Rowan Williams on good and bad imperialism

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has managed to get himself into the headlines again with another inane comment on foreign policy. Here are the controversial comments:
America seems so intrinsically involved in everything. The Archbishop recognises that: “We have only one global hegemonic power at the moment.” But, he propounds, “It is not accumulating territory; it is trying to accumulate influence and control. That’s not working.” Far from seeing this positively, he describes it as “the worst of all worlds,” saying, “it is one thing to take over a territory and then pour energy and resources into administering it and normalising it. Rightly or wrongly that’s what the British Empire did – in India for example. It is another thing to go in on the assumption that a quick burst of violent action will somehow clear the decks and that you can move on and other people will put things back together –Iraq for example.”
His whole interview (in the glossy Muslim "lifestyle" magazine Emel) is worth reading in full (here it is, found via Ekklesia), because the comment on American power and British imperlism is only one small part in an actually fairly far-ranging and thoughtful discussion.

Not suprisingly, though, I am going to focus on the controversial bit.

In particular, the positive depiction of British imperialism is outrageous. The balance sheet of the British empire is incredibly poor. Starting with the plantations in Ireland and mass appropriations of land from Irish farmers, condemning them to generations of poverty, moving on to the role of the Empire in the slave trade (3.5 million African slaves to the Americas, a third of all slaves transported across the Atlantic).

And in India, Williams' model, there was the privatised and unaccountable system of plundering India's wealth under the East India Company, which makes Halliburton and Blackwater and the private contractors in Iraq look like charities. The East India Company habitually used torture against Indian people and forced farmers to convert from subsistence crops to cash crops for export, resulting in horrific starvation. They destroted Indian industry by flooding the market with cheap goods, the market being rigged by a system of duties and subsidies. And this was nothing compared to the thirty or forty million peasants who died in the British-induced famines that Mike Davis describes in his grim highly recommmended Late Victorian Holocausts.

As for the British Empire and Iraq...Well, it was off course the British who, rather than diligently and thoughtfully "pouring energy and resources into administering it and normalising it", Britain invented it out of thin air, combining three Ottoman provinces that had little in common with each other culturally or linguistically. Britain proceded to pump oil and wealth out of the country, through the Turkish Petroleum Company. More seriously, Britain bombed Kurdish and Arab uprisings. (Churchill famously advocated using chemical weapons against the "uncivilised" Kurdish tribes.) [More here.]

So what allows someone of Williams' intellectual stature to be so stupid? I don't have enough knowledge of or interest in the Archbishop to comment (Martin's very good post here gives some explanations). The fact is, Williams is not alone. An insanity has gripped Western elite opinion, rendering it unable to see with any proportion, unable to make moral judgements. America, Israel and Blair are magnified into the worst possible monsters; all other crimes are relatavised away; all good things America does are literally invisible and unthinkable for these people. As Martin points out,
Needless to say, the archbishop had little to say about America's role in liberating Kuwait from Saddam, protecting the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo, or rescuing Afghanistan from the repressive grip of the Taliban.
Williams is blind to the inter-imperialist rivalries that mean that America as a "global hegemon" is in active competition with other powers, not least China, Russia and Europe, who severely curtail America's ability to act on the global stage.

This worldview speaks a radical language ("global hegemon"). It is endemic amongst people who like to think of themselves as liberal or even radical. But it is essentially conservative. The Archbishop's idiotic nostalgia for the terrorist regime that was the British Empire is intimately related to his anti-Americanism. As with the likes of Chirac, this is the politics of reaction, not the politics of emancipation. Hence its easy alliances with Islamic theocrats and other reactionary forces.

P.S. Was I wrong to use the word terrorist in the last paragraph? Possibly. See comments at Snoopy's blog.


"But was he a revolutionary? “Yes, so revolutionary that he puts all revolutions into question. The change is so different that it is not so much a change from one system to another, but a change from one world to another. A new creation where our relations to each other are no longer mutually suspicious or exclusive or competitive, but entirely shaped by giving and receiving – building one another up by a community of transformed persons, not just by a new legal system. That’s revolutionary.”

I think this little bit of religious prejudice offers a window into what the Archbishop's animosity to Israel. He does not regard Jesus as a Jew but as someone who cut himself from his Jewish ethos, which he surreptitiously describes as "mutually suspicious or exclusive or competitive". Having removed himself from that oppressive environment, Jesus then goes on the establish a new order, something that rises above a mere legal system to a whole new world, a civilization "shaped by giving and receiving – building one another up".

According to this, the creation of Christianity as a reaction against Judaism is the true and one clash of civilizations.

If you have any doubts, see how he describes the Samaritans:

“To get the full force of the parable of the Good Samaritan we have to use another word: the good asylum seeker, the good Muslim,”

This is very subversive. It relies on his expectation that his audience will make the necessary connection between the Samaritans and those among whom they dwelled, the Jews, and the fact that the good Samaritan is the one who defended the persecuted pre-Christian from the perfidious Jews, all this without once actually mentioning the Jews.

He then goes even further to draw an analogy between the “good Samaritan” and “The good Muslim”. In other words, he buttresses Muslim self-image as victims of Jews and suggests a natural alliance between Muslims and Christians.

Furthermore, notice whom he includes and excludes from the discussion of humanity:

He commends Islam on the basis that “ Jesus as an individual” is “shared by both the Christian and Muslim tradition”.

Further down, he deliberately excludes the Jews from the humanity that appreciates the glory of God:

“What are humans for? The Muslim, the Christian, the Hindu, the Sikh, would say that we are for the glory of God; so that God’s light may be reflected and God’s love diffused”.

You are right that he is a radical thinker, and a dangerous one, at that.

I find this person morally repulsive.
Anonymous said…
CC writes:

Further down, he deliberately excludes the Jews from the humanity that appreciates the glory of God:

“What are humans for? The Muslim, the Christian, the Hindu, the Sikh, would say that we are for the glory of God; so that God’s light may be reflected and God’s love diffused”.

Yes, I caught that as well.
bob said…
CC, thanks for (as ever) extremely insightful comments. I hadn't caught the exclusion of Jews from humanity that you and NC both did, but it is striking isn't it.

I am not completely sure I go along with your Samaritan reading. When he says "the good asylum seeker, the good Muslim”, he is pointing to two figures who are demonised in Britain, not that are oppressed by Jews. That is, he is saying you have to think of Britain today as Israel in Jesus' time.

There is also a more fundamental question of theology. If you are right that Williams' worldview is essentially antisemitic because it is about the supercession of Judaism, then you have to conclude that all Christianity is essentially antisemitic, because the "perfection" of Judaism is the essence of Christianity. Would you go that far?
"That is, he is saying you have to think of Britain today as Israel in Jesus' time."

That's why I said he was using the oppressive Jew image in ancient Judea as as an analogy. Exactly. Using the meme of the perfidious Jew as a metaphor perpetuates the negative image. It's like Benedick saying: "I must lover her, or else I'm a Jew." Meaning, if he does not reciprocates Beatrice's love, he is nothing but a villainous blackguard. You are agreeing, not disagreeing, Bob.

And of course Christianity is essentially an idea of "perfected" Judaism. Or wants to be. That's why the early theologians insisted on preaching such hostility to the mother-ship:-) But Christianity is trying to come to terms with its historical responsibility. Vatican II is an example, though imperfectly executed. It is surprising that Williams expresses these notions seemingly unaware of their sorry baggage. Bear in mind, also, who his audience is and how his words are likely to be interpreted. If he is as serious a thinker as you give him credit for, this cannot be accidental.

I have little problem with Christianity seeing itself as perfected Judaism. As a Jew, I consider the principles of Judaism more people-friendly than Christianity (the notion of forgiveness, for example). That does not make me anti-Christian, or does it?
Seán said…
Good post, Bob. No one should ever let Britain off easy about its colonialist past and the gravity of the crimes they committed.

Rowan is a tosser btw and shows it with his bullshit argument and the good/bad imperialism dichotomy. To the colonised subject all imperialism is bad.

Also Philip Roth said it best in Portnoy's Complaint about anti-semite Christians. Something about them being fucking pig shit thick for hating Jews on the one hand and worshipping a man who was crucified as a Jew on the other.

The right-wing nutters of certain USA christian groups go along with this perfected chritian shit too. For them the conversion of jews to christians is just one stop short of the rapture.
Anonymous said…
Great post. IMHO we need more books like Mike Davis's to shed light on the mass murder and atrocities, and flat-out genocide committed by the British Empire. To help counter idiotic panegyrics like those of the Archbishop here.
Cyrus said…
Bob, thanks for your comments on my linking post. You've got me feeling all guilty about that 'Spartishness' dig now - please feel free to retaliate!

I admit to being a hardliner on the use of 'Holocaust'. Having learnt the word before I heard of 'Shoah' I regard it as being equally a proper name for what is indeed a singular historical phenomenon, whether or not 'singular' means 'worst ever'. Once it becomes transferable you get a polemical free-for-all where, eventually, Israel can be accused of creating a Holocaust in Gaza.

Years ago I read a Polly Toynbee article about animal rights extremists, where she said the fact that surgeons weren't able to practice on animals was leading to a 'minor medical Holocaust'. Perhaps I'm still reacting to that.

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