17 September 2013 Comments Off on The Subaltern’s Tale

The Subaltern’s Tale

Express-Tribune: [edited version]
Full version given below

Leitner about destruction of Punjab educational systems is referenced in Atiyab Sultan’s article, (LINK).

Muslim inventions claimed by Europeans are listed in historical mis-facts, attached below.

The Subaltern’s Tale
Dr. Asad Zaman

Despite overwhelming superiority in firepower, numbers, and strategic advantage in their attacks on unsuspecting beasts of the jungle, hunters manage to emerge as heroes in their tales about the trophies hanging on their walls. An African proverb explains that until the lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.

For the past few centuries, people of European origin have dominated the world. Nearly all the stories being told about the world in this era glorify them, and celebrate their conquests. Other points of view exist, but are not easily available or accessible to the average reader. In Orientalism, Edward Said made a seminal contribution by showing how power relationships created by European imperialism and colonization of the rest of the world permeate all aspects of their literature and thought. A disturbing implication is that the idea of European superiority is implicitly absorbed by anyone who consumes their literary, cinematic or other intellectual or social products – a category to which virtually every reader of this column belongs. Historian Henri Pirenne showed how the attempt picture themselves at the centre stage of history at all times has led Europeans to a substantially distorted understanding of world civilizations, their close interrelationships, dependency and balances, and their contributions to weaving the fabric of global history and society. Followers have traced this theme in many different areas. In The Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson wrote Islamic history while trying to avoid treating the subject as a peripheral adjunct to European history, and attempting to take Islam and Muslims seriously in their own terms. Efforts of such scholars have led to the understanding that much of our common stock of wisdom about human beings and their history in the past few centuries is “Eurocentric.” Deep and valuable insights about ourselves emerge when we try to get past these blinds.

One of the central themes of the European view of the world is the idea that  whole world was in darkness and ignorance, and dawn of the age of reason first occurred in Europe. It is a sign of the weakening of European hegemony that strong evidence against this thesis is now emerging. In The Theft of History, Jack Goody documents how Europeans borrowed and adopted inventions of other civilization, and claimed them as their own. The Incas were master botanists and created maize by cultivating and cross breeding inedible and poisonous plants. Their inventions continue to feed the planet. Muslim discoveries in mathematics, cartography, heliocentric astronomy, physics, optics, pharmacopia and surgery have been largely suppressed, and European imitators have been put forth as originators of these ideas in current histories.

The one-sided tale of European power naturally creates an inferiority complex among the vanquished. For example, a while ago, an article published in Dawn stated that the British brought concept of public education to the subcontinent.  In fact, research by historian Leitner reveals that British rulers crippled and destroyed the indigenous educational systems of Punjab beyond hope of revival, Evidence of embarrassment and shame about our ancestors, heritage, traditions, and nationality is easily found in a broad spectrum of writings of Pakistani authors. On the basis of an incident where two men were beaten to death in front of spectators, a columnist for the Express Tribune recently proclaimed that we are a nation of cockroaches; comments on this column are almost uniformly admiring and agree. In Germany, millions of innocent civilians including large numbers of women and children were burned alive in ovens scientifically designed by engineers for this purpose. As Zygmunt Bauman has shown in Modernity and the Holocaust, this occurred with the knowledge, cooperation and tacit consent of large numbers of the German population. Yet I do not know of Germans who call themselves cockroaches. More recently, the Iraq war launched on false pretenses has led to deaths of more than a million civilian and destroyed the lives of virtually the entire population of Iraq. Yet those who are prepared to condemn all of Pakistan for two deaths, never tire in their declarations of admiration of the USA as an ideal society.

The project of telling the story from the point of the view of the vanquished has been named “Subaltern Studies,” and has made a lot of progress in India. It is encouraging that what we used to call the Mutiny of 1857, our children study as the War of Independence. However, substantial additional effort is needed to overcome a deep seated inferiority complex which makes us seek foreign experts for solutions to domestic problems.


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