Hypocricy in Western Anti-Colonial attitudes to Traditional Knowledge: North American vs the Arab World

Last night I attended two anti-colonial events. The first was “She Speaks”, an event organized by one of my favorite organizations “No One Is Illegal”, and the second was the Toronto premiere of “Roadmap to Apartheid”. The clash between them shocked me a little, provoked me to think about the racism that is implicit and complicit in the way we think about anti-colonial struggles.

I want to premise what I’m going to say next by saying I wish to express solidarity with the struggles of all North American indigenous peoples for self-determination, for the restoration of their national rights, and for their desires to have healthy communities and fulfilling lives according to whatever values they choose. However, I want to emphasize that this solidarity does not have to be connected with agreement on issues of tactics, or absolute support for fundamentalist religious attitudes of colonized peoples.

The first thing is we need to look at how some of these terms work.

Traditional Knowledge

Pre Colonial Faith

Traditional Governance

Traditional role of women

When we hear these terms in the context of a leftist atmosphere, spoken by a north american indigenous speaker, I want to assert that we have a very positive  disposition towards these concepts. Last night it was actually said that only indigenous people, because of their connection with the land and because of their legal situation with treaties, can lead the climate struggle in North America. Personally, I’m disposed to agree – I have a very positive attitude towards these concepts, and towards the idea that indigenous people should lead the resistance, both legal and otherwise, against the power of big oil and against the Canadian and American states which are controlled by private, short term interests and care nothing for the survival of the land or the planet. But as much as those might be my sentiments, why don’t we look at another set of concepts

Religious Orthodoxy

Religious Science


Traditionally defined role of women


This set of concepts is largely semantically equivalent to the set above – the difference is here I’m trying explicitly to evoke a way we might think if Islamic knowledge in relation to colonization, and how our biases don’t line up at all with the way we think about north american indigenous knowledge. 

Now some of you might say – woah there, why are you identifying Islam with indigenaity? First off, I’m not, at least not Islam as such. Islam is a religion that exists all over the world. But specifically in the Arab world, which was colonized, Islam was the dominant religion which existed prior to British/French/American colonization. So, in relation to colonization, Islam is traditional knowledge. Now why is that important? Because it means we should think about Islamic nationalism in roughly similar terms to the way we think about North American indigenous nationalism based around pre-colonial culture and traditional knowledge. Not as identical, but as long as we hold judgement on the quality of the religiously defined culture, and this seems bloody appropriate when talking about anti colonial resistance, there might be more in common than we think.

For instance, they are both second reactions against colonization. Or, perhaps more accurately, third reactions. The initial reaction is the initial resistance against colonization, this is based by definition in the pre-colonial culture, because the colonized hasn’t had a chance to transform its identities  yet. In Palestine for example, the initial wave of anti-colonial resistance was based largely in Islam – Abd Al Qadir’s army was after all called “the army of the holy war”, and this idea of the needing to maintain the land for religious reasons was, I’ve been told, dominant at this time. In North America the initial reaction against colonization was also based in traditional knowledge – for example, the treaty between six nations and the British crown was part of the six nations practice of the ‘great peace’, and from this we get the two-row wampum treaty.

In both cases the initial resistance failed, otherwise we wouldn’t call it “colonization”. The Europeans broke their treaties, and the Army of the Holy War was defeated. In reaction to these defeats a new politics based not on traditional knowledge but on a universalist idea and forms of identity arose both in North America and in the Arab world. In The Arab world, this was called pan-Arab nationalism, and in North America it was called the American Indian movement. Now we could talk for days about the differences between these movements, but their basic logic is similar, and has a similar relation to the form of political organization that came before.

Before colonization politics in the Arab world was controlled by powerful families, by tribes essentially, and colonization proved these structures to be inadequate. Divisions between Arabs made resistance against colonization disorganized, ineffective. The Sykes-Picot agreement cemented some of this tribalism into newly formed nations, the colonizer giving specific families control over huge tracts of land forming entirely new proto-states. (We should remember that even in Palestine it was the British who installed Amin as the Mufti of Jerusalem). Pan-Arabism was a reaction against these divisions, and for a new Arab national identity which did not merely overcome tribalism but also overcame the domination of some tribes over others in the creation of the colonial proto-states, which, except for Palestine, became states following the second world war.

The American Indian movement did not try to create a new indigenous identity that would supersede the existing national identities of the different north american indigenous nations, however, it did emphasize the unity in the struggle against colonization and the need to act together against the common enemy. AIM emphasized struggle against anti-native legislation, against theft of native land, against the common experiences of colonization as experienced by virtually all north American indigenous groups. AIM today is in disorder, split into factions, and not at the forefront of the struggle for decolonization. Unity building resistance of the 70s are today merely a history lesson, or a “this day in history”.

As AIM is weak today, as is pan-Arabism. Since the occupation in Iraq, and war in Syria, Ba’athism will soon be entirely dead, although meaningfully I’m not certain that either Iraq or Syria have been Ba’athist for a long time. The PFLP has marginal levels of support. And despite revolutions and unrest around the Arab world last year, “pan-Arabism gave no sign that it could return as a force to be reckoned in North Africa“. In both North America and the Arab world, the form of political identity becoming dominant is the same: allegiance to pre-colonial knowledge, and the belief that a newfound adherence to the “original” traditions will be redemptive, will achieve what the new secular identities could not.

So we’re left with the question – why are we, as left leaning North Americans, reactively supportive of North American indigenous groups who choose to live and organize according to traditional knowledge, and reactively opposed to political Islam? I mean, imagine if someone were to speak as carefully as we do about the way to engage in solidarity with first nations people without taking away agency or influencing their internal political decisions, but about the resistance in Iraq or Afghanistan? Anyone who would speak this way would be branded as crazy.

Well, I can offer two thoughts, and they are both depressing. The first is that Islamic nationalism stands a much better chance of succeeding at overcoming colonization, which means above all the Arab world taking control of its own resources – something which is totally unacceptable to North America because it means less cheap oil for us. So, as a real threat, we’re just afraid of it – even those of us who are very careful not to be Islamophobic. I try to be very respectful of Islam, but I am not going to go out of my way to support Islamic politics – I don’t believe any religiously based politics is a particularly good idea, although if it’s the only one that works I’m not going to get all judgmental about it. But if I express that much doubt that in the context of a North American indigenous struggle, I’ll be branded a racist. You think I’m joking, but when Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard wrote Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation, it was called a “hate crime”.

The second thought is, this all might have to do with our society still being very racist towards indigenous people. Not negatively racist, but it’s easy to forget that before the incredible anti-native racism that dominated most of the 20th century in Canada, there was another very pro-native attitude which was also racist, one which is not that different from the way many people on the left talk about indigenous people today. In Germany during the 19th century, for instance, there were more books published on North American indigenous people than in anywhere else in the world. The Nazis even were very endeared to North American indians, because according to their ecology they were a pure and nobel people, close to the land, in harmony with nature. These ideas of essential nobility and pure relations to the land are very present in the way we talk about preserving aboriginal culture today – sure we’ve done away with any biological essentialism, but we’re as culturally essentialist as ever. We believe, in general, that it’s absolutely essential for the leaders of aboriginal resistance movements to be aboriginals themselves. That wasn’t true of the Palestinian resistance, especially in the Marxist groups, some of them had leaders who were not even Palestinian, and this wasn’t considered a problem.

So, what should we do with these hypocrisies? I think the answer is embarrassingly straightforward – we should not take things for granted. We shouldn’t take for granted that preserving culture is revolutionary or progressive, nor should we take for granted that it is reactionary or regressive. What’s reactionary is forming one’s opinion on it as a brute reaction in accord with public sentiments, rather than out of a critical engagement with the content and the situation and the politics. We should respect indigenous groups and not assume we know better than them, but neither should we assume they know better than us and that we could never understand, because that is also racist – and intellectually apartheid because it presumes that the development of consciousness in different peoples is necessarily separated rather than, what it actually is, which is inter-mixed. That mixing always has an element of power and potentially oppression in it, but it is better to deal with that rather than to avoid substantial interaction.



  1. Let me propose a 3rd option. The context of the traditional religion.

    Most Americans / Canadians whether left or right are relatively untroubled by fundamentalist compounds or communities within America / Canada. And the reason is that they don’t pose a huge threat to self determination, because their membership must always be voluntary. We can have very strict Amish communities in Lancaster Pennsylvania. But anyone in those communities can in one day’s walk be in Philadelphia where their local Amish bishop has 0 power. Similarly for native American nations, someone can get off the reservation and be free of these strictures at all. Every native American is a US citizen and I believe the same is true for indigenous Canadians and Canadian citizenship.

    That’s wholly different from the situation in Iran, Egypt, Syria… where these traditional religious authorities intend not take over a small community but the state. This won’t be a voluntary situation but an involuntary one where the religious authorities will have the full backing of a state to force conformance on tens of millions.

    I don’t see anything wrong with being OK with a few thousand Amish living a traditional lifestyle by choice and not OK with a few hundred million living a traditional lifestyle against their will.


    1. I was not implying that there are no differences between indigenous peoples or traditional religions in different areas, I think the hypocricy is knee-jerk and doesn’t proceed by way of any analysis. That said, I believe there are fundamentalist communities in North America that hold powers on the level you suggest – I would point to the Mormons, who control one of the United States, as an example of religious fundamentalism connected with regional power. And communities associated with the fundamental pro-polygamy mormon church are not simply free to leave but are held by way of community coercion as strong and sophisticated as you will find in Afghanistan.


      1. What? First off the LDS church is not fundamentalist. Second, Utah has not been a theocracy either de facto or de jure since the civil war. Mormonism is not remotely coercive as a religion, there are 0 examples in Mormon history of forced baptisms, and 0 examples of the Mormon church doing anything to physically stop someone from trying to leave, even when they were a theocracy. Utah has been and remains a perfectly safe place where people of a huge range of faiths live under a state government that protects their rights and supports them in their various faith expressions.

        One of those varieties of faith expressions are the FLDS and other associated groups. If Utah were a theocracy those groups would have long ago been wiped out. People in Mormon polygamous marriages are generally perfectly free to leave. Polygamy as it is practices offers women a situation where their standard of living is quite often high, because they are living with a wealthy man and their day to day family intercourse is a relationship of sisterhood with the other wives. It is like living in a subsidized commune in exchange for a little bit of sex once in a while with an old guy. Yes, they are happy and they do like it. There is no horrible coercion involved. Several thousand people associated with these sects, including some women leave them every year. And also, several thousand people who have ties to these sects decide they would like closer ties and form polygamous relationships.

        Further, nothing remotely like Afghanistan exist. These people live a few miles from a police station and Utah social services. There are evangelical anti-Mormon groups, that operate freely in Utah btw, that would help them leave. Most women in polygamous relationships have regular social interactions with mainstream society and would be perfectly capable of leaving if they so choose. Nothing remotely like that exists for the women of Afghanistan.


        The Amish are a far closer example to what you are looking for and I would never compare the Amish to the Taliban. Again whole Mennonite communities of people who like some aspects of the Amish lifestyle but not all exist and thrive.

  2. First off I wouldn’t brand all of FLDS much less all of Mormonism with the problems of the Jeffs’ household. In any case I’d say the Jeff’s case disproves what you were alleging in terms of control. Jeff’s is a respected son of a community leader. A nobody, Elissa Wall runs away and talks. Her testimony is taken, an investigation is launched, A federal and state charges are issued. Jeff’s becomes a fugitive a serious manhunt is kicked off, and he is caught within a year.

    I’m hard pressed to see how Jeff proves your case about no broader community support helping people leave. It seems to me the authorities in Utah did quite a bit.


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