Epidemic Empire: Book Review

Arya Aryan reviews Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion, and Terror, 1817–2020 by Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb (University of Chicago Press, 2021).

Against Colonial-Illness Metaphor

The cover of Raza Kolb's book which has a plain red background. A skeleton sits on a sailing ship's prow with long black hair that streams behind it like angel wings and carries a scythe over one shoulder. The skeleton is wearing a mixed collection of cultural clothing including a red fez, red waistcoat, and baggy striped trousers with 'cholera' written on the waistband, suggesting the central connection between Oriental imagination and infectious disease.
Figure 1: Cover of Epidemic Empire. Credit: University of Chicago Press.

The concept of terrorism as a contagion and colonial-illness metaphor has a deep historical connection. Terrorism has been metaphorically likened to a cancer, infection, epidemic and plague, framing insurgent violence as a contagion to manage its political impact for over a century. For Susan Sontag the frequency of such metaphors has “made cancer synonymous with evil” (1990, 112). Marin Amis’ “The Age of Horrorism” (2006) exemplifies the colonial urge – that is, the historical tendency of Western narratives to impose their own interpretations on non-Western cultures, often reinforcing stereotypes and perpetuating biases – to metaphorically and critically frame Islamism as a political ideology that seeks to establish Islamic governance based on a strict interpretation of Islamic principles. Aligning with a mainstream perspective that often associates Islamism with extremism and terrorism, Amis calls Islamism a “pathological cult,” a “poison that might take – might mutate, like bird flu” (2006, online).

In Epidemic Empire, Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb explores the origins of this metaphor in response to the Indian Mutiny of 1857, tracing its enduring influence through events such as 9/11 and beyond. Building on previous work on colonial illness metaphor including Alan Bewell’s Romanticism and Colonial Disease (1991), this pioneering study offers a postcolonial literary perspective, informed by the Medical Humanities, on the global War on Terror by drawing on a diverse archive from colonial India, imperial Britain, French and independent Algeria, the postcolonial Islamic diaspora and the neoimperial United States. Although Nafisa Bakkar calls out stereotypical representations of Muslim women in the accounts of the Global North as either “synonymous with a burqa- or niqab-wearing woman” or as a fashion “hijabi influencer” (2019, 40), Raza Kolb takes as her corpus works written by four significant writers – Rudyard Kipling, Bram Stoker, Albert Camus and Salman Rushdie – revealing a consistent inclination to portray anticolonial rebellion, particularly Muslim insurgency, as a potent form of social contagion.

Tracing Histories of Epidemic Empire

Raza Kolb reflects on the personal impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing on her expertise in colonialism, race and contagion, Raza Kolb connects the rhetoric of the War on Terror following the September 11 attacks to the pandemic. She critiques the metaphor of epidemic applied to terrorism, highlighting historical roots and its impact on public health priorities. This rhetoric has led to the dehumanisation of certain groups, especially Muslims, during the pandemic. She traces historical links between Islam, contagion and rebellion since colonial times, asserting that the contemporary notion of Islam as a racial category is rooted in nineteenth-century Orientalism. Throughout, Epidemic Empire‘s focus is on the “rhetorically dehumanizing effects of imperial disease poetics” (Raza Kolb, 2021, 5). Raza Kolb’s central argument is that “the anthropomorphic globe that emerges in late twentieth-century ‘world’ literature – and Rushdie’s work in particular – can be best understood as a neoimperial concept encased in alibis of biological emergency” (23).

Raza Kolb delves into specific historical contexts and their intersections with epidemic metaphors. For example, she scrutinizes the CIA’s use of a fake vaccination campaign to locate and kill Osama bin Laden, critically analysing this narrative within global health and colonial historiography. Raza Kolb contends that the campaign portrayed bin Laden as a cancer or virus and that this framing suggests that his removal was not merely a matter of war but rather a global health imperative. Developing this approach, she discusses Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), which portrays a period of British and Russian imperial manoeuvring following the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, known as the “Great Game.” This geopolitical struggle unfolds in the same Central Asian and Northern Indian regions (now modern-day Pakistan) where bin Laden was eventually killed. Kipling’s depiction of the Mutiny, through the characters’ encounters with an old man who served as a native officer during the Rebellion of 1857, associates the event with a plague and madness. The old man recounts the army’s turning against its officers during the Mutiny, describing it as a madness that could have been remedied if the rebels had refrained from violence. Kipling portrays the Mutiny as both a natural catastrophe and a deliberate human action. The manner in which bin Laden was apprehended and Kipling’s novel therefore underscore the link between colonial insurgency and the use of metaphors to depict these conflicts as natural or inherent.

A nineteenth century illustration of John Bull (a personification of Britain) holding a club and grabbing a skinny blue-skinned figure by the neck as they move through a gap in a wooden fence. The racialised figure is wearing a flowing white robe and white turban which is clasped with a large skull and crossbones brooch and reaches for a scroll on the ground labelled 'Reform Bill'. Above the pair floats a verbal exchange: 'Now you rascal where are you going to / I am going back again'. The fence is labelled 'The Wooden Walls of Old England' and two signs in the background red 'Beware of the Bull' and 'Board of Health'.
Figure 2: John Bull in “Catching the Cholera” (1832). Credit: Wellcome Collection.

Raza Kolb’s exploration of epidemics traverses through various historical and literary contexts, revealing interconnected narratives that span centuries. Raza Kolb examines Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetry, written after the first cases of the second cholera epidemic reached Britain in 1831, as well as contemporaneous visual representations of cholera as an anthropomorphised Oriental figure, highlighting the racialisation of cholera, its association with the lower classes and its impact on the colonial export market. In “Cholera Cured Beforehand,” Coleridge portrays the speaker “as a sanitary reformer” who associates the disease with “poverty, filth, and indigestion that together make up ‘The diabolus ipse, / Call’d Cholery Morpus’” (73). The poem reflects a broader trend where observers link cholera to the race of the colonial subject who is also imagined as a devil with “horns, hoofs, tail, [and who] croaks for carrion to feed him” (Coleridge, 1832). Descriptions of cholera’s physiological consequences, including darkened skin and coagulated black blood, permeated official reports and literature, connecting the disease to racial characteristics (see Figure 2).

Raza Kolb presents the Gothic as a way of dealing with this colonial fear of disease, which arose largely in response to cholera outbreaks in Western Europe throughout the Nineteenth Century, and examines the genre’s intersection with Orientalism. She elucidates how the vampire myth, particularly exemplified in Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), became intertwined with representations of the Muslim Near East. Examining how literary and historical depictions intertwine, Raza Kolb references monsters in political contexts and geopolitical relevance in works like Frankenstein (1818) and The Vampyre (1819), linking them to the cholera epidemic of the 1850s-1860s. Raza Kolb discusses how Dracula influences the conceptualisation of global security and colonial norms in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries. The atmospheric details shaping the Gothic introduction in Transylvania in Stoker’s novel are largely borrowed from three books, including E. C. Johnson’s On the Track of the Crescent: Erratic Notes from the Piraeus to Pesth (1885). Johnson’s narrative recounts his experiences in Eastern Europe, regions that had temporarily “fallen into the hands of the unspeakable,” that is “the Turks”. Through Stoker’s assimilation of such exoticism and historical reflections into Dracula’s dialogue and narrative, Raza Kolb exposes the underlying anxieties surrounding Islamic proximity to and movement in Europe. Dracula, together with its literary predecessors, marks “a menacing sense of the influence of the ‘crescent’, or Islamic incursions into Europe” (Raza Kolb, 92). Dracula’s bloodline “preserves the possibility of a monstrous blood mingled with the Turks” (94). Indeed, Raza Kolb meticulously dissects the Gothic genre’s engagement with colonial disease and pandemic anxieties, arguing how Orientalism permeates literary depictions and shapes broader cultural perceptions.

Post 9/11 Terrorism and Neo-coloniality

Returning to the theme of post-9/11 neo-coloniality, Raza Kolb further delves into its complexities by exploring the Kashmir conflict, tracing its roots from the partition of British India to COVID lockdown. She shifts to a literary analysis of Rushdie’s works, critiquing how epidemic metaphors contribute to the dehumanisation of Muslims. She discusses the outbreak of plague in Kashmir in 1903-1904 and its connections to Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. She analyses Rushdie’s use of the plague as a metaphor for political and historical turmoil, along with the metaphorical implications of blindness in the novel. Raza Kolb introduces a counterfactual perspective through Ahmad Faraz’s poem “Eye Bank” (1983), challenging assumptions underlying epidemiological narratives and the de-humanising rhetoric of Rushdie’s portrayal by adopting a radically intimate and personal perspective. Raza Kolb then highlights the shift from traditional warfare to security measures in the 21st century, exploring the conflation of global health discourses and counterinsurgency efforts. She examines the intersections of security, biosecurity and global health discourses, drawing from contemporary analyses and literary examples, particularly Rushdie’s works.

The epidemic functions in Rushdie’s writing as a metaphor for terrorism which is predicated on the notion that security is the first priority on a personal and global level, especially within the concept of the Global War on Terror. Raza Kolb explores the shift in counterterrorism strategies over the last two decades, particularly highlighting the epidemiological viewpoint prevalent during the Obama administration. Drawing a parallel between contemporary US strategy and the Orientalist practices of former British and French empires, Raza Kolb emphasises the systematic dehumanisation inherent in the entanglement of war, security and medicine in the War on Terror. This metaphorical thinking leads to a reductionist view, projecting a single “disease” of terrorism that oversimplifies complex motives, identities and objectives, and contributes to the marginalisation of Muslim communities. Epidemic Empire emphasises the importance of understanding how narrative shapes our understanding of terrorism and its consequences.

Raza Kolb argues that The 9/11 Commission Report, which oscillates between a global perspective and human-scale details, serves as both the justification for the War on Terror and a narrative of national healing. Literary critic Craig Warren lauds the report as a subtext of bodily vulnerability, framing the report as a textual remedy for shared wounds. Benjamin DeMott, however, argues that the therapeutic tone attempts to whitewash intelligence failures and justify wars. Raza Kolb analyses historian Ernest May’s involvement in the report, showing how he “describes in compositional terms the process by which the team of experts that appear in the Report as a conceit for a malfunctioning surveillance system reconceive themselves as the ‘attending physician’ responsible for synthesizing and modifying the chart or narrative” (271). She then compares the report to The Senate Report, with the latter lacking the narrative clues, artistry and Orientalist tropes found in The 9/11 Commission Report. Raza Kolb argues that the consequences of the War on Terror are shaped by the narrative constructed in The 9/11 Commission Report, with The Senate Report on Torture serving as a corrective.

If there is a broad critique to be made of Epidemic Empire, it is perhaps that the (neo-)colonial framing of terror-as-disease the book so richly explores does not treat illness with the same care and sustained concern. Its main focus is on the colonial context of metaphoric language rather than illness metaphors which are worth special exploration especially for their cognitive effects. These metaphors are vehicles with which the West’s framing of terrorism in terms of disease naturalises the recurrence of political violence as inevitable rather than contextual. Such metaphors obscure the nature of illness and contribute to the cultural stigmatisation of lived experiences like cancer and HIV/AIDS as “punishment[s] for living unhealthy lives” (Sontag, 25). Nonetheless, Epidemic Empire is impressively well-researched and stands out as a significant contribution to understanding contemporary neo-colonial rhetoric’s use of illness. This book is a critique of the overgrowing reliance on medicalisation and a call for an end to the conceptualisation of terrorism, associated with Islam, as a pathology which infects the healthy body of the West.

About the Author

Arya Aryan is a visiting researcher at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. He received his PhD in contemporary literature and medical humanities from Durham University (UK). He is an associate fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and the author of The Post-war Novel and the Death of the Author (2020) and The Postmodern Representation of Reality in Peter Ackroyd’s Chatterton (2022).

References

Amis, Martin. 10 September 2006. “The Age of Horrorism.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/sep/10/september11.politicsphilosophyandsociety1  

Bakkar, Nafisa. 2019. “On the Representation of Muslims.” It’s Not About the Burqa. Picador.

Bewell, Alan. 1999. Romanticism and Colonial Disease. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Sontag, Susan. 1990. Illness as Metaphor; And, AIDS and Its Metaphors. The University of Michigan.

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