In 1982, Eric Wolf published Europe and the People Without History to identify and begin rectifying large gaps in anthropological knowledge. That project remains unfinished. In the past year, since September 11, 2001, the necessity of filling in some of these gaps has become urgent. The history of relations between Western powers and transnational Muslim societies in the Indian Ocean is one of them. An anthropologically nuanced understanding of such societies as diasporas, thought in tandem with their continued relations with Western empires over five hundred years, lends a useful perspective on a set of conflicts which is massively unfolding. Threatening to become a self-fulfilling prophecy of a clash of civilizations (Huntington 1993) in popular discourse and political decision-making, a phenomenon on this horrendous scale remains within the purview of anthropologists if one sees it as an instance of culture contact under conditions of global imperialism, unmitigated by colonial administration.
The distinction between imperialism and colonialism is critical. Talal Asad's Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973) launched anthropology on an auto-critique by noting that its quiet field sites were fields of colonial power, and its practitioners members of colonizing societies. Colonialism refers to foreign presence in, possession of, and domination over bounded, local places. Today, the multi-sited ethnographies we increasingly pursue need to be analytically framed within a field of power which is transnational. The term imperialism refers to foreign domination, without the necessity of presence or possession, over expansive, transnational spaces—and many places. Within the purview of U.S. power, then, the appropriate term for this frame is not postcolonialism, but ongoing imperialism. The time may soon be upon us for a sequel to Asad's volume, now trained on American anthropology and the imperial encounter. While the terms globalization, neo-liberalism, and late-liberalism may have been productive in probing the complexities of consent to contemporary transnational hegemony, they have been less attentive to its classical twin, coercion. While colonialism may be the past of British and French anthropology, imperialism is the long present of the American one. Thus the sense of urgency, again (Hymes 1999).
In what follows, I look at a series of contacts between Western empires and Muslim societies through the eyes of a Muslim diaspora, as it were, a mobile people with a written history. The review suggests that what is new to this history is the unique nature of American power worldwide. In its global reach it is imperial, but in its disavowal of administration on the ground, it is anti-colonial. Decoupling the concept of colonialism from that of imperialism is a necessary step in thinking about this new mode of domination, and it is a task this essay sets for itself.Citation: Ho, Engseng. “Empire through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat” Society for Comparative Study of Society and History.(April 2004): 210-246.