By Rabia Ahmed
29 August 2017
Earlier this month, Donald Trump tweeted, as he does, that “You can’t change history, but you can learn from it.” He carried on to say that he was “sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart.” He was speaking of confederate statues being pulled down around the country following the recent riots in Charlottesville, and probably his sadness was based on the fact that the confederate heroes whose statues were pulled down were his heroes too.
Yet is probably the one occasion upon which the current President of the United States made an interesting argument, although when the rest of his arguments following this event are taken into consideration, the argument is revealed for what it is: the tweeting of a raving racist.
It is possible to learn from history, particularly when it is visibly preserved in the environment in the shape of buildings, monuments, statues, names, even though they may not celebrate what is currently accepted as ‘good’, but something that was once considered praiseworthy.
Viewed in the present these names and structures simply point to a historic event or fact, bringing that past – which may otherwise be forgotten, to our notice with the question: “What do you think about this thing that once existed?”
The only reason to tamper with the past is an intention to mislead.
In Pakistan where history is regularly distorted and changed, and the names of places, roads, localities, institutions are replaced with ‘Islamic’ versions, a vacuum is created. This vacuum is filled with misinformation such as the controversy surrounding Muhammad bin Qasim, who invaded Sindh in the seventh century AD who was referred to by speakers at a function organised by the Jamat e Islami (JI) as ‘the First Pakistani’. This of course is part of the struggle in some quarters to disassociate ourselves from our Indian roots and move closer to the Arabs, a kind of putting up an ‘Al-Bakistan’ number plate, as it were.
In one of his engaging articles on the subject, Nadeem Piracha points out the two narratives surrounding the subject, the first in which Muhammad bin Qasim was sent here because the governor of Sindh, Raja Dahir, would not control the plunder of Arab ships by pirates belonging to his region. In this narrative Muhammad bin Qasim is said to have ‘brought Islam to the region’.
The second narrative, says Piracha, fails to find adequate evidence to support the first.
It does appear that Qasim came to Sindh, and established a government, but only briefly. There is no proof to support the popularly accepted reason for Qasim’s invasion of Sindh. That it was plain plunder of a rich province of India has not been disproved. What’s more, the Islam that Qasim supposedly brought to the region was short lived. Most converts reverted to whatever religion they had converted from very shortly after his death.
In 1976, during the rule of that great Al-Bakistani Gen Zia ul Haq, who of course subscribed to the ‘First Pakistani version,’ an act of Parliament was passed that dictated that school curricula should ‘Acknowledge and identify forces that may be working against Pakistan’; they should ‘Make speeches on Jihad,” ‘Collect pictures of policemen, soldiers, and national guards,’ and of ‘India’s evil designs against Pakistan.’
There, right there, were some expenditure guaranteed.
Following debate, and criticism, a new curriculum was put in place in 2007 that acknowledged a few glaring facts such as diversity of culture and religion, and mentioned Jinnah’s views on inclusiveness. Efforts are also visible in this curriculum to eliminate prejudice against ‘the non-Muslims of pre-Independence India.’
The damage of course has been done. The country is well and truly infused with the ‘Al-Bakistan’ mindset which will take a much greater and prolonged effort to undo. It is a mindset that other than disowning its roots, insists on everyone falling within a flawed identity, the boundaries of which are topped with barbed wire tipped in poison.
But what should be done with those monuments, roads and names if they celebrate values that are no longer considered ‘right’?
It is difficult to decide what is ‘right’ because what is right for one group is very wrong for another. Besides, who is to adjudicate the matter? But once that is determined, or if something is clearly unacceptable to the bulk of a population, ought these monuments to be removed?
In the case of the statues in Charlotte, Carolina and elsewhere in the US, they were not statues celebrating ideologies such as capitalism or Marxism where there can be debate regarding the positive points of either. They were not statues of religious figures. They were statues of confederate heroes, monuments that celebrate racism, and racism never fails to hurt, damage and destroy. It is something that is now mercifully universally unacceptable, except by some people, and we saw them represented recently on the streets in Virginia. So yes, they should be removed if the public demands it.
Once removed though these monuments should be housed in a museum, not destroyed as was the statue in Durham, North Carolina. They should be preserved where people are still able to view a history that is no longer visible on the streets. People ought to witness and be aware that there was a time when such people were respected, and what resulted from their actions.
Of course museums are in short supply in Pakistan, where also the people have their hands full dealing with the present without going out of their way to check out the past. But that is a separate story.
Someone suggested that the pedestals on which the removed statues once stood should remain where they are. It is a good idea. Also a good idea is to place information on those pedestals about the statues that once stood there, with pictures, and a bit of history. It is after all only after you have effectively dealt with the past that you can move on to a meaningful future.
As George Santayana, a Spanish philosopher said: Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Truer words have seldom been spoken.
Rabia Ahmed is a freelance columnist.