Skip to main content
Propagande coloniale : La France va pouvoir porter librement au Maroc la civilisation, la richesse, et la paix.

The "civilizing" mission of the European man!

Neocolonialism is not only the reproduction of colonial discourse, but a systematic method that requires packaging the tendency to "civilize the peoples of the South" in the envelope of universal values such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. This does not mean that many countries in the South do not suffer from the absence of fundamental rights and the suppression of freedom of the press, but the installation of the "Europeans" themselves as tutors of these issues simply because they are "European" raises more questions about the extent to which the tendency to "civilize" that accompanied the colonial expansion of the last three centuries has been overcome.

Europeans are taking on this role at a time when chauvinistic and populist tendencies are strengthening in their own countries, where manifestations of racism and repression of immigrants are increasingly frequent among their people, where the normalization of racism is taking place in public opinion, media, and public space, and where immigrants are left at sea for weeks despite calls from non-governmental organizations. This is reminiscent of the attempt to civilize the peoples of the South during the colonial era, while establishing systems of racial segregation in colonized countries, plundering their wealth, impoverishing their peoples, killing their children, and even displacing them as part of a lucrative slave trade that did not come to an end until the 19th century.

The "civilizing mission" invoked by the French to justify colonial expansion during the Third Republic (1870-1940) was based on dichotomies such as "white" and "black", "savage" and "civilized", as highlighted by historians such as Olivier Le Cour Grandmaison, Michel Foucault, William Cohen, Michel Duchet, and others (see the article by Bernard Lugan and Marion Lusclier "The Political Economy of France and the Intellectual Roots of the Civilizing Mission in Africa" in XVIIIe siècle français, 2011-2012, No. 44, p. 117).

The necessity of civilization is the highest example of the Republic and the values on which the French Revolution was founded, which is why it takes on a universal dimension when translated into a necessity to civilize the other (the same article, p. 117). "Civilization", as it was implemented in the colonial project, occurred through the sword and the book, through power and thought, through a hierarchy of cultural and economic values that established European domination over the peoples of the South.

But why are we talking about "white men" here and not just about Westerners or Europeans? This is a reference to the famous poem "The White Man's Burden" by the English poet Rudyard Kipling, which he composed in 1899, in which he calls on Americans to take control of the Philippines (during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War). It is a heavy burden because whites will make enormous sacrifices to "civilize" non-European peoples. This poem had a great influence on the debates in the US Congress of the time on American intervention in the Philippines and became the banner of American imperialists for a century. It is the same phrase that neoconservatives (implicitly) adopted during the presidency of George W. Bush to justify intervention in Iraq and the Middle East as a whole.

In their English article "The White Man's Burden: White and Christian Supremacy" (SCOOP, March 2019), Chitaaaini Saini gives an evangelical dimension to this quote. In the poem, Whites are described as "the descendants of Japhet, whom the prophet Noah said would cultivate civilization, while Africans are the descendants of Ham, who bears the curse of slavery by nature" (same source).

According to Saini, in the Middle Ages, there was a racist theory that black skin was the original punishment of Ham, and it was the same vision that dominated minds during the colonial era and was one of the intellectual and ideological justifications for the slave trade (same source). Kipling's poem is clear in its adoption of this theory, and it is implicit or explicit in American imperialist discourse for over a century.


Propagande coloniale : La France va pouvoir porter librement au Maroc la civilisation, la richesse, et la paix.

Is this hierarchy still present in the minds of Europeans, and can it be said that decisions made by institutions such as the European Parliament on human rights issues in other countries (such as the annual report of the US State Department on the subject) are a reproduction of the white man's civilizing mission or a contribution to the defense of human rights and universal principles agreed upon by United Nations mechanisms and conventions?

I believe that such decisions and reports can be useful in themselves, but they reveal a condescending attitude that borders on neocolonialism in procedural, evaluative, and political terms. Let's take, for example, the decision of the European Parliament on press rights in Morocco, published on January 19, 2023. This decision made no mention whatsoever of the role of the Moroccan Parliament in the question of government responsibility on these issues, nor of the ongoing social debate on freedom of expression, nor of the reports of civil society organizations that criticize the repression of press freedom, nor of the opinions of those who say that journalists are not exempt from civil crimes merely because they criticize the political system, nor of the opinions of women who are alleged victims of sexual violence, and so on. There is a social debate in Morocco that has its advantages and disadvantages, but it exists. With a simple stroke of the pen, the European Parliament issues a decision as if Morocco lived in a dark forest without rights, without parliament, and without institutions. Yes, these institutions do not have the same strength as European institutions, but they work, there is dynamics, there is development, and there is debate.

Ridiculing and denigrating these institutions means that they are not up to the cultural and ideological level of Europeans. As if democracy, if it is not European, is not universal. The overlap of the universal and the European is a trap into which even defenders of human rights in Southern countries fall. The ethnic decline of Europe (and the West in general) enables it to present itself as the supreme model of democracy and human rights. And when this position is adopted by leftists, environmentalists, and anticapitalists, the contradiction appears with greater force: "We demand equality, but from a purely European point of view. What you, peoples of the South, do is inferior to the supreme European model. But don't worry. We are here to monitor the regimes that oppress you. Preparation is our characteristic for centuries."

History has taught us that no matter how much the Western man pretends to be equal and respectful of others, his condescending nature quickly appears where it is least expected. Just look at how European media treated the events of September 11 or the recent events in Ukraine. The lesson we must learn is that we must approach others with mutual respect and an equal attitude, without prejudice or preferences.

By "Lahcen Haddad", Former Moroccan Minister.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML