A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”
The mantra “we should never forget the past” is, at best, a truism that inspires no one to pick up a history book and, at worst, a phrase weaponized against Muslim communities.
The phrase assumes that “the past” is a preexisting monolith of which we’re all aware. There’s no clarification regarding whose past we should remember, so naturally the sentiment defaults to the past of the most dominant nation in the world today, America.
The version of the past that resides within the American cultural and political sphere is fundamentally fleeting and ahistorical. It is one that remembers the 1941 Japanese Pearl Harbour attack but not the US-supported 1971 Bangladesh genocide. It is one that vividly recalls Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift’s speech at the 2009 VMAs but forgets the tens of thousands of Afghani civilians killed as a result of US forces’ invasion of their country. Is this the past “we should never forget”?
Racial oppression and Islamophobia have become an accepted fact of life in America. I still feel a fervor in the air every September 11. Teachers avoid eye contact, classmates stare, a passerby shoulders you on the street, and then, in an auditorium with your whole school present, the principal commands, “Never forget.” I thought of the three thousand innocent people brutally massacred, and then I looked at my skin.
I used to believe that the Muslim household I came from, which championed learning and egalitarianism, was simply an exception to the stereotype of extremist Muslims living in America. I was anxious to prove I wasn’t a religious extremist; I thought it my obligation to study the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism. Yet as my knowledge of history and systemic racism grew, so did my frustration with the mindset I had once adopted.
How can Americans never forget the 2,977 people killed on September 11, 2001, yet have no recollection of the 200,000 Iraqi civilians killed as a result of US forces over the course of the Iraq War? How can we talk about the rise of Islamic extremism without talking about American hegemony worldwide? How can we only describe the wrongful actions of radicalized resistance movements and not the oppressive and violent institutions of colonization, occupation, and apartheid from which they arise? I suppose many were never given the opportunity to learn of the tragedies that have occurred at the hands of the United States—we can’t forget what we don’t know.
As Palestinian and African American histories are erased from American school curricula and voices in support of decolonization and racial justice are criminalized, America suffers more than ever from selective memory. This serves as the foundation for anti-historical nationalist rhetoric.
If media narratives and political agendas so easily manipulate our view of the past, sentiments like “we should never forget the past” inflate our distortions of history. The statement fatally assumes that the past is a fixed, absolute truth, not an ever-changing matrix of knowledge that is constantly correcting itself.
Clinging to a single, specific subsection of history, without possessing any context surrounding that history, fosters harmful stereotypes and dogma that dehumanize entire communities. How can we learn from the past if we distort it?