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Last week, the official Twitter handle of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) shared a video of 2022’s Pakistan Day parade, in which the guest of honour was the then prime minister of the country, Imran Khan. Apart from posting contemporary videos of Khan exercising, praying or meeting party members, PTI Twitter handles also share older videos of Khan when he was a dashing cricketer, or of him with his first wife Jemima Goldsmith. 

The latter videos are posted to evoke a feeling of nostalgia in Khan’s supporters — even in those who were born after Khan retired from cricket in 1992, or after he married Goldsmith in 1995. This type of nostalgia is called ‘Anemoia’, or a nostalgia for a time one has never known. A past that is not a lived or witnessed experience. 

Evoking collective nostalgia is an effective political ploy. Recently, it has been largely used by right-wing populists. This is not to suggest that those on the left don’t use it at all. They do, but not as often. One of the reasons for this may be that Karl Marx saw collective nostalgia as a “political crime”. To him, nostalgia impeded the flowering of social justice which, in turn, was a consequence of a progressive, future-oriented outlook. 

According to the Swiss academic Hans-Georg Betz, nostalgia is a coping mechanism in times of crisis. It is a deflection from current unpleasant circumstances. Betz adds that nostalgia is primarily evoked on the right. This is a type of nostalgia that depends on the “disparagement of the present.” 

Evoking nostalgia for an imagined, distant past has long been used as a political tool. However, politicians and parties are increasingly using the immediate past to peddle their narratives to uncritical audiences

Now that Khan is no more the prime minister, the Pakistan Day video, though just a year old, was a way to show scorn at a present in which he is not the PM, and glorify an immediate past in which he was. But collective nostalgia as a whole largely focuses on anemoia. A past that is not a lived or witnessed or experienced by the contemporary polity. In most cases, it is a past constructed not on facts, but on exaggerations and even fallacies; a past designed to appeal to present-day sentiments.

Anemoia gives politicians and ideologues a lot of space to concoct a past, because this past does not have any contemporary witnesses. Such pasts are mainly derived from folklore, myths and traditions that have questionable historiographies.

Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany lamented the loss of a ‘biological community’ of ancient Nordic races that was supposedly swept away by the rise of liberalism and communism. Historically, the so-called Nordic races were never such a community. So, actual history was replaced by the Nazis with pseudo-biology to concoct a past of ‘racially pure’ and homogeneous Nordic races, in order to evoke feelings of nostalgia of this ‘past’. This was then used as a justification and rationale to implement radical racist policies.

Decades later, Hitler’s Germany itself would become the stuff of nostalgia among Europe’s far-right groups. According to the historian Tobias Becker, a “Hitler nostalgia wave” emerged. It was less concerned with Nazi crimes and violence and more interested in the representation of Hitler and the Nazi period in the mass media. Most far-right groups believe the representation is ‘biased’. 

In the United States, the slogan of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign was ‘Make America Great Again’. This suggested that America wasn’t great anymore. Trump’s rhetoric was targeted at large segments of the American polity that were left feeling ignored and insecure in the post-Cold War era of ‘globalisation’ and ‘multiculturalism’.

If they weren’t feeling great anymore, then that meant America wasn’t great anymore. Trump evoked a nostalgia of a time when these segments perceived the US to be great, ie when it was overwhelmingly white, prosperous and had less immigrants. This could be any time before the 1970s. Yet, the fact is, till the 1960s, one-third of Americans lived in poverty and many of them were white. 

Those who campaigned for Brexit in the United Kingdom weaved a nostalgic tale of Britain’s past glory as a colonial superpower. According to a 2016 article in the Financial Times, “Brexiters are nostalgics in search of a lost empire.” Indeed, there was a British empire. But its nostalgic glorification required Brexit enthusiasts to either whitewash all the savage bits of British colonial history, or worse, justify these as necessary methods for ‘civilising backward cultures.’ 

Anemoia in various Asian regions is about evoking nostalgia of a time that is even further back. For example, Hindu nationalists in India speak of Hinduism’s ‘golden age’ which apparently lasted for centuries before Muslim invasions of the region. Hindu nationalists claim that, in ancient times, Hindu India already made stunning scientific and technological accomplishments, from advanced reproductive technologies to stem cell research, spacecraft and nuclear weapons. 

Of course, there is absolutely no historical evidence of this. But India’s PM Narendra Modi believes the myth. He has become a popular mouthpiece of this fallacy, in which mythical Hindu deities actually existed in human form and ruled as super kings. 

Regarding Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, the political scientist M. Hakan Yavuz wrote that the populist Turkish ruler is seeking to remould Turkey in the form of an imagined, ahistorical conceptualisation of the former Ottoman Empire. One can see this imaginary past running wild in the historical fiction being produced in today’s Turkey in the shape of TV serials and films. 

Most 20th century Muslim nationalists often spoke of a ‘golden age of Islam’ taking place between the 9th and 13th centuries. This was a period in which science, philosophy, the arts and statecraft flourished in Islamic empires. History does support this. But the term ‘golden age’ was coined in the 19th century by the Europeans. Mediaeval Muslim historians never used it. 

However, Islamist ideologues pushed the period of the Islamic golden age further back to mean a period in the early/mid-7th century when Islam’s first four caliphs ruled. There is credible historical evidence of their emergence. But the details of the early caliphs’ regimes (from which the nostalgia of this period is formulated) are derived from post-8th century hearsay-traditions rather than from more objective historiographies. 

Nostalgia can be of an ancient past or a more immediate one. In both cases, myths and traditions play a larger role than credible history. This is easier to accomplish when a past has no contemporary witnesses left and when propaganda and distorted histories are proliferated more than reliable histories.

Nostalgia of an immediate past, however, has contemporary witnesses. Therefore it relies more on an entirely uncritical audience with an extremely selective memory. This is the audience that PTI is trying to sustain, now that nostalgia for events further back, which the party once employed, seems to be eroding.

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 15th, 2023

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