Cultural and religious imperialism

Amal Chatterjee
12 min readFeb 14, 2018

Source : Google photo

Synopsis : Humanity suffers from continued cultural and religious imperialism that degrades the native culture and its religions. This blog is about how to face such threats in a sensible way and yet assimilate what is beautiful in other cultures.

Cultural and religious imperialism is the practice of promoting the culture and language of one nation in another. It is usually the case that the former is usually a large economically and militarily powerful nation and the latter is smaller and less affluent one. It can take the form of an active formal policy or a general attitude. It can come about through the imposition of a foreign religion, culture, education, food and even clothes.

There is an onslaught on local cultures by the Western media be they the movie or TV industry or the fashion industry that is eroding the traditional values in some countries and causing a social rift between the traditionalists and the young generation everywhere.

Now it comes purely in the guise of commercial interests expounded by the proponents of such industries whose primary motive is to make money by expanding their business wherever they can. The expansion of American fast food like McDonalds or KFC worldwide is a good example. The world is now awash with bilateral or universal free trade agreements making it easier for some industries to do business in many parts of the world where it was not possible a decade or two ago. More and more such trade agreements are being made between the countries and some are in the pipeline that is having a great Western cultural influence on local cultures that were traditionally shielded from such influences before.

The internet has played a major role in expanding such influences as more and more people everywhere gain access to the net and watch Hollywood movies on line or watch U tube or Netflix to see what is the latest movie or TV show in the English speaking world. Others go to the movies to see the latest James Bond caper or Matt Damon in action movies that are the current trend.

Women notice the short dresses and ripped pants or low cut blouses that they want to imitate because they think that it is the latest fashion while men try to imitate the mannerisms of their favorite male stars and their fashion. This is happening where the traditional values in dresses and mannerisms are on the wane due to many reasons that can be linked to the term cultural imperialism on a global scale because no country is totally immune to it that is trying to preserve what is their tradition.

But the cultural imperialism is nothing new and has its root in the spread of Christianity through very active and aggressive missionaries in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. They taught the locals that going bare breasted was a sin so they must cover up. They taught that the Western clothing, manners and religious practices were superior to their native clothes, religion or cults and manners and took thousands of children away from their parents to teach them” better values” and make good Christians out of them.

They took children away from their Native Australian and Native American parents to make them learn English , wear Western clothes and become good Christians and opened up Boys Homes and Girl’s home in many countries where these children were raised under severely regimented life run by the nuns or priests where physical abuse, loneliness and repressive atmosphere prevailed.

They were banned to speak in their native tongue and all such cultural practices were outlawed so that they could learn the Western way of life. The families were torn apart and devastated by such highhandedness by the so called do gooders who looked down on anything they perceived as backward, immoral and sinful. Only lately the Australian government has publicly apologized to the Native Australians for this injustice imposed on them on such a large scale over such a long period but has fallen short of proper atonement.

There is a painting by Gauguin of women in Tahiti where the missionaries were very active in converting the locals into their brand of Religion and forced them to give up their Tahitian culture making the women sad. This sadness was captured by Gauguin so clearly in his paintings. Missionaries believed that they were saving the souls of the native savages.

When I read the book Hawaii by Michener who happens to be my favorite writer, I came to know how the missionaries treated the locals in Hawaii with total contempt for their culture believing them to be of inferior race and with inferior culture whom they had come to save and teach them better values first by converting them to Christianity and secondly by introducing to them an alien culture and language that bewildered them.

When a white missionary woman was in labor pain, the pastor who was not trained in midwifery and had absolutely no knowledge about such things tried to deliver the baby by reading the instructions in a poorly printed manual in Boston while the Hawaiian women waited outside the tent with their offer of help that the missionaries refused. They could not believe that these so called primitive women knew anything about child birth. The result was that the baby died and the mother nearly died due to the inexperience of the mid wife making the Hawaiian women cry knowing that they could have saved the baby.

This is the kind of cultural imperialism that has prevailed since a very long time and has made a tremendous detrimental impact on the locals, their language and their traditions.

When Columbus, Pizarro and other such expeditioners arrived in the new world meaning the Americas and claimed the land in the name of their King and Queen, they did so through the use of their military and were always followed by the missionaries recruited from the rabble in Europe who forced their brand of Christianity on the locals using force thus paving the way for a cultural and religious imperialism that changed the lives of the locals forever. They also introduced diseases that the natives were not immune to so died in large numbers but that is another story.

The same thing happened in the Philippines where the Spaniards forced the Christianity on the tribes who had to give up their culture, their heritage and even their traditional clothes in favor of everything Spanish. People had to learn Spanish and build Spanish styled churches and wear clothes that were in fashion in Spain. Later the Americans did the same, colonized the islands and tried to change them into speaking English and introduce them to the American way of education and administration.

The result of such blatant cultural imperialism is not hard to see. Hardly anything original in clothes, tradition and cultural heritage they were so proud of has survived. This pattern is repeated wherever the missionaries went following the army. The British did the same in India and left their legacy of the Anglican churches everywhere where the Anglo Indians and the converted untouchables still congregate and where the protestant missionaries from America are very active in converting the tribals and fishermen in certain parts of the country.

The cultural imperialism that the colonizers introduced to many countries in the name of spreading Christianity and thus saving the souls of the heathen had its root in their unshakable belief that they were a superior race and only they know what was right thus ignoring the glorious native culture and the traditions.

It will be wrong to ignore their positive legacies as well because they introduced modern laws and the administrative system that trained the locals to learn the governance of their country and set up numerous colleges and universities and sent many young people to England or America for their education. They invested heavily in the development of the infrastructure that helped bring the country together through railways and roads. They outlawed harmful traditions and introduced laws to protect women and children from abuse.

Their contributions to the development of the countries they colonized are too numerous to mention here but it came at a price of subjugating their colonized people to their brand of laws, their cultural values and their ways of doing things , ignoring the rich culture and values of the natives everywhere. They did it to profit from their colonies.

They even supported the slavery in America and in Africa because it was good business until the missionaries like Dr. Livingstone made people aware in England of the evils of such practices that led to the general outcry to ban slavery and the subsequent promulgation of laws to ban it. So the missionaries have played an important role in stopping the practice of slavery in Africa and later in the United States.

Not to be outdone the Moslems also brought their imperialism to their subjects no matter where they went and established their brand of Islam through the establishment of madarsas where children are educated in the “superior culture that Islam promotes” and train some of them as jihadists but that is another topic beyond the scope of this blog so I will not write about it.

I just want to mention that I saw in Mali, women wearing black hijab that covered them head to foot with just two peepholes for their eyes. This sort of fundamentalism of the Wahaabists is pushed in many parts of Africa and Asia where women are subject to such dress codes. Traditionally women in Mali in rural areas go about bare breasted but the pressure to change their culture is intense. Just imagine the discomfort of women wearing polyester black hijab in the 45 degree Celsius heat their men force on them.

The American protestant missionaries are also hard at work in villages to do just that and are translating the Bible into the local languages that does not translate well. May be they should ask Google to do it for them and not waste their time.

Now the cultural imperialism in the name of business and making money is sweeping the whole world through the internet, through various media and through tourism that has made very negative impact on the local cultures in many parts of the world. It has made some people angry at such blatant invasion of their culture and values and are fighting back by boycotting the concerts of Rihanna and Shakira because they feel that it has a negative impact on the youth who try to imitate them. I have written earlier about the impact of mass tourism in my earlier blog that is perhaps worth a look in this respect.

There was a time when the Japanese Emperor banned all foreigners from Japan that has a very rich culture and traditions that could be negatively impacted through the introduction of a foreign religion like Christianity. Some missionaries were caught and impaled on stakes and others were warned off so they complained to their governments that sent war ships to intimidate the Japanese Emperor. It is a part of the Japanese history that does not need to be repeated here but the movie The last samurai tells the story quite well and is worth watching.

I have always felt that the notion of one culture better than all others is quite outdated but there was a time during the colonial period in Asia and Africa when some European countries colonized other countries for profit and stayed there for a long time to make a permanent stamp on the country of their presence in the art, culture , language, dress and even food. Some countries succumbed to this sort of invasion without much of a fight while other countries like India, China and Japan fought hard to keep them out.

In Africa there was a despotic ruler of Uganda called Mutesa who was so enraged by the white missionaries converting the Ugandans into Christianity and introducing a very alien culture among the people there that he ordered them out and burned alive the young converts when they refused to obey the king and repudiate their faith. This was back in 1800s when the white explorers were starting to explore the deep interior of Africa that the outer world did not know anything about. The early explorers were usually the missionaries who were sponsored by their churches back home to explore and convert the natives.

Fast forward to the present day and you will come across the same sort of activity in various parts of the world where the missionaries especially the white American protestants are very active and are bent on “saving the natives” by weaning them away from the Catholics whom they denigrate in no uncertain terms.

The case of Haiti where I used to work as an agronomist trying to improve the agriculture is quite tragic. There the Bible thumpers from the Bible Belt in America take over a large stadium where they play loud music to attract the audience and then castigate the Catholic Christians and their voodoo practices as evil in rapid fire English with lots of halleluiahs thrown in for effect that a Haitian chap then translates into Creole also in rapid fire method.

This blatant intrusion into their catholic culture and religion has created tension in their families and is a great cause for concern. You will see young white American girls sun bathing in skimpy bikinis in remote villages there who have gone to Haiti as assistants to the resident missionaries to build their churches and that too in a country that is awash in churches in every nook and cranny.

When the American missionary woman who was a reformed whore from some parts was refused funding by the USAID for her activities, she was livid with rage and said to me that saving souls was more important than my project of seed multiplication of rice to improve their agriculture that the USAID funded. Her assistants turned me out their gate one day thinking that I was a Haitian due to my dark skin.

There have been historic push backs in many countries as I mentioned like in Japan , China and even India to some extent. The Chinese Empress ordered the ban of sale of opium in China because it was destroying the Chinese people that led to the Opium War between China and the British who were selling the opium for profit that is written in many Pearl Buck’s novels. They also insisted to be paid in silver that impoverished China.

The Chinese Royalty also came down harshly on the missionaries who were very active in China at that time. Pearl Buck herself was a missionary and came from a strong missionary family that ran orphanages to protect Christian children and women from abuses by others. It was a tumultuous period in China that left a very lasting impact there. Until now the Chinese government strictly controls the religious activities of the Christians and is at odds with the Vatican about the new bishops and archbishops that Vatican tries to install.

The sheer tenacity and conviction of some of the diehard missionaries who try to save the souls of heathen in the deep jungles of Papua New Guinea or the Amazon is nothing short of admiration although I have heard cases in Uruguay or Paraguay where they put the native Indians in chains and starve them until they agree to become Christians.

Such reports were published in a book by a Peace Corps volunteer who could not tolerate such abuse of the natives but the book was quickly taken off the shelves of book stores in America under tremendous pressure from the Protestant groups that claimed that no such abuse had taken place to their knowledge and castigated the volunteer for such hearsay.

In conclusion I can say that the cultural as well as the religious imperialism that goes hand in hand is very much alive and continues to spread its tentacles through many means at its disposal. It is just that people are more aware of them and are fighting back in many countries where their governments are refusing foreign aid if such aids are offered with a religious and cultural component to it.

I am delighted that many music enthusiasts all over the world appreciate the classical Western music ( myself included) and admire Amira Willighagen but I do not suggest that it is a form of European colonial imperialism that is spreading its influence through music although a concert tour by Shakira is another matter.

People should be aware of the pernicious effect of religious and cultural imperialism that has a far more turbulent effect on people than classical music so they should be warned. Any kind of imperialism is outdated and should be treated as toxic because no one is better than anyone else and should not pretend to be in this modern age.

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