Lecturing Trotter on history

Last updated 08:02 26/02/2010

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OPINION: Mohsen al Attar responds to criticism by Chris Trotter of his Auckland University law course.

Last week, Chris Trotter dedicated his column to assailing an advanced international law course - Colonialism to Globalisation: International Law and the Making of the Third World - I teach at the University of Auckland law faculty.

Trotter was springboarding off a recent blogpost on the same topic.

The nature of his critique is rather straightforward: he does not like the course descriptor I last made use of two years ago.

He takes particular issue with my inclusion of the term "capitalism" alongside other noted historical markers such as colonialism, slavery, industrialisation, and the birth of international law.

Putting aside the ad hominem attacks, Trotter's critique can loosely be divided into concerns over my views of historical and contemporary First-to-Third-World relations as well as my pedagogical practices, though it might be more accurate to say his assumptions about my views and practices seeing that he did not contact me about either, or for a current descriptor.

With regards to his first concern, I have little doubt that we view history through different lenses. As a scholar, my day-to- day routine involves the reading of texts on the topics that I write and teach about. The result is that my lens tends to reflect the work of many more senior Third World scholars than myself.

In fact, I have drawn inspiration for the course itself from offerings at highly reputed universities including Law and International Inequality at the London School of Oriental and African Studies and the International Law of South-North Relations at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.

Some of their research highlights the hostility European adventurers expressed towards the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas. For instance, after remarking on the strong physiques and excessive generosity of the Arawak people, Christopher Columbus concludes a journal entry by asserting that "with fifty men we could subjugate them all".

Then there is Francisco de Vitoria, widely recognised within legal academia as the father of international law, who condoned acts of genocide by Spaniards against indigenous peoples merely for their resistance to either colonisation or conversion (he doubled as jurist and Roman Catholic theologian). In his words, resistance to Catholic diktat was itself a violation of the law of nations.

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Of course, there is no need to travel as far back as the 15th and 16th centuries for candid assessments of European imperial behaviour. In the book Clash of Civilisations, conservative paragon Samuel Huntington states: "The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion but rather by its superiority in applying organised violence."

In apropos terms for Trotter, he goes on to remind us that, "Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do."

What Huntington appears to be saying is that the self-congratulatory narratives that echo through many Western lecture theatres are not shared by the victims of these narratives. To dismiss the perspectives of others and ignore the academic literature that gives voice to them simply because they do not cohere with our own is wholly antithetical to the purpose of tertiary institutions.

With regards to the matter of pedagogy, Trotter's allegations are baffling. He admits he has never attended one of my lectures nor spoken with one of my students. To make such bold and confident claims without such evidence is truly remarkable.

All in all, however, the experience has been an edifying one, most notably for the lessons it has taught me about electronic democracy.

Trotter drew inspiration for his column from an earlier blogpost. No longer is the written word the privilege of the owners of a printing press; the internet has democratised information by providing the masses with a means of disseminating their voices beyond their own homes, voices that are picked up by the columnists of national newspapers. This is empowering for all who participate.

Yet, democracy is not solely about privileges but also responsibilities - accurate representations and the checking of facts for instance - matters that appear to receive short shrift by certain journalists.

I conclude with a word of thanks. As the debate about my course (and my person) has gone viral, so too has enrolment. At this stage, I am pleased to report we have doubled our numbers from last year - and, at this rate, may even reach maximum enrolment by week's end - meaning that far more students will be exposed to a Third World perspective on the relationship between colonialism and international law.

Mohsen al Attar is Auckland University's first lecturer in Islamic law.

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