The ghost of mummified history not only haunts Arabs but is also radicalising non-Arab Muslim communities all over the world along sectarian lines
Dr Haider Shah
July 26, 2014
Whenever a fresh wave of violence hits the shores of Palestine, old questions flare up again. History seems to be mummified in the Middle East.
The Egyptian embalmers who specialised in the art of mummification would remove the internal organs of the corpse and wash out the body with a mix of spices and palm wine to slow down the process of decomposition. Only leaving the heart inside the body, the skilful embalmers would use natron salt to cause extreme dryness. The body would then be wrapped up in linen bandages and put inside wooden frames so it could peacefully proceed to the life hereafter.
Like the pharaohs and other Egyptian dignitaries, history can also be mummified. In this case, faith acts as a mummifying salt by not allowing disputes of ancient times among warring factions decompose and go away with the passage of time. This mummification effect is most vividly observed in the Middle East region. Two distinct time periods of the history of the region appear to be preserved, retaining in their fold all the intensity of disputes of those times. One is the Palestine issue that happens to be one of the oldest territorial disputes to connect the 21st century to ancient history. Second is the Arabian Peninsula, which connects the present world to the seventh century. However, unlike the mummies of Egypt, the embalmed history of the Middle East is alive, forceful and vengeful. Like a volcano it keeps on exploding now and then, causing misery and devastation to all those who live in the region. And it does not seem to be going extinct any time soon.
The biblical story of David and Goliath captures best the conceptualisation of old history as conceived by the Israelites. According to the story, Goliath, the physical giant of the Philistines, terrified the Israelites when the Israelites, under their first King Saul, were facing their powerful archenemies, the Philistines. David, a young Israelite, emerges as a hero as he accepts the challenge and brings down the giant using his sling and five stones from a brook. With little historical evidence, the story appears in the Christian and Muslim traditions as well with some modifications. The belief that God is on their side, promising them the state of Israel, keeps Israelites firmly connected to the disputes of antiquity. The only difference that has occurred over time is that the other claimants are known as Palestinians who believe that God is rather on their side.
In the seventh century, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) unified the Arab tribal groups and soon the desert dwelling nomads were knocking at the doors of the receding Byzantine and Persian empires. The internal tribal disputes however soon transformed into sectarian schisms in the new faith community, resulting in the mob-led murder of the third caliph, Hazrat Usman, and the ensuing civil war among rival factions. Such episodes are not unusual in human history as we find similar warfare among rival factions in European and Indian history as well. However, what is different in the case of Arab history is that faith has mummified tribal factional disputes of the seventh century where we see a pattern of bloodshed in the Arab world even today along sectarian lines. Worryingly, the ghost of mummified history not only haunts Arabs but is also radicalising non-Arab Muslim communities all over the world along sectarian lines.
The multidimensional Palestinian issue proves a bit paradoxical for many liberal and rationalist writers. If on the one hand the human dimension of the violence-prone problem has attracted the love and respect for Palestinians from revolutionaries like Che Guevara and progressive poets like Faiz Ahmad Faiz, on the other hand many find the growing influence of militant fundamentalism a cause for concern. Those who condemn Israeli actions see the issue from a human rights perspective as they find Israel a usurper of the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people. They contend that the policy of collective punishment and using force in a disproportionate way, causing the deaths of hundreds of civilians, amounts to genocide. The sceptics are worried that we do not see the same level of condemnation when the perpetrator happens to be a Muslim militia or army. They also contend that civilians suffer when they are used as a shield by Hamas in their standoff against Israel. To me, condemning Israeli actions from a human rights perspective is a genuine calling but I find it distressing when some overzealous users of social media brandish pro-Hitler messages to vent their frustration. Hitler was a megalomaniac who believed religiously in the supremacy of an Aryan ‘master race’ and found comfort in extreme hate speech against communists, mainstream political parties, communal minorities and disabled persons. We have no right to resurrect the demon that has been laid to rest by the Germans themselves.
In the realm of beliefs, hardcore evidence matters less as it is the communal perception of events of the past that shapes the behaviour of the faithful today. What we learn from Middle East affairs is that faith-led mummification is pervasive and deadly. We need to learn of a way for allowing the past to decompose and die out along with all its discords. Revisiting history with a rational humanist relearning of the past will be very helpful in this regard.