Some Thoughts on Eighteenth-Century Degeneration Theory and anti-Arab Racism Today

When Europeans began to interact with what they termed the Orient (essentially anything Ottoman empire and east plus Egypt) in the seventeenth and especially the eighteenth centuries, they were struck by the evidence of once great civilizations. The achievements in disciplines such as architecture, mathematics and literature were impressive. Yet, as far as the Europeans were concerned, these once great Islamic and Hindu nations had declined and become poor reflections of their previous selves. The Europeans, thus, asked themselves why had this decline occurred? The solution to this conundrum was degeneration theory, which posited that humanity’s natural state is toward decline and the “Orient’s” decline was the result of corrupt rule by despots (there was a significant theological element to degeneration theory, which I won’t go into here).

Though the orientalists regarded Asiatic societies as having degenerated to their current state, they did not generally view the past civilizations as having been culturally or intellectual equal to that of Europe. As the philologist William Jones put it:

Whoever travels in Asia, especially if he is conversant with the literature of the countries through which he passes, must naturally remark the superiority of European talent; the observation is indeed as old as Alexander; and though, we cannot agree with the sage preceptor of the ambitious prince, that ‘the Asiaticks were born to be slaves’, yet the Athenian poet seems to be perfectly in the right, when he represents Europe as a sovereign princess and Asia as her handmaid.

The result of the combination of degeneration theory and belief that non-Europeans were innately inferior to Europeans was two-fold. Firstly, Europeans were morally justified to intervene in the affairs of Asiatic states and peoples. This formed the basis of the moral argument made in favour of colonialism—the enlightened Europeans had a moral imperative to impose themselves on inferior and degenerated societies because the end result of European colonial and economic endeavours would be the elevation of these societies.

Secondly, though European intervention was essential, Asiatic societies lacked crucial racial qualities that would allow them to develop societies equal to those found in Europe; therefore, the interventions needed to be tailored to the ethnic realities of the society in question. Hence, the direct relationship between orientalist research and colonialism, because the orientalists sought to understand the past, “golden ages” of oriental cultures so that they could then seek to guide these states back to their previous state.

These views first articulated in the eighteenth century were put into practice in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the consequences are continuing to be felt. Examples of this include that the Indian caste system was constructed and codified as much by the British imperial governments as Indian history or Hindu theology. Similarly, in Africa the ethnic categories of “Tutsi” and “Hutu” were essentially invented by twentieth-century Belgian and German colonial administrators who took what had previously been social categories and transformed them into racial ones. There are similar examples of destructive interventions into preexisting social structures in every colonized state as imperial administrators sought to impose an external order on cultures they did not understand (a trend that lives on in neocolonial disasters, as seen by the utter failure of the Iraq occupation, which American policies caused the formation of Islamic State and the complete destruction of Iraq and rather than the liberal democracy that the Bush administration claimed would be the outcome of the invasion).

All of this leads us to what stimulated these meditations regarding European imperialist thought. The recently hired columnist by the New York Times Bret Stephens debuted with an article that has inspired a great deal of criticism due to its climate skepticism; however as bad as his climate skepticism is, his anti-Arab racism is perhaps even more problematic (e.g. this column: in which Stephens called Arab antisemitism a “disease of the mind”). Writing for the media watchdog FAIR, Adam Johnson described Stephens’ views as fringe; however, the real problem is that I do not believe Stephens’ opinions to be fringe. As Johnson demonstrates, Stephens’ arguments, whether racist or anti-science, are still regarded as within the bounds of acceptable discourse. While Stephens expresses his racism more baldly than a liberal interventionist (say Hillary Clinton) does, the underlying assumptions of the cultural/ethnic superiority of the West is shared by both far right neoconservatives and liberal interventionists. Moreover, this anti-Arab racism is directly descended from the degeneration theories of the eighteenth century and the white man’s burden of the nineteenth. Indeed, the entire Iraq War was framed around notions of democratization and its failure blamed on the supposedly despotic nature of Islamic culture. The “West” is obligated to intervene in Middle Eastern countries because it is the only way to bring about Western liberal democracy, but liberal democracy is also apparently anathema to Islam.

The fundamental failure of contemporary international politics is that we have refused to acknowledge the consequences of colonialism. These consequences include the destructive ethnic divisions created by imperial powers’ arbitrary establishment of borders, invention and codification of ethnic groups, imposition of European laws and morals, massive displacement of people, forced labour and genocides. But, the colonial legacy lives on in intellectual history as well. The degeneration theory served to justify colonialism. When intervention failed to Europeanize the colonized peoples, the conclusion was not to blame colonialism, but the colonized. We have remained committed to a worldview that considers much of the world to be culturally inferior and, thus, incapable of obtaining the liberal, capitalist democracies that the same Western exceptionalist worldview ignorantly presumes to be the societal ideal. Thus, we are left with the tautology where military intervention is constantly advocated and the resulting catastrophes only serve to justify even more devastating intervention.