The Importance of Historical Memory

Global events can develop rapidly and our attention is often pulled from conflict to conflict, region to region. In this whirlwind tour the media is frequently our only guide to the context and background of conflicts.

Unfortunately, with some honourable exceptions, journalists are ill-equipped to condense and relate relevant historical context and perspectives. Without this 'historical memory' our understanding of events will remain weak and frustratingly simple in a complex world.

Photo credit: Missy

Of course some journalists do provide deep meaningful context for the events they report on. Robert Fisk springs to mind, with 30 years living in the Middle East where he files reports filled with real understanding of the history and cultures of the region. But the demands of a modern career in journalism makes his decades-long position in one location the exception rather than the norm.

More importantly, it is clear that the modern news media is itself geared towards mostly (although not exclusively) reporting events and their immediate triggers. This often comes packaged with a sense of immediate progression, especially in an era of fast-paced 24 hour rolling news, the era of CNN is the era of ticking clocks and grand orchestral music propelling events forward at a breakneck pace.

In Kovach and Rosenstiel's memorable phrase, this "warp speed" news-cycle has left us missing important context to the events occurring in the world. In lieu of this critical background, we often shade in the blank spaces with our own assumptions and biases, or even worse, absorb the biases and assumptions implicit in the reporting or narratives pushed by interested parties.

This can lead to dangerously vague understandings. The world can appear to be a violent place full of incessant conflict and little rationality. The complex, often multifaceted, drivers of conflict become submerged into easier to grasp grand narratives and questionable statements become simple common-sense.

We can demonstrate this by exploring the perceptions surrounding the causes of the rise of ISIS or Daesh. Popular perception of the causes often breaks down into two camps, the "US invasion created ISIS" or "ISIS arose because Muslims/Arabs are inherently violent and irrational".

Given sufficient historical memory however, and a radically different picture begins to emerge. The notion that ISIS emerged from the 'essential' character of Arab Muslims or from conditions created within the last few years becomes patently ridiculous.

Although the invasion and occupation of Iraq by coalition troops was clearly important in understanding the conditions that birthed the Islamic State/Daesh, it is critically incomplete without understanding the effects of decade long Western sanctions on Iraqi society. Iraqi society itself is impossible to understand without the context of the 1915 Sykes-Picot agreement and the motivators behind the creation of the borders of the modern Middle East. Looking at Iraqi society without this context will produce little valuable insight.

Similarly the religious impulse behind ISIS is poorly understood without employing our historical memory. While Islam, and by extension all religions, are better understood as diverse traditions rather than internally homogenous entities, we can still trace distinctive lines of thought up to ISIS.

These lines of Islamic thought within the ideology of ISIS do  little to actually explain the emergence of ISIS however. Why did such a distinct force emerge now and not during the last 14 centuries? Examining the historical record gives us strong reason to suspect that events play as strong a part in changing religious trends as religious trends exert influence on events.

Understanding and contextualising the deposing of the last Khalif in Istanbul in 1924 is very important, as is the historical swings back and forth between Sufi and revivalist strands in Islamic thought. The idea that you can separate the 'religious' and 'social' impulses behind ISIS is problematic, and fails to take into account the historical relationship between the two.

A historical memory allows us recognise that ISIS is rooted in certain strands of Islamic thought without essentialising it is an expression of "Islam", it also allows us to place it within the proper historical context without limiting ourselves to examining the past decade alone.

This way, a startlingly 'new' development is understandable in ways that allow us to draw useful information and narratives.


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