to conquer the world instead of fighting each other. All over the world, in all cultures, there was a wide variety of functioning systems for education, health, social welfare and justice. These systems were of no use to the imperialist invaders, and were completely destroyed in the process of colonization. The destruction was so thorough that not even the memory of what was lost remained within indigenous populations:   Oh! the loss of the treasures of the caravan; Even worse, the loss of the sense of loss. – Allama Iqbal (free translation)

Creation of the Coconut Class

It is extremely important to understand that a small group of colonizers (a thousand Englishmen) cannot control a population of millions of natives, without their consent. This consent – the agreement of slaves to willingly be enslaved, is created by two powerful weapons. One is an educational system which teaches the superiority of the West, and the inferiority of the East. This system was put in place by Lord Macaulay, and continues to function in the same way to this day. This educational system creates a Coconut Class (Brown on the outside, White on the inside) “a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,  –a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.” In return for power, wealth, and special privileges granted to them by the European ruling class, the Coconut Class betrayed the interests of their own people by acting on behalf of the imperialists.

Psychological Warfare

Machiavelli revolutionized political theory in Europe when he argued the power was best maintained by creating fear, by ruthlessly crushing the spirit of the enemies, so that they would not even think of rebellion. This is the doctrine of shock-and-awe that has been used in invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and many other countries. The colonization of the globe by Europe was accompanied by psychological warfare designed to crush the spirit of the colonized, so they would not even think of revolting. The scars of this brutal treatment are with us today, in the form of a defeated mentality, which cannot think of challenging the narratives of the superiority of the European civilization and intellect.

The real story of the ruthless brutality of colonization is so horrifying that records have been suppressed and destroyed, and myths of benefits of colonization invented to replace them. The truth is now slowly emerging, as the power of the colonizers to control the narrative has lessened. Shashi Tharoor in “An Era of Darkness” has documented the horrors of British Colonization of India. Caroline Elkin (2005) in “Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya” writes that the British colonizers  found it necessary to psychologically torture  “almost the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million”.  In order to ‘civilize’ the natives, “Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, and hot eggs were thrust up men’s rectums and women’s vaginas. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned, and mutilated Mau Mau suspects, ostensibly to gather intelligence for military operations, and as court evidence.”  Similarly, Adam Hochschild in “King Leopold’s Ghost” tells us about “genocidal plundering of the Congo,” looting its rubber, brutally killing ten million people, all in the name of civilizing the natives. The King taught the Congolese Christian work ethics by holding hostage families, forcing husbands to produce rubber, and chopping of hands of those who failed to meet their quotas, leaving them to bleed to death in front of their families. See Colonial Atrocities


Over the past few centuries, Colonization and Conquest, Physical and Mental, has destroyed large numbers of ways of living, cultures, languages, ways of thinking about the world, and ways of relating to other humans.  Machiavellian politics says that the power to destroy other civilizations confers the right to do so. The new generations in the colonies have been brought up on the myths that their ancestors were inferior sub-humans, and that hope and progress lies only in imitation of the west. The resulting inferiority complex prevents the formerly colonized peoples from thinking for themselves. Instead, foreign experts tell us what problems we face, and how we can solve them. This dependence on foreign experts has deprived us of our greatest asset: the Quran, which led ignorant and backwards desert bedouin to world leadership, and launched a civilization which dazzled the world for a thousand years. Even though the Quran tell us that it is the greatest gift of God to mankind, and provides us with complete and perfect guidance, Muslims no longer look to the Quran for guidance – instead, we believe that following the ways of the West will lead us to progress and development. This is the greatest tragedy of our times. See Rebuilding an Islamic Society for a discussion of how we can rebuild an Islamic society in modern times, when the ancient Islamic societies have been destroyed, ruined, and forgotten.

Postscript – While planning to make a video to explain concepts discussed in this post, I found a good pair of videos which illustrate and explain the concepts discussed here. I am providing a link to the two. The first one sets out the MYTH – what it is, why it got started, and how it is still widely believed and taught, and shapes thought and action in policy circles. This video is five minutes:

The second video is seven minutes about James Blaut: Colonizer’s Model of the World, which debunks the myth of the Oriental Despot. Among historians, the myth has been completely discredited, but unfortunately, not in popular textbooks, and minds of the general public.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized 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.

4 thoughts on “Myth of Oriental Despotism

  1. Pingback: Myth of Racial Superiority | An Islamic WorldView

  2. Pingback: Central Myths of Eurocentric History | An Islamic WorldView

  3. Pingback: Blaming the victims | An Islamic WorldView


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