Wootton Bassett: a
The clash between self-pitying Islamists and weeping military men is a perfect metaphor for the ‘war on terror’.
The bizarre political stand-off over the proposed Islam4UK march in Wootton Bassett might just be the perfect metaphor for the ‘war on terror’. On the domestic front the ‘war’ is frequently talked up as a clash of civilisations, or at least a battle of values, between decent, liberal, tolerant mainstream Britain on one side and foreign-influenced, Caliphate-building fanatics on the other. Yet the hoo-hah over Wootton Bassett shows that it is no such thing. It is in fact a pantomime clash between fancy-dress Islamic radicals and principle-free politicians and military men, with both sides trying to out-victim each other rather than win a battle of ideas.
Wootton Bassett is a small market town in north Wiltshire, England, which has become famous because the bodies of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan are transported through it, on their way from RAF Lyneham to John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The town has become the focal point for military family grief, as the mums, dads, brothers, sisters, children and friends of those killed in Afghanistan have assembled along the route of funeral cortèges to mourn and weep (and it has attracted more than a few post-Diana grief groupies, too). Keen to cash in on what it sees as an Afghanistan-related emotional valve, Islam4UK, a juvenile outfit set up by Anjem Choudary, says it will carry empty coffins through Wootton Bassett to symbolise the Afghans killed by the British military.
The first, most striking thing about the Wootton Bassett controversy is that it has nothing to do with Afghanistan. It is nothing like a collision of opposing views on the Afghan War – with one side saying British troops must stay in order to achieve A, B and C and the other side saying British troops must withdraw in the name of Afghan self-determination – but instead is a competition of victimhoods. Both sides, both the military establishment and the supposedly radical Islamists, are keen to indulge in wild displays of emotional exhibitionism and to win recognition for their claims to be a special category of victims. This is not a tussle over the rights and wrongs and future of Afghanistan, but is a rather self-serving spat over who should be accorded most respect as Ultimate Victim today: ‘Our Boys’ or self-pitying Muslim groups.
The pro-troops side in this stand-off do not actively support the Afghan War. Many of the families who have mourned their loved ones in Wootton Bassett have expressed discomfort with the war, and the newspapers that have splashed salacious photos of the very public mourning for ‘Our Boys’ are ambivalent about it, too. Indeed, Wootton Bassett has been left to carry the can for Afghanistan, to become a platform for public grief, largely as a consequence of the political and military establishment’s inability to justify the war or to legitimate it through victory parades or some other kind of public ceremony.
In lieu of a clear, top-down, political ‘story’ of the war, through which military families might make sense of their loved ones’ sacrifices, Wootton Bassett has been turned, with the implicit blessing of the media and the military, into a makeshift outlet for primal rather than political sentiments. In the absence of victory parades, there are mourning marches; instead of speeches about the meaning of the mission, there is simply the much-photographed wordless weeping. In opportunistically allowing Wootton Bassett to become the endpoint of the Afghan War – a tautological symbol of why ‘Our Boys’ are making sacrifices in Afghanistan: because they are ‘Our Boys’ and they are good at making sacrifices – the military is, no pun intended, shooting itself in the foot. In the past, mid-war grief and injury tended to be kept as private as possible, in order not to distract from the broader message of the war at hand and to avoid denting the morale of serving troops, potential future recruits, and the nation itself. Today, an all-at-sea establishment has implicitly promoted public grief in order to fill the gap left by the collapse of its own moral authority and political vision, potentially at the expense of the integrity of the military.
On the flipside, Choudary and his fellow weird-beards have no real interest in Afghanistan. I would wager that they know little, and care less, about the history, politics and ethnic make-up of that unfortunate nation. No, for them, marching through Wootton Bassett is about advertising their own status as victims of a vast Western conspiracy to ‘do down’ Muslims and crush the Islamic spirit. They talk hysterically about a ‘war on Islam’, in which everything from a bomb dropped on Tora Bora to a politician’s complaint about women in Bradford who wear the burqa is interpreted as a slight on their belief system and a stab at their self-esteem (1).
Their narcissism is astounding: for them, the war in Afghanistan is unacceptable not because it interferes with the Afghan people’s right to self-determination, but because it makes them feel bad; it makes them feel unloved; it damages their inner sense of self-worth. Their desire to carry coffins through Wootton Bassett is the political equivalent of a spotty, irritating teenager wailing ‘What about ME?!’. They hope to rally the dead of Afghanistan to their own causes of self-promotion and public therapy, where the men, women and children killed by British and American bombs become little more than ghostly, bedraggled cheerleaders for Choudary and his cohorts’ desperate, Oprah-style search for public recognition as Victims Who Deserve Both Pity And Respect.
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Indeed, if the Wootton Bassett stand-off shows that the side in the ‘war on terror’ that is supposedly defending traditional liberal British values is actually doing no such thing, then it also shows that the other side is not really made up of scary, alien, stability-shaking Islamists but rather fancy-dress radicals utterly beholden to the mainstream politics of victimhood. Islam4UK captures how shallow and image-conscious is today’s radical Islam, where young men who were born in fairly drab towns as plain old Omar or Anjem can overnight become ‘threats to civilisation’ simply by sprouting some facial hair, donning a frock, and changing their names to Omar bin Sheikh or Mullah Anjem. They adopt the same dress, vocal tones and finger-wagging as used in martyrdom videos and, hey presto, they turn from normal blokes with humdrum lives into combatants in what some hacks hysterically describe as ‘a war to defend not just the West but civilisation in general’ (2).
Indeed, far from being a product of some far-flung ideology, groups like Islam4UK spring from some very British, very backward trends. Their almost all-consuming vision of themselves as hard-done-by victims of oppressive Western culture comes from the politics of multiculturalism and cult of recognition, which actively encourage minority groups to consider themselves separate from, and possibly victimised by, ‘mainstream culture’ (3). And their adoption of an aggressive dress sense and beard-growing is no doubt influenced by the British government and media’s hysterical talking up of radical Islam as the greatest threat to the Western way of life. In short, where the multicultural outlook provides them with a narcissistic victim mentality, official fearmongering about foreign threats allows them to become part of a ‘clerical war’ against the West simply by donning the right garb and spouting the right nonsense. They are the dames and villains of this pantomime, with both their script and their costumes provided by a fearful and divided British society.
The daft demo in Wootton Bassett should be allowed to go ahead, for two reasons. First, because freedom of speech and the right to protest should be indivisible; even people we don’t like should have those rights. And second, because such a public display of self-pity in a town already turned into an emotional circus for the British military should show, once and for all, that the ‘war on terror’ is more about messed-up Britain than it is about Afghanistan, truth or Enlightenment.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. His satire on the green movement - Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas - is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) As a British Muslim I am insulted by this callous attempt to insult our brave troops, Daily Mail, 4 January 2010
(2) The personal jihad of Melanie Phillips, Comment Is Free, 31 October 2009
(3) See 7/7: A very British bombing, by Brendan O’Neill