On 25 October, during the Crimean War of 1854, 600 mounted troops of the British Light Cavalry, led by Lord Cardigan at the Battle of Balaclava, charged directly and foolishly at heavily fortified Tzarist Russian artillery positions – and were cut to pieces. 129 of them were killed while total casualties exceeded 250 and many were taken captive. Over three hundred British horses were killed too. The disaster happened as a result of hubris, miscommunication and poor leadership. Despite the embarrassing defeat, the events were celebrated and eulogised by the poet laureate Alfred Tennyson who penned the highly popular “Charge of the Light Brigade”. Some of its verses are: Storm’d at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of Hell Rode the six hundred. Flash’d all their sabres bare, Flash’d as they turn’d in air Sabring the gunners there, Charging an army, while All the world wonder’d: Plunged in the battery-smoke Right thro’ the line they broke; Cossack and Russian Reel’d from the sabre-stroke Shatter’d and sunder’d. Then they rode back, but not Not the six hundred. I suppose wallowing in the glories of defeat is one of those British idiosyncracies and values that will stand the test of time.
Just t think of Dunkirk, Singapore, Gallipoli, Isandhlwana (remember Zulu Dawn?), Afghanistan – past and present, American War of Independence or Hastings. It’s all part of an English subculture that glorifies past military follies and weaves it into a vision of loss through the invisible (and absent) lens of victory. But that’s not why I wrote this post… You see, the Crimean War and the Charge of the Light Brigade was fought by the British in support of the Ottoman Caliphate against Tzarist Russia – to stop the latter’s expansion and its attempts to seize hold of central Asia. That’s right, a poem that is still lauded today and taught in English literature at British schools honours men who fell fighting in defence of the Muslim Ottoman Empire that was ruled by the Caliph, Abdul Mejid I.
Now, in light of another disastrous British endeavour, this time to root out extremism in our midst, the PREVENT duty would – and should, at least according to its own principles – criminalise ANYONE who seeks to support and glorify the notion of the caliphate in a current context. That means any poets who extol the virtues of Tennyson’s poem or historians, teachers or politicians who see this work as a worthy piece of British identity and history. Britain supported the caliphate. That’s almost as absurd as saying Britain supported the jihad – until you look back at history and realise it did – whenever the need arose. Just a few years before the Crimean War, British Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston said: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.” He later became Prime Minister. Now that’s Britishness for you.
By Moazzam Begg
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