‘Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to be always a child. If no use is made of the labours of past ages, the world must remain always in the infancy of knowledge,’ said Marcus Tulius Cicero referring to the importance of history. This becomes all the more pressing when we consider the fact that ‘The study of the past is becoming the preserve of the private sector. Our national story is being privatised, with 48% of independent pupils taking the subject compared with 30% of state school entrants.’ The decline in the number of state school students taking the subject at GCSE increased under the previous Labour government due largely to schools encouraging students to take ‘softer’ subjects in order to boost their rankings in the increasingly ineffective school league system. Underlying this is the implication that most state school students are simply incapable of engaging with history as a discipline. This is nothing short of a travesty, history gives young pupils from state backgrounds the opportunity to engage with and discuss the sorts of ideas and principles they aren’t privy to in their every day lives. Setting aside the pressing matters of Henry Tudor’s wives, history introduces important concepts such as power, class struggle and justice. Depriving children of the opportunity to think in these terms is detrimental to their social aspirations and continued growth as citizens of a modern democracy. How do we encourage social mobility and social consciousness if a child from a state school chooses textiles or health and social care because they have been led to believe that their capabilities do not extend beyond this point?
Muslim children are at an even bigger disadvantage as the Muslim community tends to undervalue the discipline along with other humanities and social science subjects including philosophy, politics and international relations. One possible reason for this dismal set of circumstances is the fact that most of us are not raised with an ethos that encourages children to think about their world and ask questions; in fact, a child who thinks too much is deemed a problematic one. The lack of appreciation for history in particular lies in the fact that typically, history neither leads to a vocation nor is associated with earning power with its uses not so immediately visible. Many history students have to bear with constant retorts such as ‘what can you do with history?’
In looking at the way in which early human societies would pass on knowledge from those before them, we note that this system has been the primary means of transmitting ideas, forging identities and governing societies. As a discipline history developed from the times of Herodotus, Thucydides and Leopold Von Ranke with the latter professionalising history with his emphasis on empiricism and critically reading sources. This gave way to the developments of creative processes and traditions such as social and feminist historiography that led away from history written by the elites for the elites (the happenings of the elites in European society, namely Kings, Princes and their armies). This also changed largely with the appearance of Marxist philosophy, for if ‘the history of all existing society is the history of class struggles’, then where is this in the history books? Social historians saw it as their duty to illuminate a history from below, shedding light on the experiences, ideas and struggles of the marginalised masses in society.
Beyond relaying knowledge, history serves a social function as it helps to foster what all societies strive to achieve, the creation and retention of a collective identity. A shared sense of history is crucial to the affirmation of a whole host of beliefs and assumptions on which societies are built. This is most powerfully epitomised by events in our own lifetime, the rhetoric of the war on terror was such that the US and their allies were able to appeal to a shared sense of history and identity to justify the foreign policy decisions that led to the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. The overwhelming rhetoric of the war on terror has been the defence of western liberalism against Islamic extremism, just as the Cold War was characterised as being between good and evil and not just Western Liberal Democracy and Communism. In the context of Britain, when David Cameron gave his controversial speech in Berlin, he was appealing to Europe’s sense of shared history when he spoke of the need to tackle Islamic extremism through ‘muscular liberalism’. He spoke of radicalism as being a product of ‘the weakening of our collective identity’ and a prerequisite for citizenship and belonging based upon sharing the British values . These values are the products of centuries of European political, social and cultural development. Muslims have only shared that history for the past 100 years or so and it is for this reason that Muslims need to have a better understanding of the processes that have shaped modern Britain, so they can better understand where they fit within that history. This is particularly poignant given the recent debates about Muslims and the issues of identity in the West, particularly in European societies. Many of us still have a connection with the history, language and culture of the countries of our parents and grandparents; in many ways that history is ingrained in us for fear that we may lose touch with our roots. This becomes problematic when Muslims hold fervently to a history that that actually bears little resemblance to their present. For the many children of immigrant parents, this has been and will continue to be one of the greatest challenges in years to come.
The social function of history enables us to understand people, their cultures and societies thus acting as a mechanism for fostering tolerance in a society as it increases greater understanding. The 21st century is an age of plurality, globalisation has come to characterise our societies by their diversity, not their homogeneity. How do we all live together in harmony especially where we disagree? For example, it is evident that little thought was put into the rather inane decision by Islam against Crusades to burn the poppies which came into existence after the end of the first World War as a tribute to those who died in the brutal war of attrition, no family in Britain was untouched by the war experience and it remains a part of the collective memory. Given this, is it so hard to understand why this was met with such anger in many quarters of British society?
History enables the analysis of change, and while other disciplines also achieve this even they must have recourse to historical analysis. There is dominant narrative today that gives the impression that the West is civilised, by definition liberal and democratic, and juxtaposed to this is the Muslim world with its misogynistic hand chopping brutes and regressive views.
It can also be a great source of inspiration, the lives of individuals or epochs in history not only leave us with sentimental remnants of a distant past, they are just as important to our present, for the issues they grappled with continue to plague us today. We can equally look to great evils of the past with moral indignation conscious that we shall never be witness to something similar ever happening again. These may be cross Atlantic slavery, the scourge of Empire, or the countless ethnic and religious persecutions of the past.
Further, it allows us to question and challenge the dominant narratives and perceptions in any given society. The history of Islam in particular is little understood in the West and is often subject to misperceptions that are then reiterated in public discourse. These can result in the creation of myths that are then widely held to be true, a better knowledge of history could mitigate against such circumstances.
But in discussing the benefits of history we must also be conscious that it can also be abused and none more so than when it serves a political purpose. The commonly held perception that the representations and interpretations of history are exercises in objectivity is wholly false. One such controversial example is that of the history of the Holocaust and Holocaust remembrance. The fact that the Holocaust is regarded as such an exceptionally unique event in history cannot be divorced from the way many in the West view the present day issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The point is best illustrated here:
Turning the Holocaust into a political asset serves Israel primarily in its fight against the Palestinians. When the Holocaust is on one side of the scale, along with the guilty (and rightly so) conscience of the West, the dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homeland in 1948 is minimized and blurred.
The power that the history and memory of the holocaust (justifiably) wields in the collective conscience is not to be underestimated, but when that history then becomes a means by which the political discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is stifled to exclude genuine opposition to, or criticisms of, the State of Israel, this has to be challenged. Ken Livingston and Demund Tutu have been targeted as veiled anti-Semites for criticising Israel. Baroness Jenny Tong was accused of anti-Semitism and subsequently resigned her position after refusing to apologise for remarks made at an Israeli Apartheid lecture in 2012 where she said,
Beware Israel. Israel is not going to be there forever in its present form. One day, the United States of America will get sick of giving £70bn a year to Israel to support what I call America’s aircraft carrier in the Middle East – that is Israel. One day, the American people are going to say to the Israel lobby in the USA: enough is enough. Israel will lose support and then they will reap what they have sown.
But it is not only important to study history, it is even more important to write it and unless Muslims are engaging with history as a discipline, our history will continue to be written by others. As George Orwell said, ‘whoever controls the past, controls the future.’