My favourite topic that I teach in my history course “The Modern World” at Brac University in Dhaka, Bangladesh is “The Enlightenment”. It was a period of European intellectual and cultural development that began in the late seventeenth century and lasted through the eighteenth century. The Enlightenment encouraged Europeans to view their world from a more rational perspective. It led to social and political changes in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
“The Enlightenment” is also known as the “Age of Reason”. It produced great physicists such as Isaac Newton, economists such as Jeremy Benjamin, and political philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau.
The ideology of the English political philosopher John Locke inspired American and French revolutionaries. Locke argued that all people possess a natural right to life, liberty and property. This was quickly endorsed by American revolutionaries but they replaced property with pursuit of happiness.
French revolutionaries embraced John Locke’s philosophy of liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality and fraternity). French intellectual Voltaire’s Encyclopedia changed French people’s traditional outlook. They began to value logic and reason.
As I appreciate the enormous contributions of the Enlightenment intellectuals, I am saddened by biologist Charles Darwin’s race theory, particularly his statement that the Caucasian race was at the top of the race ladder and people of colour were at the bottom.
In his publication Descent of Man (1871) Darwin stated, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races throughout the world”.
Social Darwinists undermined the humanitarian, multicultural and cosmopolitan sentiments of the Enlightenment intellectuals and damaged their vision of progress. I would interpret Social Darwinism as a way to justify the white races’ colonisation strategy.
During my stay in the USA, I noticed that some politicians created social division. On 27 January 2017, US President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order that banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the US for 90 days. But on the other hand, on 29 January 2017, I was impressed to see some Americans protesting against Mr Trump’s Executive Order, and standing up for human rights.
Later that year, in September 2017, as I was taking a leisurely walk in the National Mall of Washington, DC, a Black Lives Matter banner caught my attention. Then, on 25 May 2020, with the killing of the unarmed African-American man George Floyd by white American police officer Derek Chauvin in the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota, I realised the horror African Americans face in their everyday life in the USA. And in recent times, when I saw that people of all colours rallied for the Black Lives Matter Movement, and stood against racial discrimination, I realised that the “Enlightenment” has not disappeared after all!
Dr Nahid Afrose Kabir is Professor of History in BRAC University, Bangladesh; a Visiting Researcher at the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, USA; and Adjunct Professor at Edith Cowan University and the University of South Australia, both in Australia.