Theorists of postcolonialism have tried to expose the cultural dimension of colonial rule, usually by establishing the legitimacy of non-western and sometimes anti-western ideas, cultures and traditions. In one of the most influential works of postcolonial theory, Edward Said (see p. 197) developed the notion of ‘orientalism’ to highlight the extent to which western cultural and political hegemony over the rest of the world, but over the Orient in particular, had been maintained through elaborate stereotypical fictions that belittled and demeaned non-western people and culture. Examples of such stereotypes include images such as the ‘mysterious East’, ‘inscrutable Chinese’ and ‘lustful Turks’. The cultural biases generated by colonialism do not only affect, and subjugate, former colonized people, however. They also have a continuing impact on western states, which assume the mantle of the ‘international community’ in claiming the authority to ‘sort out’ less favoured parts of the world. In this view, humanitarian intervention (see p. 319) can be seen as an example of Eurocentrism. Forcible intervention on allegedly humanitarian grounds and, for that matter, other forms of interference in the developing world, such as international aid, can therefore be viewed as a continuation of colonialism by other means.

The characteristic feature of postcolonialism is that it sought to give the developing world a distinctive political voice separate from the universalist pretensions of liberalism and socialism. An early but highly influential attempt to do this was undertaken at the Bandung Conference of 1955, when 29 mostly newly independent African and Asian countries, including Egypt, Ghana, India and Indonesia, initiated what later became known as the Non-Aligned Movement. They saw themselves as an independent power bloc, offering a ‘Third World’ (see p. 36) perspective on global political, economic and cultural priorities. This ‘third-worldism’ defined itself in contradistinction to both western and Soviet models of development. A more militant form of third world politics nevertheless emerged from the Tricontinental Conference held in Havana in 1966. For the first time, this brought Latin America (including the Caribbean) together with Africa and Asia – hence the name ‘tricontinental’. However, as it is a form of identity politics that draws inspiration from indigenous religions, cultures and traditions, postcolonial theory tends to be highly disparate. It has been reflected in Gandhi’s political philosophy, which was based on a religious ethic of non-violence and self-sacrifice that was ultimately rooted in Hinduism. In this view, violence, ‘the doctrine of the sword’, is a western imposition upon India. By contrast, the Martinique-born French revolutionary theorist, Franz Fanon (1925–61), emphasized the link between anti-colonialism and violence. He argued that decolonization, in effect, requires a new species of man to be created, and that this is largely achieved as the psychological burden of colonial subjugation is rejected through the cathartic experience of violence. Edward Said (see p. 197), perhaps the most influential postcolonial theorist, examined how Eurocentric values and theories served to establish western cultural and political hegemony over the rest of the world, especially through the device of Orientalism. However, critics of postcolonialism have argued that in turning its back on the western intellectual tradition it has abandoned progressive politics and been used, too often, as a justification for traditional values and authority structures. This issue has been particularly controversial in relation to the tension between cultural rights and women’s rights.

Edward Said (1935–2003) Jerusalem-born US academic and literary critic. Said was a prominent advocate of the Palestinian cause and a founding figure of postcolonial theory. He developed, from the 1970s onwards, a humanist critique of the western Enlightenment that uncovered its links to colonialism and highlighted ‘narratives of oppression’, cultural and ideological biases that disempower colonized peoples by representing them as the nonwestern ‘other’, particularly applying this to the Middle East. He is best known for the notion of ‘Orientalism’, which operates through a ‘subtle but persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arabo-Islamic peoples and culture’. Said’s key works include Orientalism ([1978] 2003) and Culture and Imperialism (1993)