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20 December 2010

Politicisation of Past

The past has many faces and shades. Sometimes it is romanticised and glorified; sometimes it is portrayed as dark and ugly. In both the cases it is used as a political tool, either to revive the lost and forgotten social order or to get rid of it to make a new beginning.

Up to the 18th century, most of the countries were unaware of their ancient civilisations. As a result of archaeological excavations and discoveries civilisations which lay beneath the earth were brought to light. The discoveries of some of the sites and monuments thrilled the world and opened the gates of knowledge, at the same time broadening the vision of history.

Those who realised the significance of the past were the intellectuals of the Renaissance era who are known in history as humanists. Their first concern was how to liberate society from the traditions and values of the medieval period which blocked the creation of new ideas and thoughts. To discredit it, they dubbed the medieval period as dark and consequently rejected its heritage.

On the other hand, they resurrected the classical past of the Greek and Roman civilisations and revived the classical literature which provided them impetus to change the society’s superstition laden beliefs to enlightened and energetic thinking.

Classical literature helped to liberate European society from the clutches of the church. However, efforts were made not to replicate antiquity or to emulate the classical literary figures but to invent new concepts and ideas in response to the challenges of their time. As a result of the writings of these intellectuals, society began to change its whole structure. It led to the birth of modern Europe.

This pattern was followed by other nations with different results. The past emerged as a romantic phenomenon in countries which were liberated from colonialism and needed some solid historical identity. In these countries the past was used as a tool by politicians to mobilise the emotions of the people to inculcate a sense of pride. They raised the slogan to revive the glorious past in order to change society.

However, this approach shows the bankruptcy of the intellectuals who relied on the past rather than creating a new system according to the needs of the time. Moreover, it was an attempt to replicate the past than to alleviate the ills and to reform society. It is like putting old wine in new bottles. All such efforts failed to produce any positive results.

In case of Muslims, there are three historical periods which they desire to revive in the hope to reform their society. First is the early period of Islam when there was simplicity, austerity and observance of religious teachings. To some it was the ideal period and the revival of it is the only solution to modern problems. It invokes the implementation of religious punishments to curb crimes and corruption.

The second ideal period is the Abbasid rule when Arab power extended itself by defeating the most powerful states of its time. As it became an imperial power, it produced a grand and charming culture. Baghdad became the centre of literature and art and its grandeur exceeded all its contemporaries. It was the period of conquests and occupation of other countries. It is believed that the revival of its memories would revitalise the dormant Muslim nations into action.

The third period is the rule of the Moors in Spain. It was significant as it created a multi-cultural and multi-religious society based on tolerance and amity. The result of this policy was that it produced great philosophical traditions which influenced medieval Europe and contributed to its enlightenment. All three periods are romanticised and idealised. They created a false pride but no practical result to change the degenerate society.

Hindu extremists raised the slogan of Rama arajiya or the rule of mythical Rama which is portrayed as the golden period of India. Gandhi also used this slogan to mobilise the Indian masses. When the BJP came to power, the model of Rama’s rule became their ideal to solve all present problems by replicating it. However, politics of India, instead of looking back, turned towards modernisation and treated the past as history.

The past is also exploited by despots and dictators to legitimise their power. Muhammad Raza Pahalvi, the king of Iran, celebrated the rule of Cyrus and linked it to his own dynasty as the continuation of ancient royalty. Saddam Hussain took full advantage of the discovery of the Mesopotamian civilisation and reconstructed old Babylonian grandeur by presenting himself as the successor of Nebuchadnezzar, the great ruler and conqueror.

However, in some countries, the past is politicised to create national sentiment. In this case the past has become a hurdle and makes society backward. The other approach is to reconstruct the past but not to portray it as ideal. There is no doubt that knowledge of the past is important to understand the process of history.