The recent law adopted by the French parliament calling for the positive aspects of colonialism to be taught in state schools has provoked loud protests from the country’s Arab and African migrant communities, especially Algeria which has suffered longer and more than others from the brutality of French occupation.
Ironically, the rightwing government that passed this law was the same who president, Chirac, apologized for the crimes committed during the pro-Nazi Vichy regime against Jews across France.
The socialist government that preceded it issued the famous Gayssot Law, which criminalizes any attempts to question Nazi crimes against the Jews, which in practice, means police interference in historical research and the use of legislation to defend an official government position.
In both cases, a similar trend can be observed: historical memory is being used as a weapon for political and ideological gains instead of the objectivity for historical research. Totalitarian and authoritarian regimes have been known to tread such a path and employ history and memory for their own gains.
Communist states were founded on the doctrine of historical materialism as an explanation for social behavior. In this perspective, school curricula were drafted according to an official ideological perspective, which formed one of the mechanisms for mobilization and a tool for repression and control.
We have witnessed a similar phenomenon in the Arab world, especially in nationalist totalitarian regimes that used to impose an official narrative about the history of the nation.
Iraq under the Baath was known for such behavior, which was reflected in popular novels and publications. According to the Iraqi Baath, the history of the Arabs is that of a unity nation with a coherent national consciousness that confronted the ambitions of non- Arabs and did not disintegrate until it was attacked by imperial and Zionist designs.
This how history is re-constructed by obscuring the objective roots for this division and denying deep-rooted factors and through the creation of a nationalist consciousness we know is a new phenomenon related to recent concept of the nation-state inspired by the contemporary western theories on nationalism.
Part of an official Mauritanian delegation, I attended a seminar organized by the Federation of Arab Historians and the Iraqi Information Ministry in 1989 that focused on the issued of Shuubiyyah, an anti- Arab movement in the early Islamic empire. A number of speakers expanded this concept, originally belonging to a medieval Islamic literary school of thought to incorporate all alleged anti- Arab movements, old and new. They created an “Arab civilization project” starting from the days of Hammurabi until the reign of Saddam Hussein.
In this perspective, the Iraq-Iran war became a conflict between Arabs and Persians and the Iranians became Pagan Persians in Iraqi propaganda. The war was renamed the second Qadisiyya, a name that invoked the historical Arab victory against the Persians in Qadisiyya in southern Iraq in 636.
Most Arab states have used national memory for ideological purposes, either to by glorifying the past in order to build a symbolic structure to enhance a frgile reality or resurrect the legitimacy of resistance and struggle through a biased interpretation of this history.
This is how conflicts over reclaiming history and memory begin. Iraq and Egypt fight over the heritage of Salahuddin (and the Syrians too) while Algeria and Tunisia compete over the legacy of Saint Augustine and Ibn Khaldun (and Egypt and Morocco as will). Qatar is also rediscovering its poet bin al Fujaa.
Historical dramas popular throughout the Arab world, especially on religious occasions, have exploited this need to utilize historical memory, either to reconstruct the past according to the present or to produce hopes and aspirations for a disgruntled generation by studying the lessons of a glorious past.
The renowned anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss said history is not very different from myth since it never attains objectivity but always remains loaded with group perceptions.
Even if this judgement might be a slight exaggeration, it goes without saying that history is hardly objective, in light of the connection between identity and history.
The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who passed away recently, articulated this relationship by coining the expression “narrative identity” which means that self-awareness occurs through the memory which is not a simple given set of facts but subjected to restructuring and construction. Memory is narrated and later re-constructed.
Therefore, group identity is what it narrates about its history and past, rather than what really took place. It is the constructed image that everyone agrees upon.
The criterion is “consensus” and not ideological objectivity and scientific rigor.
Perhaps Zionism is the best example of this truth, as it has transformed the myth of a dispersed Jewish people awaiting its sacred land to historical and legal rights. It mobilized Jewish communities, from different ethnic and national backgrounds, and obtained the support of the international community. Despite the emergence of a critical current in Israel , which used objective historical evidence to debunk the Zionist narrative, the “new-historians” failed to demolish the ideology of Zionism.
As one intellectual once said, “The love of countries often generates the courage to die in their name but seldom does it produce the courage to write objectively about them.”