The Return of History
By Aatish Taseer
DEC. 11, 2015
AN Islamic philosopher in Karachi, an ideologue who provides violent ideas to some of Pakistan’s fiercest extremist groups, once told me that there are two kinds of history: dead and living. “Dead history is something on a shelf or in a museum,” he said. “Living history is part of your consciousness, something in your blood that inspires you.”
I was reminded of this last month during a conversation with a different kind of scholar. William McCants is the author of the excellent new book “The ISIS Apocalypse,” and he is nothing if not a student of “living history.” Mr. McCants looks at the Islamic State’s idea of the past and how the group’s adherents view their place in it. The picture that emerges is one of a terrific tension between the dead past and the ways in which it is being remade to fit the needs of the living present. The Islamic State’s treatment of history is particularly extreme, but a similar return of history is occurring with varying degrees of intensity all across the old world.
The jihadists in Syria and Iraq, Mr. McCants told me, are “infatuated” with Harun al-Rashid, the great Abbasid caliph whose court reportedly inspired “One Thousand and One Nights.” “They see him as the pinnacle of success, and the caliphate that he ruled over as the golden age,” Mr. McCants said, “but they elide all those parts of his rule that don’t mesh with their own.” The eighth-century caliph being idolized by the Islamic State practiced a far more lenient rule than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi does. Harun was tolerant of Shiites and religious minorities. His court would engage in freewheeling debates over matters of faith. “You could play musical instruments,” Mr. McCants said. “He loved to drink wine, he loved men.”
That the Islamic State has made violent use of history shouldn’t come as a surprise. Perhaps more surprising is that in all those places where a modern nation has been grafted onto an ancient culture, history has returned with a vengeance. From Confucian China to Buddhist Myanmar to Hindu India, history has become the source of a fierce new conservatism that is being used to curb freedoms of women and stoke hatred of minorities. As the ultimate source of legitimacy, history has become a way for modernizing societies to procure the trappings of modernity while guarding themselves from its values.
When I was in Sri Lanka in 2013, the Bodu Bala Sena, a radical Buddhist nationalist group, had conjured up a prudish Buddha who scolded young girls about their clothes and told them what time they should be home at night. In reality, the Buddha, like many Eastern thinkers, was generally reticent on the subject of sexual morality. Sex concerned him only to the extent that it interfered with men realizing the fullness of their spiritual lives.
Similarly, in India, a breach has appeared between a sensuous and liberal past and an ugly, puritanical present. In my daily reading of Sanskrit poetry, there are women with disheveled hair, half-open eyes and cheeks covered in sweat from the exertion of coitus. But turn on the television and the minister of culture, who says that the Hindu holy books are ideal texts for teaching moral values, informs modern Indians that “girls wanting a night out” may be all right elsewhere, but it is “not part of Indian culture.” (He seeks to cleanse Indian culture of the pollution of the West, but if its sex the minister worries about, he’ll have to cleanse Indian culture of itself. No one did it better than ancient India.)
The past is alive as it never has been before. It seems almost to serve as a kind of armor against an alien and impure present. And modernity, in the shallow sense of the word — that world of highways and blue-glass malls and men in the uniforms of foreign companies — does not satisfy the demands for this “living history.” In fact a certain dispiriting experience of modernity, felt often as the loss of a sense of self and of old ways, exacerbates these demands. This is what lies behind this violent need to reclaim history. “We are called from the past and must make our home in the future,” the great South Asian philosopher and art historian Ananda K. Coomaraswamy wrote almost a century ago. “But to understand, to endorse with passionate conviction, and to love what we have left behind us is the only possible foundation for power.”
But there is all the difference in the world between loving the past and wishing to return to it. Love contains the spirit of regeneration; perverse nostalgia is almost always a violent enterprise. Mr. McCants pointed out the inorganic newness of the Islamic State’s experiment. “They purport to be reviving a medieval tradition of rule,” he said, “but, to my knowledge, we never had in medieval Islam a state that was so eager to impose what’s in scripture, and tradition.”
Islam, with its rich textual history and detailed recordings of the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad, offers the faithful an especially aggressive blueprint for turning the past into a weapon against the present. But the return of history is not specific to Islam. All over the old world, the spread of modernity and the wearing down of tradition have led to a frantic need to repossess the past. But this act of reclamation, through an ever-closer adherence to text without context, does not give back what was lost. It creates something radical and new — and dangerous.
An earlier version of the photo caption with this article misstated the location of Mosul. It is in Iraq, not Afghanistan.
Aatish Taseer is the author, most recently, of the novel “The Way Things Were” and a contributing opinion writer.