The Colonial Legacy in the Arab World: Health, Education, and Politics

In recent years, movements toward “decolonization” have taken hold throughout multiple disciplines, including cultural studies, health, economics, and education. While the specific actions associated with decolonization—and even a precise definition of what is meant by the term—remain under debate, what this shift has brought to the broader consciousness is an awareness of just how deeply embedded both the legacy of colonialism and contemporary manifestations of neocolonialism are in modern life. This is especially the case in previously colonized countries throughout Africa and Asia, including Arab nations, which are commonly accepted as lying in “the Middle East,” a term that refers to a portion of what the British Empire once called “the Orient,” and that therefore still reflects a Eurocentric perspective of the world’s geography.

Most of the nations in the Arab world were only founded in the mid-20th century, after emerging from decades of primarily British and French control. Before colonization, much of these lands were under Ottoman rule—with the exception of most of the Gulf region. However, when the trajectories of Arab countries are discussed today, this not-so-distant history is often obscured, and analyses of the behaviors of these countries and their leaders are primarily limited to immediate economic or political considerations or to debates about cultural and religious factors. To understand how these countries have developed in just the five or six decades since they achieved independence and self-rule, the region’s recent history of colonialism and the continuation of neocolonial practices must be more comprehensively explored and more widely disseminated.

What Are Colonialism and Neocolonialism?

Broadly defined, colonialism is the political or economic domination of one group by another, usually through the establishment and maintenance of colonies within seized territory, which produces the dynamic of an oppressed indigenous majority and an oppressive foreign minority. Although colonialism is similar in definition to imperialism—which also refers to foreign political or economic power over a land or people—imperialism is usually propagated with expansionist aims through political power and not necessarily via settlement and the migration of settlers from the imperial power. Colonialism can thus be seen as an extension or a manifestation of larger imperial goals.

Colonialism is the political or economic domination of one group by another, usually through the establishment and maintenance of colonies within seized territory, which produces the dynamic of an oppressed indigenous majority and an oppressive foreign minority.

Similarly, neocolonialism—a loose concept that only emerged following the end of the final wave of European colonialism in the early to mid-1900s—generally refers to the continuation of colonial economic, social, and political policies, especially as exercised by colonizing nations toward the populations and lands that they formerly colonized. These policies maintain a system of dependence and exploit populations for their labor and the land for its natural resources, while also often depending on a class of elites from the disadvantaged country who are willing to boost and maintain such policies for their own power or economic advantage. Colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism are thus three distinct processes possessing significant overlap, all of which have been observed in the Arab world, and which in some cases are ongoing.

Colonialism in the Arab World

European colonialism in the Arab world was partially spurred by the British conquest of India, which led Napoleon to invade Egypt in 1798, in part to disrupt British trade routes. Although the French occupation of Egypt was short-lived, it was not long before the European presence in the Arab world grew. France’s colonization of Algeria began in 1830, of Tunisia in 1881, and of Morocco in 1912. Meanwhile, Britain colonized Egypt in 1882, and also took control of Sudan in 1899. And in 1911, Italy colonized Libya. Although the specific circumstances of each country’s colonial occupation varied—some were seized via conquest, others by treaty, and most, but not all, were or had been Ottoman territories—two features that united them all were the hostility of the colonizing powers to the indigenous populations they occupied and the increasing resistance of local populations to the powers that governed them, often at great cost to the occupying nations.

British or French mandatory control secured at least temporary colonial rule through the establishment of both artificial borders and the support of corrupt local leaders.

Although the Ottoman Empire was falling apart long before World War I, its alliance with the Central Powers during the war, and its ultimate defeat in the conflict, cemented its end. Afterward, the remaining territory of the empire was carved up by the European victors, a process that was initiated by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which partitioned the lands of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine into spheres of direct and indirect British or French control, thereby securing at least temporary colonial rule through the establishment of both artificial borders and the support of corrupt local leaders. Even though not all of these borders were ultimately implemented, these actions, which were driven by global competition and colonial interests, have contributed to the fragility, fragmentation, and chaos that the Arab region has experienced over the last century.

The Legacy of Colonialism in Arab Society

The end of the colonial period in the mid-20th century led to national independence and the opportunity for self-rule and sovereignty in most nations across the Arab world, with the notable exception of Palestine. However, it did not necessarily lead to genuine self-determination and liberation. Most countries did not transition to democratic systems of governance, and many still do not have responsive, representative, and credible governments, in large part because of the powerful ripple effects of colonial systems of domination that have seeped into every aspect of society. Even though there exist a variety of approaches a state can take regarding the territories it colonizes, the vast majority of colonial situations contain several overlapping features that help lay the foundation for understanding how the legacies of colonialism persist, especially in health, education, and politics.

Health systems offer an edifying glimpse into the overall governing priorities of any state. Healthcare is expensive, and colonial powers wanted to expend as little capital as possible in providing care for indigenous populations. This was true during the rule of the Ottoman Empire, as well as in the period of British and French control. These powers were primarily concerned with the health of indigenous populations for two reasons: to maintain a native labor pool and to prevent the occupying settlers from getting sick. Health, in this context, has been called a “prerequisite for colonial development.” Most public hospitals in the Arab world under colonization were associated with religious institutions (primarily Muslim, but also Christian and Jewish, and some associated with missionary activities) and only provided basic care, with a heavy reliance on folk medicine and local healers and with few facilities in rural areas. Colonial physicians took particular interest in treating infectious ailments that not only could spread to settler populations, but that confirmed their biased and unfounded conception of Arabs as “a cultural, social, and biological inferior,” as is demonstrated by the case of a disease that was termed “Arab syphilis” in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The mandatory powers were primarily concerned with the health of indigenous populations for two reasons: to maintain a native labor pool and to prevent the occupying settlers from getting sick.

As part of broader reforms to strengthen the Ottoman Empire in the last decades of its rule, greater emphasis was placed on public health, specifically with regard to organizing and regulating the medical professions (doctors, nurses, midwives, and pharmacists), monitoring food stores and supplies, and bolstering public sanitation. As the British and French took control of the region, they inherited lands with largely impoverished populations, poor water and sanitation systems, significant food security issues, and unvaccinated populations at great risk of infectious diseases like malaria, cholera, and smallpox. To combat these risks, they instituted several immediate remedies, including installing sewage systems, promoting hygiene education, and registering cases of infectious disease. However, they instituted very few long-term capacity-building measures on other issues while also disparaging local and traditional medicinal practices and instead attempting to import western medical models from their home countries without working to establish local buy-in.

These problems largely persisted as Arab nations eventually became independent. Although the risk of infectious disease has significantly decreased across the region, there has historically been very little investment in public health, especially with regard to health promotion and prevention. State ministries of health are generally underfunded and unresponsive to populations’ needs, and expensive private facilities are available only to those with means or connections. As was stated in one analysis of health in the Arab world, “Extractive colonial institutions have often been replaced by extractive local institutions.”

A similar dynamic has developed in the educational systems of most of these countries. Ottoman rule did not provide adequate education on any level—and especially not in Arabic—and the schools that did exist were primarily for young children. The nearest high school for many was located in Damascus, and the only university in the region was in Istanbul, and it was concentrated on military studies. During the British and French colonial periods, opportunities for education were not much better. Elementary schools were more standardized, but they were attended mostly by boys and excluded girls, and were developed without local involvement. Eventually, local populations grew disillusioned with education systems that featured a curriculum installed by colonial powers and that were devoid of the region’s own indigenous history. There was also little emphasis on skills that required critical thinking in these colonial curricula since colonial powers thought that such instruction might increase nationalism and lead to dissent among indigenous populations.

After independence, education became more widely available in many of these states, with the exception of some rural and mountainous regions. Literacy and school attendance increased dramatically for both boys and girls, and advanced educational opportunities, including vocational training, were offered to help guide the sizable youth populations across the region. These developments were undoubtedly positive. However, questions remain about the quality of education on offer, with many criticizing the continued lack of emphasis on critical thinking, as well as other colonial remnants that are perpetuated today by authoritarian-leaning leaders with similar goals to the colonial rulers of the past. For example, the region’s dependence on general secondary education certificate examinations, which essentially dictate a student’s options for tertiary education, is in large part a historical relic that has outlived its usefulness. But no education ministry in the region has meaningfully reformed the process or offered alternatives.

Although deficits in the health and education sectors can to an extent be traced back to colonial underpinnings, it is in politics and economics that the colonial mindset has most deeply taken hold.

Although deficits in the health and education sectors can to an extent be traced back to colonial underpinnings, it is in politics and economics that the colonial mindset has most deeply taken hold. Many Arab states gained nominal independence in the 1930s through the 1960s. But most of these newly independent nations were immediately placed under the power of authoritarian leaders who, for various reasons, remained under colonial influence. European powers saw the economic benefits these new states offered, and in many cases exploited them for their own gain at the expense of the needs of local populations. Many of these states also almost immediately faced the threat of military coups, as happened in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq, and the attempted assassination of their leaders, as in the case of King Hussein of Jordan.

The lesson learned by those who remained in power was that they must emphasize militarism and surveillance, consolidate governmental power, and quell dissent—lessons whose legacy persists throughout the Arab world today. Later decades saw some movement toward liberalism and even democracy in some states, but the precedent for a strong-man figure remains. Interestingly, these dynamics are exactly the ones that are very often used to justify foreign intervention in the region. Many saw the American invasion of Iraq and the subsequent years of occupation as a direct reflection of American imperialism and neocolonialism. And of course, in some settings it is not only the colonial mindset that persists, but colonialism itself. Israeli settler colonialism is still being carried out today in the occupied Palestinian territories, complete with land seizures, settlement building, and violent and discriminatory practices against the native Palestinian population, which amount to apartheid.

The Case for Decolonization

Of course, the legacy of colonialism cannot be blamed for all of the Arab world’s problems. It may seem easy to boil down the issues of the region to the seemingly arbitrary borders that Europeans drew a century ago. But to an extent, all borders are artificial, and analyses must therefore be expanded. Likewise, it is easy to blame colonial powers for having amplified and even created many of the sectarian battles that persist in the region today by taking a “divide and rule” approach to the region decades ago. But it also took the involvement of many corrupt and totalitarian local leaders to fuel these divisions for their own selfish purposes.

As renowned anti-colonial philosopher Frantz Fanon stated, colonialism is a machine of “naked violence” that is used to justify acts of discrimination and violence against native populations who are seen as somehow less human or less valuable than their colonizers. But while we must certainly work to understand both the legacies of colonialism and the dynamics of the neocolonial practices affecting the region today, our analysis cannot end there. Indeed, the prospect of decolonizing the Arab world, and of moving past the simple consideration of borders and sectarian differences, deserves significant discussion and practice in order for this vibrant region to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

Featured image source: Library of Congress