Why History Matters

By Mona Al Ghussein

As a Palestinian growing up in England Mona Al Ghussein knows from personal experience how it feels to  live and work in an atmosphere where you are always regarded as “the other”. While Britain has much to be proud of, like all colonialist powers, there is also much of which the country should be ashamed. If society really means to move forward, certain matters must be addressed and soon . . .

Like many I watched with horror the tragic events of the murder of George Floyd. Killed callously by Minneapolis Police officer, Derek Chauvin, who knelt on his neck despite  Floyd, pleading he could not breathe. Floyd’s murder rightly caused furore not only in the United Sates but across the world as protesters demonstrated under the banner “Black lives matter”. A father of five children, Floyd, had not led a blameless life; he had several arrests for drug possession. But he had started to turn his life around, working in a Christian Church and Ministry, mentoring young people. But, irrespective of all that, his murder by the police highlighted the endemic, systematic prejudice towards people of colour in myriad institutions, across the world. His graphic death, captured on video, stirred more than sadness and horror at the untimely death of an individual, it motivated and spurred a long overdue debate and conversation on white privilege over the centuries.

It made me stop and think why should apologies be made for past actions and misdeeds? Why should past events matter? ? Why is it important to look back at history? The world has moved on and I couldn’t really absorb the need to apologise for past actions of ancestors. However, that argument is fundamentally and profoundly flawed if we, as a society, are looking to create and establish an equitable world.

An apology on its own is not enough, it’s merely a start.  It is vital to acknowledge the events of the past, recognise them for what they were, if we are ever, convincingly, to address the issues that remain, of which they are many.

Failure to do so, diminishes the crime, be it slavery, colonialism, massacre or the appropriation of  land, from one group to another, as in the displacement of Native Americans, Australian aborigines and the Palestinians.

The statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes stands outside Oxford’s Oriel College – for now

All share one undeniable fact. The power and abuse of one party, mostly white European, towards another because they are considered ‘inferior’, mostly but not exclusively because they are not white, practice different religions, or are, in some way, ethnically different. Most of the corruption of power in the western hemisphere boils down to white privilege taking advantage of available resources exclusively to their own betterment, with no regard to the indigenous population or anyone rights. However historic such actions, all these attitudes and prejudices are man-made and have a direct impact on us today. We are the ones that created them and we are the ones that can dismantle them, by acknowledging the mistakes of our ancestors that created this toxic divisiveness. No one being is more equal than an other and that ethos needs to be ingrained into our political and educational systems. It undermines our society today, now,  if we continue to present the argument ‘what’s past is past’.

An argument that is justified by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who fails to grasp that the inequities of the past and the celebration of those that took part in establishing it, only serve to re-affirm the belief that past actions can be dismissed because they were of ‘their time’. It does not recognise the impact that those actions have to this day.

It was never right to colonise and decimate centuries of history and culture of other lands for  commercial benefit. There was an arrogance by imperial colonists that their ways, cultures and history were superior, and to a large extent those attitudes linger in the institutionalised racism that exists in many of our structures, not least in British  universities. Growing up in England, as a Palestinian, I felt it deeply. I may have looked superficially western but the fact I was an Arab, presented a question mark. Only by aping and adapting to so-called western culture, by sublimating my own identity, was I able to gain some acceptance.

The past continues to insinuate itself into modern life at every level: racial, ethnic, religious and national. We still seem to think it’s acceptable to taint a whole group of people, with scant regard to the individual.  I welcomed the request of Oxford University’s Oriel college to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from its premises. For what message do we continue to give, if outside our most revered universities or squares  we still have statues of slave owners and colonisers?

Palestinians with their own unique heritage and culture had existed for generations before the establishment of Israel in 1948

The Middle East is just one example of the impact that colonialism and arbitrary division had on the area by the infamous Sykes -Picot agreement with the French and British carving up the area to exclusively serve their interest with no regard to the indigenous population their history or identity.  The sheer arrogance of Britain’s control left the area in a tangled mess and until we are able to acknowledge that fact, we will continue to perpetuate the myth of heroism over actions that should, more appropriately, be regarded as theft, appropriation and prejudice.

Palestine was arbitrarily portioned to create the state of Israel with no regard to the Palestinian people living there or their history and legitimacy to the land, and we live with the consequence of that imperialistic meddling to this day. By choosing  to continue to celebrate the perpetrators of such crimes with statues and accolades, we dismiss their past actions as part of an irreversible history –  an argument entirely corrupt in its premise.

While in no way can this generation be held responsible for the crimes and actions of colonialism, racism, cultural destruction and demonising of original identity, inflicted by our ancestors, it remains important  to recognise that those actions of the past still impact on us today, be it in the economic inequality or  ingrained racial discrimination in institutions. It is, I believe, vital that the state should apologise for past practices and implement tangible changes to create a more equal plateau for all of us through education.

While the past crimes cannot change where we are today, what acknowledgment and an active programme of new implementation and re-education does is set the path for true equality  for our future. Where our norm becomes total acceptance of the other. This can only be achieved when we re-address the mistakes of the past to ensure ingrained prejudice is removed, be it in films, art or textbooks.  These must be  put in their time contextually so it is absolutely clear that what was acceptable in a different era, is not acceptable now. It is essential that this is  embedded in us – that we are all equal and in every sense.

Keeping grand memorials to individuals who promoted, propagated or played a significant role in slavery or colonialism  only re-enforces the message that they were  heroes or that “It was OK’’  in those days.  That is neither right or acceptable; it was never was and never will be OK.