Don’t mention the war: Muslim Amnesia and the Need for Collective Memory

Reflexively showcasing Muslim contributions to Westernised society will not in and of itself address the Islamophobia-motivated erasure and misrepresentation of Muslims from national narratives. That requires a wider, more forceful recognition and restatement of the role played by colonialism in subalternising racialised minorities, argues Arzu Merali.

“Armed Forces Day was one strand of a package of proposals put together to re-militarise British society in a bid to stave off the popular backlash from failed wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, lest anti-war sentiment hinder future conflicts.  

“It is by now well established by serious scholars of the topic that this was done in a bid to place beyond critique the violent, extractive and discredited foreign policy doctrine to which all UK political parties, British business, sections of our media and the country’s military elite were (and for the most part still are) fully committed. The hope was that even mild criticism would be conflated with an unpatriotic lack of support for individual soldiers.”

Joe Glenton, former veteran, ‘Armed Forces Day is a propaganda tool for arms firms and the military – and the public are footing the bill

We live in a moment of what seems to be permanent war.  The war on terror stretches towards the two-decade mark and all political currents vis a vis Muslims seem swept up in it, as if we had no global relevance as a civilization before or since, as if we as individuals have no historical agency.  We exist in the space between how we are presented and perceived by everyone except us and an idea of latent Muslimness – some memory of a time gone when the Prophet (pbuh) his companions and family lived, and when Muslims lived and ruled according to their own terms.  Permanent war is the latest in a century or perhaps more process of ahistoricising Muslims and indeed all non-Western Europeanised ‘others’ politically, socially, philosophically and so on.

It is one of the deepest ironies of the current Muslim state that a community which evolves its theology, law and social understanding of the revelation of Allah (swt) from the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and informed further by his Seerah, cannot understand the project of ahistoricisation it is enmeshed in.  We live in times of real and bloody wars, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen to name but a few, yet in Westernised settings our civil society has projected itself in these twenty years as a response to centuries old tropes (still being) used to demonise and exclude us – Muslims as violent, Islam as spread by the sword.  Initially we portrayed ourselves as peaceful and pacifistic in our opposition to the War on Terror, latterly loyal to the military cause of whichever Europeanised state we reside[1]. Just look at the rise in Muslim loyalty to the military in the UK in recent years, both as recruits and as blind supporters

Just as the wider social narratives – as Glenton above has outlined – have shifted from anti-war to war as a normalised part of national identity, Muslims – or at least significant parts of its institutions have tried to socialise to these ideas whilst seemingly oblivious to the volte face in their positions or the engineering of those social and political currents by the government.  We also fail to understand ourselves and the times we live in as ongoing history – a history in which we can be agents not subjects if we so choose.

As Muslims we come from varying traditions that agonise over how to validate and interpret both the sayings of the Prophet and the example he set from his own (hi)story, or even to re-evaluate how to come to these conclusions (even controversially so).  Yet we accept without realising it that the moment we currently live in is the ultimate and now only viable – and moral- form of social and historical organisation.  We internalise that everything to do with our own histories – whether that is to do with our multiple heritages, or our religious beliefs – is old, outdated and in need of capitulation to this ahistorical norm.  Even as Francis Fukuyama revises his claim that the liberal national state is the End of History, we fall over ourselves the make his previous thesis real.  We are more Fukuyama than Fukuyama.

We seem adrift from this change in narrative of the liberal nation state.  And this loss of anchor is important.

Understanding Islamic Iberia: Interfaith or  pluriversalism?

There is a recent interest in the Muslim history of Europe, with a main focus on Andalusia.  It is hailed as a period of inter-faith and co-existence and tolerance (which in large part it was) – often crudely offset against the idea of Muslims as historically violent marauders.  A ‘proof’ that we are not all bad (at least in some earlier incarnation).  It is a crude point to make, but just as crudely it can be argued that Muslims at that time weren’t just making history, we were doing history – setting up libraries and institutions of knowledge production, reading, writing and learning. 

Cordoba in the year 1000 CE had running water and street lighting for its perhaps one million residents.  Meanwhile the sites of today’s ‘imperium’ were huts along the Thames and Seine in their tens of thousands.  How is it then that we do not understand ourselves and the political and social melees we find ourselves in?  We neither see ourselves as transnational members of the ummah or fully autonomous citizens of the nation state?  We are simply the subjects of whatever political project we live in, trying to sheer ourselves of those vestiges of ‘history’ that mark our deen as ‘other’ ‘alien’ and ‘incompatible’ with the political projects we find ourselves in.  Day in day out there are fights and controversies about Muslim adherence to values deemed outdated, or worse still inimical to the project of modernity dressed not in its actual highly politicised and prejudiced guise, but presented as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’, as if has always been thus, awaiting realisation in this very moment – with Muslims and all other others to be brought by force if necessary to kneel at its altar.  Just look at the demonisation of parents protesting the No Strangers project in Birmingham, UK. 

Whether it is rejecting or feeling embarrassed about parents protesting sex education changes, or celebrating British militarism, these attempts to ‘humanise’ or ‘normalise’ Muslims, to make them understood as ‘just the same’ as their co-citizens is one of strands of counter-narrative work to Islamophobia discussed by the Counter-Narratives to Islamophobia project which IHRC was a partner in 2017 – 2018 with the University of Leeds and five other European Universities.[2]

In its work on the UK, it became clear that those interviewed and the work overviewed that sought to tackle Islamophobia, the need to have inclusive histories and national stories is crucial, but so too is acknowledging Islamophobia as a form of violence that is relational to both recent and colonial history and current events in various Westernised settings that refer to each other in order to perpetuate each other.  We cannot discuss e.g. ‘Islamic Spain’ in any incarnation especially that of inter-faith harmony without recognising that it is the putative nation state and the ideology that underpins it – of a monoculture without diversity – that destroyed that ‘inter-faith’ harmony and society in a genocidal manner. 

As argued by scholars such as Ramon Grosfoguel, this understanding can extend to all Westernised settings.  In order to tackle the abject disempowerment we face, we cannot aspire to a future of liberation without acknowledging the various pasts that inform us as (i) beings of conscience i.e. as Muslims in the active and participatory sense, (ii) subalterns  – the ‘others’ – in a system that privileges a narrow idea of human being, to which we can only fail to aspire to, like so many other racialized others; and (iii) agents for change in both a vision of an Islamic messianic end of history or any number of utopias, Islamic or otherwise, or any combination thereof.

We need to understand Islamophobia as a form of violence against Muslims as others, but in an ongoing sense as a struggle against Islam as (an) idea(s) and experience of political and social organisation and mobilisation and more importantly liberation.

And liberation is a shared goal. We can’t be afraid to explain what we want, question what is possible and decry what has been done to us in its name.

Protesting the colonial

‘The English invaded more than half the world.  Of the countries that they ruled, how many languages do the English speak?… People from third world countries contributed to making Britain, Great Britain, which up to this day they are in denial about…’

Parveen Sadiq, community elder (translated from Urdu)

The ertswhile UK Prime Minister David Cameron, in 2016, criticised Muslim women who did not speak English, announcing plans to test the English skills of spouses allowed to come to settle in the UK, with the possibility that they may be deported if their skills were not to an acceptable level.  Assed Baig, for Channel 4 News, produced a piece that showed Parveen Sadiq make this blunt and contextual complaint – not in English.  The piece serves two purposes for this discussion. Firstly as a way of giving voice to the people deemed outside the pale by the narrative that Muslims are segregationist; it also gave space to the autonomous voices of grassroots Muslims, whose more incisive critique has hitherto found little expression in the national conversational space.  Secondly it provides badly needed historical and historiographical context.  Put simply, it reminds us all of the history of Muslims and racialised others in British history, in particularly in the context of British colonialism.  As Parveen Sadiq highlights, although deeply entwined in the longue durée of colonial history, the problematization of Islam and Muslims in the UK context largely represents itself as ahistorical and transnational.  There is no overt conversation about the presence of Muslims or other racialized communities in the UK. 

This is not simply an issue of rehashing the well worn and correct analysis of the late A. Sivanandan, “Colonialism and immigration are part of the same continuum – we are here because you were there.”  As the award-winning website, Our Migration Story: The Making of Britain (2017), outlines, migration to the British Isles is constitutive of the identity of the ‘nation’ – rather than the current myth that the nation is of one people, language and religion, currently fending off the erosion of this identity from cultural ‘invaders’.  Using“the words and research of over 60 historians based in universities and historical institutions – including the National Archives, the Imperial War Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Royal Historical Society – this website presents the often-untold stories of the generations of migrants who came to and shaped the British Isles.”

Counterintuitively, this project goes back not a century, or even two, but two thousand years to document wave after wave of migration that makes up the society we live in, and also then unpacks, or perhaps more literally, unravels the myths of a homogenous ethnic and cultural majority that existed from time immemorial.  It rehistoricizes the space which we have become accustomed to assuming has no history – or at least no history within which we can have meaning as anything other than other.

As academic and broadcaster Myriam François has stated there is a need for the reinventing of the story of the nation with an understanding of this history: “nations need what you might call national myths as part of social cohesion, that the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves are inclusive and help to feel that we are united by a common thread.”

She elaborates, “We need alternative national conversations, alternative national myths which look back at the history of the UK, not in an exclusivist, I would say in many cases racist way, but in one which acknowledges the history of the multiple peoples who now inhabit this island and acknowledges the multiple ways in which the UK historically was intertwined with other cultures and civilisations and how our history is now an emerged one…”

There is doubtless a push by UK civil society to make the ‘Muslim presence’ known.  Eager to displace the idea of Muslims as (relatively) recent immigrants, there is now a focus on the role of Muslims in the two world wars of the 20th century.  Multiple projects have highlighted the numbers of colonial troops, navy men and even Muslimah spies as examples of (a) Muslim historical presence, integration, and loyalty.  The Royal British Legion has been part of this process too.  These have in and of themselves merit in identifying and attempting to centre the idea of Muslims as part of the military and recent history of the UK.  This is a history ignored to the point that its exclusion from curricula about the war amounts to erasure.  You will not find it in war time drama from Colditz to Dunkirk.  At a time when the iconography of the two world wars is becoming ever more intrinsic to the idea of the nation in the UK, what could be wrong with this?

Militarisation and mythology

“In both Iraq and Afghanistan, once the reasons for going to war were found to be false, or unattainable or just forgotten, those with a vested interest in continuing the wars resorted to one of the oldest tricks in the book.  They cultivated the myth of the soldier as hero.

“They told you that you might not understand why the war continued but that you should support the soldiers.  They told you that to stop the pointless slaughter would be sacrilege to those heroes that had already died,”

Ben Griffin, Veterans for Peace, at an Oxford Union debate, “We will not fight for Queen or country”, 2013

The myth of the soldier as hero is not new, but as Griffin states earlier in his speech, this is a narrative of jingoism and a patriotism that is geared towards starting and perpetuating wars, for war’s sake (and the vested interests of those ordering those wars) only.

An attempt solely to integrate Muslims into this discourse is to integrate Muslims into the mythology that serves great injustice.  Even if this history – and it is an actual history of participation, as British / Westernised subjects in British / Western / Imperial / Colonial projects – were to succeed, if we could get the state, its institutions and the bulk of British society to accept us as part of this, what would this achieve?  What would it mean?  That Muslims can be part of a national war machine, regardless of whether it was right or wrong?  That any critique of current wars or colonial pasts has no place in the current political and civil conversations?  This is the silencing of political and moral debate, not just the silencing of Muslims.  There is or at least used to be a very different national narrative that delineated social responses to the two world wars in the UK.  The first was deemed a catastrophic loss of life at the hands of warmongering elites in Europe, who saw nothing wrong in sacrificing millions of European men for nothing more than continental and transcontinental land grabs.  The second world war was seen a principled fight against fascism.  As the last ten to fifteen years has seen these narratives morph into one of a ‘moral cause’ in the first war and an example nationalistic heroism for the second. There needs to be more than simply a push to include Muslims in those narratives.  Above all, understanding that narratives of history and narratives of nation morph and change, and can be manipulated in the service of injustice is essential.  Finding ways to navigate ‘history’ always, is key.  It’s something that Muslims, with their reliance on historical traditions of narration should perhaps be more attuned to, except it doesn’t seem so. 

Who are the humans?

“Europe wants immigrant labour but not the immigrant, the profit from the one, not the cost of the other – except that the immigrants now are mostly from eastern Europe and what used to be the numbers theory – the fewer the immigrants, the more easily can they be “digested” – the phrase belongs to the original director of the Institute of Race Relations – is today the managed migration thesis of the government. Except, too, that the refugees and asylum seekers, thrown up on Europe’s shores, stem from the uprooting and displacement of whole populations caused by globalisation, and the imperial wars and regime change that follow in its wake.”

A. Sivanandan (2008)

What legally defines a ‘British national’ is essentially at the whim of a state governed in its own continuing colonial interests.  There is no way around this.  We are British or not, get a visa or not, get demonised, deported and then receive an apology or get demonised more not on our own merits or the injustice of our oppression but by a few individuals – primarily the UK Home Secretary – and the political culture fomented around her/ him.  This bucks the expectation of many that the British state is essentially the ‘just state’ that Muslim civil society leadership in particular aspires to and seeks to persuade of Muslim humanity and thus deserving of inclusion within the story of the nation.  As poet Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan explains: ‘If you need me to prove my humanity / I’m not the one who’s not human.’ 

Sociologist of religion Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor has highlighted that the types of conversation between Muslims and the institutions of state need to be reset while others look to establishing a clear and honest narrative within political, academic and media discourse about the causality of the ‘problems’ ascribed to issues of Islam and ‘Muslimness’ that is fair, unbiased and reflects a wider understanding of structural and geopolitical factors rather than relying on Islamophobic narratives to support contentious but ultimately devastating ideas and policies.  Others seek to expound a clearer understanding of how racism, in particular anti-Muslim racism is a form of organisation that as Ramon Grosfoguel argues, underpins various hierarchies of inequality in the current national and world order.

Understanding and Experiencing Islamophobia in the militarised state

 “I feel like people are more open to talking about it now because everyone is talking about it or seeing it in Trump or this caricature.  People are probably more comfortable now but it’s still deeply uncomfortable in challenging it in everyday life.  So, social media and I guess challenging Trump is fine and talking in a very abstract way about how Islamophobia is really bad, that seems to be okay, but on the other side I still find it very difficult to have conversations with people who think that they know everything, who think that they understand the way that Islamophobia operates in society but still get it through to them that actually it’s multi-layered and it’s still very prevalent even though people are so aware of it.”

Samayya Afzal, activist and researcher

Even the idea of Islamophobia has been shorn of its political and historical context.  How that applies to militarism and militarisation in the UK and other Western contexts will be discussed further, but it is worth noting the findings of the CIK project on the issue of understanding history – in particular the longue durée of colonial entanglement and its impact on Muslims in the current moment, alongside how structural racism works.  Without this attempts to humanise Muslims or include them in the existing national narrative – whether by filling in bits of missing history or condemning those things deemed un-British (insert the adjective of your Westernised nation state name here) you will simply reinforce the cycle of exclusion, risking what journalist Nesrine Malik identified as reinforcing connections with and thus validating narratives of Islamophobia.

Understanding the longer historical context of Islamophobia and racism / racialization of the other is essential to understanding the multiple situations of Muslims and other oppressed peoples world-wide.  Whether you start that process at the Crusades or 1492, or even later, we cannot get out of the bind we are in without understanding where it came from.

The current situation of the UK as an increasingly militarised state has been documented elsewhere, as has the impact of increasing militarism of national discourse.  It is worth noting that both have crept up on all, not just Muslims, unawares.  Nevertheless, where critical civil society has taken note, Muslim civil society has been largely silent, remaining oblivious or proactively cheerleading the process.  As a summary of the evidence of both militarisation and the impact of militarism, think of the increased presence on the streets of soldiers, deployed in peace-time but also increasingly at times of crisis (floods, possible Brexit scenarios) in ways that are now unquestionable.   The presence of the armed forces on ceremonial and royal occasions was always the norm so the newer presence of military on the streets, e.g. the huge presence at the London Olympics of 2012 of troops, the mooring of a warship for the event and the placing of missiles atop nearby roofs, and subsequently the deployment of soldiers at other events e.g. Wimbledon has largely gone unnoticed.

In terms of the impact of militarism – it is twofold – it perpetuates injustice involving polarised communities, demonised minorities and authoritarian political space at ‘home, whilst justifying military interventions and full-blown wars abroad.    According to Sam Walton in his 2014 report for Quaker Witness for Peace, “A huge cross-party government programme dedicated to ensuring that the military are popular in society has implications other than the popularity of the armed forces and ease of military recruitment.”  He and others identify stifling criticism of war; glossing over negative aspects of the military; the wrong motivations for youth work; the danger of becoming an overly militarised society and failure to support members of the armed forces properly. The impact on society then and the concomitant need for the dehumanisation of Muslims in order to pursue this agenda is clear.  The worse Muslims and Islam are deemed to be, the more legitimacy is conferred on any war against them elsewhere, which justifies suppression at home and so on and so on.

As I wrote in 2002, before the UK and its allies were embroiled in major wars around the world, the ‘here and the there’ are intimately connected.  If we are going to discuss political violence, as academic Hilary Aked stated back then, “If you are going to talk about that you need to talk about foreign policy, state violence as well you need to also talk about political violence in the far right as well.”

It is worth noting that far right groups centre much of their iconography on the armed forces, and even link their events to military parades.  In recent months it has been revealed that even the government fears the rise of far right extremism within the armed forces and has released a guide for senior officers to spot signs in members. 

Muslims, the military and national myths

The rise of projects that seek to make known the Muslim contribution to wars does have a restorative effect.  It is a history that has been erased.  Based on popular culture and school text books, you would have thought that there were few people of colour involved e.g. in the Second World War, except perhaps the segregated African American GIs brought over with US forces.  The 2006 movie ‘Indigenes’ that follows Algerian soldiers who enlisted and fought for France, goes some way to unmasking this, but the details are even more startling than this cinematic depiction of both loyalty and aspiration on the part of colonial soldiers.  The original French army, defeated at the outset of the Second World War, contained huge numbers of colonial soldiers, many of whom, like the 17,000 black mainly West Senegalese soldiers, were killed and often summarily executed by the Nazis. The freeing of Algeria from enemy control saw the entry of Algerian fighters into De Gaulle’s army, swelling its ranks from 50,000 to half a million. Despite the crucial role played by these troops in the allied victory, they were both literally expunged from the historical record and mistreated in their aspirations, whether nationalist or assimilationist, post the war. The BBC, in 2009, revealed secret documents from the war records of the Allies that saw France, the USA and the UK conspire to ensure that no black troops were shown to be involved in the liberation of Paris, and that it was an (almost) all white affair.  Photos of allied troops marching into Paris were shot post event with all white units pictured only.  Indeed, so few were the white troops that not enough could be mustered to fill the photos, and ‘lighter skinned’ soldiers from North Africa were added to the shots to pass as white.  

Whilst this contribution as well as those of the many Muslims and other peoples of colour must of course be addressed and integrated into historical narratives, so too must a critical evaluation of those wars.  The Toledo Society’s podcast 1400 OMG! Is an example of making recent ‘European’ history ‘relevant’ to Muslims.  It claims to be neither prescriptive nor authoritative.  That is more than a start to the process of reclaiming narratives.

The podcast looks at these events through the eyes of Muslims worldwide asking about the the impact or relevance of these wars.  How were Muslim aspirations instrumentalised by different parties post- the First World War and betrayed in the inter-war and post-Second World War moments?  How did the fall of the Uthmanniyyah Khilafa – contribute to the New or Continuing World Order?  

This type of critique exists in many spaces but increasingly is being marginalised even from Muslim spaces.  We need as a first step to be able to (once again) talk about, question and  demand redress for e.g. the violent suppression of the Algerian claims for independence in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War that culminated in the genocidal war waged by France against the liberation movement which eventually saw an independent Algeria emerge.  Simply adding the forcibly forgotten contribution of Muslims to the French war effort, cannot square the ‘contradiction’ of a supposed fight against fascism which itself morphs into the most extreme forms of fascistic violence.  We need to not only call this out but demand another world imagined outside this vicious cycle.

We have a chance still to revisit history, its textbooks at school, to reflect critically in civil society.  This should be the ‘national’ process, but failing that, as Miriam François states, we : “rethink the stories we tell our children about who we ‘are’ and we need to acknowledge the historical wrongs that have been done in order to recognise the historical inequalities that have fed into some of the current inequalities…”  Until then we will be simply perpetuating our own oppression by way of wars and militarism and their accompanying mythologies.


Arzu Merali is an author and broadcaster. She is Head of Research at the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

[1] There is, of course, another essay and more to be written about the reversal of these principles during the Arab Spring according to cynical, arguably tribal like identities.  But that is for another day.

[2] Comments quoted from Myriam Francois, Samayya Afzal, Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor and Hilary Aked come from this project.