Back to the Future

There is something inherent in human nature that seems to compel most of us to romanticise the past. There are two dilemmas here.

To begin with the “good old days” were never as good as we imagined. We seem bound to remember the best and forget the rest!

And then secondly the past is not accessible to us. When Dorothy was finished with the Land of Oz it was natural that she should want to return to Kansas, and she could. But the past is not a land on the map of our possible journeys.

Most of us are greatly concerned with the rise of Islamism. This movement essentially wants to recapture the greatness of Islam’s past history. In the century or so after the passing of Muhammad, Muslims conquered a huge swathe of territory ranging from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, what is now Turkey, Pakistan, India and beyond. It was the most successful colonisation movement since Alexander the Great and Genghis Kahn. Then of course with the passing of time many of their conquests had to be relinquished and indeed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries even their traditional homelands were over-run and they in turn became subjugated by colonisers. But Islam has never forgotten this triumphal era.

(It is instructive that the perpetrators of the Twin Towers atrocity were told “to look forward to Paradise and back to the Prophet”.)

In the fifteenth century and subsequently, well after the prime of the Islamic empire, the Europeans became the great colonisers. The British, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Germans raced around the globe to find territory they could put their foot on and claim for their own.

It would be fair to say that most, if not all of those colonised, felt a sense of humiliation and frustration by the process of colonisation. Whilst it is a natural desire to be rid of foreign domination it is futile to believe that the past can be recreated. The Islamists, however, somehow believe that it is possible to recapture the glory of the Muslim Empire of almost a millennium and a half ago. This reflects a great underestimation of the power of the West. Shaken by the political fall-out of their recent forays, the West is opposing the Islamists in a very perfunctory way. There is no doubt that if the West felt really threatened it has the military power to put paid to the revolutionary ideals of the Islamists but certainly at a cost it is as yet unprepared to bear.

In any case, an ambition to restore a Muslim Caliphate which covers any substantial part of its former territories is bound to fail. It is a shame that this misguided ambition will likely lead to great human suffering before that becomes clear.

Most in the West have been disappointed with the outcomes of the so-called “Arab Spring”. The various uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria were designed to depose despotic rulers. Yet where they succeeded there has been no satisfactory replacement. This is probably not surprising given that none of the countries involved had a robust democratic history and some have little history at all having been set up only a century ago in a rather arbitrary fashion with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

With regard to the humiliation of colonisation we have seen the impact in Egypt of such sentiment. The West has railed against the impact of the Muslim Brotherhood in the recent struggles for dominance in the turbulent political situation in that country. It is edifying to learn that the Muslim Brotherhood came into being as a direct response to the subjugation of the Egyptian population by colonial forces.

The Muslim Brotherhood was established by Hassan al-Banna. Banna had been shocked by the stark contrast between the luxurious homes of the British and the hovels of the Egyptian workers in the Canal Zone.

Religious historian, Karen Armstrong reports that one night in March 1928, six of his students begged Banna to take action to relieve the suffering of the indigenous community. They reputedly said:

“We are weary of this life of humiliation and restriction. So we see that the Arabs and the Muslims have no status and no dignity. They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to foreigners. We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it, or to know the path to the service of the fatherland, the religion and the ummah.”

That very night Banna created the Society of Muslim Brothers, which inaugurated a grassroots reformation of Muslim society. While we might now rail against the fundamentalist orientation of this group, it is easy to empathise with their plight which caused their formation.

Now, rather than the glory days of the Muslim empire when Islam was dominant, it was now the Muslims being oppressed by the colonial powers.

There are many such examples of indigenous populations being suppressed by colonialisation. Under such circumstances it is not surprising that the oppressed looked back at their pre-colonial history with fondness and yearned for its return.

Another example which comes to mind is India. Whilst we could look at the British colonisation of India, India had experienced earlier in its history a Muslim domination. A collective memory of humiliation and domination inspired a desire for the re-emergence of a national character. When they look back in history, Hindus are divided. Some see a paradox of coexistence and a culture in which Hindu and Muslim traditions combined. However Hindu nationalists see the period of Muslim rule as one in which a militant Islam imposed its culture on the oppressed Hindu majority.

Again quoting Karen Armstrong:

“The structural violence of empire is always resented by subject peoples and can persist long after the imperialists have left. Founded in the early 1980’s the Bharatiya Janata Party feeds on this bitterness and enhances it.”

In a striking similarity to the battle between Jews and Muslims over the sacred site at the Temple Mount, the Hindu nationalists took umbrage at the Babri mosque that the Muslims had constructed on the ruins of an ancient Hindu temple. The subsequent efforts of the Hindu nationalists to demolish the mosque and reconstruct a Hindu temple caused huge conflict between India’s Muslim and Hindu populations.  The mosque was finally demolished in December 1992. There were subsequent riots culminating in a massacre of Muslims in Gujarat.

But the motive underlying these atrocities is the familiar one. Hindu nationalists were lured by the prospect of rebuilding a glorious civilisation that was destroyed by the Muslim conquest. Again it is unlikely that the Hindu “glory days” were in fact as glorious as the nationalists imagine them. But, perhaps even more importantly, there is no likelihood that they could be recreated.

There are many other examples I could give of disaffected people, often oppressed and humiliated, seeking to pursue means to reverse the course of history. Such attempts are inevitably futile.

The examples of this human error I have given you, whilst important and often impinging on Australia, are all struggles in foreign lands involving people who largely have different beliefs to us. Now you might legitimately ask me is this an error which we are likely to make? There seems scant evidence in the histories I have provided you that this is likely to be a domestic phenomenon that we might likely have to deal with.

Unfortunately this is not the case. The example I have in mind is one that has resulted in compounding the disadvantage of our indigenous peoples.

H C “Nugget” Coombs was the founding chairman of the Council for Aboriginal Affairs. He held that position from 1967 to 1976.

In explaining his attitude to furthering the welfare of the indigenous community Coombs had this to say:

“When I accepted this job I suppose I would have held most of the conventional beliefs about Aborigines. I’m pretty sure I accepted assimilation as inevitable or probably what the Aborigines wanted and I thought the answers to this were to give them education and opportunities for employment and so on, strictly along our own lines. But as a result of one of the jobs that we were given, that was to confer with Aborigines of all kinds – urban, rural and traditional – one of the things that became apparent very, very quickly was that they did not want to be assimilated, they wanted…they accepted the fact that they were part of Australian society and wanted to be that way, but they wanted to be a distinctive part with their own identity and with a capacity to preserve something, at any rate, of their past. The fundamental change away from the assimilationist approach was one of the things we had to pursue first.”

As a result indigenous Australians were encouraged to return to their traditional tribal lands. Coombs seemed to believe restoring them to their “country” where they could carry out their traditional roles as hunters, fishermen and foragers would restore their dignity. As well, in these remote communities they would experience true self-determination being able to run their own communities with no interference by others. Coombs’ ambition was to restore the Aborigines to the status, culture and independence they had prior to European settlement. As we now know the result of this process has largely been appalling. The welfare of indigenous Australians in remote communities is arguably the worst of any of our disadvantaged minorities.

Now I don’t want to be unduly critical of Coombs and those who contributed to this flawed ideal. As I have written previously Coombs was a great Australian and a passionate advocate for the indigenous cause. On his death in 1997, Bob Hawke declared, “He was one of the most important Australians this century. I don’t think there was any other white Australian who gave a more continuing practical commitment to the Aboriginal people.”

But just like all the other attempts to reconstruct the past it was a dismal failure. As a result of this initiative we had thousands of indigenous people relocated to their traditional tribal lands. But these were essentially a different people to those who had occupied these territories before European settlement. They had been exposed to the modern capitalist state and all that it provided. It was no surprise then that they were not content with merely hunting, fishing and foraging. They wanted to partake of the same products of the capitalist society that their urban relatives did. They wanted TVs, refrigerators, motor cars, and even worse, drugs and alcohol.

And of course, these remote communities had no real economies. Consequently the only route to purchasing these desired products was from welfare. In the sixty or so years since this attempt to recreate the past we have seen the development of welfare-dependant, dysfunctional communities in these remote areas.

It is instructive to remember that the future is a land that we can not only discover but that we can help create. The past is a land we might have fond memories of, many of which are probably distorted to emphasise the positive, but it can never be reclaimed.

One Reply to “Back to the Future”

  1. Hi Ted
    From my own experience in public life I have found that it is sometimes difficult to leave the past behind and focus on the future, even though your intentions are to set new goals and move on. I suspect that most people who have been in public life of some form are continually dragged back to the past by external environmental influences, constituents, media and public debate etc. It takes a lot of discipline to cut the ties with the past and refocus on the future and your article based on some of the longer term historical cases gives a great insight. One of the practices that I put in place was to relocate to a new environment and stop reading and listening to local media in CQ.

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