Gilley’s colonial advocacy sparks academic firestorm

By: Maszsyuhada Maszri

Bruce Gilley’s ‘The Case for Colonialism’ is nothing short of a blatant controversy, which argues for the potential benefits of colonialism. It has ignited a fierce debate highlighting deep divisions within the academic community. The intense opposition to his views underscores a broader resistance to revisiting or reinterpreting colonial legacies which many view as unequivocally negative. Nonetheless, the defense by figures like Noam Chomsky suggests that, despite the prevailing condemnation, there is still support for engaging with contentious ideas.

In his article, Gilley suggests that colonialism, as a governance style or an extension of Western authority, can only re-emerge with the consent of the colonised, despite the historical trauma and resistance experienced by indigenous peoples worldwide, such as the situation in Gaza, where the Palestinians endure severe oppression, suppression and violence. As this is being written, over 36,000 Palestinians have fled Rafah following evacuation orders as Israeli forces are moving into the land to continue their decimation of the Palestinians. Yet another relentless displacement ensues.

Patrick Wolfe describes colonialism that often entails the displacement and genocide of indigenous populations, driven by the coloniser’s need to dominate and exploit new territories. Wolfe’s analysis of colonial displacement and genocide resonates with the ongoing crisis in Gaza, where Palestinians face similar injustices. In Gaza, the lack of consent is evident in the persistent conflict, human rights abuses, and the devastating impact on the Palestinians. It underscores the historical and ongoing resistance of indigenous peoples to colonial and imperialist practices imposed upon them.

So, this begs the question which Gilley has to answer – how is it that he asserts that colonialism could be beneficial for the colonized when it is only beneficial for the colonizer? The context of Gaza challenges his views.

The ‘Western colonialism’ that Gilley campaigns for mirrors the Zionist beliefs he holds and disseminates in his talks in universities, not excluding Universiti Malaya, the top ranked university in Malaysia. In late April 2024, Universiti Malaya came under scrutiny and faced immense backlash from both the public and students when Gilley made provocative comments accusing Malaysia’s government of promoting anti-Semitic views. Universiti Malaya’s International and Strategic Studies Department was held accountable for hosting the pro-Zionist and pro-colonialism American professor.

Universiti Malaya has since published an apology for hosting Gilley for his talk titled ‘Will Malaysia Become an Active Middle Power’ and stated that action would be taken against those responsible while expressing serious concern over the incident. Despite that, a mere apology seems to be sweeping the issue under rug as shown by how persistent student union groups such as University of Malaya Student Union (KMUM), Mahasiswa Progresif Universiti Malaya, and Neo-Siswa Universiti Malaya, all agreed in questioning the university’s motives of inviting Pro-Zionist Bruce Gilley who took the opportunity to spread Zionist propaganda to the students.

While Universiti Malaya has acknowledged its negligence over the issue, one could not help to also question how the vetting procedures could simply overlook Gilley’s profile and social platforms, especially on X, where his posts are overtly in support of the Zionist entity while side lining the sensitivities of the Malaysians? Gilley’s tantrums over his ban are evident when he expressed that “Chinese and Indians should get out before the Islamofascist mob brings (in) Taliban rule”, implying that Malaysia is ruled by extremists and in a recent piece on May 2, shared an article of his titled ‘Defending Zionism in Malaysia’ where he highlighted Malaysia’s past of discriminating based on ethnicity and religion, offering special advantages (also known as ‘bumiputera privileges’) to the Muslim Malay majority, and a growing anti-Israel stance.

Gilley also stressed the necessity for Western approaches to combat Islamic extremism and safeguard global liberal principles – which is outrightly a behaviour of a ‘white saviour’ carrying the typical ‘white man’s burden’ in the quest to Westernise the colonised, that is all too common in the context of colonialism,

Bruce Gilley should know better than to save face by implying that Malaysia advocates for a ‘second Holocaust’ against Jews. Condemning Zionism is distinct from anti-Semitism, and these terms are not interchangeable. His apparent lack of understanding of Malaysia’s governance and constitution is surprising given his expertise as a professor in political science and public policy. Gilley seems well-aware of this, suggesting that his criticism is driven by an agenda. It appears that Gilley understands the implications of his actions when targeting Malaysian public universities like UM to challenge the country’s pro-Palestinian stance.

Meanwhile in the United States where Gilley is from, universities across the country are still holding anti-Israel, anti-Zionist protests and setting up encampments. Many of them are Ivy Leagues such as Yale, Harvard, Penn, and Columbia. Portland State University, where Gilley is a professor, also participates in the protest with at least 30 arrested despite gathering peacefully. Since mid-April, universities especially in the US and Europe have become hubs for encampments, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations, with students advocating for Palestinian liberation. They are urging their institutions to support a cease-fire and to divest their endowments from Israel and the companies associated with the illegal entity benefiting from the conflict.

Even the Jewish students and professors are fed up of the continuous massacring of innocent Palestinians under the guise of antisemitism, as expressed by one Jewish studies professor of Dartmouth College named Annelise Orleck who was forcefully taken down by police while shielding her students and faced charges of criminal trespass and a temporary ban from parts of the campus.

When such mass protests occur in the West against Zionism, Bruce Gilley and others with similar views may struggle to reconcile their “Western colonial” ideology with the growing movement towards revolutionary decolonization. This movement acknowledges that ending a tyrannical occupation requires challenging entrenched power structures and advocating for the rights of oppressed peoples. It emphasizes the importance of recognizing and dismantling systems of oppression and domination, rather than perpetuating them through colonialist ideologies.

In the face of a global resurgence against colonialism, regions like Gaza, Congo, and Sudan highlight the urgent need to dismantle oppressive systems. Universities play a pivotal role in this endeavour, as they serve as hubs for raising awareness, fostering critical dialogue, and mobilizing action against colonialism and genocide. However, it’s crucial that universities do not become complicit in Zionist propaganda, ensuring that students are not exposed to or indoctrinated by despicable ideologies. The movement for decolonization is not just a moral imperative but an urgent call to action to stand against colonialism and genocide and work towards liberation.

The author is a researcher at the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies.