The mainstream of the contemporary liberal-capitalist system would have society believe a fallacy: namely, that both the process and deconstruction of historical colonialism have ceased, and that the imperial structures that once dominated and defined the world have been removed. The tenets of colonialism on which this conceptualisation, and eventuality, exists, however, rely on two critical ideas. Firstly, they sit upon a formal and political definition of colonialism. Secondly, they isolate one particular time-frame of colonialism as paramount; in this sense, contemporary rhetoric focuses almost exclusively on the fall of the European empires around the end of the Second World War. Whilst, indeed, these two tenets combined are one interpretation of the end of decolonisation, they can both be deconstructed in themselves.
In the first instance, an orthodox interpretation of the end of decolonisation might take the colonialism in question to refer to European imperial projects, and hence may literally list dates of independence declarations to determine a definitive end. A common example in contemporary discussion is the seceding of British Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China as a Special Administrative Region, a territory held by the British with varying degrees of sovereignty since the First Opium War in 1842. The return of Hong Kong in 1997 was perhaps the last example of such seceding in the history of the British Empire, rendering decolonisation about sovereignty and little else. Whilst ‘dependent’ or ‘overseas territories still exist, such as the Falkland Islands, Bermuda, Saint Helena and the Caymans, and can be used to argue in favour of continuous British colonialism, the consensus refutes this claim. Similar arguments exist for the sovereignty of the French Empire, which, whilst maintaining overseas departements such as Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean Sea and Reunion in the Indian Ocean, relinquished significant territories, such as Algeria, in the 1960s.
Colonisation, however, cannot be channelled in a purely political, sovereign sense. True, declared and formal colonialism has, generally, been deconstructed from the European domination of the late nineteenth century. There remain, however, legacies of colonialism, which, some scholars argue, have perpetuated the effects of imperialism beyond the boundaries of empires, and therefore make ‘decolonisation’ a questionable concept. Down the historical materialist line, Marxists argue that the entrenchment of capitalism in the world economy – importantly, biased and structured capitalism favouring certain interest groups – suggests that the process of decolonisation has not ended, because, just as was the case in the era of formal empire, capital accumulates in particular places and for particular interests. The very notion of capitalism too, some argue is an imperialist effort to systematise a Eurocentric, post-enlightenment, political-philosophical doctrine. If colonisation involves the spreading of capitalism across the world – specifically, European-led, or Western-led, capitalism – then decolonisation must refer to the deconstruction of such a system. Even after the greatest global recession since the Great Depression, in the 2008 financial crisis, capitalism has only been more intensely reinforced through the blending of public and private capital and regulation. In this sense, the decolonisation of European imperial capitalism remains far from close to reality.
In another sense too, European colonialism persists in less tangible ways than political sovereignty or capitalism, through culture. As documented in detail by the Arab-American scholar Edward Said, whose field is somewhat ironically termed ‘post-colonialism’, European imperialism took the form of cultural domination through a variety of means, which formed a self-other doctrine that subjugated what he termed the ‘Orient’. This doctrine of ‘Orientalism’ informed the cultural hegemony of the West, which persists and informed material imperialism, in the form of economic and political subjugation. If, therefore, Said claims that cultural imperialism persists beyond political-imperial sovereignty, and that cultural imperialism in the form of race, demonization and ontological differentiation continues to inform international politics, then, like capitalist decolonisation, orientalist decolonisation too remains a false reality.
Imperialism Throughout History
Thus far, this debate has concerned itself with questioning the nature of decolonisation from the last example of formal empire, the European colonial system. But, there enters a distinct complication in the history of the multiple layers of imperialism that have dominated human political existence for thousands of years. One does not necessarily need to define in detail what an empire is, beyond a Doyle-esque master-servant power relationship between communities, to see that to limit the concept of decolonisation to the post-Second World War period of nation-statism is to ignore the possibility that to even discuss decolonisation is problematic. Was decolonisation a global phenomenon across time and space, and did all peoples experience it in the same way? Can it refer to the deconstruction of multiple types of empire over time? Does decolonisation necessarily involve the removal of an empire and its replacement with a non-imperial entity? These questions render the concept of decolonisation especially difficult to define and theorise, let alone to decide whether it universally ‘began’, ‘ended’ or even ‘happened’ in the first place.
As a final point, the example of the Southern Levant, the area surrounding the city of Jerusalem, serves as a distinct problem in the history of decolonisation. There is, going back more than 3,500 years, no genuine concept of ‘decolonisation’ in this part of the world. The Jewish Kingdoms that encompassed the biblical ‘Land of Canaan’ were perhaps the last example of ‘native’ settlements in the Levant, but their domination in the 1st Century B.C.E. by the Roman client states of Judea and Gallilee marked two millennia of colonisation, not to mention the religious swarming of the region by the rise of Christianity in the subsequent centuries. The division of the Roman Empire and the emergence of a distinct Byzantine polity perhaps marked the first era of decolonisation, but Eastern Orthodox Christianity ensued until the emergence of the Islamic faith from its origins in the Hejaz.
The period 650-1150 cannot very easily be described as an era of decolonisation either. The Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates spread their influence across the Levant and into North Africa, and whilst Islam became fervently entrenched into the cultural fabric of the territory, it remained a fundamentally alien doctrine. Whilst Islam remained hegemonic, political colonisation moved in waves, from the threat of Mongol domination, which officially ended the life of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258, to Mamluk influence from Egypt, to Ottoman domination, which ensued from the 15th Century.
After each of these colonial shifts, can there be said to have been a period of decolonisation and then recolonisation? The Ottomans held their nerve in the Levant until the early 20th Century, when it seemed that the Arab peoples might have been about to achieve independence and enter into a genuine era of decolonisation. But despite the Hussein-McMahon letters, which appeared to show British support for an Arab kingdom, this decolonisation turned once again into recolonisation, when an Anglo-French alliance divided the Levant into ‘mandatory territories’. Not even Woodrow Wilson’s post-First World War internationalism could prevent the Europeans moving in, if on ‘developmental’ terms. The decolonisation efforts of the interwar period were therefore only ideas in the Levant. And even after the Second World War, instead of feeling the full benefits of the decolonisation rhetoric, the Levant saw the declaration of the state of Israel. Whilst there is a case to argue that, because the Zionist-Israeli state was based on Ancient Eretz-Israel of the pre-Roman era, Modern Israel sees an end to the colonisation of the Levant by various religious and political actors. This view, however, ignores the experience of the Arab population that had called the territory their homeland in parallel for thousands of years. The subsequent military occupation by Israel of the Palestinian lands of Gaza and the West Bank, as well as Israeli expansionism into the Golan Heights and Sinai, suggest that sovereign based colonialism in fact ensues.
Therefore, in the case of the Levant, not only has ‘decolonisation’ not finished, but it is arguable that it never started. Whether one wants to argue that decolonisation has been in motion since the fall of the Roman, the Byzantine, the Islamic or British Empires, the Levant, specifically the Palestinian territories, cannot be said to have seen the end of its colonial history. Furthermore, even if the issues surrounding political sovereignty are resolved, there will remain postcolonial cultural issues that will inevitably persist beyond political borders. Decolonisation therefore remains a murky issues in the context of the Middle East, and not one that can satisfy academics, politicians nor the common inhabitant.