Reviewed: The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq, by Derek Gregory

(Image: Steve Bell, “Outa Town Iraqi,” Guardian, July 2, 2003).

Gregory, Derek. The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2004. Pp.392. $49.75.

By Summer Abukhomra

Derek Gregory’s The Colonial Present offers an analysis of the economic, political, and militaristic forces in the modern Middle East and their connections to the lives of ordinary people. While acknowledging the agency of ordinary individuals, Gregory also acknowledges the presence of determination or that their lives are shaped by circumstances largely beyond their control. His book focuses primarily on these connections in the countries of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, whose present histories and geographies “have all been made in the shadow of colonialism” (7).  Gregory aims to demonstrate how the effects of colonialism are still presently occurring, particularly after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City on September 11, 2001.

Largely reliant upon the works of Karl Marx, Edward Said, and Michael Foucault, The Colonial Present aims to deconstruct the theories related to postcolonialism, such as the creation of an “other” used to exoticize societies as a means of reaffirming one’s own values and beliefs. The creation of familiar and unfamiliar societies is called “imaginative geographies,” a term coined by Edward Said to convey the perception of space through the use of language and imagery. In the case of the Middle East, Gregory argues that power lies in Western attempts to frame the region as uncivilized and uncreative.

Throughout the text, Gregory uses the events of September 11th to mark the turning point into the colonial present, during which the effects of postcolonialism come full circle and become obvious in the present-day just as much as they were one hundred years ago. While he uses the first third of the text to continue his discussion of space and power, the remainder of the text provides a deeper analysis of the role space and power play in Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iraq.  In Afghanistan, the colonial present is marked by the “war on terror” campaigns against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. In Palestine, it is marked by the continued growth of the state of Israel and the continuing dispossession of Palestinians. In Iraq, it is marked by the British-American invasion of the country in 2003. All three countries have experienced recent conflicts associated with the idea of power, space, and imagined geographies.

Gregory uses September 11th to marks the date from which the legacy of colonialism came full circle, or as the date in which Middle Easterners were condemned and “othered” in an effort to reaffirm the values and beliefs of certain Westerners trying to take political advantage of the fear caused by the tragedy of a terrorist attack in the United States. By “othering” Iraq and Afghanistan (who were thought to somehow supposedly be connected to weapons of mass destruction and Al-Qaeda), the United States was able to build up support for the coming wars through a dramatic increase in military enlistment by American citizens and by combat and financial support from Western allies. By aligning Israel with the West, the United States successfully built support for the strengthening of the Israeli state at the expense of the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Following the events that occurred on September 11th, American and British news agencies regularly posed the question: “Why do they hate us?” (13). This question strategically cultivated a discourse among Western colonial forces that emphasized the other, alien group and implied that any ill feelings between the East and the Islamic World were spontaneous and unwarranted. Many of Gregory’s primary sources include journalistic or media material and speeches by political leaders, and he elucidates the effect knowledge and the ability to distribute it has on power.

Gregory’s work revisits the theories of “the clash of civilizations” of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington’s, which illustrates the ways in which they believed the Islamic World has prevented itself from coexisting with the West (56). Huntington believed that Islam became the hindrance that prevented the East from modernizing while much of the world became more secularized. Huntington made clear that it was not Islamic fundamentalism that was a threat to the West, rather, it was Islam itself. The group responsible for the September 11th attacks was formed of mostly Saudi nationals. None were of Iraqi or Afghani origin. Gregory makes it clear that while much of the United States, including President Bush himself, was unsure of whom they -the September 11 attackers- really were, they were sure that the enemies were linked to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the West Bank, many Palestinians believed the September 11 attacks were orchestrated by Sharon as a pretext to encourage Israel and the West to take all remaining land from them. Said criticized Israel for taking advantage of the attacks and using it as a tool to intensify its occupation of Palestinian land.

Throughout this text, Derek Gregory demonstrates the threat of a colonial present, showing that while colonialism is turning to more secretive measures in more recent history, colonialism is still present in the Middle East and other colonized parts of the world. By examining the recent Western involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, Gregory shows that the use of imaginative geographies and other tools are successfully creating an enemy that is the antithesis of the West. Gregory says the only way to stop the endless cycle of oppression and resistance is for us to “cease turning on the treadmill of the colonial present” (262). This text is crucial for historians, geographers, and anthropologists, particularly for those interested in theories of power and the Middle East.


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