By Humera Khan, An-Nisa Society
“Learn, Unlearn and Relearn” was quoted at a conference I attended many years ago and which affected me then as it does now as a concept that should be applied in all that we do. It came to my mind very strongly yesterday as we heard of the launch of the ‘Poppy Hijab’ by an organisation called British Future and the Islamic Society of Britain (ISB).
Sughra Ahmed, President of the Islamic Society of Britain, is quoted in the Independent (30 October 2014) as saying “It’s a simple way to say you’re proudly British and proudly Muslim.”and also quoted in the British Future website as saying that the Poppy headscarf is a “symbol of quiet remembrance” and “the face of everyday British Islam”.
The ‘Learn’ part of this is that the Poppy campaign has a narrative about honouring our ‘fallen heroes’ who died defending the country during the 1st World War (and later including the 2nd World war) and the appeal is to raise money to support current and former military personnel. Yes, this is a well-intentioned aim and the added ingredient in the ISB initiative is the recognition that not only white British men fought in this and subsequent wars, but also thousands of men from Muslim backgrounds (and it must be added, from other commonwealth countries) and died defending the British Empire. Something usually conveniently forgotten and may I add they never received any compensation or support. So, this point has been made – good! It should be mentioned here that Jahan Mahmood, a military and community historian, with an expertise in Muslim martial traditions, has been in the forefront of highlighting this contribution and the sacrifice of Muslim soldiers and their families.
Today, however, the appeal is mainly used to commemorate servicemen and women who have been killed in all conflicts since 1914.
The ‘Unlearning’ part of this issue is that the Poppy Appeal in recent years has become controversial because it has been seen as something that digressed from its original purpose and used by some to elevate war and perpetuate colonial and post-colonial ideologies. Lindsey German (Independent Thursday 23 October 2014) explains this in the following way:
“But instead of starting a period of peace, the war marked the beginning of a century of war and the development of nuclear weapons. This country has been involved directly in wars for the past 13 years, wars which have become increasingly unpopular at home, and which have failed even in the most basic of their declared aims.”
The ‘Relearning’ part is that those who have studied the most basic modern history at O Level or GCSE will have been taught that the First World War resulted due to the scrambling for power and resources by European colonial governments, who drew in their colonies and the rest of the world into the conflict. So, if we look at this history from another angle it can also be seen as a symbol of oppression for those who were colonised and continue to suffer in the post-colonial era. Therefore for it be said that it is a ‘symbol of quiet remembrance’ – seems to forget that there is a flip side to this too – a need to ‘unlearn’ the selective narrative we have been taught.
Having relearnt history or re-contextualised it, there are other questions that need to be thought through. Public rituals, however important they are and relevant in their origin, change their meaning and significance over time and it is not unreasonable for subsequent generations to see the world differently as suggested by Lindsey German (Independent, Thursday 23 October 2014)
“Many of us instead wear a white poppy, the symbol of peace. We do so not because we feel the suffering of those who died or were bereaved any less, everyone agrees that we should commemorate the sacrifice. But we fear that in remembering the First World War, too many people in government and military are using the compassion that people feel to justify present and future wars. While many people buy the red poppy to support soldiers returning from war, the best way of protecting their interests is to stop sending them into these disastrous conflicts in the first place.”
Considering the wider issues ISB/British Future Poppy Hijab campaign should have been more sensitive to the nuances of this debate as well as to the implications of linking it to the battle against extremism.
In the Daily Mail article “ Ms Ahmed said: ‘Thousands of British Muslims already wear a poppy in November. This is just another way for them to show they remember those who gave their lives for their country. It’s also a way for ordinary Muslim citizens to take some attention away from extremists who seem to grab the headlines. This symbol of quiet remembrance is the face of everyday British Islam – not the angry minority who spout hatred and offend everyone.”
This coupling of the campaign with the need to disassociate from the extremes in our communities opens up the initiative as one to prove Muslim loyalty to the state, playing into the hands of the notorious Daily Mail:
“British Muslims are being urged to wear a new ‘Poppy Hijab’ – as a challenge to extremist groups who ‘spout hatred’ about the Armed Forces.”
The Muslim backlash was inevitable as this initiative seemed to be projected as if it has some greater intrinsic value than others and that it is a counter narrative to the ‘extremists’. It evokes the feelng that Muslims are more or less obliged to sign up to it as sort of a ‘loyalty test.’ An unreasonable expectation perhaps when even Jon Snow, the celebrated Channel 4 News journalist, refuses to wear one on air as he calls the level of compulsion to wear it as ‘poppy fascism’!
Some Muslim voices of discontent have also channelled their feelings in their increasingly familiar way! The harnessing of young Muslim women to front the campaign to model the scarves has exposed these women to the vitriol of those that troll cyberspace. Having spoken to one of these individuals who is deeply traumatised by this experience, I have understood that she feels that their naivety of how the media works and lack of knowledge about the background to the issue itself exposed them to the worst kind of virulent backlash as only the internet can do! It can be said that Haters-are-Gonna-Hate and they certainly will – but ensuring the protection of those who participate by being open and transparent with them should be in the forefront of all our efforts.
So for me, and I speak only for myself and those who differ from me are certainly entitled to their viewpoints, this Poppy Hijab campaign could have been better thought through if it had to be done at all. It seems that it only stokes up the embers on the one hand of those in the Muslim community who consider that mainstream Muslim organisations have no backbone and are just apologists and on the other those in the fast growing right-wing who consider the wearing of the poppy and now the hijab poppy, as a litmus test of ‘Britishness’. Being anti ‘the extremist’ shouldn’t mean that we swing in the complete opposite direction either.
Personally I am drawn to the White Poppy Campaign whose rhetoric says “The white poppy symbolises the truth that there are better ways of resolving conflict than killing strangers.” and “Lest We Forget to move Forward from Bloodshed””(taken from The White Poppy for Peace Campaign on facebook). If a point had to be made it could have amalgamated the remembrance of those who died with those who continue to be vulnerable to this kind of death whether they be soldiers or innocent victims of war.
The fact that Muslims only have been singled out for this campaign also perpetuates the notion that Muslims are the fifth columnists who are the ‘danger within’. No other community has collectively been expected to deal with their fringe elements like Muslims have, and we have had threats in Britain in my lifetime from other equally politically charged issues in other communities. Whether a scarf has poppies on it or not or if attractive young women are showcasing them or not is irrelevant to the idea that there needs to be something collectively symbolic that confirms allegiance to crown and country. I am all for Muslims engaging in the mainstream and bringing depth to the idea of ‘Britishness’ as much as I am all for opening up ‘Muslimness’ to a broader group of people where difference is part of our norm. But, the root of much of the alienation in our communities is because there is a feeling of frustration that our leadership is not standing up for what really matters but quick to jump to other people’s agendas. Somewhere in the middle there needs to be a balance.
(c) An-Nisa Society