Deconstructing Boundaries of Power


‘The Devilfish in Egyptian Waters.’ An American cartoon from 1882 depicting John Bull (England) as the octopus of imperialism grabbing land on every continent.

power | ˈpou(-ə)r
: the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.” —Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Popular conceptions of power often invoke images of force and coercion, tending to emphasize the physical—that is to say, the more visible—sense of the word. One is more likely to think of the military power of a political dictator forcing a people into submission rather than the subtle power of social forces acting upon individuals in society. However, forces that more closely resemble the latter can be just as potent as any display of physical might used to coerce or compel. At times, their operation in societies proves more effective because of their covert nature, allowing them to enact harm through the subconscious manipulation of individuals rather than the conspicuous use of force. This is precisely how the acclaimed Nigerian novelist and nonfiction writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, conceives of power. According to her, power is expressed through the ability to create single, definitive narratives about groups of people, and to have those narratives accepted and reproduced to the point where they become the only lens through which a society views them.

I would like to expound on this concept by assuming the position that definitive narratives about groups of people are deliberately created over time through lengthy processes of definition, social acceptance, and the gradual amnesia of their creation. Further, I would like to examine how these are embedded within historical narratives, and how they serve to propagate single conceptions of people by lending an artificial credibility generated through problematic notions of historical accuracy. Using this, I will attempt to provide an analysis of the ways in which Indian Muslims were depicted within the British colonial context and what implications this has for how people view Islam and Muslims today.

Historians often conceptualize their discipline as the objective reconstruction of the past, as if their job consisted of uncovering or rendering visible historical events, much like an archaeologist unearths ancient artifacts. This has caused many to place the same kind of trust in the accuracy of historical narratives as they do in the writings of the scientific disciplines, viewing them as based on facts and demonstrable governing principles. However, the controversial historian and literary critic, Hayden White, challenges this assumption by arguing that the construction and interpretation of history more closely resembles the field of literature than that of the physical or social sciences. According to White, history is created through a process of emplotment, by which he means “the encodation of the facts contained in [a] chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures” (White 7). Historical narratives are, therefore, created through the active process of selecting and prioritizing some historical facts over others in order to create a story that fits into a preconceived plot structure in order to assign meaning. The individual parts alone cannot constitute a comprehensible account of history; they require a format (or genre) that the historian chooses depending on how he or she interprets the facts as well as the message being conveyed. History, therefore, is not an unmediated and neutral context for interpretation, but rather is comprised of deliberately selected historical truths combined in a way to convey a particular message to their audience. This message serves a purpose and must therefore be critically examined in order to discern who it benefits and at what costs.

The illusion of historical factuality proves detrimental when it creates a single narrative of
a people that becomes the only way others are able to conceive of them. Much of the success of imperialist projects depends on the formulation of single representations of colonized peoples, as these allow for their dehumanization and subsequent subjugation. This is operative in the way Muslims in India were portrayed during the British Raj.

To illustrate this point, I would like to turn to a particularly influential book by Sir William Wilson Hunter called The Indian Musalmans: Are they bound in conscience to rebel against the Queen? The title alone is quite provocative, and seems to suggest that there is something inherently conflictual about being a Muslim under British rule. Indeed, Hunter comes to the conclusion that Islam demands rebellion against foreign occupation, and that Indian Muslims are therefore compelled by their religion to wage jihad against the Raj. He writes, “Somehow or other, every Musalmán seems to have found himself called on to declare his faith; to state, in the face of his co-religionists, whether he will or will not contribute to the Traitor’s Camp on our Frontier; and to elect, once and for all, whether he shall play the part of a devoted follower of Islám, or of a peacable subject of the Queen” (Hunter 14). According to Hunter, Muslim religious identity is incompatible with British national identity, which is problematic when one considers the fact that Hunter raises no objections to Christian- or Hindu- identified British subjects. This implies that Hunter believes the problem stems from something uniquely violent within Islam.

Additionally, Hunter promulgates an insider/outsider dichotomy through his use of the possessive “our” in juxtaposition with his use of “they” and “them” when referring to Indian Muslims. His use of language produces a misleading narrative in which all of Islam is pitted against “the West,” and the story of Indian Muslims, therefore, becomes one of rebellion against an entire cultural entity.

As I watch the news today, I cannot help but hear Hunter’s voice echoing through the rhetorical speech of prominent right-wing politicians. Ben Carson, for example, claimed in a CNN interview that “if you accept all the tenets of Islam…you would have a very difficult time abiding under the Constitution of the United States.” Does this not sound strikingly similar to Hunter’s claim that one cannot simultaneously be a British subject and a Muslim? And what about Marco Rubio’s comment about ISIS/ISIL/Daesh: “They literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical, Sunni Islamic view of the future. This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilizations.” Is he not resorting to the same polarizing dichotomy that Hunter promotes in his book: Islam vs. “the West”?

The single story is alive and well in today’s society. Though the writings of a long-dead 19th century British historian may seem irrelevant as today’s geopolitical and cultural landscape differs wildly from what it was then, it is hard to look at contemporary political rhetoric and not see the same story lines being reiterated. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to guard against the power of this rhetoric is to break down the barriers created by the single story, and allow for more nuanced representations of Muslims and Islam in the mainstream media. In this way, we can counter the divisive forces it promotes and restore a sense of shared humanity between people.




  1. Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Presentation at the annual TEDGlobal Conference, Oxford, UK, July 21-24, 2009.
  2. Hunter, William W. The Indian Musalmans: Are they bound in conscience to rebel against the Queen? 2nd ed. London: Trübner and Co., 1876.
  3. Imperialism Cartoon. 1882. Granger Historical Picture Archive, NYC. Accessed December 4, 2015.
  4. Khan, Syed Ahmad. Review on Dr. Hunter’s Indian Musalmans. London: Lahore Premier Book House, 1872.
  5. Nealon, Jeffrey, and Susan Searls Giroux. The Theory Toolbox: Critical Concepts for the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,2003.
  6. White, Hayden V. “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact.” In Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, 81-100. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
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