Remembrance should be a call for unity, not a source of division

Arguments in the UK over a pro-Palestinian protest on Remembrance Sunday show we have lost sight of commemoration's true values

The Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, London. The focal point for the UK's Remembrance Sunday events, a demonstration to call for a Gaza ceasefire planned for the same day has created a political storm. EPA
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As a schoolkid, I would take the bus with my mum to the local shopping centre. As the bus waited at the traffic lights, I would stare from the window at a simple white monument to the fallen soldiers of the First World War. Sometimes there would be a red wreath. Engraved across the top of the memorial were the words: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Each time the bus went past, the words were magnetic. They gave me goosebumps each time I read them. They still do.

The monument left a deep, indelible mark. It is one of the few things I can visualise clearly from my early childhood, so much so, in fact, that I still think about them often. I hadn’t really thought about why, or the rhythm of the complex, unexplored feelings it wove into my sense of who I am until this week.

Through my child’s eyes, I didn’t know much about the war. The names on the memorial seemed faraway and unconnected to me. As a child, I didn’t know that in those years the names listed might have been those of my school friends’ grandfathers. The monument was for the local fallen and rightly listed their names but in the national narrative, not only did I feel disconnected, I was actually disconnected.

This built on bigger feelings of exclusion that I experienced as a child: the sense of being an outsider, the sense of being different, of not belonging, of not being allowed to call this country “home” or to feel its safety, security and warm embrace.

You spend adulthood trying to unpack and address issues like these that we internalise as children. I thought I was getting there but I didn’t realise what this journey is about until barely a few years ago: there are names from all around the world that should be a part of remembrance and our collective storytelling too.

Those who contributed to the First World War, through their lives and other sacrifices, included more than 2.5 million men from across the British Empire. Of those, 1.4 million were from the Indian subcontinent, and 400,000 were Muslim, like my family. Soldiers also came from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Rhodesia (now today’s Zimbabwe and Zambia). The West Indian colonies contributed nearly £2 million from tax revenues and donations to supply materiel such as planes and ambulances for the war effort.

Not until recently were the missing stories, previously excluded from remembrance, added to the national narrative. The omission of those who should be remembered was real and tangible. Between 116,000 and 350,000 fallen soldiers of African, Indian or Egyptian origin were not commemorated by name. A 2021 investigation carried out by a special committee of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission determined that this was due to racist views against them.

It is heart-breaking and ironic that the exclusion which was being dismantled and the connections that were being built are being reversed. I’ve seen despicable discussions about Muslims praying – often for logistical reasons – near war memorials such as the Cenotaph in the heart of London. But even aside from logistics, why shouldn’t Muslims be present and express themselves. Weren’t Muslims also among the millions that sacrificed their lives? Why should the lost Muslims who were part of the war effort not be remembered? But equally, why should Muslim remembrance be excluded today?

Those supporting pro-Palestinian demonstrations have asked the question: what could be more apt on Armistice Day than calling for an actual armistice?

It is Armistice Day in the UK on Saturday and Britain will acknowledge its war dead on Remembrance Sunday. These events are woven into the national fabric, but this weekend they will intersect with the now-weekly protests staged by hundreds of thousands of Britons calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. For a moment that should be a symbol of what unites people – a sense of the value of human life and the terrible toll of war – it has become a heated and polarising moment, a time when hate and dehumanisation are being stirred in the name of remembrance, rather than dissipated in the dark shadow of loss and the ethos of Lest we Forget.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called the protests on Armistice Day “provocative and disrespectful”. Those supporting the demonstrations have asked the question: what could be more apt on Armistice Day than calling for an actual armistice?

I am sure I am not alone in feeling distressed by this turn of events, and in particular the politicisation of remembrance.

It has reminded me of that monument from my childhood and the sense of distance I felt despite sitting just metres away from it. The current debates prompted me to look up its history. It was erected in 1920 to the men “who gave their lives in the Great War 1914 – 1918”. There are 990 men listed on six bronze plaques bearing the inscription and their names. As I’ve grown into adulthood and found my way to home and community here, I’ve grown to see the interconnectedness that loss creates. That interconnectedness is key.

In recent years, there has been a growing debate about who gets to be remembered. This is an issue that still needs to be properly addressed. But this year it has now escalated to the point that we are confronted with an even darker question: who even is allowed to remember? And who gets to decide what that remembrance looks like?

Published: November 10, 2023, 7:00 AM