The month of November is upon us again, and with it comes, as always, the season of remembrance. However, unlike most other years, 2018 will be a year with added significance as the centenary of the end of the First World War. As part of the plethora of remembrance themed activities to commemorate this historic occasion, there are multiple news articles and discussions encouraging the recognition of people from minority backgrounds, particularly Muslims, in the ceremonies of Remembrance this year. Despite this, I will instead be loyally sticking with my own annual remembrance tradition of not wearing a poppy. Here’s why.
What Does the Poppy, and By Extension Remembrance Day, Represent?
To quote the Royal British Legion, the poppy represents “a personal choice and reflects individual and personal memories. It is not compulsory but is greatly appreciated by those it helps – our beneficiaries: those currently serving in our Armed Forces, veterans, and their families and dependants” and is based on the poem of First World War poet John McCrae.
So why is this a problem?
Firstly, I take huge exception to the narrative that World War I was an honourable conflict. In truth, I have no wish to be associated with it. The war was nothing but a tragedy, where ordinary civilians were called upon to fight and die in the name of their country’s imperial interests. I see no reason why any group should be celebrated for having taken part.
However, as a Muslim, first and foremost, the issue is more personal. The celebration in the media of Muslim soldiers being drafted in from the Indian subcontinent is surrounded with the ominous stench of a colonial legacy, something I cannot celebrate if I have any pride in my own true history.
Even without the element of colonial history, I still cannot see the First World War as anything but a catastrophe for the Muslim world.
Firstly, the defeat and eventual dismantling of the Ottoman Empire marked the end of a unified Islamic global power who could protect the lives and honour of the Muslims, and history has shown how the Muslim lands have suffered from this lack of leadership.
Secondly, the victorious Allied powers introduced new policies into the Muslim lands, amongst them the infamous Sykes-Picot treaty which inspired the destructive division of Islamic land leading to the unstable modern Middle East and all the problems which have originated from it. The Balfour Declaration, which proposed the idea of a Zionist state in Palestine, also emerged in this time – and we have seen the resulting decades of violence and war that has torn this blessed land apart. Such policies could only be introduced because of the destruction of the Ottoman State at the hands of the Allied powers. In short, the First World War stands out as the direct cause of so many of the devastating problems that we see destroying Muslim lands and lives today. I cannot bring myself to celebrate the “victory” which caused these disasters.
Another reason I am unwilling to support the poppy appeal is the institution of the Armed Forces. The British Army is hardly a golden standard of moral integrity, and there are many examples to demonstrate this. Today, the illegality of the Iraq war (according to UN regulations) is well recognised, as are the atrocities committed by British soldiers during the conflict, not least the systematic brutal torture of Iraqi citizens in British military bases.
Even in the UK itself, far away from any battlefield, the army faces many questions about its institutional management. The infamous case of Deepcut army barracks in Surrey, where four soldiers committed suicide, is believed to have been caused by a “toxic” culture of bullying and intimidation. Another example to highlight the army’s questionable integrity are the recurrent allegations of sexual abuse, apparently widespread throughout the institution. Research suggests that 15% of female soldiers had been victims of harassment.
It is astonishing, given these facts, that in a country that prides itself on its principle of equality, we celebrate these frankly alarming issues within the British Armed Forces.
Unfortunately, this shouldn’t surprise us. The armed forces are Britain’s greatest asset when it comes to enforcing its will on the rest of the world. It is no wonder then that they are so celebrated, nor is it surprising that throughout their existence they have been the cause of so much pain and misery to the Muslims.
Moreover, there is a wider question which needs addressing here: Why is this issue something that is being specifically pushed on to Muslims?
Remembrance Day and everything it represents is a part of fundamental British values, which is a somewhat vague and overused phrase. As a society, we are being constantly encouraged to teach our children these non-descript values to enable them to become healthy, functioning members of society. However, given how non-specific these values are, and after everything raised in this article, it seems doubtful that engaging with Remembrance Day and the poppy appeal will do much to build your key moral values. Furthermore, as the media’s favourite targets, it’s no wonder that Muslims are at the top of the list when it comes to being pressured into taking part in such ceremonies.
Finally, as with everything we do, we should always refer back to our Deen. With an issue such as Remembrance Day, the matter of honour seems to form a large part of the discussion. In the Quran. Allah addresses the issue of honour:
“Whoever desires honour – then to Allah belongs all honour. To Him ascends good speech, and righteous work raises it.”
Surah Fatir: Ayah 10
So, the next time the elderly gentleman at the tube station asks me if would like to buy a poppy, I will politely but firmly refuse. I have no intention of being shamed into taking part in a campaign that, in my eyes, has a much heavier cost than a simple £1 coin.