Statement on the threat of academic authoritarianism

We, the researchers of the EU research network “Decolonising Development“, stand in solidarity with the signatories of the open letter “The threat of academic authoritarianism – international solidarity with antiracist academics in France.” We wish to express our concern with the trend to attack and slander post- and decolonial studies. This trend can be witnessed in France using the slogan of “Islamo-Leftism“, but it can be observed in numerous other European countries as well, often in the guise of a defense of academic freedom. In the UK a series of interventions, mirroring those emerging at the end of Trump’s presidency in the US, have sought to invert the premises of anti-racist and decolonial studies to spread falsehoods about these ideas and then to denounce them as part of increasingly authoritarian discourses. These include misrepresenting Critical Race Theory as teaching white pupils about ‘inherited racial guilt’ and suggesting that to teach it is to ‘break the law’[1]. The UK universities Minister also sought in a Parliamentary speech to link ‘decolonisation’ to ‘censoring History’, suggesting that to ‘remove elements of history’ is reminiscent of the Soviet Union and China.[2] To blame “indigenist, racialist and decolonial ideologies” allegedly imported from North America for terrorist attacks and assassinations by fundamentalists, as some academics in their 100 Manifesto are claiming in France, is nothing short of outrageous.

As scholars committed to peaceful, respectful and plural coexistence, justice and dignity for all, we think that Islamic cultures, like other cultures present in Europe and the world, cannot be simply dismissed as possessing an inferior morality and be condemned to invisibility and silence. We are living in a world which unmistakeably bears the marks of European colonialism, which had occupied 85% of the earth‘s surface and has lasted for centuries. Today’s global asymmetries of power and division of labour are directly shaped by colonialism, and in all too many cases today’s – subtle or violent – racism is its legacy, long after formal independence has been achieved by former European colonies and universal rights have, at least in theory, been recognized.

Decolonial and postcolonial studies have – not only in North America, but all over the world – begun to investigate and unveil this racism and these asymmetries.  Movements like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes Must Fall illustrate that there are many people who perceive an urgent need for such critical theories. They recognize the necessity to rectify Eurocentric curricula or representations of history in textbooks, to investigate the effects of colonial violence that can be witnessed even today. To equate this with the support for terrorism is not only slander. It amounts to taking the position of the coloniser who wishes to defend its privilege of defining what counts as true. Let us be clear: colonialism denied the right of self-determination on the basis of racialized constructions of superior and inferior groups to populations the world over. It was a crime which cannot be reconciled with the idea that humans possess dignity and equal rights, and with the project of constructing a peaceful and inclusive global world. In this context, it is particularly important that thorough and solid research is not only allowed but actively encouraged, so that facts and new angles can be unearthed and debated in as dispassionate a manner as possible. As academics, we believe in research and academic debate to drive this process forward.

The threat of academic authoritarianism does not come from those who criticize colonial legacies and seek to change the traditional curricula, it comes from those who defend them and who wish to control and banish postcolonial and decolonial studies in universities. The continuous and deliberate conflation of intolerance and censorship with a range of ideas, including anti-racism, anti-Islamophobia and decolonisation that might be broadly construed as on the ‘left’ of our political discourse is a now well-trodden path to, ironically, shut down and, in some instances, criminalise, ideas that are seen as outside of our political, social and economic norms. This type of misrepresentation is profoundly dangerous to the types of pluralistic, inclusive and dynamic exchanges of ideas that the vast majority of Higher Education institutions are committed to nurturing. For a network of decolonial scholars, the threat this poses to our capacity to discuss, debate and disseminate these ideas is very real and must be challenged. Linking our academic commitment with violence and terrorism is a simplistic strategy defending the Eurocentric status quo in which the history has been written by the colonisers. As scholars committed to peace, respect, plurality, justice and dignity, we can only understand this attack in terms of racism and anti-racism: a racist narrative attacking anti-racist scholars and activists in order to maintain a white supremacist status quo. The current nationalist and authoritarian populist labelling of others is a continuation of structures that must be refused if a world of peace and genuine domestic and international cooperation are to be possible. 

We call upon the EU to defend universities and schools against this new academic authoritarianism, in the name of the universal – not European – values of humanism and justice. This has to include social justice as well as cognitive justice.



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