Beware nostalgia. It’s unavoidable. It’s bad enough when we sit back and think of the “happy days of childhood” and sigh, oblivious to the fact that they were, at the time, experienced as nothing of the kind. But in the political context, deep nostalgia should set off the loudest alarm bells: in almost all cases, something is going badly wrong or a gigantic con is under way.
The toxin of nostalgia is at the heart of much of the worst political rot in the contemporary Middle East, and, indeed, much of the rest of the world.
As the historian Joseph Ellis explained in the Los Angeles Times, the right wing American Tea Party movement is positively 18th century in its mindset and instinctively dislikes and distrusts the Constitution as too centralising a political structure.
They would, he convincingly argues, prefer a return to the catastrophic Articles of Confederation of the 1780s.
Meanwhile, some Germans are presently experiencing “Ostalgie” – a portmanteau neologism that means nostalgia for communist East Germany, including the infamous Stasi secret police.
Even the worst of times can be reimagined, particularly in the context of present day alienation, as recuperable and, potentially, the loss of a “golden age” or a “time of innocence”.
Certainly many Americans who disparage the 1960s and their cultural impact conveniently forget the racism, sexism and homophobia of the pre-civil rights era.
So there’s nothing unique about the poisonous nostalgia that is informing a great deal of the worst politics in the Middle East. But in any situation in which everything is in flux, insidious influences such as nostalgia and constructed histories can become particularly powerful and therefore damaging.
The entire Islamist movement is built on various forms of nostalgia and constructed, manufactured histories. The one thing that all Islamists have in common is a rejection of the overwhelming bulk of Islamic religious and political philosophy and traditions in favour of a “return” to some supposedly “pure” form of the faith as practised by the earliest generations of Muslims. There is a tendency to chronologically privilege the periods closest to Revelation as less prone to corruption by misinterpretation or non-Islamic cultural norms.
Islamists of all stripes reject the heterogeneous and pluralistic traditions of most mainstream historical Islam in favour of an assertion of a return to a “pure” past or the re-creation of some sort of fictional seventh century “golden age.”
Nostalgia has also poisoned key aspects of the Arab uprisings. When post-dictatorship Egypt finally went to the polls, voters proved significantly uninterested in individual personalities who might have offered new political approaches, such as former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, former foreign minister Amr Mousa or former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei.
Instead Egyptians turned to the warm but false familiarity of political nostalgia. They mainly voted for the two most well-established institutions of the country: the heirs of the regime set up by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the long-standing and equally familiar opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. Neither has changed much since the 1950s.
It’s hard to avoid speculating that Egyptians felt a certain comfort in seeing their primary choices in terms of large, recognisable and established groups – neither of which showed any sign of innovation – rather than individuals who might have had some new ideas or approaches.
In other words, the Egyptian election was basically a gigantic exercise in misguided nostalgia that set the stage for the disastrous failed presidency of Mohammed Morsi and the current uneasy period of transition.
Many societies can’t exist without telling themselves elaborate and preposterous lies about their founding, because the truth is always too ugly to be collectively inspiring or induce patriotism. And societies imagine deep and organic roots for their contemporary political identities that are either largely or entirely fictional.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu provides an outstanding example of this. Pride of place in his office is a 3,000-year-old seal of a Hebrew official called “Netanyahu.” He proudly displays it while noting that Netanyahu is also his own name. Except that his family name is actually Mileikowsky. “Netanyahu” was his grandfather’s pen name, which his father formally adopted upon moving to British mandatory Palestine. The connection between Benjamin Netanyahu and the ancient Hebrew official Netanyahu is as tenuous and manufactured as it gets.
The rhetoric of the ruling Turkish AKP party – which disturbingly is both Islamist and Turkish chauvinist simultaneously – reveals similar appeals to transparently constructed historical narratives deployed for contemporary political purposes. The same applies in Iran, most notably former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s efforts to link his own political agenda with ancient Persia, especially a cylinder attributed to Cyrus the Great.
In his classic essay, On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche noted, “You can interpret the past only on the basis of the highest power of the present”, but optimistically added, “culture can still be something other than a decoration of life, that is, basically always only pretence and disguise.” The abuse of history (nostalgia) is the most potent enemy of cultural and political progress.
In the Middle East today, nostalgia is probably the most potent vehicle of extremism and obstacle to the informed consent of the governed. Anything that smacks of nostalgia should be viewed as highly suspect at best and political poison at worst.