On the Quiet Capture of the History of the West – by the Islamophobic Right

The fight against Islamophobia could benefit from rewriting the whitewashed history currently dispensed to British schoolchildren, argues Ian Almond.

About a year ago, I was having coffee with a Muslim schoolfriend from my childhood. She said to me: “What kind of history are they teaching at school nowadays? My son came up to me yesterday and asked: ‘Mum, was the British Empire a good thing or a bad thing in India?”. Her son’s history lesson, it appeared, had been all about the wonderful things the British did around the world.

The remark reminded me of something vague, but I couldn’t say what. When I got home, I looked up the matter online, and quickly found the thing that had eluded me: an eight-year old article in The Guardian, reporting on the appointment of a right-wing, pro-imperialist, pro-Western academic (Niall Ferguson) as a senior consultant on the UK’s GCSE History syllabus. There was a frustration, apparently, with too much political correctness in the teaching profession. Too much focus on slavery and imperialism, ran the advice – why not highlight the positive things the West has done for the rest of the world? Eight years down the line, my friend’s son was clearly the recipient of this “revised” version of History.

It sounds like an academic point – and I wish it was. But History is important – and bad history, poor history, incomplete history can be dangerous, sometimes even lethal. Thugs will punch a person in the face because they feel that foreign face has no place in the history of their land; Islamophobes will scream abuse at a woman with a piece of cloth wrapped around her head because they feel the sight has no connection to the history of their own community. Regardless of whether it is a general election or a referendum, people vote on the basis of a past just as much as they vote on the basis of a present. History is important because it explains to us how we got to where we are right now – who lost out and who profited, who suffered and who had a good time, who caused the problems and who tried to solve them. How ordinary people feel about the past that gradually shrinks behind us – whether they regret its loss, are happy to be over it, or deeply yearn for its return – is of profound significance.

The unfortunate thing about History is that, unless we make an effort to look for it ourselves, we get most of it unconsciously, without asking – either from our educational institutions, or from our mainstream culture. We grow up already formatted, so to speak, with an unconscious backdrop of the world in our mind. This unconscious backdrop is tremendously important – all the more so because we hardly notice it is there. It is never thought of as ‘political’, but rather a deep, natural kind of common sense. It is why people can be puzzled when they are told Israel is a settler-colony, or when they hear India asking Britain for an apology (for what – the railways?), or when Greece demands that we return its monuments.

Over the past decade, for example, a tremendous whitewashing of Empire and of many of the figures central to it – Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill – has taken place. Winston Churchill – a man who referred to Sudanese as “savages” and Palestinians as camel-dung eating “barbaric hordes”, who was champing at the bit to use chemical weapons against civilian populations in Northern Iraq and north-western India, and who was more than happy to send in soldiers to violently put down the protests of underpaid Welsh miners – continues to be memorialized as a morally courageous, heroic human being on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2017 alone, two major films came out about him (Churchill and Darkest Hour). Productions like Young Victoria and TV series like Downton Abbey reinforce a human face of Empire, one which paints a structure that was trying to help other countries, not exploit them. Even flippant films such as Victoria and Abdul (2017) end with the Indian protagonist kissing the feet of Queen Victoria’s bronze statue. When we round all of this off with the widespread public consumption of a documentary genre we can only term ‘Yes-Empire-was-bad-but-we-did-give-them-rail-travel’ (Simon Schama’s A History of Britain, Jeremy Paxman’s Empire), it is hardly surprising to learn that nearly two-thirds of people interviewed in the UK feel the British Empire is more something to be proud of than ashamed of, and over one-third still wish we had one today.

To make one thing clear: the solution here is definitely not to replace a Western-friendly history with an Islam-friendly one. Muslims, like any other group, are every bit as prone to selective amnesia as Europeans. Turkey continues to display an unwillingness to fully acknowledge the violent, large-scale ethnic cleansings of both the 1890s and 1915 – when the Armenian population was nearly completely removed from its lands; because of Erdogan’s popularity in the Muslim world today, it is depressing to see some non-Turkish Muslims also adopt this position in a partisan-fashion, without knowing the facts. Leaving Christians aside, Sunni or Shia-majority cultures also need to adopt a wider sense of history, and acknowledge the violence that they as a majority have inflicted on their minorities.

Nor is there anything exclusively British about this Western love of Empire – the United States has been practicing a whitewashing of its horrifying history in Latin America for decades, producing a whole package of shows and films set there (most recently the Tom Cruise film American Made (2017) and the Netflix series Narcos (2015)) which sugar coat or delete U.S. political intervention. Both France and Belgium, too, should probably interrupt the moral lectures they give other countries to fully confront the genocides they are responsible for – whether it is in the Algerian interior or the Congo Free State.

On either side of the Atlantic, the various protests over statues of racists and Confederate generals on university campuses have attracted a lot of brief, high-intensity media coverage – but these are mere skirmishes. The real propaganda war by the Right was won years ago, in our classrooms, on our radio stations and across our TV screens. The slow, subtle, low-key beatification of Empire has insidiously crept into the background of every debate – and anyone who dares to point out that Churchill actually wanted to gas “savages”, or that Margaret Thatcher consciously collaborated with a fascist dictatorship, or that British war crimes in the 1950s were inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising (torture, castration, burning alive, etc)…anyone who tries to articulate any of this is seen as a wide-eyed fanatic.

For Muslims in the West, these History wars are especially sensitive. Most British Muslims in the UK have grown up in, and economically benefited from, the post-war geopolitical success of a first-world country with a two-hundred year history of exploiting the developing world. Many of those exploited countries – Egypt, Sudan, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iran – were Muslim-majority regions (indeed, by the 1920s, over half of the British Empire was Muslim). Although these issues should be a concern for all of us, British Muslims in particular find themselves in the center of the maelstrom today – especially on thorny questions such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel-Palestine. The careful fading-out of the word ‘imperialism’ from our public discourse – and its replacement with less offensive terms, such as ‘influence’, ‘occupation’, ‘administration’ and even ‘development’ – brings with it the installation of a certain mindset and a slew of related fantasies: that we in the West always intervene in non-Western countries for their own good, never for our own benefit; the idea that we ‘give’ too much in foreign aid, as though the problems in these countries were wholly free of our own relationship to them; perhaps most insidiously, the illusion that there is a place called ‘the Muslim world’, geographically separate from Europe. There are many reasons why a whole cacophony of racist, under-informed, bigoted voices (Katie Hopkins, Douglas Murray, Nigel Farage, Milo Yiannopoulos) are thriving in our public discourse today. The semantic impact of ISIS – and the appalling effect it has had on the image of Islam for non-Muslims – is surely one of them. But if the echo chamber that is the British, Islamophobic, anti-immigrant Right at the moment is thriving, it is in part because it has been able to grow in a rich topsoil of historical ignorance.

Today, perhaps more than at any previous time, we need a courageous approach to History. A History, both in our schools and on our screens, that will not shy away from atrocities or complexities. This does not have to be exclusively negative – reminding people constantly about the genocides their forefathers committed, or the dark histories of their governments. It can be positive, too. A common racist refrain is that ‘Muslims don’t belong here’. Some of the oldest Muslim communities in Britain can be traced back to Yemeni families who came here to live in the 1860s. In other words – and I place the words in italics because they are not spoken often enough – Muslims have been living in Britain for over one hundred and fifty years.

As an academic and a historian, I openly plead guilty to a charge of idealistic bias. I am not unaware that there are other factors – tremendous factors – at work in the rising levels of hostility towards Muslims. Not least among these, the unavoidable economic dimension of Islamophobia – that it disproportionately comes, like most racism, from a white, impoverished, working-class punished by austerity. No one is suggesting that attacks on mosques or the abuse of Muslims on the street can be vanquished overnight with a couple of history workshops and a TV-series. Nor am I denying the Muslim community’s part in this whole problem – some of the more conservative and inward-looking trends within British Islam today, many Muslims will admit, have cultivated a siege mentality in the community which only serves to make things worse. But if the roots of Islamophobia are historic and systemic, then any solution for it will have to be equally long-term, and equally systemic. The path that takes us from a GCSE school syllabus to the Nazi salutes of the English Defence League may well be a winding one, but it is very clearly there for anyone willing to see.

Ian Almond is Professor of World Literature at Georgetown University in Qatar