Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why learning history can be dangerous

It has been said that we need to learn from history or we will be doomed to repeat it. Yet it is just as true that learning history can deepen hatred and divisions as Robert Kaplan's article on India reminds us (emphasis mine):

Gujarat’s post on a frontier zone of the subcontinent exposed the state to repeated Muslim invasions. Some of the worst depredations came at the hands of the Turco-Persian ruler Mahmud of Ghazni, who swept down from eastern Afghanistan and in 1025 destroyed the seaside Hindu temple of Somnath. During a trip to India last fall, whenever I mentioned the events of 2002 to Hindu nationalists, they would lecture me about the crimes of Mahmud of Ghazni. For these Hindus, the past is alive, as if it happened yesterday.

Information technology enabled standardized and ideologized versions of Hinduism and Islam to emerge: just as Shiites became united across the Middle East, Hindus became united across India, and the same for Sunni Muslims. Meanwhile, the spread of education made people aware of their own histories, supplying them with grievances that they never had before. “The Hindu poor are blissfully ignorant of Mahmud of Ghazni. It is the middle class that now knows this history,” explained one local human-rights worker. That is why Hindu nationalism is strongest not among the poor and uneducated, but among the professional classes: scientists, software engineers, lawyers, and so on. In the eyes of this new, right-wing cadre of middle- and upper-middle-class Hindus, India was a civilization before it was a state, and while the state has had to compromise with minorities, the civilization originally was unpolluted (purely Hindu, that is)—even if the truth is far more complex.

And Gandhi's legacy:

Gandhi’s identification with the poor was intrinsic to his universalist philosophy. As he put it:
I do not believe in the doctrine of the greatest good of the greatest number. It means in its nakedness that in order to achieve the supposed good of 51 per cent the interests of 49 per cent may be, or rather, should be sacrificed. It is a heartless doctrine and has done harm to humanity. The only real dignified human doctrine is the greatest good of all.
To protect the poor against the ravages of capitalism, which benefits only the majority rather than everyone, India would adopt socialism after independence. More to the point, although the Hindus would numerically dominate, they could not ignore or trample the rights of tens of millions of Muslims.

Update: From Travel & Leisure:

... Elif Shafak, the young Turkish author of The Bastard of Istanbul, which has sold more than 120,000 copies in Turkey and more than 20,000 copies in hardback in the United States, which is quite a feat. The novel is the story of two young women, both 19: Asya, who lives in Istanbul with her mother and three batty aunts, and Armanoush, who splits her time between Arizona and San Francisco with her divorced father's family, who are Armenian. "... she, pregnant with her first child, had been charged with violating a Turkish law that prohibits writers from denigrating their Turkishness. She was acquitted, as Pamuk had been on a similar charge. Just why her fiction was causing such a brouhaha in Istanbul is very much worth trying to understand, for it may not be simply that her characters accuse the Ottoman Turks of the genocide of the Armenians in 1915—she uses the "g-word" explosively—it may also be about memory and amnesia, or as Shafak asks, "Was it really better for human beings to discover more of their past?And then more and more…? Or was it simply better to know as little of the past as possible and even to forget what small amount was remembered?"

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