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
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The Independent Online

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?

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