Don’t Turn the Poppy Into a Stick
Nothing to do with technology this, but it is to do with racism, multiculturalism, and my old country, Britain. A recent piece by Carol Gould of FrontPage magazine: The First Step to Britishness Is Your Poppy
The poppy is a symbol of the terrible loss of life in World War I in the fields of Flanders, where these blood-red flowers sprouted above the acres of corpses of fallen soldiers. As the decades have passed, the poppy has been worn to show one’s respect for the millions who have died in successive conflicts as recent as Iraq and Afghanistan. On British television, every presenter and anchor wears a poppy. In keeping with the motto of the British Legion—“Wear your poppy with pride”—every shopkeeper, publican, hotel manager and cabbie wears a poppy. This year I proudly bought mine at my local doctor’s office.
It was therefore all the more astonishing last week when I took a long walk along Edgware Road, the most densely Muslim section of London, and discovered that not one person was wearing a poppy. This all started because I was accosted on my corner, a few yards form where I have lived for twenty-eight years, by a young Arab man who began to get very aggressive with me. Was I, he demanded to know, “from the Jewish”?
The poppy is an institution in the UK, and reflecting that, its design hasn’t changed much since I was a kid. It’s one thing the Brits do quite well, and no PR firm has been allowed to jazz up what is one of the country’s key traditions. But reading the piece cited above made me realise, as an exile, how far the country still has to go in understanding that multiculturalism cuts both ways.
The poppy honours those men and women who have fallen in battle since the First World War. One would hope it includes all men and women who have fallen in all battles, but invitees are, as far as I know, those who have fought on the British side in British wars. I worry, though, that someone like Ms. Gould, despite her thoughtful and respectful attitude towards a British tradition, should be trying to turn poppy-wearing into compulsory activity. Not unless she’s willing to learn a little more history.
First off, let’s get the lunatic fringe out of the way. The man who accosted her was stupid, ignorant and offensive. I’m sorry for that. But don’t judge a whole community on that incident, any more than she should judge all white Britons by the racism of the taxi-driver who saved her:
The driver was enormously sympathetic but told me that I had been “asking for it” by walking in what he called “Little Beirut.” He then told me that we were in World War III. His white, working class anger at what he perceived as “the Islamic takeover” of Britain was palpable. He was not the first London cabbie who has told me he would gladly join the far-right British National Party if pushed.
(Little Beirut?) There are two different elements here. Apparent ignorance, or a lack of interest, in the poppy tradition among some sections of the British population, and whether or not this constitutes a lack of sensitivity to the country in which one is resident (or in which one was born):
As I walked along Edgware Road, crossing over from side to side of the long thoroughfare I began to get angry. If one lived in Damascus and there was an annual tradition of some sort similar to Poppy Day, one would show respect for the day and join in.
Well, yes, maybe. Show respect, certainly. Join in? I don’t know. Surely one should be asking deeper questions than simply
“Why do you British Asians (those from Pakistan) not wear a poppy?” He shrugged. “Are you not taught about the World Wars?” I asked.
This kind of questioning, to me, borders on interrogation. No one has suggested that everyone should wear a poppy; indeed, one could argue many of those who died fought for people’s freedom from having to wear something they don’t identify with. Then there’s the lack of historical understanding. Britain’s minorities have a long history, and their history is tightly bound with that of the country. Nearly 1 million Indians (India was then part of the Empire, and included present-day Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh) fought in World War 1, 50,000 of whom died. Two and a half million Indians enlisted in the British-controlled Indian Army during the Second World War. It took 80 years for a special ceremony to acknowledge their role, as this BBC report from 1998 highlights:
Dr Kusoom Vadgama, who is campaigning for greater public recognition of India’s role, says that Indian soldiers paid a price for British freedom. “It’s about time that we were put into text books and children’s history books, so that we can live in the country with some degree of dignity,” she says from her surgery in north London.
Since then, it seems that more recognition is being offered such sacrifice: In 2000 changes were implemented in the Cenotaph service to “recognise the contribution of non-Christian men from the nations of the former British empire who fought for the Crown”. It’s unclear how much this has meant in practice: Last year, according to one observer, saw the first time Karen fighters from what is now Myanmar (Burma) take part, but not much else. One BBC report said it was only this year that
for the first time, on Remembrance Sunday national representatives of the Christian and Jewish communities will be joined at the Cenotaph by those representing the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist faiths. The move signals an increasing awareness of the role that people from Commonwealth countries, especially those of other faiths, have played in war.
Perhaps the delay of nearly a century in recognising that contribution might explain why there was so little enthusiasm for poppy day among young and old on the Edgeware Road.