Book Review: Magdi Youssef looks at cultural colonialism

Hesham Taha, Friday 10 Jun 2016

Assilat Al-Manheg Al-Naqid (“Questions of the Critical Approach”), by Dr. Magdi Youssef, Cairo: Yastroon Publishing, 2016, 378pp.

In this book, Dr. Magdi Youssef calls on his readers to consider the objective reality within which solutions to social and cultural problems are generated, in order to understand that Western solutions cannot be directly applied to the Arab world without understanding local cultural specificities.

The comparative literature and cultural studies professor believes that one should try to grasp the “objective conditions” that led to the solutions of these problems in the West, and that these solutions should be stripped of their dazzling nature and used instead for inspiration.

The philosophical foundation of this book is its call not to rely on imitating the other no matter how much advanced he is, and despite the fascination with solutions and technologies he has generated.

Instead, we should acquaint ourselves with the objective facts that led to these solutions, in particular the socio-cultural context that generated them.

Doing so would allow for solutions to be found to Arab societies problems that take into account their cultural specifity.

Accordingly, Youssef calls for the discarding of “cultural colonisation” represented in globalising sources of knowledge produced by Western specificities and tells his readers they should stop going along with it in an attempt to keep up with their imagined “progress.”

This leads us to deepening our vassalage in different fields.

The author gives examples from various academic disciplines – applied sciences, social sciences, and also literary genres inspired by the West. He advocates an alternative approach. He doesn't suggest an attempt to cut out the West altogether – that would be impossible.

Youssef gives examples of a need to avoid generalising based on Western ideas and experiences from various fields, including applied sciences.

In pharmacology, Professor Mohammed Raouf Hamed found that dietary habits in Libyan society lead to substantial change in the metabolism of Western medicines. There is a need, therefore, to revise the criteria of the US's Food and Drug Administration research, which are based on Western countries' dietary habits. 

Real scientific research doesn’t progress only through laboratory experiments, but also via the guidance of a social philosophy originating from the social context in which it takes place.

According to the author, science is just a social activity, and is therefore relative. This necessitates reviewing its application when transferring it from one society or community to another.

The author also gave examples of a number of well-known Egyptian experts in philosophy and economics who studied in Europe and returned with European intellectual baggage.

These academics, he argues, insisting on applying their baggage to Egyptian society without exerting any effort to study their society’s realities, needs and aspirations. They instead projected what they had learnt on a totally different society.

Youssef has published works in six European languages that criticise the epistemological foundations upon which the Western cultural-centrism is based.

He has rejected what is known as “European literature” in a singular sense, for he believes that the differences between European authors are much more striking than those between European and other non-European cultures.

The real danger, the book argues, lies in cutting theories from their Western context and applying them into an Egyptian reality, in the interests of being “scientific” and “modern”.

In reality, this leads to discarding our vision and entrenching a Westernised vision, which is commonly labeled “knowledge” at our educational and research institutions.

This book is a notable contribution to a current dilemma, displaying a philosophical methodical alternative in searching for solutions originating from our contexts in its relative specificity. This doesn’t mean being enclosed and secluded from the other; rather it means the creative interaction with the other while being aware of the difference between our contexts.

We therefore must lay a different philosophical foundation in order to “translate” the other, especially the Western, to our context.

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