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In conversation with Syed Farid Alatas

The emergence and augmentation of alternative discourses in non western countries

Published : Friday, 29 June, 2018 at 12:00 AM  Count : 1633

In conversation with Syed Farid Alatas

In conversation with Syed Farid Alatas

Dr Syed Farid Alatas (born in 1961) is a contemporary Malaysian sociologist and professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore. He is the son of Syed Hussein Alatas (1928-2007), who was a famous Malaysian politician and social scientist. Hussein was intellectually engaged in the critique of both Western imperialism and  domestic post-colonialism. He revealed the recreation and reproduction of the colonial myth of Malaysian 'laziness' by the very post-colonial intellectuals. Farid's uncle Syed Muhammad Alatas (born in 1931), is a prominent Muslim philosopher. He, along with the Iranian philosopher Hossein Nasr (born in 1933), represents a generation of Muslim traditionalists who are seeking a philosophical and theological revival of the Islamic knowledge in the modern time. Evaluation and engagement with his father and his uncle's point of views is one of the recurrent themes in Farid Alatas' works. This ongoing intergenerational debate is mostly informative for those who are interested in the intellectual atmosphere of either South East Asia or generally the contemporary Islamic world. However, Farid's work on non-Western knowledge traditions and cultural practices are all considered as potential sources of social science theories and concepts.
Dr Farid talks to Asif Bin Ali of The Daily Observer about the emergence and augmentation of alternative discourses of non western thinkers in the process of universalizing and internationalizing the social science.


OB: Why you have started working on non western thinkers? What was your motivation for this endeavor?

Farid: I was exposed to philosophy, sociology and sociological theories, political theories, western and Islamic, as well as to some extent Hindu and Buddhist philosophy because of my father who was a sociologist. He was a thinker, an intellectual. In fact, it was in the atmosphere in my house. There was a lot of discussion about social issues and problems. As we discussed those problems, my father would always address the issue of the underlying problems in knowledge. He thought that, people fail to assess situations because they are not exposed to a broader and wider range of ideas. Now you can have an idea that where I grew up there was always discussion of ideas within the family circle. In addition to that, my father himself was very much concerned with what he called 'the captive mind'. He had written a lot about it. My father was very much concerned with this problem of uncritical imitation of western thought and ideas. He wasn't against western thoughts, but he was against uncritical imitation of it. Certain ideas, concepts cannot be simply applied without modification, and more importantly, he had the idea that social scientists in the Third World should look at their own traditions as sources for ideas and concepts. So basically, that was and is my interest.

After being exposed to those ideas, when I went to university for doing my bachelor's degree, I began to be exposed to the other people apart from my father. Those people had also written about this problem of uncritical imitation of western thoughts and theories, I was just attracted to it and I wanted to work more on it. I wanted to expand the critique of western thought and also take it to its logical conclusion which was to actually develop a non-western theory looking at the various non-western traditions as sources of theories.

OB: Professor, are you advocating a debate by putting the binary concept like a non-western school versus western school, or you are just suggesting to be critical about the uncritical imitation of the western school?

Farid: First of all, we cannot say that it's western and non-western school. There are various schools of thought within theoretical traditions of western social sciences and humanities. Furthermore, when we say west, we should not homogenize the West, because we are not talking about the entire West. We are talking about some dominant knowledge powers within the West. Today, they are the USA, UK, to some extent France. I don't even think that Germany is a dominant knowledge power in social science and humanities. It was in the past, but not today. So, some countries in Europe, some social science communities here as such as Spain, Portugal, some of the eastern European countries are in a similar position vis-�-vis the dominant western knowledge powers as we are in the Third World. Then in the situation of dependency they are almost as much dependent as other non western countries although they are in the West. Hungarian, Polish, or Lithuanian sociologists are as much dependent as Third World countries on the dominant power's knowledge production capacity, especially in the field of the theoretical knowledge production. Thirdly, I want to say that the idea is not to create an eastern school of thought. Now in some cases, people may create a specific school of thought, for e.g. someday a group of scholars may want to create a Tagorean school of thought in social science, or Tagorean social theory of modernity perhaps. That is possible, and others may take Tagore and merge him with ideas from western thinkers, in which case it would not be specifically Indian social theory, but something new. To me, it's not important whether in which way we do it, the point to me is not to regard the West as the sole source of theorizing ideas and concepts. We should look to other traditions also. So in Bangladesh we might be interested in Tagore. We might be interested in ideas from Chinese philosophy or Russian social thought and so on and so forth. The idea is not to restrict ourselves to the dominant civilization which is western.

In conversation with Syed Farid Alatas

In conversation with Syed Farid Alatas

OB: Intellectual imperialism is a very visible concept in the contemporary world. Western countries like the USA, UK, or France has ensured their status in the intellectual imperialist group. If tomorrow the current non-dominant civilization takes the position of the dominant knowledge producer status from the East then what would be your position?

Farid: In other words, there is a reversal in roles? Then you see the problem with western dominance of the knowledge powers in the West is that it puts us in situations of hierarchy, where there is hegemony. One might even argue that, it is a case of intellectual imperialism, not just academic dependency where there is a dependency on ideas, but on the medium of ideas also. We even have a dependency on recognition. We depend on the recognition from the dominant knowledge powers for our own careers in our own countries, for example, through the regime of international journal ranking and so on and so forth. So there is a dependency relation and some might argue that it is a relationship of imperialism, in a sense that there is an interest in the west to be dominant. In this way, because it creates a situation whereby scholars in the third world and by extension the masses in the third world come to a way of thinking of the world that is in line with the dominant capitalist ideology. So this hegemony is the problem. If the situation would reverse, I think we would have to be critical of that also.

OB: You have done extensive work on Ibn Khaldun (IK). How will you contextualize him with a universal perspective to the study of sociology?
Farid: With any theorist, whether from the West or from the non-West, there are aspects of the theory. There is a dimension to the theory which is universal and a dimension which is specific to the area and the period on which they work. So, if you take Marx for e.g., the aspects of his theory which are very specific to the Europe of his time. There are aspects of his theory which are more generalizable to the capitalism beyond his time to societies outside of his own. The same thing goes for Ibn Khaldun. You can find aspects of his theory that can only be applied to the societies of his time that he was talking about, but there are also more abstract ideas and more generalizable lessons which we can derive from this theory that can be applied to other societies outside of his own, and outside of his time period. They are applicable even in modern societies to some extent. I think, a kind of creative work is required and that will be able to identify the different dimensions of the theory. So for example, Ibn Khaldun's rise and decline of civilization and the relationship between pastoral nomadic societies and sedentary societies as the dominant factors that determine the rise and decline of the states. This can only be applied to societies characterized by pastoral Nomadism, not to other societies. If you extract more abstract ideas from Ibn Khaldun, for e.g., for him the dominant factor that results in the decline of society has to do with luxury. It was the iron cage of rationality which was for him the central problem with modern society. For Marx it was alienation and for Durkheim it was Anomie. For Khaldun the central pathology of society was 'luxury', it was a kind of enslavement to luxury. Now that is an idea that applies not only to the societies of his time, but it can apply to any society. So, this is what I mean. Looking at particular theory at various levels of extraction at different dimensions to see which levels can be applied to what kinds of societies and what periods.


OB: A large sections of western knowledge consumers are coming from the underdeveloped and developing countries. After their training in West, in some cases, they are coming back to their native country and working. They are also forming a local hegemony by reproducing knowledge and theoretical framework. At the same time, the standards of local knowledge production are not up to the mark. Low quality of locally produced knowledge and West trained syndicate are controlling the knowledge production space of Third World countries. You have talked about these problems in a couple of your lectures also. Do you think that, this also stops non-western academia to focus on the non-western ideas and to present critique about the western academia?

Farid: Definitely, if scholars from our countries are studying in the west in an uncritical manner, in other words, they are captive minds, they come back and they reproduce those ideas. They in fact reproduce the mental captivity and so the next generations are educated in the same way. So this exacerbates the situation. This is definitely the case. This is generally what is happening. Until today, if you think about it, the earliest critics of Eurocentric and Orientalist scholarship began in the late 19th century. Probably among the first was the Filipino thinker Jose Rizal who died in 1896. Although there were not many critics, but he was among the first. In the post World War II period, there was a generation of intellectuals in Asia, Africa and Latin America who were critical of Eurocentrism and blind imitation of western social science. That was a generation before me. My generation is continuing that, I think there are more scholars now than in the past. In spite of that, you find that in the way that social science is taught in universities in the third world, it is still taught according to the Eurocentric model. For e.g., in most of the universities in the third world, when classical sociological theory is taught, it is still Marx and Durkheim who form the cannon. So non-western scholars are excluded, and even western women scholars are excluded. So it is not only Eurocentric, but also Androcentric. It is male biased. So, no matter how intellectuals and scholars may talk about the problem in the third world, as long as teaching hasn't changed to reflect these concerns, then the Eurocentrism will be reproduced.

OB: In the classical model of Eurocentrism, there was racism, and categorization based on class, caste and colour. However, there is this new Eurocentrism, which is not that much racist or class-biased, but of course it ignores the non-western ideas, sometimes deliberately and sometimes unknowingly. How to address this neo- Eurocentrism?

Farid: The classical Eurocentrism or Orientalism was based on denigration of the so-called natives, but today it has changed. To a large extent these concepts are done away with this derogatory attitude towards the natives, but what continues are the marginalization of native voices, and that I think is the most difficult problem to deal with. To me, it's a matter of awareness creation. It's not sufficient to speak about this in conferences, talks, or even to lecture about it, it's necessary to rewrite the textbooks. It's important to have these views reflected in the way we teach basic intro courses in sociology. It is essential to have a course on post-colonial thinking and on non-western and non-Eurocentric thinking. It is also necessary to develop modules specifically on these subjects since these are specialized modules. What is more important is that introductory classes which will introduce sociology to students, or courses that are required in classical sociological theory, such courses have to reflect these changes. These courses have to be taught in a non-Eurocentric manner. Until the various cohorts of sociology take non-western sociology as an example, the non-Eurocentric manner will come to the second priority. For us, we are consciously being non- Eurocentric, but we want the situation to arise whereby for a student it is simply natural to be interested in both western and non-western thinkers.

OB: In our context young thinkers and senior thinkers come together mostly in the university spaces. There are other spaces also but university spaces are more dominant and available in a country like Bangladesh. Do you think that these universities are also holding the local hegemony as well as reproducing previous knowledge structure by participating in the neo-Eurocentric approach? At the same time, while an institution like the university is functioning in that manner, is it possible for an individual to challenge the dominant knowledge culture?

Farid: I guess you're referring to this considering the contradiction between the institution and the role of the individual. At the level of the institution, it's very difficult to bring large changes. The institutional mindset and the reward structure generally favour the reproduction of Eurocentric knowledge. On the other hand, individuals, working within the system in many universities around the non western world, do have some degree of autonomy in terms of what they teach. So we would then be working in a more micro level of change. Not at the meso level of the organization or the macro level, we're not in a situation where we've been able to bring about changes at the meso or macro level. More the micro level where we are able to change the way we teach courses, we can influence some students and throw our networking with colleagues in other countries. We are able to do some work along these lines organizing international workshops and summer schools for young scholars, so these changes that take place at the small scale. If you put it that way the situation seems pessimistic. It seems hopeless. But if we look at the changes over a longer term, let's compare the situation with the time that my father was an academic and when he was in his 40s and his 50s, compared to my time now and I'm in the same age group, I think there's far more awareness of the problem, there are more activities on the international scale. There are more discussion and students are more aware of the issue. So, if we will continue this way; the next generation of social scientists may be different from us.

OB: We are seeing the march of phenomena like the Islamization, Hinduisation and nationalization of knowledge in nonwestern countries. In most of the cases, the protagonists of these projects are presenting their argument by 'critically' looking at the past constructed by the western framework? What do you think about this phenomenon? Is it really possible to Islamize, Hinduise or nationalize knowledge?

Farid: Not all approaches that present themselves as alternatives to Orientalist or Eurocentric knowledge are a genuine alternatives. Some of them turn out to be nativistic responses. They become a sort of reverse forms of Orientalism or Nativism. They found on a rejection ground of national knowledge. They are as ethnocentric as the Eurocentrism they are critiquing. I am against these responses, but with regard to the specific case of Islamization or Hinduisation, which we may in broader terms refer to as sacralisation of knowledge. I think some of them are not genuine or viable responses to Eurocentric knowledge. If by Hinduisation or Islamization meant looking at Islamic or Hindu tradition as sources of ideas and concepts, I have no problem with that, I think that is something that should be done. It is necessary to look at the various civilizational sources of knowledge outside of the West, but if, on the other hand, the idea is to create Islamic theories or Islamic concepts or Islamic methods, I think that is not a very sound approach, because the fact is that concepts or theories cannot be Islamic in the sense that they cannot be sacred. A concept is a tool. It is of course influenced by the culture and circumstances, in which it emerges, but it is meant to be an analytical tool to study theories and they cannot have a sacred nature, unless we're talking about ethical theories, but that's not a matter. In the social sciences, we do not use ethical theories to analyze society, we use ethical theories to talk about the way society should be, but the social sciences are not normative fields of enquiry, they are analytical fields of enquiry in which we use empirical theories.

In empirical theories, the issue of sacralising concept should not arise because it is simply impossible to have sacred or ethical theories as analytical tools. The same thing goes for methodology, people have spoken of Islamizing methodology, but that is impossible because if you take for e.g. of induction and deduction, that aspect of methodology, it is impossible to have Islamic deduction. The deduction is simply the mind works whether you're a Hindu or Christian or Jain or Muslim or Buddhist or atheist, deduction is the same.





OB: Thank you very much Professor.
Farid: You are welcome.

Asif Bin Ali, the interviewer, moves between journalism (published over 50 articles, reviews and interviews), and research. He has completed his M.A (Sociology) from South Asian University, New Delhi, India. He can be reached at: [email protected] 



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