VIEW: The persistence and peril of memory —Dr Saleem H Ali
There is a difference between learning from history and being governed by the past. Contemporary political discourse in many parts of the world, particularly in the pan-Muslim world, is unfortunately sliding into the latter category
A few miles from “ground zero” in New York hangs Salvador Dali’s enigmatic painting entitled “The Persistence of Memory”. I recently revisited the images of melting clocks that haunt this painting, made in the years between World War I and World War II. The images brought forth a dissonant realisation that so much of the conflict which surrounds us now is steeped in history — or more consequentially in the memory of past events. Just as the melting clocks depict a caricature of time, the protagonists and antagonists in today’s conflicts are distorting repressed memories to promote their cause.
As a Muslim of Pakistani origin, I am particularly troubled by the exploitation of our collective memory. Osama Bin Laden’s vitriolic speeches have urged Muslims to reflect on 80 years of subjugation since the demise of the Ottoman caliphate. Christian fundamentalists are urging their adherents to consider the genocide of Armenians by the Turks. Serbian nationalists refer back to the invasion of the Balkan lands by the Caliphate in the seventeenth century.
Jewish extremists are promoting the idea of a primordial Holy Land that was originally inhabited by the Children of Israel, driven out by Gentiles. African-American activists constantly remind us of the injustices of slavery in the US. Hindu militants have lamented the onslaught of Muslim dynasties that overcame their age-old control on the subcontinent’s indigenous population.
Even venerable writers such as the recent recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, VS Naipaul have succumbed to an atavistic remembrance of pre-Muslim India and Malaya in his controversial book entitled Beyond Belief. The phenomenon is clearly widespread and is reinforced by exhortations to learn from history, no matter how anachronistic the lessons may be.
However, there is a difference between learning from history and being governed by the past. Contemporary political discourse in many parts of the world, particularly in the pan-Muslim world, is unfortunately sliding into the latter category. There is reluctance to exorcise memories of past injustices that are irrelevant to contemporary times. Regrettably, some Muslims often remember only the first clauses of Quranic verses which urge caution in friendship with non-Muslims and forget the subsequent Quranic injunctions to forgive past iniquities and move forward without prejudice.
The life of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) which exemplifies a forward-looking approach to public policy in his benevolent dealings with the Meccan tribes rarely make their way into the curriculum of madrassas. Indeed, the first hijrah (or migration) of the Muslims was from Arabia to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia), whose Christian ruler Najashi gave sanctuary to Muslims, including the Prophet’s daughter, and was repeatedly called a great friend of Muslims by the Prophet (PBUH). The current exhortations by many to divorce Muslim and non-Muslim territorial presence are thus even more disturbing.
In the minds of many Pakistani Muslims, the Palestinian conflict is still anchored in the Balfour declaration which created the state of Israel. In reality most Palestinians are now willing to live alongside Israel so long as their right to a state is protected. Thousands of Palestinians have worked in Israel until the second Intifada and the economies of both Palestine and Israel are inextricably linked. We should use this contemporary socio-economic situation as a starting point for negotiations rather than constantly questioning the formation of the state itself. Pakistan’s own creation has similar ideological roots and thus we should be even more careful about our approach on this issue.
Let us now examine the question of America’s relations with Pakistan. Many politicians have once again played the history card on this matter. American and Soviet follies during the Cold War and the American withdrawal following the decade-long conflict in Afghanistan is repeatedly used to argue why America cannot be trusted. US support for Saddam Hussein prior to the Gulf War is also cited as a mark of American opportunism. Indeed there are worse cases of American indiscretions during the Cold War such as the support of the insufferably corrupt Congolese dictator Mobutu or the nefarious role of the CIA in Latin America.
However, harping on these incidents of the past is not constructive. While there is certainly cause for trepidation and caution in blindly trusting any foreign power, we must not let these sentiments translate into hatred and enmity. The US has probably learned from past mistakes and is willing to change.
As a Muslim who has lived in America, both during the Gulf War and the current conflict, I can speak from personal experience that US media reports and government outreach have changed for the better. Despite its many failings, the American system has an admirable ability to learn and change. While some racial tensions continue, the progress in civil rights for African-Americans following the non-violent struggle of Dr Martin Luther King is a case in point.
Those of us who live in America and have benefited from the enormous opportunities which this land has offered us are particularly concerned about the wave of anti-Americanism that is sweeping many Muslim countries, particularly Pakistan. Ironically, many Pakistanis who live and work in many Muslims countries are treated shabbily as migrant workers, while in America we at least have legal equality as citizens and have a right to own property and practice our faith freely.
A cavalcade of propaganda emails propounding all sorts of unreal conspiracy theories continue to proliferate across the Muslim world. There is an unfortunate victim complex which many are developing, fuelled by the selective renewal of destructive memories. I am by no means advocating national amnesia of past injustices — only a therapeutic reconciliation with the past. I also do not intend justifying the bombing of Afghanistan, which is counterproductive. Just as America is learning from its mistakes, so too must the Muslim world.
As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this year, we should perhaps learn from the Japanese who, following the destruction of a quarter million people by an American atomic bomb, refused to be labelled as victims. They realised the mistakes of their Empire and focused on rebuilding their nation and reinventing their future instead of languishing in the past. As we drive our Japanese-built cars on roads, whether in Karachi or Kansas City, let us remember that an occasional glance at a rear view mirror is important, but a persistent focus on rear-view traffic without looking forward most of the time, may lead us to drive off a cliff.
Saleem H Ali teaches conflict resolution at the University of Vermont and at Brown University in the United States