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War and remembrance

Neil Berry (Reflections) / 11 November 2012

EVERY NOVEMBER, the national loyalty of UK Muslims is at risk of suffering fresh scrutiny.

For this is the time of year when Britain remembers its war dead, with millions pinning paper poppies to their chests to indicate their mindfulness of the sacrifices made by members of Britain’s armed services.

There may be Muslims not alienated by Britain’s annual ritual of remembrance; there are after all Muslims serving in Britain’s armed forces. Many, however, are bound to feel uncomfortable about the poppy cult, since it increasingly seems poppies are being worn as a badge of patriotism that signals solidarity with British men and women who are fighting Muslims in Afghanistan. In recent years, there has been more than one instance of British Muslims burning poppies to protest against the presence of British soldiers there, in the process precipitating widespread outrage.

Yet it is not only disaffected young Muslims who are at odds with the form British remembrance now takes. The sometime BBC reporter, Ted Harrison, has published a challenging and much-needed book, Remembrance Today: Poppies, Grief and Heroism, which makes the case for a comprehensive re-appraisal of the way people in Britain reflect on military conflict, especially their country’s central role in the two most devastating and consequential conflicts in human history: the First and Second World Wars.

Harrison worries that British remembrance is being robbed of proper dignity and significance. What is not in doubt is that the wearing of poppies in Britain has become ever more protracted and ostentatious. Nowadays, poppies are already much in evidence by late October. In some part, this has come about because the armed forces charity, the Royal British Legion, has turned the selling of poppies into a hard-nosed marketing operation as a means of generating vital revenue. At the same time, poppy-sporting politicians and television personalities have grabbed the chance to flaunt their patriotic credentials and particular appreciation of the men and women currently fighting on their behalf for weeks on end.

The result is that a flower that was once a solemn symbol of the blood-soaked soil of Flanders, the area of Belgium and northern France where untold numbers of soldiers were slain in the First World War, is in danger of seeming like a fashion accessory. Last week, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, surged down the River Thames on a powerboat to which had been attached two giant-size poppies, while the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, was pictured astride a Harley-Davidson motorbike conspicuously adorned with a poppy. The mayor and the prince were doing their patriotic bit for the Royal British Legion’s annual poppy appeal. Yet it has to be wondered whether the intended sober, and sobering, import of the poppy can survive such gimmickry.

This is an issue which is not about to go away, and which has huge implications for Britain as a post-imperial, multi-ethnic society. For 2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First War and Prime Minister David Cameron has announced that large sums of public money are to be set aside for the purpose of commemorating it, with further memorial events to follow over the 4 years leading up 2018, the anniversary of the war’s end. It is not clear what form these events will take, but there seems a danger that they could acquire a wholly inappropriate celebratory tone. It hardly bodes well that there has as yet been no talk of involving in the commemorations representatives of the other belligerent nations, or of inviting the participation of those — Indians, Afro-Caribbeans and Arabs among them — who fought on Britain’s behalf in what was a war in defence of the British Empire as much as of Britain itself.

Ted Harrison fears that the way Britain remembers war could become bitterly divisive, with Britain’s newer communities feeling little affinity with a mode of public remembrance that seems designed to celebrate a narcissistic white British version of history and throw a cloak of virtue over Britain’s enduring military commitments, while enshrining the fantasy that Britain remains a great imperial power. At the close of his book, he proposes ways in which remembrance might be made less contentious, recommending not least the discontinuation of the laying of wreaths at London’s prime monument to the war dead, the Cenotaph, by image-conscious party political leaders. It is not just British Muslims who have reason to hope that Harrison’s book provokes an over-due public debate about both Britain’s relationship with war and its whole conception of itself as a moral nation.

Neil Berry is a London-based writer
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