A Eurocentric Problem

M. Shahid Alam

Cartographic violence

He who knows himself and others
Here will also see,
That the East and West, like brothers,
Parted ne’er shall be.

Goethe[1]

In no other major civilization do self-regard, self-congratulation and denigration of the ‘Other’ run as deep, nor have these tendencies infected as many aspects of their thinking, laws, and policy, as they have in Western Europe and its overseas extensions.[2] These tendencies reached their apogee during the nineteenth century, retreated briefly after World War II, but have been staging a come back since the end of the Cold War.

For several decades now, critics have studied these Western tendencies under the rubric of Eurocentrism, a complex of ideas, attitudes, and policies, which treat Europe — when it is convenient — as a geographical, racial and cultural unity, but places Western Europe and its overseas extensions at the center of world history since 1000 CE.[3]

Unlike the garden variety of ethnocentrism, Eurocentrism emerged as an ideological project — shaped by Europe’s intellectual elites — in the service of Europe’s rising expansionist states, starting in the sixteenth century. It makes sweeping claims of European superiority in all spheres of civilization. In this worldview, only Europeans have created history over the past three thousand years, beginning with the ancient Greeks. In various accounts, this centrality is ascribed to race, culture, religion and geography.

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