Faith & Reason: Every year we remember, but when will we learn?

Honouring tradition while remaining open to what is good in modern Britain involves us in a conflict of faith, loyalty and identity

Share

Two important dates coincide this week - Remembrance Sunday and Id ul-fitr, the Breaking of the Fast, at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. These festivals have always seemed to occupy separate universes. But in recent days I have been in Perth, the home of the Black Watch, and in Spitalfields, east London, the home of one of Europe's biggest Muslim communities. It may appear presumptuous for an outsider to trespass on these tracts of sacred territory, but it seems important to try.

Two important dates coincide this week - Remembrance Sunday and Id ul-fitr, the Breaking of the Fast, at the end of the Muslim month of Ramadan. These festivals have always seemed to occupy separate universes. But in recent days I have been in Perth, the home of the Black Watch, and in Spitalfields, east London, the home of one of Europe's biggest Muslim communities. It may appear presumptuous for an outsider to trespass on these tracts of sacred territory, but it seems important to try.

On Thursday we honour the millions of dead from the two great wars. A small group of very old men remind us of their comrades' heroism and the catastrophic political failures that led to their deaths. A larger group of old men recall a quite different war, fought for survival. But the celebration of Id ul-fitr will be a youthful event, because Britain's Muslim population is young; and they seem remote from our ancient quarrels.

But it's not quite like that. At the Cenotaph and the Remembrance services will be younger men and women. They served in Korea, Malaya, the Falklands, endlessly in the deserts of Arabia and Iraq, and in the jungles of Borneo. They helped make the Gulf states and even Indonesia safer and freer for their peoples - no slight achievement. And those who now serve share a tradition that transcends the memories of the old. Those traditions are only slightly attached to the state, and emphatically not to any government. They joke that there is one thing they fear more than the enemy - a politician mouthing the phrase "Something Must Be Done".

One such tradition goes back to the Highland Companies that were raised after the 1715 Stuart rebellion. In contrast to the red coats of the English troops, they wore a dark green plaid that earned them their nickname - "The Black Watch". In 1743, they were foolishly moved to the Low Countries, leaving space for the rebellious Stuarts to try again in 1745.

In 1916, in Mesopotamia, the British government disastrously underestimated the capacity of the Turkish army - just months after the Gallipoli débâcle. The Black Watch were thrown into that doomed campaign and suffered huge losses. They captured Tikrit, but failed to relieve the garrison at Kut al-amara - names now familiar to us. Baghdad was finally taken, but the West continues to flounder in the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire - as do the Black Watch today. The soldiers' families in Perth, and the recruiting grounds in Fife, feel angry and betrayed. But the regiment's history records how many time their commitment has been thwarted by political recklessness. They are entitled to suggest that war-making is an honourable trade, but that their lives depend on the call to arms being uttered with better judgement than is usually the case

All this was on my mind as I sat in Spitalfields. I lived nearby for years, and visit often. I felt for the first time that our symbols of Remembrance are strong on sentiment, but almost bereft of religious sense - the falling poppies, the Last Post, the intonation of "They shall not grow old . . ." For here is the new East London Mosque, with its floods of men and women going in and out to pray. Less showy is the much older Jamme Masjid on Brick Lane. Here successive communities of Huguenots, Methodists and Jews once worshipped. Now the devotions are Islamic. This is a tough place to live, mitigated only slightly by the twinkling lights that herald the breaking of the fast tomorrow. Here thousands of young families live in cramped housing, facing poor job prospects and enduring the continual threat of indigenous racism.

I was aware how powerfully Ramadan, the great month of fasting, proclaims that we are born to serve God, and not simply our own appetites and interests. And I sensed for the first time how angry this community is. People here have few illusions about their parents' homelands, which are largely in the Indian subcontinent, not the Middle East. But our media continually harp on the supposed threat of Islam, while largely ignoring the numbers of innocent Muslims who die daily in Iraq.

All this makes the large questions of faith much harder - how to be British and Muslim, how to honour the tradition while remaining open to what is good in modern Britain. And as Muslims become more politically active, they will shrug off our patronising attempts to treat them as ethnic victims, and assert their right to stand out from the European liberal consensus on what it means to be human.

This youthful English community is worlds apart from their Scottish contemporaries, and their anxious parents. But both groups are caught up in a painful conflict of faith, loyalty and identity. Their plight at this time of Remembrance should remind us how hard we find it to move on. We remember; but why don't we learn?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
David Cameron delivers his speech on immigration at the JCB World Headquarters in Rocester, Staffordshire  

Cameron's speech was an attempt to kill immigration as an election issue

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game