A brand of the futurist crowd holds that forgetting is a blessing and remembering is a dangerous and costly enterprise. Individuals and societies have a chance to progress only to the extent to which they forget what happened in the past and look forward. In a world in which we are urged to make millions of instant memories only to be consumed and discarded the next moment, forgetting appears to be not only a fact but also a virtue - a virtue that can help us escape from the horrors of the past.
Can it really?
Forgetting is a fundamental human trait. As time goes on, we forget things. And forgetting helps us overcome times of sadness and mourning. Can you imagine living the same intensity of every sad event or tragic loss that happened to you through your entire life? It would be impossible to live, make new friendships or even write a new email. Nietzsche is right when he says that "without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all." Forgetting can be a blessing.
There is no doubt that history has been manipulated to justify injustice and oppression. The Nazis in Germany and the Fascists in Italy used national history to create monuments of ideological monstrosity. The Hindu nationalist violence against Muslims of India, from the partition in 1947 to the Gujarat pogroms in 2002, plays on a Machiavellian reading of history. History can be a dangerous tool. The violence against the Christian Greek community in Turkey on Sept. 6-7, 1955 was based on a similarly dangerous twisting of past memories. History has no shortage of things gone terribly astray.
In one of his famous poems, Mehmet Akif Ersoy, the national poet of Turkey, says how history repeats itself and laments the fact that people do not draw proper lessons from it. Akif was a man of literature who saw the horrors of the war laid upon the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s and 1920s. With his vivid conscious and literary might, he was warning us against repeating the same mistakes of history as if nothing had happened before us. In many ways, this echoes George Santayana's famous dictum: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." But Santayana is only partially right. Those who know history well can also commit horrible mistakes.
But history can be a source of good as well. It can serve a higher purpose beyond opportunist politics or cultural stereotyping. It can help us rise above our selfish perspectives on collective history and shared values. In a more profound way, remembering what is essential can help us realize who we are.
The Islamic intellectual tradition considers forgetting and remembering as two key human traits that enable us to fulfill our humanity. According to a widely accepted etymology, the word "insan," human in Arabic, derives from the root meaning of "forgetting" (nisyan) (There are other etymological theories connecting insan/human to "the proximity to the Divine"). Ibn Abbas, one of the early authorities of Quranic commentary, is reported to have said that humans have been given the name "insan" because they have forgotten their original covenant with God. Human is a forgetful being and the cure to it is remembrance, which is, interestingly enough, related to remembering and invoking the Divine. What we forget is our covenant with God and what we need to remember is the bond that underlies worldly history and ultimately goes behind it.
In a striking verse, the Quran calls on humans "not to be like those who forget God, so God causes them to forget their own souls" (Quran, 59/20). Forgetting the most essential truth is not without a cost, and it is humans that pay the price. Ibn Kathir, Tabari, al-Razi and other classical commentators hold that the second part of the verse refers to the fact that forgetting God leads to self-alienation and causes neglecting what is good for humans themselves. A self-inflicted amnesia does not give us a better perspective on life.
We need to remember what is essentially good in a way that liberates and enriches us rather than imprisons us. The past horrors of history cannot be fully erased from our memories even if we wanted to. And there is no need to go to such extremes. With all their lessons, we should remember the stories of Abraham and his tribe, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the Exodus, Jesus and his trials, the attacks of the Meccan polytheists on the prophet of Islam, the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, the Andalusian "convivencia" as well as the Reconquista that ended it. Closer to our times, we cannot turn a blind eye to the horrors of the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia and what is happening in Syria today. Despite the horror and the agony that these memories bring, we have to remember them so that we do not forget what is good for us as fallible human beings.
Admittedly, this is not an easy task. But the key is to remember evil without being traumatized and hijacked by it. It takes intellectual strength and moral courage to confront evil and not be touched by it. But this is the real task.
Equally important is to remember the good, the noble and the beautiful so that we can lead a life of reason, virtue and justice without escaping into a dream world. There is virtue in both forgetting and remembering. It is critical to know which one to use to make ourselves better human beings.