A Long History of Injustice Ignored: The Colonial Epoch

The Colonial Epoch

By Chandra Muzaffar

Dutch architecture in Malacca city, Malaysia: Colonialism left an inedible mark on Asia and redirected its orientation towards the West

Unlike the autochthonous epoch, the second epoch, characterized by Western colonial dominance over Asia, caused much more stress and strain to intercommunity and intercultural relations. There is no need to repeat that whether it was the British or the Dutch or the French, colonial policy invariably sought to divide and ruleӔ the local population. Thus, Hindus were pitted against Muslims in British India, the Javanese against the Sumatrans in Dutch Indonesia, and the Khmers against the Vietnamese in French Indochina. Specific policies in relation to land, agriculture, employment, the public services, and education served to widen the chasm between the communities.

There was yet another dimension to colonial policy which also generated negative consequences for ethnic ties. In Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the Fijis, among other countries, the British brought in immigrant labor to work in certain sectors of the economy and thus created ethnic enclaves, which remained separate and distinct from the indigenous communities. Because the economic and political dichotomies which divided the immigrant and indigenous communities were so severe, the communal problems associated with these two groups have often been perpetuated into the postcolonial era. [1]

But more than the policy of divide and rule, the greatest disservice that colonialism did to intercommunity, intercultural and intercivilizational relations in Asia was to redirect the face of each and every Asian country away from its neighbor towards the metropolitan power in the West. From the economy to education, from administration to entertainment, the colonized state was influenced by, and paid obeisance to the colonial overlord in London, the Hague, Paris, or Washington. It was not just a question of dependence brought about by the colonial exploitation of indigenous resources, or economic bondage created by colonial hegemony. For the colonized, the colonizer became, through coercion and persuasion, the exemplar par excellence. Laws, institutions of governance, the mechanics of the market, the school curriculum, the health system, public transportation, and indeed each and every facet of life derived its guidance and inspiration from the colonial model. [2]

As a result, the colonized developed a vast corpus of knowledge and information about the colonizerhis land and history, his culture and geography, his politics and social mores. A student in colonial Malaysia, as a case in point, would know much more about English poetry and British history than he would about Thai music or Indonesian geography. Likewise, it was very likely that a Filipino living under the aegis of American rule would empathize more readily with American literature than with Vietnamese literature, even if it had been translated into the English language. To extend the argument further, an English educated Hindu in British India would have greater rapport with Christianityחbecause it was perceived as Westernthan with Islam, which had millions and millions of adherents in the Indian subcontinent during the height of colonial rule (compared to a few thousand Christians).

By altering relations between cultures and religions in the Asian neighborhood, colonialism erected formidable barriers against civilizational dialogue. It removed the objective conditionsחthe political, economic and social imperativeswhich would make dialogue a necessity. Since there was no real relationship with oneגs neighbors, there was no compelling need to engage and interact with them.

Besides, colonialism developed the notion that Asian cultures and communities, religions and civilizations had little to contribute towards human progress. [3] It was a notion which became deeply entrenched in the psyche of many Asians, partly because of the overwhelming power of colonial dominance. Asians began to believeas their colonial masters wanted them toחthat their cultures and civilizations had become inert and static. They lacked drive and dynamism. Indeed, their cultures and civilizations, so they were told, only served to keep the people in shackles. Asians had to be liberated from their serfdom by Western civilization.

What this suggests is that the colonial experience created a deep sense of cultural inferiority in a lot of Asians (Muzaffar). This inferiority complex became an obstacle to cultural and civilizational dialogue; for if ones civilization is bereft of any greatness, how can one take any pride in it? What is the point of talking to others about oneҒs civilization if it is devoid of noble values and outstanding accomplishments? If dialogue is about exchanging ideas, how can intellectually impoverished civilizations engage in dialogue?

It is significant that while Asians were assailed with doubts about their cultures and civilizations in the colonial epoch, they seemed to be a little more certain about the strength and viability of their religions. This is one of the reasons why in spite of the power and potency of colonial rule in Asia, only a small minority, in relative terms, embraced Christianitythe Christianity that came with Western dominance. Apart from the Philippines, no other Asian country adopted Christianity on a national scale in the colonial period. Only small percentages of Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, Vietnamese, Thais, and other Asians became Christians. The vast majority chose to remain Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim. In fact, very, very few Muslims in particular converted to Christianity anywhere in Asia.

It is an equally remarkable fact of history that when Asians began to organize and mobilize the masses to throw off the colonial yoke, many of them turned to religion to provide them with the inspiration and impetus for their nationalist struggle. The Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj of India, the Sarikat Islam of Indonesia and the Young Menגs Buddhist Association of Burma would be some examples. Religion, in other words, was for many Asians the most meaningful conduit for articulating the quest for freedom, justice, identity, and dignity.

Does this indicate that within Asian civilizations, religions have a special role? In the dialogue of civilizations, will the religious dimension emerge as the most significant factor in a continent whose unique attribute is that it is the birthplace of all the worlds religions? These are some of the questions we will try to answer in the latter part of the essay. For now, we shall turn to the third epoch.

ғIt is significant that while Asians were assailed with doubts about their cultures and civilizations in the colonial epoch, they seemed to be a little more certain about the strength and viability of their religions.


Muzaffar, Chandra. ԓCultures Under Attack ISIS Focus, Kuala Lumpur: Institute of Strategic and International Studies, 1997, Issue no. 144 7/1997.


[1] Some aspects of the communal problem in post-colonial societies are covered in many of K.M. De SilvaԒs writings. See, for instance, his Reaping the Whirlwind, India: Penguin Books, 1998.

[2] For a study of the impact of Western colonial dominance upon Asia see K.M. Panikkars Asia and Western Dominance, Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 1993.

[3] The marginalization of non-Western cultures in the colonial epoch is analyzed in Edward W. SaidҒs Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Read Also:

The Autochthonous Epoch

The Colonial Epoch

The Contemporary Epoch


The Alternative


** Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World http://www.just-international.org/ , which seeks to raise public awareness of the moral and intellectual basis of global justice. A political scientist, he was the first Director of the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue at the University of Malaya and has also written numerous books on religion, human rights, Malaysian politics, and international relations, including most recently, Rights, Religion, and Reform (Routledge Curzon, 2002.) Additionally, he sits on the boards of several international non-governmental organizations concerned with social justice and civilizational dialogue.

Originally published on the IslamOnline website as part of a series http://islamonline.net/English/artculture/2005/07/02.shtml  Reprinted in TAM with permission.