Poppies: Political and Patriotic

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(c) Tjil Vercaemer under a creative commons license

It was like Agincourt, the Battle of Britain and Wembley in 1966.

The celebration by the British tabloid press as FIFA backed down over allowing British players to wear poppies in their forthcoming international games was truly a sight to behold! But the higher than usual profile of the annual Poppy appeal this year is worthy of comment on reasons that go beyond the trivia of football politics.
 
Indeed, one friend noted recently that schools are “being far more aggressive this year, some almost force feeding” poppies to the kids.
 
These concerns are, in part, likely due to the fact that there is no objective discourse about this matter. The conversation is usually emotive, patriotic, shallow and unchallengeable without provoking accusations of disrespect and disloyalty; and cries demanding everyone in the public eye should wear one – a phenomenon labelled “poppy fascism” by Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow.
 
Yet, a discourse is needed. There is nothing more distasteful than a selective use of history to generate ‘patriotic unity’ – except perhaps the manipulation of popular feeling so as to distract people from looking at the causes for the wars Britain has engaged in and to obscure the question of whether or not “these people sacrificed their lives for us” – as Prime Minister Cameron says.
 
World War One saw the estimated deaths of ten million combatants, with double the number of injured. This was not a war for the survival of Britain. It was a war for the dominance of empires over each other.
 
Just as in Iraq and Afghanistan, lies were fed to the population, and to their armed forces, to justify military conflict. Yet so few people examine these matters on the annual Remembrance day events.
 
The Poppy appeal, which occurs every November in the UK, precedes the anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended hostilities between the Germany and the allied forces of Britain, France and the United States at the end of World War One.  
            
It is organised by the Royal British Legion, an organisation who provide “welfare to the whole Armed Forces family - serving, ex-Service and their dependants” and also “campaign on a range of issues affecting Service people”.
 
The primary aim of the Poppy appeal is to raise money for the Legion whilst reminding the wearers of the troops who fell in the two world wars of the twentieth century, and who died afterwards. The Royal British Legion – in their template assembly for schools says “Remembrance Day is a day of reflection” allowing people “to remember or think about all those people who are affected by wars, both in the past and now. It allows us to think about all those people who suffer in wars all around the world. And it reminds us how important it is to work for peace.”  
 
Sadly, having witnessed many Remembrance Days in the UK, this statement is untrue.
 
Poppy day is almost solely about remembering Britain’s war dead and their families – and more recently those soldiers who have been injured in combat.
 
You will never find anyone remembering, mourning or grieving for others killed in these conflicts – whether combatants from the opposing sides or civilians killed in collateral damage.
 
This is especially troubling for Muslims living in the UK. The British state – supported by all on all sides of the political divide but opposed by huge sections of the population – chose to invade two Muslim countries – Afghanistan and Iraq - within the space of 2 years. The consequent damage in terms of those directly killed and injured by the conflict, as well as those harmed by the damage to infrastructure and the destabilisation of the region, is enormous. No one actually gathers accurate statistics about this – which is itself an indictment on those responsible. The website IraqBodyCount.org says that in Iraq alone there have been between 103,451 – 113,029 documented civilians killed in the violence: death of genocidal proportions. Other estimates that include deaths from disease and troop related deaths, puts the numbers five to ten times higher.
 
All of this overlooks troop abuses of civilians, most famously highlighted by the murder of Baha Moussa whilst in the custody of British troops.
 
No one will be wearing a poppy for Baha Moussa – or for any others killed in these conflicts.
 
Nor for Muslims who fought against Britain, that were killed in World War One. The Ottoman state was a global power, which as the seat of the Caliphate, was the figurehead leadership for Muslims in the world.
 
The Ottoman Sultan had tried to stay out of the conflict between Britain and Germany. Yet Britain, more than any other state, seemed determined to drag it in. The subsequent occupation then division of Arab lands, ‘Sykes-Picot’ and the Balfour declaration all laid the seeds for decades long conflicts that followed.
 
Muslims from the British colonies were expected to fight. Some did and others refused; and some of those who refused were court-martialed and shot. Why? Because of a crisis of loyalties between the army they belonged to and their brother Muslims, and especially the army of the Caliph.
 
Sykes-Picot gave birth to the rule of the House of Saud, the royal family of Jordan and others that were later overthrown by military nationalist dictators.

Some Muslims living in Britain, at a time when Imperial Britain was heavily engaged in the Muslim world, were very clear about their loyalties. The Englishman William Henry Abdullah Quilliam, a lawyer from Liverpool, was Britain’s most famous Muslim. He had been appointed as Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles by the Ottoman Caliph. In 1896, some 18 years before World War One and conscious of the Muslim members of Britain’s armed forces, he issued a fatwa addressing Muslims about this matter. He wrote:
 
In the name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful!

Peace be to all True-Believers to whom this shall come!

Know ye, O Muslims, that the British Government has decided to commence military and warlike operations against the Muslims of the Soudan, who have taken up arms to defend their country and their faith. And it is in contemplation to employ Muslim soldiers to fight against these Muslims of the Soudan.

For any True Believer to take up arms and fight against another Muslim is contrary to the Shariat, and against the law of God and his holy prophet.

I warn every True-Believer that if he gives the slightest assistance in this projected expedition against the Muslims of the Soudan, even to the extent of carrying a parcel, or giving a bite of bread to eat or a drink of water to any person taking part in the expedition against these Muslims that he thereby helps the Giaour against the Muslim, and his name will be unworthy to be continued upon the roll of the faithful.

Signed at the Mosque in Liverpool, England, this 10th day of Shawwal, 1313 (which Christians erroneously in their ignorance call the 24th day of March, 1896),

W.H. ABDULLAH QUILLIAM, Sheikh-ul-Islam of the British Isles.

[Source: The Crescent, March 25th 1896, Vol. VII, No. 167, p. 617; original punctuation and spelling retained.]

Quilliam was an Englishman. His family was English. His roots were English. But he was no fool. Apart from a clear outlook on the Islamic principle, he must have been fully aware of the fact that Britain’s venture in the Sudan was nothing to do with the protection of the British people. It was an imperial venture that served the business community.

I will not be wearing a poppy this November. I cannot wear a badge that remembers the aggressor over the victim – especially when the victim is my sister, my brother, my father and my mother.

And though I will not be encouraging anyone to burn or disrespect them, I will encourage people not to become intellectually inert over this issue, and to be bullied into silence by the oppressive climate that does as much to divide as to unite people.

For all of this occurs against a background of a confused British identity. There are no coherent values to uniquely identify Britain; and the secular liberal capitalist values shared, with other European countries and the USA, are under serious question today.

I believe the huge focus on the poppy this year is an attempt to generate some much-needed cohesion in British society.

But patriotism – which thrives on the feeling that people are united because of some existential threat – is a very weak, temporary and shallow basis upon which to unify people.

Moreover, I believe this is a deeply dishonest exercise. The First World War poet Wilfred Owen wrote: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” or  "How sweet and fitting it is to die for one's country” – except they are not dying for their country. Even if one shared this sentiment, the tragedy is that they kill and are killed for the sake of oil companies, defence contractors and firms involved in reconstruction.

I mean no disrespect to those who have sincere memories of their family members killed or injured in war. But the more that people simply capitulate to this deeply political campaign by the politicians to promote Poppy day, the less they will scrutinize those who are pushing this agenda from Whitehall.

Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at abdulwahid@newcivilisation.com