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Home > impact on women / resistance > UK:THE MEANING OF HERITAGE IN AN AGE OF IDENTITY


Saturday 14 April 2018, by siawi3



by Kenan Malik

Image: dali the persistenc of memory

This is a transcript of my keynote address to the Interpret Europe conference on ‘Heritage and Identity’ held in Kőszeg, Hungary,

23-26 March 2018.

The skeleton was discovered in 1903 at Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, in south-west England. He became known as Cheddar Man, and is the oldest almost complete skeleton of Homo sapiens ever found in Britain. In the 1970s, radiocarbon dating suggested that he lived around 10,000 years ago, shortly after the first settlers crossed from continental Europe to Britain at the end of the last ice age. And in the last few years, scientists have been able to extract DNA from his skull, and from his genome reconstruct what he looked like.

That reconstruction was published recently and suggested that Cheddar Man had dark, almost black skin. The finding is consistent with a number of other Mesolithic human remains discovered throughout Europe. But it caused a sensation in Britain. A figure that few outside of academic circles had previously known about now became central to a national conversation. ‘The first Britons were black’, ran the headlines. For many liberals, Cheddar Man demolished the link between Britishness and whiteness, as one commentator put it.

Steven Clarke, the director of a TV documentary about Cheddar Man, even linked him to current debates about Brexit. ‘You go back quite far and discover that everything’s in flux, everything changes. That’s the message of the film. There is a national debate, and a debate about our relationship with Europe. All those things are still in the mix. It speaks to us now.’

For racists, on the other hand, Cheddar Man was not a real Briton, and the reconstruction was simply science having been taken over by political correctness.

In reality, of course, Cheddar Man does not ‘speak to us now’ in the way that many would like him to. He has no bearing on contemporary debates on race or genetics or identity, still less on Brexit. He may have possessed a dark skin, but he is not ‘black’ in any meaningful sense. Humans who lived 10,000 years ago are distinct from all humans today, whatever their colour.

Image: Cheddar Man

What the debate over Cheddar Man does show is how the past is ever-present in the present. The past is a resource with which to buttress the present. The debate over Cheddar Man is one expression of the way heritage – whether genetic or artistic or literary or architectural – is increasingly politicised, a means of presenting the past in a way that helps define the present from a particular political or moral perspective.

There is nothing new, of course, in mining the past to find the resources through which to reinforce a particular vision of the present. What is different today is the social context in which we define our relationship to the past. We live in an age in which identity has become a central feature of our lives.

But if identity, and identity politics, have become one of the defining issues of the age and a key faultline in contemporary politics, they are also deeply confusing issues. For some, all politics is identity politics. For others, it is an essential component in the defence of the rights of minority groups. For yet others, it is a divisive approach, which has created a more fragmented society, and helped fuel the rise of populism.

Identities are, of course, of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. But the relationship between identity and politics is a complex one. One’s identity, or identities, helps shape one’s political views, and one’s political views gives form to one’s identity. But politics is also, or should also be, a means of taking us beyond the identities given by the specific circumstances of our lives.

As a teenager, I was drawn to politics because of my experience of racism. But if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of racism. I came to learn that there was more to social justice than challenging the injustices done to me, and that a person’s skin colour, ethnicity or culture provides no guide to the validity of his or her political beliefs.

Through politics, I was introduced to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and to the concepts of a common humanity and universal rights. Through politics, too, I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, Baldwin and Arendt, James and Fanon. Most of all, I discovered that I could often find more solidarity and commonality with those whose ethnicity or culture was different to mine, but who shared my values, than with many with whom I shared a common ethnicity or culture but not the same political vision.

Politics, in other words, did not reinforce my identity, but helped me reach beyond it. In recent years, though, identities have become much narrower and more parochial, moulded less by the possibilities of a transformative future than by an often mythical past. And politics, far from taking us beyond our narrow identities, has become defined by them. One’s beliefs and interests seem determined by membership of particular biological, cultural or faith identity groups. Today, we make sense of the world less as ‘liberals’, ‘conservatives’ or ‘socialists’ than as ‘Muslim’, ‘American’ or ‘white’.

Image: (c) Grace Gardner; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

What has all this to do with heritage and policy? The changing relationship between politics and identity expresses also a changing relationship to the past. It expresses also a transformation in the place of culture in social discourse.

Over the past few decades, the centrality of ‘class’ has eroded in European politics, both as a political category and as a marker of social identity. At the same time ‘culture’ has become increasingly important as the medium through which people perceive social differences.

The shift from ‘class’ to ‘culture’ is part of a much wider set of changes. The broad ideological divides that had characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have been all but erased. The old distinction between ‘left’ and ‘right’ has become less meaningful. Old forms of collective life – usually based around class – have weakened. In politics, universalist visions have waned, while particularist perspectives gained strength. Meanwhile, the market has expanded into almost every nook and cranny of social life. And institutions that traditionally helped socialize individuals – from trade unions to the Church – have faded. We live today in much more fragmented, atomized societies.

One of the consequences of these shifts is that people have begun to view themselves and their social affiliations in a different way. They have come to possess narrower visions of what it means to ‘belong’ , and to anchor belonging more starkly in terms of ethnicity, culture or faith.

The question many people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are; and the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong.

It is against this background that the issue of heritage has become so much more important. As we define ourselves increasingly by our relationship to the past, so how we understand that past has become more important. The past has also become more contested as we struggle more fiercely to shape the past to suit our present. We imbue every historical object, every historical event, with greater meaning and turn each into a myth, a symbol, to help articulate a particular narrative of how we are and of how we should be. And in so doing, we also diminish and devalue the lived experience of history, heritage, belongingness and identity.

Consider, for instance, two debates in two cities at either end of Europe: Córdoba and Istanbul. Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral is one of the most glorious buildings, not just in Spain, but in Europe. I was last there some 20 years ago. But the memory is still vividly etched in my mind. I remember walking through the courtyard of orange trees, the trees are arranged in rows, the deep green of their foliage splashing colour upon the dusty monochrome of the walls and the ground. And then, almost if they had changed form, the rows of orange trees give way to a forest of columns of red-and-white arches that signal the mosque. The transition is stunning, as is the mosque, whose beauty, spacious and peaceful, is almost impossible to covey in words rather than in the experience. And then, as you walk through, there comes another transition – to a Renaissance cathedral that squats like a familiar stranger within. It would be difficult to call the cathedral beautiful. But there is something quite remarkable about it.

The mosque-cathedral is an architectural expression of the complex, intricate story of Europe. And, for some, that is the problem. In recent years the Cathedral Chapter of Córdoba, the branch of the Catholic Church that administers the site, has slowly wiped away the word ‘mosque’ from the monument’s title and from the publications about the site, officially calling simply the ‘Cathedral of Córdoba’. According to the official brochure, the site is really Christian, and that Córdoba’s Muslim period was but a footnote to the city’s Christian history.

The story is, of course, far more complex and far more fascinating. The first Muslim armies came to Iberia in the first decade of the seventh century. Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain, had become, by the tenth century, perhaps the most important city in Europe.

The heart of the city was the mosque, or Mezquita. The Caliph Abd al-Rahman purchased the Church of St Vincent to be able to erect upon the site a new mosque, in return for which, Christians were permission to rebuild another one.

The original mosque was a remarkable architectural hybrid, fusing the artistic values of East and West, adopting Roman and Visigoth techniques, and including elements previously unknown in Islamic religious architecture such as the use of double arches to support the roof, and the blending of stone with brick. It was not just a religious house; it was also Córdoba’s university, and one of the great centres of learning in the world.

The Mezquita was held in such esteem even by Christians that when the king of Castille Ferdinand III reconquered Córdoba in 1236, his army did not, as it normally would have done, destroy it. It became a place of Christian worship, but for three centuries the main structure of the Mezquita was left untouched.

In the 16th century King Carlos V gave permission to the Church authorities to rip out the centre of the Mezquita to construct a cathedral. When Carlos V visited the completed cathedral in 1526, he was said to have been shocked by the damage wrought on the mosque, exclaiming ‘You have built here what you or anyone might have built anywhere else, but you have destroyed what was unique in the world.’

Image: cordoba mosque

Three thousand kilometers away at the other edge of Europe stands Istanbul. And at the heart of Istanbul is the glorious Hagia Sophia, one of the great cathedrals of the world.

Istanbul once occupied the same role in eastern Christendom as Córdoba played in the western Islamic Empire. And Hagia Sophia was to Istanbul as the Mezquita was to Córdoba. And in Istanbul today a similar debate is taking place over its fate, a debate that is the mirror image of that in Córdoba.

The current church that we know as Hagia Sophia is built on the ruins of two previous churches on the same site. It was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian, the last Latin-speaking ruler of what was then the Eastern Roman Empire, and completed in 537. It was built with extraordinary speed. Yet it is a most remarkable building, at once the culminating architectural achievement of late antiquity and the first masterpiece of Byzantine architecture, casting an enduring shadow upon the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim worlds, influencing the development of both architecture and forms of worship.

Hagia Sofia became the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople and the spiritual heart of the Byzantine empire. In 1453, the city was captured by the Ottomans. Constantinople was renamed Istanbul, and the name Aya Sofya was Islamicised. The cathedral itself was turned into Istanbul’s first imperial mosque, coming eventually to boast four minarets.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, and the abolition of the Caliphate two years later, and the establishment of the secular republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the church mosque became a museum, in which worship was forbidden.

Now, however, there is a campaign to turn Hagia Sofia back into a mosque, a campaign backed by President Erdoğan, and the ruling AKP. For many Christians, that would be sacrilege. Greece, which sees the monument as part of its own historical heritage, has condemned as ‘an insult to the religious sensibilities of millions of Christians’.

Two cities at opposite ends of Europe, two buildings symbolic of the continent’s complex history, two debates that expose the fractious character of contemporary debates about culture and identity. Two debates that reveal attempts to rewrite the past to create symbols upon which to buttress a particular view of the present. And in the process, just as with Cheddar Man, paring down the complexity of history is pared down to a simple narrative to fit the needs of the present. In the one case, the Catholic Church attempting to establish the idea of Europe as a Christian continent, on the other the AKP attempting to reinforce a sense of the Muslim foundations of modern Turkey.

Image: roger hayward hajia sophia

Many in Europe fear that the continent’s identity is being eroded from migration, especially Muslim migration. Europe, the late Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Archbishop of Prague until 2010, argued, ‘has denied its Christian roots from which it has risen and which could give it the strength to fend off the danger that it will be conquered by Muslims, which is actually happening gradually’:

‘At the end of the Middle Ages and in the early modern age, Islam failed to conquer Europe with arms. The Christians beat them then. Today, when the fighting is done with spiritual weapons which Europe lacks while Muslims are perfectly armed, the fall of Europe is looming.’

Perhaps nowhere have such fears been felt than here in Hunagary. ‘We should not forget’, insisted prime minister Viktor Orbán, as Hungary put up new border fences, ‘that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.’ ‘Is it not worrying’, he asked, ‘that Europe’s Christian culture is already barely able to maintain its own set of Christian values?’

While many in Europe worry about the erosion of the values of Christendom, many Muslims fear the same of Islam. The terrible destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, by the Isalmic State of the churches of Mosul and the ancient city of Palmyra, of Malian Islamists of the library of Timbuktu, which held an astonishing archive of early Islamic and Christian history, speaks to the desire to erase a past deemed unacceptable, to create an Islam of myth rather than of history.

In his book The Fear of Barbarians, the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes that the world today is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. In the West, he argues, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped by fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘Other’, and resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home. Among Muslims, there exists a sense of what Todorov calls ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred resentment towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’

Todorov makes a similar point to mine: that identity rather than ideology has become the key shaper of social consciousness. And in this process, he observes, people are increasingly drawn to imagining a world torn apart by a ‘clash of civilizations’.

First coined by the historian Bernard Lewis, the idea of ‘clash of civilizations’ was popularized in the 1990s by the American political scientist Samuel Huntington. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. Such struggles would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’.

Huntingdon identified a number of distinct civilizations, including Confucian, Japanese, Buddhist, Hindu, Orthodox, Latin American and African. The primary struggle would, he thought, be between the Christian West and the Islamic East. Coming into vogue in the decade before 9/11, it has, for many, come to define the decade after. It has become a means through which to express the sense of fear and resentment of which Todorov writes, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms.

Civilizations are not, however, self-enclosed entities. What we call ‘civilizations’ are complex constructions. They are ‘civilizations’ precisely because they are porous, fluid, open to wider influences. They borrow, steal and remake each others’ jewels. The more frenetic the borrowing, the more fertile the ground for innovation. The great civilizations developed primarily in those areas where different a variety of different peoples, cultures, faiths could meet. One reason that the Eastern Mediterranean was such a forge for civilizations – Phoenicia, Israel, Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Greece, Byzantium and many others – was that it was also a furnace for intellectual and cultural melding.

Image: Babylonian Lion panel

Not only are civilizations culturally and conceptually diverse, but ideas and concepts are historically malleable. Those who talk of a Christian bedrock of Europe imagine that there is a lineage that runs from contemporary European values back through history to the origins of Christianity and beyond that to Greece and to Judaism.

There is no such thread. There are many threads that link the present to the past; many breaks in these threads; and many new threads created through history. And nothing expresses that more than the relationship between Christian Europe and Islam. The two may be seen as conflicting civilizations, and, for much of the past 1400 years confronted each other. But, in reality, they are also deeply intertwined. Islam draws heavily upon Christian and Jewish stories and concepts, and what is called Christian Europe is deeply indebted to Islam.

Take the idea of Greece as the fountainhead of European civilization. Greek religion and philosophy were, in fact, very different from Christian religion and philosophy, so much so that in the first millennium of Christianity, Church leaders were ambiguous about the merits of pagan knowledge. ‘What is there in common between Athens and Jerusalem?’, asked Tertullian, the first significant theologian to write in Latin. It was only in the wake of Thomas Aquinas and, even more so, of the Renaissance, that the idea of European culture’s rootedness in Ancient Greece became firmly established in public consciousness.

A millennium before the Renaissance, as the Roman Empire crumbled, and Christendom cleaved in two, torn between the Eastern and Western Churches, Greek thought, especially that of Aristotle, almost disappeared from the Western tradition. Christian Western Europe rediscovered the Greek heritage, and in particular Aristotle, in the thirteenth century, a rediscovery that helped transform European intellectual culture. It did so primarily through the Islamic Empire.

Between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries CE, the centre of learning was not in Athens or Florence, but Baghdad and Cordoba. Arab philosophy and science played a critical role not just in preserving the gains of the Greeks but in genuinely expanding the boundaries of knowledge, both in philosophy and in science, much of which flowed into Western Europe, helping create the frame for the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

The Rationalist tradition in Islamic thought, culminating in the work of Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd, is these days barely remembered in the West. Yet its importance and influence, not least on the ‘Judeo-Christian’ tradition, is difficult to overstate. Ibn Rushd especially, the greatest Muslim interpreter of Aristotle, came to wield far more influence within Judaism and Christianity than within Islam, his commentaries shaping the thinking of a galaxy of thinkers from Aquinas to Maimonides.

We talk much these days of ‘Western values’ and many contrast them with Islamic values. What are often described as ‘Western’ values, however – equal rights, for instance, or secularism – would leave many of the key figures of Christianity, such as Augustine or Aquinas, bewildered. Such figures would, on the other hand, have understood the Islamic values of Muslim philosophers such Ibn Sina or Ibn Rushd, and certainly better than they would those of philosophers who have shaped contemporary thinking such as, say, Bentham or Mill, Nietzsche or Sartre, Heidegger or Moore.

There is, in other words, no single set of European values that transcends history in opposition to Islamic values. Nor is there a single set of Islamic values that transcend history. It is this complexity that is so often stripped away in contemporary discussions of European heritage.

Image: arab translation of materiam medica

The contrast to the clash of civilizations approach is often taken to be multiculturalism: the idea that societies comprise many cultures, each of which help shape the cultural texture of that society. It is an outlook that those who seek to defend European heritage from Islam fear and detest. Multiculturalism, they argue, is rotting the roots of European heritage, opening it up to be taken over by alien traditions.

The irony, however, is that both the clash of civilizations and the multicultural approaches draw upon similar views of culture and identity. In particular both are rooted in a Romantic vision of culture and of cultural differences.

To understand this better, we need to recognize that the idea of ‘multiculturalism’ possesses two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is that of the lived experience of diversity. The second that of multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity. The term ‘multiculturalism’ embodies, in other words, both a description of a diverse society and a prescription for dealing with that diversity. In conflating these two notion, diversity is turned into a problem that must be solved, multicultural policies into the solution to that problem.

The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate. It is a case for cultural diversity, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage diversity by putting people into ethnic boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.

One of the ironies of multiculturalism is that, as a set of political policies it undermines much of what is valuable about diversity as lived experience. When we talk about diversity, what we mean is that the world is a messy place, full of clashes and conflicts. That is all for the good, for such clashes and conflicts are the stuff of political and cultural engagement.

Diversity is important, not in and of itself, but because it allows us to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgments upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can help create a more universal language of citizenship.

But in placing minorities into ethnic and cultural boxes, what multicultural policies do is make more difficult such dialogue and debate. The very thing that is valuable about diversity – the contestations that it brings about – is what many politicians and policymakers most fear.

That fear can take two forms. On the one hand there is the nativist sentiment: the belief immigration is undermining social cohesion, eroding our sense of national identity, turning our cities into little Lahores or mini-Kingstons. And on the other there is the multicultural argument, that respect for others requires us to accept their ways of being, and not criticize or challenge their values or practices, but instead to police the boundaries between groups to minimize the clashes and conflicts and frictions that diversity brings in its wake.

The one approach encourages fear, the other indifference. The one approach views migrants as the Other, whose otherness poses a threat to European societies. The other approach views the otherness of migrants as an issue that society must simply respect and live with.

Image: jessica snow 320 dots

A second irony is that while multicultural policies are rooted in the notion of a diverse society, they are at the same time often blind to the diversity of minority communities. On the multicultural map, diversity magically ends at the edges of minority communities.

Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogenous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, they all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. All the dissent and diversity gets washed out. As a result the most progressive voices often gets silenced as not being truly of that community or truly authentic, while the most conservative voices get celebrated as, the authentic voices of minority groups.

The greatest irony, however, as I have already suggested, is that the clash of civilizations and multiculturalism both draw upon on a Romantic view of culture. Romanticism is one of those concepts that cultural historians find invaluable but which is almost impossible to define. It took many political forms – it lies at the roots both of modern conservatism and of many strands of radicalism – and appeared in different national versions.

Romanticism was not a specific political or cultural view but rather described a cluster of attitudes and preferences: for the concrete over the abstract; the unique over the universal; nature over culture; the organic over the mechanical; emotion over reason; intuition over intellect; particular communities over abstract humanity.

These attitudes came to the fore towards the end of the eighteenth century largely in reaction to the predominant views of the Enlightenment. Much has been written about the varieties of beliefs and arguments within the eighteenth century and it is no longer fashionable to talk about the Enlightenment. Nevertheless, beneath the differences there were a number of beliefs that most of the philosophes held in common and which distinguished Enlightenment thinkers from those of both the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries. There was a broad consensus that humans possessed a common nature; that the same institutions and forms of governance would promote human flourishing in all societies; that reason allowed humans to discover these institutions; and that through the development of such institutions social inequalities and hierarchies could be minimised and even erased.

The Romantic counter-Enlightenment challenged all these beliefs. Whereas Enlightenment philosophes saw progress as civilisation overcoming the resistance of traditional cultures with their peculiar superstitions, irrational prejudices and outmoded institutions, for the Romantics the steamroller of progress and modernity was precisely what they feared. Enlightenment philosophes tended to see civilisation in the singular. Romantics saw a plurality of cultures, each rooted in a particular people’s history and myth.

Culture was an expression of differences, not of universals; and of a putative past, rather than of a potential future. Distinct cultures were not aberrant forms to be destroyed but a precious inheritance to be cherished and protected.

I am here, of course, greatly oversimplifying. The story is much more complicated than a simply binary distinction between Romanticism and the Enlightenment suggests. In reality we always need to view culture from both perspectives. Culture expresses a universal human ability, but is always expressed within a particular form. But for the purposes of this discussion, the Romantic/Enlightenment distinction is a useful frame within which to look at issue.

The philosopher who perhaps best articulated the Romantic notion of culture was Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder rejected the Enlightenment idea that reality was ordered in terms of universal, timeless, objective, unalterable laws that rational investigation could discover. He maintained, rather, that every activity, situation, historical period or civilization possessed a unique character of its own. What made each people or nation – or volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history. Every culture was authentic in its own terms, each adapted to its local environment.

Image: Caspar David Friedrich Wanderer above the sea of fog

Herder occupies an ambiguous role in modern political thought. In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition – he was a great champion of equality and bitterly opposed both slavery and European colonial treatment of non-Europeans – but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes, such as their stress on universal law and on the universal validity of reason.

In the nineteenth century, Herder’s concept of the volksgeist encouraged, albeit unwittingly, the development of racial science. Volksgeist became transformed into racial make-up, an unchanging substance, the foundation of all physical appearance and mental potential and the basis for division and difference within humankind.

By the late nineteenth century, Herder’s cultural pluralism came, paradoxically, also to give succour to the new anthropological notion of culture championed by critics of racial science. Franz Boas, the German American who played a key role in the development of cultural anthropology, sought, in the words of historian George Stocking, to define the Romantic notion of ‘the genius of the people’ in terms other than those of racial heredity. His answer ultimately was the anthropological notion of culture, the notion that underlies modern multicultural ideas. In the twentieth century, Herder’s relativism and particularism came to shape much of antiracist thinking. The roots of barbarism, many came to believe, lay in Western arrogance and the roots of Western arrogance lay in an unquestioning belief in the superiority of Enlightenment rationalism and universalism.

If the Romantic vision of culture buttresses the arguments of both multiculturalists and of nativists, it also shapes much of the discussion on heritage. The UN, for instance, has long advocated that indigenous communities should ‘retain permanent control over all elements of its own heritage’, heritage being defined as ‘all of those things which international law regards as the creative production of human thought and craftsmanship, such as songs, stories, scientific knowledge and artworks’.

The 2003 Unesco Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage broadened this approach to envision the creation of state folklore protection boards that would ‘register works and authorise their use’ and could intervene if native art was used in ‘culturally inappropriate contexts’. Unesco is particularly worried by ‘the inability of states, in a globalized world, to control the cross-border flow of ideas, images and resources that affect cultural development.’

The World Intellectual Property Organization is developing a protocol for groups, particularly indigenous groups, to own property rights to traditional knowledge and cultural expressions, if that knowledge or those expressions ‘have some linkage with a community’s cultural and social identity and cultural heritage’ and are ‘authentically’ of that community. The aim is to prevent, without the ‘free, prior and informed consent’ of the ‘relevant community’, the ‘misappropriation’ of such heritage.

Expressed in all these reports, conventions and protocols is the classic Romantic view of culture and knowledge. The notions of a ‘relevant community’, of ‘authentic’ belonging, and of ‘culturally inappropriate contexts’ are both illusory and dangerous.

A ‘relevant community’ can be constituted only through a circular argument. Some Muslims, for instance, regard the depiction of the Prophet Muhammad as blasphemous, and hence to be forbidden. To depict the Prophet should, in their eyes, be seen as ‘culturally inappropriate’. Other Muslims see no problem in such depictions (there is, in fact, a long Muslim tradition of creating images of Muhammad). But only the former are seen as ‘authentic’ Muslims, while the latter are seen as too liberal or ‘Westernized’ to belong to the ‘relevant community’. This is Herder’s vision of the volksgeist remade into the language of the 21st century.

When we talk today of identity and of identity politics, what we mean is the entrenchment of a Romantic view of culture and cultural differences. It is from this perspective that our relationship to the past is being reshaped.

Image: mf husain indian festivals

Culture is our entry ticket into the world, a means of opening it up, of allowing us to engage with it and expand our horizons. But too much policymaking, both at national and international level, turns culture into barrier, a means of protecting people from the world. The consequence has to create cultural enclaves and intellectual Bantustans.

That is why, in my view, we need to reject both the nativist, or clash of civilizations, and the multicultural approaches to heritage. In many ways we are each of us like the Cordoba Cathedral-Mosque and Istanbul’s Aya Sofya. We are each of us complex constructions, each with many identities, influences, and sources of heritage.

But, too often, the way in which we are often regarded by policy makers – and, indeed, the way we often regard ourselves – is like the way the Catholic Church view the Cathedral-Mosque or the Turkish authorities view Aya Sofya – as singular, with all the complexity washed out, and as symbolic of a myth we want to present about our roots.

Unlike the two buildings, however, human beings have agency. We are not simply constructed, but construct ourselves. Our sense of who we are, where we come from, where we belong, what our values are. And we construct ourselves through debate dialogue, contestation.

What heritage policy-making should be about is not having that debate for us, or defining how we should think about these issues, but about using the past to provide the tools and the space that allow us to have that debate in the present.


The images are, from top down: Salavador Dali, The persistence of memory; reconstruction of Cheddar Man; Grace Gardner, ‘Black is the colour of my true love’s heart‘; David Hockney, ‘Andalucia, Mosques, Cardova’; Roger Hayward, ‘Watercolor painting of the Hagia Sophia’; Babylonian panel with striding lion, from the Met, New York; 13th century Arabic translation of ‘Material Medica’; Jessica Snow’s ‘320 Dots’; Casper David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’; MF Husain, ‘Indian Civilizations.