“Waan u maaleynayaa, markaad dhameysey hadalkaaga guumaysiga ku sabsan ayaad dib u noqon kartaa qabyaaladda soomaaliyeed iwm."
(“I would think, when you are done with talking about colonialism you will return to your Somali clannish ways.”)
- Markus Hoenhe
#Cadaanstudies—translating to “white studies”—emerged when Safia Aidid, a young Somali academic at Harvard, became aware of the launch of a journal titled Somaliland Journal of African Studies (SJAS) by a group of predominantly European academics in March 2015. The journal which published its inaugural issue in February, 2015, described itself as “covering African affairs at large, but with a particular focus on East Africa and the Horn”. Its founders claimed that it was “put together with students and scholars at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies of the University of Hargeisa” in Somaliland. It soon became apparent, however, that not a single Somali student or scholar from Hargeisa, the broader Somali region, or the vast Somali diaspora were represented in the SJAS editorial board. So far the editorial and advisory board is made up of nine European and United States based academics, two graduate student editors, and three Ethiopian academics affiliated with Addis Ababa University. Despite its name and its stated aim, missing from the editorial board, the board of advisors and general authors of its first issue, were Somali academics and students. Concerned about the objectives of the journal, Aidid wrote on her Facebook page on March 25th, calling for a debate under the hashtag #Cadaanstudies. Somalis and non-Somalis alike joined the conversation raising their concerns, much of which invoked the precarious history of Europeans incorporating Somalis into their knowledge production in absentia. Rather than a simple concern about filling in quotas, these discussions questioned the nature of a journal that finds the absence of the very people stated in its title and aim not only normal, but is also intentionally, or otherwise, uncritical of the canons of the field of Somali Studies and its colonial links to knowledge production. The focus, however, shifted when German Anthropologist Markus Hoehne, SJAS board member, entered the conversation and made series of comments, culminating in the quotation above.
With a tone of certainty, Hoehne responded to the journal’s critics in a way that alarmed many, showcasing a revealing instance of Somali Studies’ epistemic coloniality. In the conversations many have pointed out how the field is yet to exorcise the logic of cultural stereotyping, one that relies upon crude, self-serving, repetitive constructions of Africans, and Somalis in particular. In his response, Hoehne used his knowledge of the ‘Somali’ to authorise his way out of the quandary, rationalising the absence of Somalis from the journal: “I did NOT come across [sic] many younger Somalis who would qualify as serious SCHOLARS—not because they lack access to sources, but because they seem not to value scholarship as such [his capitals].” For him this was an undeniable truth despite that it was being said to Somali students, academics, scholars and overall engaged people who took scholarship serious enough to question the exclusionary methods through which knowledge about them was being produced. None of this mattered, to him, Somalis were absent from the journal simply due to their “inability to labour”. Hoehne’s statement here is an instance of what Barbara Applebaum refers to as one of the significant features of white ignorance, mainly that “it involves not just not knowing but not knowing what one does not and believing that one knows.” He speaks Somali, writes about Somalia, despite narrow confines of war and conflict, and yet Somalis for him remain a trope, a stereotype, authored in the annals of Somali Studies by a long list of European historians, anthropologists and wayward travellers. He has inherited a complex technique of meaning making, deploying stereotypes that allow him to move between the familiar and the new, opportunistically evoking the symbolic parameters of yesterday to deal with the conceptual and ideological necessities of today. All the while claiming authority over an essentialised Somaliness and an ability to see them as they really are—a seeing is believing type of knowledge aimed to legitimise his claims about the Somali. Somalis, in this framing, are not excluded from SJAS, their absence is the natural order of things. Despite the fact that there are countless Somalis writing in many fields of academia throughout the United States, Europe and Africa, he is certain that they are absent, and he knows this absence is pathological.
In his response to #Cadaanstudies, Hoehne revealed more of his ideological position as an all-knowing subject exercising epistemic coloniality by rejecting any possible ascription of racism to his essentialising and outright racialising descriptions of Somalis. In a separate piece, he argued that none of what he has said was racist. According to him, racism “at least in the traditional sense of the term, ascribing fixed character traits to people distinct by more or less visible features of skin colour, etc, and creating hierarchies between the thus defined ‘races’.” He further qualified this, adding, “I did not say ‘Somalis cannot be scholars’ or ‘should not be scholars’ (and, just to clarify this: I always explicitly talked about social sciences, not medicine, economy or other disciplines).” It is true he did not say Somalis cannot or should not be scholars; however, Hoehne’s rationalisation of why Somalis are supposedly absent in the fields he describes relies on an unquestioned knowing that can only be secured by racism.
He apparently needs to be reminded, despite claiming the social sciences as his natural dominion, of the discussions around the different manifestations of racism. He should at least be aware of Etienne Balibar’s exploration of the question of “neo-racism”. That is, a form of racism that was always present in earlier models but has become the main mode of othering in our times. Racism not only marks others through said essentialisms in ways that rely on colour, nationality or geographical location. Race today works by way of cultural othering and fixing in much the same way Hoehne speaks about Somali people. For Balibar, neo-racism is inscribed in practices that result in forms of violence, contempt, intolerance and humiliation, which are “articulated around stigmata of otherness”—from skin colour to cultural and religious practices. Relevant to Hoehne’s position, Balibar notes that neo-racists might even admit that the behaviour of individuals cannot, and should not, be explained with regard to their skin or genes, but are only the result of cultural belonging. In neo-racism, “culture functions as nature” and “as a way of locking individuals and groups a priori into a genealogy, into a determination that is immutable”. It should be noted, this racism still operates with the tools of essentialism—only it allows us to look for racial markers beyond the discourse of phenotype. With this in mind, how Hoehne’s reliance on what are essentially unsubstantiatable constructions—the imagined Somali’s “inability to labour” academically—is not racist, will be left up to the reader to decide.
Defiant and undeterred, Hoehne left the conversation with this final remark, the statement I quoted at the start of this piece: “I would think, when you are done with talking about colonialism you will return to your Somali clannish ways.”
After the launch of SJAS the discussion on social media under #Cadaanstudies the claim was made that racialised constructions of Somali people still circulate in the field of Somali Studies. However, no one really expected members of SJAS would respond this way, particularly an anthropologist who brandishes his credentials of having published on Somalia and who claims to speak the language. Given what unfolded, I contend that racism and power are not outside of the research process, they can shape how researchers conduct their work, from the choice of research questions to the interpretation of data, particularly when how the research is used to further pursue one’s self interest and career are left unquestioned. With Hoehne’s final statement in mind, we see the way the ‘Somali’ is constructed within European racialism with the intent purpose of defending Europeans from the very possibility of such racism. It is claimed that Somalis are not capable of critique, that they are a people blindly dictated to by their pathology, a violent impulse to tribalism. Additionally, the Somali critic who questions such constructions is seen to be only concerned with stories of the past, with settling historical vendettas from the colonial era, fixated on a narcissism of historical victimhood. An infantilised ragtag spoiler who does not recognise that not only has History moved forward but even the task of speaking for herself has been made irrelevant in the apolitical, post-racial new cosmopolitan age. The European, having dismissed Somalis as either absent or simply angry, can now speak in their place instead, about anything, without any consideration or accountability.
We should most certainly not overdetermine white academics like Hoehne. In the same instance, we should categorically critique any anthropologists convinced that the people they study only exist as objects to be studied and only matter as data and when they utter speech as mere informants. #Cadaanstudies intervened on this very point primarily focused on the politics of knowledge production, with the intent of starting a conversation about the need to decolonise academic knowledge apropos Somali Studies. The intervention asked what does it mean to decolonise? And more importantly, who wields power in the way Somalis are authored to others and to themselves in the ‘official’ pools of knowledge? As an imminent manifestation of this questioning #Cadaanstudies saw in Hoehne’s retort an audacious reversal of the political and academic gains made by postcolonial and anti-colonial interventions of the last century. It saw in his dismissals an expression of epistemic coloniality aiming to undermine a vigilant, counter-knowledge appreciative of how, as Australian historical Patrick Wolf recognises, “colonialism is a structure, not an event”. #Cadaanstudies resists the allocation of colonialism as an event in a historical moment. It sees in the power to demarcate legitimate from illegitimate voices by a single academic authorised by a magical knowing as an instance of colonial structuration. As an intervention, it stands as a warning and a reminder to those who wish to proceed unhindered in their speech about others, without any regard for the complications that might be involved in speaking from nowhere and to everyone.
To this day we have yet to see systematic overturning and critical engagement by Somali Studies with what Hoehne and his European forbearers have produced about Somali people. Raising this, the initiator of this discussion, Aidid writes “#Cadaanstudies explores the ways in which these colonial epistemologies continue to be the foundation of the field of Somali Studies”. For Aidid, the decision by SJAS, and the subsequent revelatory comments by Hoehne, is a symptom of a wider cultural problem with the field. Reflecting on the relationship between European scholars and the people of the global South, Somali postcolonial theorist Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan states those who write on the global South “shift with the political mood of the time and they adjust their scholarship to the requirements of funding agencies”. He adds, “their characteristic propensities and their laissez-faire approach to practice make them at best unreliable allies for ‘the wretched of the earth’.” Taking heed of such criticism, #Cadaanstudies contends Somali Studies and its interlocutors represent a historical symptom of Europeans never looking back on themselves, where historical sins are shed in every proclamation of what constitutes knowledge. Somali Studies is a field emulating the tradition of Richard Francis Burton, repeating what #Cadaanstudies asserts is an old Eurocentric dictum: “superstition and fact could be traced along racial lines and that knowledge was the realm of the European.” This is a particularly pertinent remark referring to how Burton considered Somalis to be a people entirely incapacitated by superstition for believing things like Malaria to be a mosquito-born infectious disease. Of course this was before Europeans discovered the causes of the disease.
Hoehne’s statement that Somalis always “return to their clannish ways” is a remnant of such colonial epistemology. This is a knowledge he ‘gained’ in his travels to “war-torn Somalia”, a consistent theme in the current field of Somali Studies: a country and a people studied through the only lens that matters, war and conflict. Writing about Somalis, Hoehne ‘observes’ in his latest book how Somalis unite against enemies momentarily only then to break up into “smaller unites that fend for themselves”. A trait he considers to be “very much in line with the segmentary logic of the northern Somali society as a whole”. To arrive at this conclusion, Hoehne did not have to make the trip to “war-torn Somalia”, as it is merely a repetition of the governing discourses of Somaliness that have been produced and reproduced in the canons of Somali Studies. I.M. Lewis, the leading scholar in the field from the 1960s, for instance, uses clanship to explain all aspects of Somali life. As Homi Bhabha has shown, colonial discourse is not only restrictive but also constructive, its very stereotypicality is the basis for ideological reorientation and novelty: “My reading of colonial discourse suggests that the point of intervention should shift from the ready recognition of images as positive or negative, but an understanding of processes of subjectivication made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourses.” The clanship paradigm is repeated endlessly in the field, mythologised as the only national identity and tradition of the Somali people, and the only gateway through which Europeans enter the nation. Somali Studies fails to point out, and overturn once and for all, how clan politics is expressive of a particular historical moment, essentialised by the legacy of colonial need to control Somalia by solidifying colonial governance and forging new nationhood through what was loose clan formation in pre-colonial Somalia. It is precisely on this basis, the uncritical and relentless circulation of stereotypical tropes, that the imperialist past both continues and transforms, adopting ever-new certainties about new realities.
There were many who came to the defence of SJAS and critiqued #Cadaanstudies. For instance, Por Jorge Campos accused #Cadaanstudies, and Aidid in particular, of not going far enough in the pursuit to decolonise the field of Somali Studies. Campos prematurely concluded that #Cadaanstudies itself is not independent of, what he termed, “Northern theory” and that racial quotas should not be the ambition of any decolonial project. Himself a member of SJAS, he dismissed the discussions that took place after the launch of SJAS as “quarrel”, an inarticulate attempt to bog down Somali Studies in the particularities of local culture and identities, distracting from SJAS’ legitimate efforts to “theorise from the South”. Campos, using the North-American language of ‘affirmative action’, or more accurately, the anti-affirmative action language of the conservative variant, accused #Cadaanstudies of simply asking for inclusion by means of racial quotas. Though much of what Campos had to stay is based on blatant misreading and appropriation of the language of Aidid, I should nevertheless tend to his argument here since he aims to a) defend SJAS from the charges laid out by #Cadaanstudies and b) makes the stronger claim of attributing to SJAS an attempt to “theorising from the South”.
According to Campos, the inclusion of Somaliland in the journal’s title is not about Somalis per se but an attempt to invent a new location, as he put it, to theorise “from the balconies of Hargeisa”. In his view Somaliland is a privileged site because it is “remarkably stable project in democratic-liberal political representation (with all the concomitant tensions, exclusions, and contradictions)”. Somaliland is relevant it seems in so far as it is another liberal, democratic space. Whatever Somaliland is, his claim demonstrates our concern about how Somalis and Somaliness is only made intelligible through the desire for the same, always brought in contradistinction to a signifier that is not its own. It seems the rhetoric of unique “Southern theory” and totally altogether privileged site from which to escape the “North” is simply just that, rhetoric. Campos uncritically ignores the political realities of how his privileged political model of liberal democracy is being contested as part of the coming to being of Somaliland. In defending it from us at #Cadaanstudies, he actually buries Somaliland’s decolonial potentiality under the sign of the same.
What are we to make of this claim of Hargeisa as a specific “balcony” from which to gaze at new transformations taking place in Africa? What becomes clear in reading Campos’ response is how artificial and often highly stereotypical his construction of Somaliland and Africa really is. However, I do not aim to judge his expression on the basis of lacking ‘realism’ or ‘authenticity’. That would be a mistake and would further entrench us in the desire to find a real Africa in juxtaposition to the only ‘North’.
What I aim to question here is Africa, Somalia or Somaliland turned into a “gateway”, a new balcony, simply as space other than Europe. Picking a strange location and ventriloquising the desires of the people there is what is at the heart of all Eurocentric interventions, and SJAS’ approach to Somaliland is no exception. For Campos at least, everything is too “Northern”, including critiques by Somalis, particularly those from the diaspora. He holds this position despite being a non-Somali studying anthropology at a U.S. institution. It never fails to surprise how attempts to speak from a unique exotic location, or balcony in this case, still remains an act of ‘going native’, rendering the other location meaningful merely as sites of authenticity to be inhabited for the purpose of revitalising the same. This act seems necessary to the desire to disassociate the Self from the perceived corruption of contemporary “Northern theory”—all the while deeply immersed in the West and its desire for the new in the places and bodies of ‘other’ people, at ‘other’ locations.
This desire for authenticity is one we aim to unpack and reveal its political ambitions. The charge of diaspora Somalis as tainted by their institutional affiliations similarly invokes a particular tradition of authentic native study. This position is strange, on the one hand it accuses members of #Cadaanstudies as being tainted by privilege, as outsiders, and on the other it dismisses them for particularising and nationalising their “Somaliness”. Whether outside or within the Somali territories, the Somali here is once more positioned as an object of expediency by the field of Somali Studies and those invested in its control over authorising Somaliness. What is the investment in the study of Somali or Somaliness? The desire for knowledge always has a politics and raising this question itself should be the starting point of the decolonial project. With this in mind, #Cadaanstudies asks, what epistemic weight does the Somali have when knowledge has been declared possible and the decolonial wheels have begun to turn without the Somali? In the tradition of Spivak and Fanon, the decolonial project has always been suspicious of the impulse for inclusiveness and universality because it has often been followed by an erasure. #Cadaanstudies is about neither of these—it is about contesting a type of knowledge that privileges those who speak and restricts those who are spoken for.
Writing on the problem of speaking for others, Linda Alcoff contends that all speaking produces and relies on representation because speaking constructs identities of those who are speaking and those who are spoken for. It operates within a discursive frame that constructs ‘truth’ which has real life impact on the subjects it speaks on. To learn about Somalis in the field of Somali Studies is not simply an apolitical exercise but should be one that disrupts existing power structures that always assume a particular subject as its author and audience: white, European, American, who have been historical agents of truth-telling and the primary beneficiaries of this colonial epistemology. Although Spivak considers circumventing this issue by stressing “speaking with” rather than for, she remained skeptical of the impetus to speak for others and how it can easily slip into continuing the imperialist project when one considers what is actually done with the knowledge that is produced from speaking. The debates that have taken place amongst feminists in the past thirty years should be a warning on the dangers of speaking for others: imagine if this journal was on the subject of Somali women but established and run by European white feminists. Would we expect it to be received uncontroversially? What does it mean to override these concerns through the claim that we are making reference to the “global South” and that somehow this is enough, reducing Somalia to a vantage point to study the other and escape Europe?
Campos raises the question: is decolonising and nationalising the same thing? This seems to be nothing more than a rhetorical question again as #Cadaanstudies has not argued for nationalising of anything, rather simply asked for familiarity and critical approach to the existing knowledge production. Indeed, we are not in the 1960s, no one is asking for reductionist nationalism. If the decolonial project, in Mbembe’s sense as invoked by Campos, is about seeing oneself clearly, we ask who is being seen clearly in SJAS and at whose expense? One must ask Campus how does #Cadaanstudies’ criticism of the racialising assumptions of Somali Studies qualify as an attempt to nationalise and enshroud the field with racialised, “postcolonial” particularism? What allows Campos to arrive at such conclusions?
Lately it seems to be the case that those who wish to quell the relationship between power and knowledge, using the critiques rightly labelled against the postcolonial state in Africa to mean the failure of postcolonial critique as such, have resorted to Mbembe in particular. Unfortunately for Campos, the aim to theorise from some unique, non-European space, dismissing postcolonialism as “Northern theory” does not hold even by Mbembe’s standards, an author who uses poststructural theory and European theorists to think through the difficulties of the post-colonial condition. Something else is at work in Campos’ reliance and deployment of Mbembe against #Cadaanstudies akin to what Aileen Moriton-Robinson has observed about the use of black scholars by white scholarship in order to sidestep any encounter with difference. To authorise his criticism, Campos pushes Mbembe in front and hides behind him to avoid confronting his own location. This was a strategic decision, an attempt to disarm and outflank any discussion about location. It is becoming standard practice to accuse any African who raises questions about how knowledge is produced, and who should be producing it, of ‘acting out’ inherent victimology narratives and harking back to the liberation ideals of black nationalism.
#Cadaanstudies understands decolonialism is about announcing this violence just as it is about the making the other visible. Despite Campos’ pretences, you cannot have one without the other. Decolonising highlights that all knowledge is spoken from a particular location and so its very political grammar has to be about starting from bottom up. This cannot be an imaginary exercise, as the Argentinian decolonial thinker Walter Mignolo points out, this bottom up has to be about knowledge that emerges from the experiences of marginalisation, humiliation, repression, and the subjectivity that carries it. If decolonial politics is about revelation of truths from the margins of power, which taps into the affects of history, how do non-Somali academics engage in decolonial politics from a Somali location when these experiences, the subjectivities that have emerged, are not theirs? The point is not to exclude ‘outsiders’ from writing on Somalia, rather, to question if one can really speak about Somalia from a decolonial position when the Somali is not even required to speak? #Cadaanstudies simply questioned who is speaking, how and to what affect? For the likes of Campos and Hoehne to accuse the project of counter-racialisation and attempt at parochialising the discussion is dishonest. The simple question remains: why have the likes of Campos came out now to take on #Cadaanstudies and have been absent in critiquing Somali Studies? If decolonialism and speaking from the “South” was their aim all along where were their critiques of the colonial relic that is Somali Studies? How did they plan to produce knowledge about the “South” within a field that they themselves have not allowed to be critiqued?
For #Cadaanstudies the question was always around institutional relations of power and not the pursuit for authenticity. Going by the criticism against #Cadaanstudies so far, the Somali it seems, whether local or diasporic, functions as a vanishing mediator who secures the positional superiority of those who speak within the established field of Somali Studies. It remains to be seen whether those involved in Somali Studies will take #Cadaanstudies as an opportunity to break from the mould or whether they will continue in the fashion of producing colonial epistemologies to further fortify themselves from the other that gazes back.
Hussein Mohamud is a PhD Candidate in Social and Political Theory at University of Melbourne. His research focuses on the production of nationhood and the role of race.
Illustration by Divya Adusumilli.
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