The State We Are In: Historical Amnesia
From amongst the collection of “quotable quotes” on history, the statement of the eccentric English Lankaphile John Still deserves mention. He said, “The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from.” These words reverberated in my head at the recent discussion forum organised by MuzlimBuzz.sg.
During his presentation at the event, the erudite Dr. Hisham Hellyer asked his audience, “How many of you know of the Hama massacre?” Pin drop silence ensued. Visibly disappointed, he then asked, “How many of you are aware of the Sabra and Shatila massacre?” Praise the Lord, a few hands popped up.
I sat in bewilderment thinking, “Were the attendees really not aware of these crimes against humanity or were they just too tired to lift their hands up after a long day at work?” I sincerely hope it is the latter. But if it is the former, then we have some serious introspection to do.
More than a trip down memory lane
History is not simply a nostalgic exercise in reminiscing past glories. Neither is it a visit to the tavern to drown one’s sorrows in despair over what transpired. And it certainly is not a means to renew grudges or forge new enmities. Rather, it is an important and necessary tool to help comprehend the present in order to shape a better future.
Islamic history is replete with both unbelievable exultations and unspeakable tragedies. For every battle of Badr, we have a battle of Uhud. For every profound act of chivalry, we have an act of cowardice. For every heroic narrative, we have a tragic epic. For every discovery, we have a tale of trials and errors.
Such is the double-sided nature of history. And it is vital that both narratives are given equal space in our discourse and teachings. Otherwise, poignant lessons will be relegated to the dusty annals of the past. We ought to reflect on the narration of the Messenger of Allah (upon him be blessings and peace), “A believer is never stung from the same hole twice.”
Be aware and do not despair
In this regard, we should take a leaf out of the books of our Jewish brethren-in-humanity. Their systematic and comprehensive programme to educate Jews (and gentiles) of the Holocaust atrocities is legendary. Every Jewish youth, regardless of how religious or otherwise he or she may be, is fully aware of the tribulations their forefathers went through.
While I do not advocate indoctrination of that intensity, I have no qualms in suggesting that our weekend madrasahs and other educational programmes incorporate in their curriculum aspects of Muslim socio-political history that have shaped and continue to shape our present.
The Palestinian struggle is omnipresent in the average Muslim psyche. I dare say that there are similar and perhaps worse travails that Muslims elsewhere have been through and are going through that are no less deserving of mention and remembrance.
Our precocious youth deserve to know the stories of the Chechen widows, Srebrenica survivors, Somali child-soldiers, Afghan refugees, Rohingya people, Hama martyrs and the many other forgotten Muslims of the 20th century, let alone the distant past.
It is far better for them to hear about these anecdotes of history from qualified Asatizah with a sense of balance than from methodologically-challenged individuals with sinister motives. The importance of the former and the repercussions of the latter cannot be overstated.
We are living in a historic era which is being shaped by recent history. To make sense of what is happening, we urgently need to look back to chart a strategic direction forward. Otherwise, Allah forbid, we will be re-creating history for the wrong reasons. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Born and bred in Singapore, Idris Kamal is an apprentice goat herder. After completing his National Service, he left for the UK where he graduated from the University of Birmingham and worked at Islamic Relief Worldwide. When he is not tending to his goats, he spends time reading, writing and working on a myriad of stuff. He can be reached at www.facebook.com/idris.kamal