The shocking images of the sudden, bloody murder of soldier Lee Rigby on the street, in broad daylight, in Woolwich on Wednesday are still raw in the mind, and while I feel that makes this article incredibly timely, I am also aware that it may come off as disrespectful or distasteful, so I would like to take the unusual step of prefacing this article with some caveats:
– First and foremost, such a callous and brutal murder is a tragedy in every circumstance. I in no way condone the action, or respect the perpetrators.
– The death of anyone, and especially someone with a wife and family, is never deserved, whether they are a soldier or not.
– I am a native Briton and find any form of violent extremism abhorrent.
– I have a history degree focusing mainly on US and British foreign policy as well as a specific interest in the perception of Islam in the West (to the point where I am planning an art exhibition on the subject).
With that in mind, I hope you are convinced that this is a considered and well-informed response to this topic, and not just blind reaction.
With that out of the way, a stark contention: Though their actions were of the worst nature and their response evil, don’t the perpetrators have a point?
The attackers supposedly did what they did because British soldiers are complicit in the killing of thousands in predominantly Islamic countries with deaths taking place every day, and that is hard to argue with. Though there Is no definitive number of civilian casualties, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by soldiers from the United States, Britain, and its allies. This is nothing our governments deny, and it is nothing that many of us aren’t incredibly unsettled by. Anti-war protests are a regularity, sparked by millions marching in London against what many even brand an ‘illegal war’ in Iraq and Afghanistan; ad so its clear that a great deal of us feel – rightly or wrongly, to be neutral – that there is something deeply wrong and unjust about how our nation acts abroad.
This was a point excellently made by Asghar Bukhari in an interview with the BBC, under a lot of pressure from both the interviewer and public opinion. This interview, indeed, was the catalyst for this article:
Mr Bukhari makes some difficult but reasonable points throughout this, but they seem to get buried by even a BBC reporter who seems to disregard his points in favour of blinkered public opinion, saying “all they will see is British troops going over there trying to make things better.”
This, i’m afraid to say, is the fundamental problem with public opinion and with trying to curtail our government’s foreign policy; and it is ultimately part of the reason for attacks like this – the idea that ultimately, ‘our troops’ are heroes, protecting us and our way of life. This is a powerful and popular belief system, especially in the United States but also here; and it is one that has often made me uncomfortable, yet almost scared to challenge. However, given that one of the major talking points of this incident was that the victim as wearing a ‘Help for Heroes’ shirt makes it somewhat unavoidable for me.
The term ‘Help for Heroes’ has always made me feel a little ill, and I’ve felt bad about it, but I also can’t help it. Part of it is the sheer lack of questioning of the term by Britons, but mainly its because of the unconscious bias involved. We like to see a soldier as – again – some brave figure going abroad and protecting us from evil forces who wish to harm us, seemingly for no reason. What we sweep under the carpet is why the West might be so unpopular. As Mr Bukhari again aptly suggests, it’s because the British government and the British army are responsible for countless civilian deaths across the world (including the Muslim world) and have a black history of propping up undemocratic dictators to suit their own end. Ad while we might hope for a popular, political response, such as that from the cluster of Socialist countries in South America, it is unfortunately inevitable that a violent reaction will also occur.
And what is a soldier? Not, I suggest, a noble person signing up to fight the good fight, because they don’t even choose their fights; but the violent, physical manifestation of extreme foreign policy, the pawn on the chess board killing who and when the are told to, morals side; the expendable human resource represented by plastic arrows on a Risk board. The fact that they fight in the British army does not make them heroes, it doesn’t make them anything. While soldiers are certainly brave, and i’m sure some have instances of relative heroism, being a soldier does not make you a hero.
In the West, a soldier is a hero until they fight against ‘us’, at which point, soldiers apparently become villains. It is trite and banal to play Devils Advocate with the Nazi’s, so i’ll choose a less stark example, and one more recent in memory – the soldiers fighting for Argentina during the Falkland’s War. Your view of the conflict aside, it’s clear that the perceptions of the soldiers involved were set – while the British saw their troops as liberators and the Argentinians as tyrants; the Argentinians will have seen their forces as Defenders of their land, and the British as imperial invaders. The fact is that even if this is how the troops were viewed, they are not any of these things, they are not thinking political agents. When soldiers enlist, it can at best be with the desire bring about some form of good to the world, but tis is a naive belief because they have no idea what they will be asked to do. Staying with the Falklands example, accepting for arguments sake that the British army did ‘liberate’ the islands and their inhabitants (a less than self-evident premise), it is impossible to accept that the British soldiers that fought joined the army with the belief, before the conflict broke out, that it would be morally right to enter in to a state of war with Argentina over the Falklands. They, like all soldiers, were neutral agents of their government’s foreign policy, who simply followed their orders.
So though soldiers must undoubtedly be brave to undertake their career, it is just that – a career; and worse, a career where employees must accept an order to kill, whoever is in front of them. There is nothing heroic in that. And like many international organisations, the British and American armies are responsible for some notable travesties which are easy to track through time from the Duke of Cumberland’s slaughter of Highlanders after the Battle of Culloden following the infamous ‘give no quarter’ orders he received from superiors, to numerous violent suppressions of colonial uprisings, and the support of military coups for dictatorial leaders across the world who politically supported US or British governments, whilst helping to prop up such dictators, such as Hosni Mubarak by selling them arms. More recently, the ‘War on Terror’ in the Middle East and predominantly Islamic countries beyond where a mixture of fear, reactionary politics and, it must be said, a generic, certainly patronising, but nonetheless sincere belief that ‘we are helping them’ led troops from the US, Britain and its allies to invade Iraq and Afghanistan; an operation that many of the ordinary civilians there involved did not want, and one that led – conservatively – to hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths. The point of this is simply that we shouldn’t blindly accept what our armies, and what our troops do as right or heroic, because often, it isn’t and sometimes can be quite the opposite.
It is the reason I don’t wear a poppy and the reason I get uncomfortable with troop celebration during American events I watch and otherwise enjoy (specifically, wrestling event ‘Tribute to the Troops’ and the NFL’s ‘Salute to Service’ initiative) – not because I hate soldiers, but because celebrating what they do seems in bad taste. I can’t support institutions responsible for as much bloodshed and misery as they are ‘peace keeping’; indeed, war should be a subject of stoic contemplation, not banners, chanting, and especially not hero worship. And yet to try and raise such concerns is met with shocked, angry derision, as was seen in November, 2010 when a group of Glasgow Celtic fans unfurled banners stating “Your deeds would shame all the devils in hell. Ireland. Iraq. Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppy on our hoops.” The issue was that the Celtic fans (a fanbase with a historically Irish heritage and Republican sympathies) disagreed with the club’s decision to display a poppy on the team’s jersey for November, the month of recognition of the services of the British Army – the very same army responsible, as they see it, for brutally enslaving Ireland to British tyranny (which is hard to dispute). As a Glasgow Rangers fan, it has to be a very serious issue for me to side with a group of Celtic fans, but in this instance I did, feeling in complete unity with them over the issue, especially s their peaceful protest was met with bileful derision, and worse, ignorant disregard for the meaning of the protest. The media rallied to call is ‘shameful’, ‘disgraceful’, and ‘outrageous’ while the football club and the Scottish Premier League launched separate investigations in to the protest and East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell even said “Celtic must lance this boil once and for all.”
That last comment is typical of the West’s reaction to criticism of their armed forces. Where Britain, and especially Scotland are known as progressive countries, the military is one area where dissension is simply not accepted to the point where the clichéd ‘thought police’ come to mind. Protesting or negative commenting on our troops is met with instant disbelief and fury, completely shutting down any form of debate.
This was hat happened, again, in the aftermath of the Woolwich murder.
It is seen almost comically in the BBC news interview where the interaction seems to go along these lines:
Mr Bukhari: “Until the Government admits that there is a direct link between this radicalisation happening, and their foreign policy, how are we ever going to end it?”
Newsreader: “But for a lot of viewers, all thy will see is British troops going over there, trying to make things better. What is it that creates such anger among a section of Muslim society?” (a reasonable thing to bring up to set up an explanation for the anger that caused these attacks)
Mr Bukhari: “It’s not just Afghanistan. British policy across the Muslim world has been appalling … thousands upon thousands have been killed due to their policy, millions lived under tyrants and dictators who were often backed by British policy. Its across the board – and if we focus on Afghanistan, occupying bombing a foreign country, we can hardly argue that we’re helping them.”
Newsreader: “But to be clear, there is absolutely nothing, absolutely nothing that justifies this kind of murder in the name of some kind of retribution.”
It’s like he falls back in to some sort of default thought process. Instead of engaging the difficult but perfectly reasonable truth Mr Bukhari has answered with, the newsreader, almost like a child, asks a question which essentially equates to ‘yeah yeah, so what, its still terrible isn’t it?’ eventhough everyone has made it clear that they disapprove of the violence. Bukhari again puts it perfectly when he says “As long as we say its nothing to do with foreign policy and just focus on the condemnation, the good speeches, they we’re always in this trap, because the British public are going to ask ‘well, why did it happen?’ You’re never going to be able to solve a problem if you don’t know why it’s occurring.” This is the problem – this national blind spot to the failings of our army and foreign policy, especially towards the Islamic world. It is why there was an outbreak of anti-Muslim attacks in the form of assault, graffiti and online abuse while Help for Heroes were reportedly and understandably ‘swamped’ with donations after the attack; and it is a flashpoint that will, unfortunately, make Britain and the West even less hospitable to the Islamic community.
To be clear, I still believe the majority of people in the West are ‘tolerant’ of Islam, and that many, like me, are welcoming to it as they are to any culture, but it is also clear that for Muslims in the West, tolerance is often the best they can accept, and downright hatred and discrimination is often what they have to deal with on a daily basis. I am a frequent reader of the excellent media watchdog blog, Tabloid Watch, as well as – as I have mentioned – taking a genuine interest in the perception and treatment of Muslims in Britain; and while the hateful, libellous, prejudiced treatment of Islam in British tabloids is too big a topic to cover here, I have often wondered how difficult it must be to be a Muslim in this country sometimes, surrounded as they are by aggressive rhetoric and fringe ‘political parties’ such as the BNP and EDL to whom Islam is the primary target for a kind of prejudice that would see at least a cultural genocide if they were ever to be given any real power. The more reasonable response to the Woolwich attack and others like it, that ‘the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful’ and that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ are welcome but well worn; what is regrettably rarely added is that Muslims simply don’t deserve the kind of tarnishing they get in this country, whether it be because of disgraceful extremists or not, and that we wont stand for it; because beyond our tokenistic refrains, we do stand for it. We stand for it by not questioning what our newspapers say about Islam and not protesting or boycotting these newspapers more, we stand for it by not questioning our foreign policy more and defending our armed forces to the hilt, and most of all, we stand for it by staying quiet, which so many – though not all – still, regrettably, do.
So while I reiterate that the brutal, public murder of a married father of two is among the most heinous and despicable things imaginable, and that any sort of killing, even in protest, is to be absolutely rejected and appropriately punished, it cannot, and must not be denied, that this, and actions like it, have been happening for a reason. The idea that the West is a target for terrorists ‘for no reason’ and that the evil goes one way is clearly quashed, and as soon as we come to the realisation that we are stuck in a cycle of violence from the West to Islamic countries and back again and that we in the West, nor our troops, are blameless in the creation of it. Not only that, but while no individual soldier is necessarily bad or immoral, it is equally true that no individual soldier is necessarily good or ‘a hero’, and that our fetishising of
them is potentially dangerous to our collective view of foreign policy and our supposed ‘enemies’.