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The dark side of Western Civilization’s legacy

By Riaz Hassan - posted Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The push is on to place more emphasis on the legacy of Western civilisation and its values in the national history curriculum. What is Western civilization? Most probably it refers to cultures of Western Europe and North America. Among the most notable achievements of Western civilization are the liberal democracy, capitalism and robust civil societies based on reason. These factors have contributed enormously in making Western societies some of most creative in history. This creativity has underpinned unprecedented advancements in humanities, science and technology for the benefit of the humanity. But there is dark side of the Western civilization’s legacy. Here are some examples.

Core values: In recent years it has become commonplace to hear claims that Judea-Christian values are the core of Western civilization. But ironically some of the core theological beliefs of Christianity are not compatible with such claims. The notion of ‘deicide’ in Christianity lies at the heart of anti-Semitism of European Christian societies - sites of numerous Jewish pogroms over the centuries. Many European philosophers of the enlightenment were anti-Semitic. Jews were frequently accused of various kinds of conspiracies and evils designs. In recent years this part of Jewish-Christian history is glossed over in favour of claims that anti-Semitism is unique only to Islamic societies. 

According to eminent historian of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, Jewish-Muslim theology is far closer to one another than either is to Christianity. Jews have lived under Islamic rule for fourteen centuries and in many lands and while they were never free of from discrimination but were rarely subjected to persecutions and pogroms as they were in Christian societies. Most of the characteristic features of Christian anti-Semitism were absent in Muslim societies.


Colonialism: Colonialism was one of the most brutal historical events in human history. Never before so many human societies and cultures were subjected to such oppressive racist humiliation and exploitation. It was unleashed in the 18th century by a small number of European countries to reorganise the world for capitalist exploitation, political and cultural domination. Colonialism was a disgraceful robbery of land and resources of large segments of human population primarily to satisfy incessant greed of the colonising imperial power. As the African saying goes: When white man came we had the land they had the Bible now we have the Bible and they have the land. The incorporation of colonies into economies of metropolitan countries required destruction of native economies and subjugation of native through military coercion and destruction of local cultures.

Genocide: Colonialism began in the context of largest human movement in history involving millions of Europeans, Chinese and Indians migrating to new lands in Africa, Americas and Australasia. New countries were established on lands taken by force from their indigenous inhabitants who were systematically displaced or destroyed. The British occupation of Australia devastated the native people their cultures and societies. 

Within a century and half of British occupation the indigenous population of Australia declined by around 80 percent through disease, alcohol abuse, dispossession, violence and murder.  In the US the losses of native population within two centuries of European occupation is estimated to be around 95 percent. The pre-colonial native population was estimated to be between 6 to 12 millions. According to the US census of 1900 it was 237,000. In California the native population in 1769 was 310,000 by 1860 it had declined to 31,000. The same type of destruction was repeated in African and South American European colonies.

Global Inequalities:The destiny of nations/countries is shaped mainly by demography and geography (land mass). Colonialism led to huge distortions in respect to them.  Consider the countries that trace their lineage to Britain - United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain has 0.15 of earth’s land area and 0.89 of world’s population. The United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand together have around 5.5 percent of the world’s population and 19 percent of earth’s land mass. In comparison China and India between them have around 38 percent of the world’s population and 8 percent of earth’s land mass. These disparities have worked to great economic advantage of these four countries by giving them exclusive access to huge mineral, agriculture and other vital resources of the land they occupy primarily for the benefit of their comparatively small populations exacerbating global economic inequities. 

Exclusion of the Native and Migrants in the New States: The inequalities were created through the insidious claims that new colonies were ‘white man’s countries’ and excluded the ‘non-whites’ and indigenous populations from citizenship. The indigenous populations, Chinese, Indians, Pacific Islanders, Africans and other ‘non-whites’ could only work as coolies, indentured labourers, servants and slaves without any legal rights to permanent residency and ownership of land and economic resources. Laws were passed to deny the natives such rights and to expel ‘non-whites’ workers and /or to exclude them from entering the colonies.

Democracy and Exclusion: All these policies were engineered through democratic institutions. These countries prided themselves as sharing the democratic politics and institutions of English speaking cultures but endowed upon themselves distinctive capacities for self government and democracy which could only survive in the absence of distinctions of class and colour. Such ideological prerequisites of democracy made conditions of racial homogeneity imperative. As sociologist Michael Mann argues in his book The Dark Side of Democracy large scale ethnic cleansing in the new colonies were made possible by the perversion of liberal ideals of democracy. The notion of the people so crucial to democratic rule was defined in ethnic terms. The establishment of European colonies made previously less diverse societies more diverse. In such conditions politically and militarily dominant group conflated ethnic identity with national identity conferring upon itself all the benefits and rights to the exclusion, dispossession and subjugation, often through violent means, of their rivals.   


The immigrations restriction laws and policies in new countries were introduced to strengthen the conditions of racial homogeneity. The British Empire had colonies on every continent made clear distinction between ruling and ruled races and races fit to rule and not fit for self –government.  United States naturalization Act was predicated on the dichotomy of white and non-white. This law excluded Native Americans, indentured servants, salves, free blacks and Asians. It only allowed naturalization of immigrants who were ‘free white persons’ of ‘good character’.

There was considerable borrowing of ideas among the U.S. South Africa, Canada and Australia.  The state parliaments in Australia had passed laws restricting immigration of non-whites and expelling those who were already in the colonies. The first law passed by the Australian Federal Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. It is regarded as the beginning of the White Australia Policy. Further amendments and pubic polices were made to strengthen the Act in subsequent years to ensure, in the words of Prime Minister John Curtin: “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendents of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race”.

The government of South African colony was also busy passing laws in the 19th and 20th centuries aimed at restricting immigration of non-whites, especially Indians, and to restrict native populations to reservations culminating into the Apartheid policy of enforced segregation of races. Under Apartheid rights of the majority blacks were severely curtailed and the privileged position of the Afrikaans minority was strengthened.

In all these countries anti-white immigration police have gradually been either abolished or radically changed. But immigration still remains one of most emotionally charged political issues in them. In Australia the Abbot government’s obsession with border protection is demonising and criminalising asylum seekers. Ironically it is happening in a country whose very foundation was laid by illegal immigration and brutal dispossession of its indigenous population.

Militarism:Militarism is another legacy of the colonial expansion and its successor states.   In 2012 military spending in the United States, Australia, Canada, the UK and New Zealand amounted to 794 billion US dollars or 46 percent of total global military spending. The United States by far has the largest military budget of 682 billion dollars or 40 percent of the global military spending. By comparison China and India’s military budgets were 166 and 48 billion respectively. In terms of percentage China and India’s accounted for 9.5 and 2.6 percent respectively of global military spending. Given the emerging super power rivalry between the United States and China the military spending will significantly increase in the coming years making the world less safe as well as depriving it of funds which could more usefully be employed to redress global and national inequalities.   

Let us hope the curriculum reviewers would not seek to sanitize the history and deprive young Australians from a proper and fuller appreciation of the legacy of Western civilization and its role in making of the modern world and Australia.

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About the Author

Riaz Hassan is Australian Professorial Fellow and Emeritus Professor at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia and Visiting Research Professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of National University of Singapore. His most recent books are: Islam and Society: Sociological Explorations (Melbourne University Press 2013) and, Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings, (Routledge January 2014).

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