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1.3: The Fall of Colonialism and The Rise of Newly Independent States

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  • About 500 years ago, the first major colonization movements by western Europeans were a result of Portugal, Spain, and England looking for new resources. Colonies were implanted in Africa, Asia, and the New World. A second major colonial movement arose after the Industrial Revolution, motivated in part by a search for cheap labor and resources. By the end of the nineteenth century, Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany had divided up Africa, and Britain, France, and the United States were acquiring territories in the Pacific. Especially in Britain and France, ethnographic research was encouraged as a function of colonialism. Thus, well into the 1950s, anthropologists were employed by colonial offices. The demise of colonialism and emergence of new independent states gave rise to issues such as plundering of resources, and the new nations produced their own ethnographers whose approaches to anthropology were different from the approaches used by the Euro-American colonial powers. Anthropologists from Mexico, Brazil, and the Indian subcontinent primarily studied their own people. Only the travelers from these former colonial countries thought about the colonialists as their “other.” In part, these post-colonial anthropologists set about correcting previously set anthropological agendas. More or less quiet debates are now occurring as to what a “global anthropology” should entail.

    Colleagues outside of the Anglo-American world have criticized our biases and ethnocentrisms. Their polite admonishments underscored the need for self-awareness and the calibration of the instrument—in this instance, the anthropologist. Anthropologists in France, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and elsewhere are pointing to Anglo-Americans’ difficulty in coming to terms with power. The French fieldwork tradition sees research as inherently fraught with power relations. Our foreign colleagues are raising questions about scientific validity. The small social groups that classical anthropologists examined as stable or static units are now recognized as part of larger worlds that reconstitute them and are reconstituted in turn: The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and trade deals with Europe and the Asian-Pacific.

    Akbar Ahmed, an anthropologist from Pakistan who trained in Britain, indicates what new dimensions can be gleaned by non-Anglo-American anthropologists in The Thistle and the Drone: How American’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Islam (2013). Ahmed’s work, the third in a trilogy, combines ethnographic analysis with history and comparison and uses his wide-ranging experience, which includes work as a Pakistani government agent and later as ambassador to Waziristan. Ahmed is also a poet, a playwright, a film producer, and an inexhaustible public speaker. He is presently the Ibn Khaldun chair for Islamic Studies at the American University of Washington, D.C. He is what some call a public anthropologist—someone whose work is accessible to anthropologists as well as to the public in general.

    In his book, Ahmed includes the tribal peoples, the state, the American empire, and technology to understand the problems that began with European colonization and continued through the post-colonial period of nation-building, when the periphery became attached or connected to a state that gave them few rights. Ahmed’s book reflects a paradigm shift in the twenty-first century—contemporary analyses of states and empires as well as the tribes, which were the traditional subject for ethnography. Thus, he includes not only the tribes, but also Osama bin Laden, the president of Pakistan, the president of the American empire, and the agonies of the anthropologist who discovers the horrors and hurts. Ahmed is a humanist anthropologist arguing for mutual respect and co-existence. Perhaps he can be thought of as an Islamic anthropologist in contrast to a Christian or Jewish anthropologist: he is objective and subjective and includes “us” and “them.” The book discusses 40 examples of peripheral Islamic groups and their relations with state authorities to illustrate the relationship between center and periphery from Waziristan to Yemen Somalia and across North Africa to Indonesia and the Philippines. Ahmed concludes that drone strikes and cruel invasions by the central government will not work towards peace and mutual respect given that brutal revenge attacks from the periphery will continue in reaction to state and empire aggressions. Experts on terrorism ignore both culture and historical context. When anthropologists have dealt with the periphery, we have too often supported state assimilation, maneuvered the creation of reservations, and sometimes closed our eyes to mass killings.

    The new dimensions mentioned above must not detract from the solid contributions of anthropologists of the British functionalist schools to our understanding of political and social processes in Africa, New Guinea, Burma, and elsewhere. In Africa, they were the first to address problems of order in societies of tens of thousands of people with no government, no police, and no constabulary—places where social control was achieved by means of social relationships. The concept of cross-linkage was used to understand African modes of maintaining peace through feuding, another piece of the picture of order in stateless societies that might be useful to the United Nations. The British focus was more on the concept of social organization than culture, on the colonized rather than the colonizers.