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We Do Not Own, Nor Are We Owned By History Ogos 23, 2007

Posted by ummahonline in Islam Bi La Hudud, Kolum.
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By: Farish A. Noor

Perhaps it says something about the human condition today that so many of us feel the need to belong to, as well as to own a part of, history. Living in the postmodern world of late industrial capitalism where more and more of us have become the denizens of a shapeless and homogenous urban landscape worldwide, the sweet nectar of nostalgia seems all too tempting and simply too easy to sample.

This fact was brought home to me recently during a public talk in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when a speaker from the audience spoke of her anxiety and need to preserve what she regarded as the grand history of her ‘race’ and ‘nation’. Lamenting the idea that her child may end up one day as yet another statistic in the relentless march of global capital and consumer culture, she spoke about the need to emphasise her ‘Chinese-ness’ and to retain links to the past of Chinese civilisation; which, she added, was four thousand years old…

Yet such rhetoric is not new to me. How often have I encountered similar arguments among Muslims and Hindus all across Asia, who claim that they too belong to grand civilisations thousands of years old, and that they saw the need to preserve in them a space where this culture and civilisation could be kept alive? More often than not I was taken to the sites of great and maginificent mosques, temples, palaces and other architectural wonders to be shown how great the Chinese, Indian and Muslim civilisations were. And of course the greatness of Western civilisation is rammed down our throats on a daily basis thanks to the hegemonic impact of Western popular culture, which reminds us time and again of the greatness of the Greeks and Romans.

Now take a step back from this froth and sentiment and one will notice a glaring error hiding in the premises of these arguments. For a start, it would be nonsensical to state that any Chinese person today has or had anything to do with the cultural achievements of China in the past; any more than any Muslim, Hindu or Christian today has contributed an iota to the development of the civilisations they hold so dear.

It is interesting to note that we who live in the immediate present have no problems whatsoever taking credit for what was done by our ancestors hundreds of years ago, as if somehow the accumulated credit for human labour can be passed down from one generation to another like capital gaining interest in the bank. Odder still is the fact that this logic is seldom reversed, for Christians, Muslims and Hindus today would not want to take responsibility for the mistakes and outrages committed by their very same ancestors long ago.

Furthermore it is almost comical to note how this recourse to nostalgia often harps back on the achievements of singular individuals who may not have acted with the interests of others or posterity in mind. Muslim apologists talk about the greatness of Muslim Sultans and Emperors, oblivious to the fact that if they were living in the days of the great Muslim empires of the past they would probably be playing the lowly role of serfs and peasants, to be stepped on and exploited by the very same Great Sultans they so admire today. Likewise apologists for China’s great imperial past forget that the greatness of China was meant primarily for the Emperor and the ruling elite, and not for the ordinary Chinese masses: Some may look to the Forbidden Palace in Peking as proof of China’s past grandeur, but the Forbidden Palace was precisely that – an elite enclave that was forbidden to millions of ordinary Chinese. The same applies for the great temples, forts and castles of the Christian West and Hindu India. So why this love of great rulers and greatness in general?

Related to this is the other anomaly that I still cannot fathom. Living in this multi-culti age where the emphasis is on ethnic and racial differences rather than similarities, we seem drawn to our respective pasts that we are told are ‘ours’ by virtue of us being born as what we are. So Muslim youth are told to admire and revere Muslim history, Hindu youth are told to venerate the Hindu past, Chinese youth are told to be proud of their Chinese history, etc.

Does history own us to such an extent that we are trapped by the accidental and contingent factors of the past forever? Is a Muslim determined by the actions of his ancestors to the extent that he or she can only imagine a Muslim past, present and future? Or can he or she not valorise, admire and acknowledge the achievements of others as well? This question of course cuts across the ethnic-racial-religious divide and can be applied to all and sundry: Can’t a Chinese admire things Hindu; can’t a European admire things Chinese; and can’t a Hindu admire things Christian, etc?

Much that passes as history today, we should remember, has been the result of radical contingencies put into order at the hands of official historians who have added a touch of determinism where there perhaps wasn’t any. The grand histories of the so-called ‘Great civilisations’ read so neatly as grand narratives simply because the alternative voices that pointed to a plethora of other alternative endings have all but been wiped out. This gives such grand narratives their consistency and standing as canonical texts. Yet this appearance of solidity before the ravages of time is illusory, and worse still turns history into mere propaganda: self-fulfilling prophesies of greatness once realised and which will be reactivated once again.

Can we ever escape the lure of such attractive nostalgia and accept the fact that each and everyone one of us today is an orphaned child of the modern age, divorced from our ancestors who live in that foreign country called the past? The step can be taken, but not before we accept the fact that we are, all of us, residents of the present world whose own personal histories date back only to our births and no further.

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