Let me tell you a story…

To begin at the beginning. I’ll tell you how it was… In the beginning there was talking. ‘Where did we come from?’ ‘It’s like this boys … and girls…’ ‘What happens when you have a baby?’ ‘Well girls … boys you can cover your ears – it’s like this…’ Not just babies were born but also narrative. When there were only words the story began. Everything that came after is the continuing saga, the elaborate tracery of intertwining stories. Narrative rules, because by habit, convention, tradition, acculturation, conditioning, programming – whatever term, analogy or reference seems most apposite – all information makes most sense in narrative form. We know what we know when we know how it makes a narrative: coherent, episodic, eclectic, or otherwise.

Human communication began with speech, the development of words to describe things and ideas. All society and culture began and was communicated orally. These words were spun into narratives: parables, fables, myths or legends or just plain speaking that contained the compendium of available knowledge and were designed to do far more than divert and entertain. Whether the narratives came in poetic formula, metred no matter how complexly, to be sung or chanted or whispered or just in plain speech ordered by ancient rote, they taught what needed to be known as well as fuelling the imagination. Narratives were word pictures that served as world pictures, to borrow British philosopher Mary Midgley’s felicitous phrase. By descriptive words the world was known, as was the place of each thing within it and its proper nature. Such was the age of orality; nor has that age entirely passed from being, as old narratives never die: they keep on regenerating varied guises. Consider Sophocles’ Antigone, which, as Boyd Tonkin shows, has been around since 442 BC and ‘has travelled the world’ ever since, ‘and still does’; most recently, reappearing in British-Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire as ‘a story of jihadi violence, state repression and torn loyalties’. Old stories keep on exerting their power as familiar basic intrinsic patterns of thought, conventions of usage, longstanding adages, conceptual principles and creedal precepts. Believe or don’t believe, dissent and criticise, you will do so within a tradition, a convention, a history of concepts and ideas in which old stories wield an influence. We are bound and beholden to the word/world pictures from which we originate, to which we belong. 

It is not a case of once upon a time. We are all enmeshed in stories. Indeed the very mention of ‘once upon a time’ immediately confines and prejudices our appreciation of narrative. The glib assumption/ condemnation is that ‘once’ refers to the long ago when humankind knew little and was easily diverted by awe and wonder, superstition and fear. In this long ago people still needed explanations for all the immensities they could not understand. Thus cosmology, creation myths, legends of superheroes and shape-shifting men/women/beasts/natural force hybrids, grew and religion was born full of stories to fill in the gaps. Of course I paraphrase but explanations of this type, style and implication continue to appear in erudite academic texts to demean the intelligence and purpose of forebears. If such a beginning is given to a story, what can we know or appreciate, in the sense of value, of how particular genres came to exist? What we should know is that if humankind had not interrogated, explored, developed, creatively and innovatively applied the content of these stories we would not be where we are now. The narratives of the long ago are the foundation of all we have become. There is an enormous amount of nonsense continually recycled about the artless, witless, naiveté of early humans which was indissolubly attached to non-Western persons as part of the self-serving supremacist outlook of the self-declared lords and masters of ‘mankind’: the European colonising bastards. The ability to come to an understanding of the origins of human society, let alone its later stages, begins with the really bad press given to old stories that have survived down the ages or are recovered through excavation and study. ‘Simple societies’ and their ‘simple stories’ is too prejudicial in language and intent. Such simplicity includes competence, knowledge and artifice of considerable sophistication that requires the suspension of intentional ignorance to appreciate. Were this not true such societies would never have survived, nor would they have given birth to change, adaptation and divergence that we call the history of humankind. The antidote to the ‘simple’ syndrome is in the complexity and sophistication of the narratives that typify each society, culture, tribe or grouping of people.

Delinking the complex narratives of ‘simple’ people marks an important erroneous distinction. Narrative, the weaving of information into world pictures is an extensive and inclusive cultural definition in the anthropological/sociological sense. Complex stories consign narrative to the ambit of high culture in the artistic conceptual sense of ‘culture’. So let us not at the outset get derailed by confusion over what we mean by culture. It may be crass but it’s pithy and to the point to refer to the classic definition of culture offered by Edward Tylor: ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society’. Admittedly this was written in 1871, so women seem to be overlooked and it was part of a racist hierarchical view of humanity where living societies and cultures were deemed to be mere relics of the stages by which the masters of the universe had risen to their pre-eminence and proper dominance. Ever since, anthropologists and sociologists have played around with the language to show how they are divesting themselves of the relics of Tylor’s mode of thought only to end up saying much the same thing about ‘culture’ in more verbose, round-about jargoned terminology. I downloaded twenty pages of variations on the definition of culture in preparation for this mild excursion into definition. I came out by the same door where I went in. Tylor for all the flaws in his outlook offers a succinct and coherent narration of the comprehensive nature of culture and hence its pervasive influence on all we think and do. And the necessary conclusion is that there is no narrative without culture, and culture gives narrative its nuance, its particularity its je ne sais quoi – the essence one has to just know to fully appreciate what is being said not in the lines of words but between them. It is in those spaces, the nuances, the allusions, implications, sideways glances and vague associations that narrative thrives and is most potent. For in those spaces narrative does not so much contain history as it manipulates all the possibilities of what history was and yet could be. It is in the unsaid that narrative is the engine of new thought and as yet undreamt of potential. 

The problem we need to wrestle with is the rise of the idea of art as the determinant of civilisation. The idea is replete in the remaking of the BBC television classic series Civilisation (1969). In the original, art critic Kenneth Clark offered an erudite essay on the development of Western high culture through the examination of great works of art, architecture and ideas from the Dark Ages to present times. The 2018 remake had to be much more politically correct and was led not by an art historian but bona fide historians: Simon Scharma, Mary Beard and David Olusoga. It is titled Civilisations, thus making the transition from the Tylorian view of human history as a unitary upward escalator model to the modern anthropological/sociological view of the multiple paths of human advancement. The new series, instantly forgettable, comes after the postmodern watershed and it is important to recall that a basic definition of postmodernism is the collapse of over-arching narrative. With the removal of inclusive grand patterns, a story into which everything fits, two things are left: doubt and the questing self. Art becomes the medium through which the quest and wrestling with doubt is mediated. The artist becomes the high priest of postmodernity called upon to pontificate or is it bloviate on the state of human affairs. The novelist in particular uses narrative to explore, interrogate and obsess about the self. Thus Martin Amis a novelist of little acquaintance with matters Muslim or Islamic suddenly became a regular commentator on all matters Islamic and Muslim terrorists. His qualification for expertise and special insight was his facility in narrative manipulation of thoughts about the questing self. It makes no sense in terms of actual learning and none with regard to insight but it is emblematic of where we are now. 

The turning of the wheel of time has arrived at the point where we are only the story of self, we are all now the narrative of whom or what we choose to be or become. A by-product of this is the growth of autobiography as the only basis for intellectual inquiry. Indeed, autobiographical reaction to the field became a standard trope for anthropological monographs. The exercise was not so much to learn about the other as to reflect upon what the experience of being among otherness elucidated; and that what the researcher brought back from the field was most valuable as knowledge of self. In the postmodern era all things were relative but not necessarily relational. Therefore it should come as no surprise to hear Mary Beard categorically assert (she seldom asserts in any other mode or register) that it is impossible to tell an integrated story of world civilisations, not possible to relate what is happening in one part of the world to what is occurring in another. So we are left with the old familiar separate boxes, fragmented history that misses what I would venture to say should be the real objective: to understand the history of transformative interaction. What is lacking in the narrative of human history is the connective tissue, the fact that we have never been islands sufficient unto ourselves. What we have to learn is how humans have learnt from each other. If we can explore this untrodden path of inquiry we might gain insight into how to better live one with another across and through our differences rather than insisting the only way forward is my way or the highway – the language and interaction of dominance, assimilation and generation of monoculture that is the annihilation of plurality. In other words, the old story of civilisation as a unitary progression has not ceased to be – it has merely been transmuted into a vision of the future, a globalised world modelled on the Western experience. 

And yet the insufficiency of old stories is a spur to new kinds of studies.  In technical terms it is known as a paradigm shift. A paradigm is a means of fitting facts, theories and hypotheses together to make a coherent narrative of what is understood, what the data indicates. The terminology is most familiar from science and was introduced by the American historian of science Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to explain how ideas change. Paradigm shifts occur when anomalies are found. Or think of it as a jigsaw where suddenly it seems as if pieces have to be forced, uncomfortably, with fraying and twisting edges to fit into what should be the accommodating apertures. When it becomes more and more difficult to connect the pieces new explanations, new arrangements of facts, will be sought to provide a more elegant and satisfactory descriptive schema or paradigm. This is the point at which we need to recognise that science too translates its insight into narrative and world pictures to present its understanding of how things work. At one level this is a self-evident natural human response to handling information. On the other hand it can be a dangerously seductive invitation to flights of fancy: think British biologist Richard Dawkins and the lumbering robots he makes of human beings – indeed all biological kind – mere carapaces to carry genes and enable them to fulfil their prime directive to replicate themselves. In the explanatory world pictures of science, it is possible to trace the influence of old stories and their familiar motifs drawn from across the full range of cultural influences. As Mary Midgley demonstrates so elegantly in Evolution as a Religion, her dissection of the origins of the world pictures used to present various theories about human evolution, the traces of Biblical exegesis, moral philosophy and ancient classical mythology can all be found mingled to taste to express the trajectory of human evolution as a historic biological process of descent with adaptation. It is just one more example of what American sociologist Margaret Hodgen described as ‘the mind’s fidelity to the old.’ If narrative is how we present explanation, then our explanations draw upon the storehouse of ideas contained in all the old stories we are heirs to. Thus culture rules and includes us all in its capacious embrace. 

If narrative is all we have then the question is how responsible and sensible, how apposite and pertinent are the cultural references and narrative tropes that are used to make the world comprehensible. This is a question taken up by Brad Bullock who is concerned less with the epiphenomena of fake news than the long gestation that has prepared the ground. The nationalist narrative of American existence is the democratic spirit. Yet as Bullock demonstrates it is the steady rise of disengagement from politics that created the condition not merely for the election of Donald Trump but the widespread apathy in the face of fake news itself. Fake news is not a new creation. It is part and parcel of the long narrative history of public discourse. From outright propaganda to scurrilous yellow journalism the record of circulating dubious, misleading or downright economical-with-the-truth information is hard to deny. An elected President dubbing the fourth estate ‘the enemy of the people’ however is something new. The progression from fake news to Trump’s assertion people can no longer believe what they see with their own eyes, and presumably what they hear especially from Trump’s mouth is summed up neatly by the President’s lawyer’s assertion that ‘truth is not truth’. The point is the swift and largely unchallenged acceptance that we live in a post-truth era came before the ‘enemy of the people’ and ‘truth is not truth’ outbursts. The ground had been prepared by a long prehistory of familiarity with the manipulation of information for nefarious ends. The issue is not fake news but the seeming capitulation of society to its establishment as the new norm. George Orwell warned of the dangers in his novel 1984.  When the calendar year 1984 rolled around, I well remember, it was generally thought the worst of his predictions had not materialised because while it might be possible to envision his nightmare scenarios in a centralised command Stalinist society, it could not possibly happen in the open, critical, sceptical territory of a democratic society with a free press and free market in information. Where is that calm complacent self-assurance now? The economy and technology of information generation and dissemination have changed so radically that it is possible to live one’s life entirely within the bubble of fake news and never encounter an alternative narrative. The conditions that permit such blinkered existence are most pervasive in the United States but they pose a problem for the whole world. American disengagement from politics heightens the dangers for everyone. 

Jeremy Henzell-Thomas is keen to remind us that fake news is merely the tip of an iceberg. Beneath the surface there is the entire undergirding of the substructure of ‘false historical narratives.’ The enormities of self -serving nationalist history: the vision of a benign empire on which the sun never set or the providential vanishing of native peoples that carried America forward to achieve its manifest destiny, these voices of the victors of history in all their vain glory are not only always there – they are always making a comeback. In the political arena it is always ‘hug a flag’ week because people want to feel proud of who they are and where they come from – it is human nature. And history concerns times and places unfamiliar to contemporary generations. The truth of what happened in history is usually buried under mountains of fake news and the polite narratives made from such cloth. As Giles Goddard suggests, the sanitised narrative of Great Britain is deeply ingrained in the British psyche; and ‘the overall narrative has not changed’. The familiar aspects of the story are repeated again and again, while ‘the inconvenient parts’ of British colonial ‘history are quietly forgotten. The treatment of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The loss of the United States. The rape of India and the shameful division of Africa. The Suez Crisis. The active encouragement of the slave trade – the campaign to ban it took forty years to achieve success. Britain’s imperial past is what makes us great, and no amount of agitation by ex-colonials will change that’. What was worst about history happened to someone else, someone Other, someone not of Us, hence we have no folk memory, no dark narratives of our own culpability. This forgetting is not the same as an inability to learn and know what happened in history. Henzell-Thomas reports that as a good ‘iconoclast, subversive, rebel, non-conformist myth buster’ he stood up for counter narratives, the alternative facts available. And there is the rub. We have heard of ‘alternative facts’ more recently – it is the memorable phrase of Kelly-Ann Conway promoting the fake news agenda on behalf of her master Donald J Trump. As Henzell-Thomas puts it: ‘a narrative is therefore essentially a top-down cognitive structure, a mindset that facilitates rapid thinking and obviates the need for laborious bottom-up factual inquiry and careful assimilation of complex information. As a simple conceptual framework that is easy to digest analysis, meticulously evidence-based, often inherited or “received” rather than individually constructed, it also acts as a handy “meme” for the transmission of cultural ideas, symbols or practices from one mind to another. Ease of transmission is typically facilitated by distinctive terminology, the use of familiar “mantras” or “loaded” words by which a “narrative” becomes defined and cemented through repetition.’ And the trouble is the definition works as well for fake news as for the iconoclastic, subversive non-conformist counter narratives of alternative facts. 

The existence of false historical narratives is not in doubt. The quandary is how to redress the problems of mutual misunderstanding and self-ignorance they create. The point is well made by Bullock: ‘here’s the storyline: declining political participation and a shallower sense of civic responsibility are both cause and effect of our increasingly contentious political climate in the US. Powerful forces have operated on us. Yet, we still live in a functioning democracy. We, ourselves, are ultimately responsible for the political polarisation, unbridled partisanship, and disaffection. This is not a new narrative, but it rarely appears in public discourse even as new chapters are added. Self-implication is never pleasant. Yet, in a very real sense, we are reaping what we have sown, wittingly or not.’ For the wider question of false historical narratives, it is the same self-implication that has to be awakened. Other voices, other records, other narratives exist and have to be listened to, allowed their own credibility and be given credence. Only once that willingness and openness is conceded can a conversation begin about what might constitute restorative justice. False historical narrative like fake news has real consequences in the real world. Righting the balance will never be easy because it is hard to imagine just how things can change. Received history, received opinion, received narratives of the way the world is are a burden on imagination. They occupy imaginative space to the exclusion of alternative ideas. Their nuances and silences, nods and winks, do not trend to righting wrongs but always lean towards self-vindication – though that most of us were well-intentioned and good, the few bad apples let the side down and we can regret that but bad people do bad things – what to do lah!

In the final analysis, the existence of false historical narrative is not my greatest concern. I would suggest that to truly see through the inadequacy of received ideas we have to accept and appreciate them – for what they are is an aspect of the totality of possibility. I was reminded of the patience necessary by Shanon Shah’s review of Robert Irwin’s biography of Ibn Khaldun: ‘his work is also a story of the creative and analytical potential of Islamic jurisprudence.’ A bold statement and a justified one. Yet it has always irked me in the extreme when Ibn Khaldun is embraced in Western texts as a father of sociology. This is exactly what many would point to as restorative justice, listening to the other and taking on board another view of history and its works. Such attitudes are nothing but fake news in mardi gras costume. To be a parent you have to actually produce progenies. Ibn Khaldun’s work contributed nothing, alas, to the development of Western social science; the varied disciplines were well past adolescence by the time Ibn Khaldun’s work was discovered, translated and ingested by Western scholars. The honorifics bestowed upon him have far more to do with cultural appropriation and glib political correctness. Once appropriated, ideas are stripped of their cultural context, their existence within their own discrete cultural narrative nexus is ignored and that way lies not mutual understanding but further excursion into self-serving manipulation. 

If appreciating Ibn Khaldun and paying lip service to his achievements is not the answer, what is? Cultures are narratives, discursive narratives. What we need is to be able to trace the points of contact between cultural narratives to learn how they have touched each other, the ways of interaction and influence one on another. The points of contact have been more profuse than we generally credit because it has been the convention to regard culture as tightly bounded isolates that must be known only in discrete separate compartments. Yet the boundaries have never been as exact, precise and closed as the theory demands. There is a growing trend in many disciplines to explore the intervening spaces, the debatable ground where cultures meet and interact and trace the diffuse acts of diffusion by which mutual influence has taken place. When these lacunae are investigated perhaps it will become possible to see multiple narratives occupying mutual space and all being relevant, contributory, true. It may be possible to accept the possibility of learning more than one genre of cultural narrative so that overlapping creative imaginative spaces open up where it is not necessary or inevitable that one dominates over another but both are acknowledged, credited and mutually respectful of the potential and opportunity they offer each other. How can I describe this glorious visionary world picture, how to give it narrative shape to make it comprehensible and commonplace?  

I love old movies. I love John Wayne movies, especially westerns – I always have, I grew up on them. I also grew up abominating the supremacist, appropriating, self-serving attitude that underpinned the entire enterprise contained in the narrative thrust of such movies. I was always unapologetically on the side of the Indians! It is possible to hold at least two and potentially more mutually exclusive ideas at the same time – that is the genius of human imagination and actually the quietest truth to be told about narrative. Building on the potential possibilities of such an understanding is the way forward, beyond the quicksand and swamp of the falsity and fakery in which we are miring ourselves. It the only way I can imagine ever getting to… And they all live happily together for the rest of their days. Or maybe not. As Leyla Jagiella encourages us to say: ‘God knows best’.

Elsewhere on Critical Muslim: