Poppies and Otherness
In a perceived crisis of national identity, small red flowers on footballers’ shirts stir controversy in Britain. Are poppies part of a unifying “civil religion”, or one that demands conformity?
The poppy appeal is a charity drive by the Royal British Legion. For £1 you can buy a poppy. The money raised in turn provides “lifelong support for the Armed Forces community - serving men and women, veterans, and their families”. This is often associated with Remembrance Sunday (November 11) and is associated with the fallen of the First and Second World Wars, but the Legion raises awareness for the veterans and Service personnel of recent combat too.
It is common for poppies to be seen in public spaces, individually worn by men and women or as wreaths, in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday. People will unite behind the symbol of the poppy, such as in the photo above from King Power Stadium.
It can also be placed as a symbol on the side of a building, as shown in this photo.
Professional sport provides evidence of the public saturation and commonplace position of poppies in British culture. At sports matches during this period, the poppy is commonplace, encouraging support and reverence for the military as part of British identity. It is assumed that public officials will wear a poppy, and many public institutions sport the symbol as well. Players have poppies sewn into their kit as seen above. The player wearing that shirt is Nigerian in nationality, and many foreign nationals will conform and wear a poppy when appearing in public in Britain. Pictures of celebrities and public poppy appeals or symbols are regularly seen, and institutional support of the British Legion and military veterans is a public good.
However, the wearing of the poppy as a symbol has not been universally accepted. Examples of issues which are often overlooked are: (1) the feelings of imperialism, (2) the glorification of war and violence, (3) the role of minorities in Military service.
When international footballers wore a poppy as part of their kit, David Conn notes in his article: “Fifa’s disciplinary committee opened proceedings on Thursday, telling both FAs [Scottish and English] that they may have breached football’s law that prohibits the wearing of political messages on players’ kit, when they displayed a poppy embroidered into an armband on the teams’ sleeves”. Culture Secretary Karen Bradley said she was pleased to see both players and fans commemorating Britain's war dead, and when speaking to BBC 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics, she said: "I urge Fifa to see sense in this and withdraw the threat of sanctions”. Fatma Samoura, FIFA's Secretary General, responded: “Britain is not the only country that has been suffering from the result of war”. Some groups challenge the poppy as a glorification of war and violence. Thus a white poppy was produced the Royal British Legion to meet the demands of “pacifists” who wished to help those affected because of their service, but didn’t want to compromise their conscience by honouring the violence that was the cause of it.
Poppies and Civil Religion
The societal codes and conventions that make up the poppy appeal is an example of “civil religion”. Support for the poppy is something that comes to represent a common national value. Robert Bellah in his 1967 article Civil religion in America, describes civil religion as something that comes to represent common knowledge and values. Bellah summarized the concept as a collection of beliefs, symbols, and rituals, which are institutionalised. John Coleman goes on to say in his 1970 article Civil Religion, that it is neither church nor state but a set of symbolic forms and acts, which relate man as a citizen and his society to world history and to the ultimate conditions of his existence. It is an expression of the cohesion of the nation, transcending denominational, ethnic, and religious boundaries. The rituals commemorate significant national events and renew commitments to society, sacralising the nation’s ideals, and holding up what people want to be. Notably peaceful, rational, democratic, united, and tolerant.
Poppies and conformity
A perceived crisis of national identity has led to some forming a defensive construction of a common national culture (civil religion), which can include wearing a poppy as an element of this, to provide stability and certainty. This is in contrast to Bellah’s original concept, where it forms a bridge between different religious groups in order to live together and increase cohesion. With a divisive rhetoric being used, for example with regards to the values represented by Muslims in relation to non-Muslims in Britain, it is a problem to maintain social cohesion.
Discussions of appropriate ‘moral’ behaviour in the media often juxtapose civil religious practices and actions by Muslims. One such practice that is often mentioned as emblematic of Islam is the burning of the book The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. As a symbol of unwelcome behaviour, this act is seen as irrational, violent, and inconceivable within the conceptualisations of civil religion. This act is contrasted by the poppy which has become the symbol to represent those who died in defending the nation, against irrational violence, with rational and acceptable means of violence, in order to create a more peaceful world.
Muslims are often seen as a ‘problem’, rather than as fellow inhabitants of a Britain with problems. This framework encourages support to government initiatives directed at dealing with ‘problems’. Muslims are to be ‘integrated’ into ‘our’ society and culture; they are to behave like us. Within this framework, the burden falls on the ‘other’ to do all the work necessary for integration. Ideally, minorities would accept all British values and assimilate, behave like everyone else and wear the poppy. This is exemplified by the image of American NFL players wearing the poppy on their kit during the 2014 International series matches played in London.
With the NFL not allowing sponsorships on their uniforms, except for institutional charities (for example, wearing pink apparel in support of cancer awareness), the decision by the league to allow a selection of its teams to wear a poppy on its uniform shows its willingness to conform to one of Britains most dominant cultural expressions.
Remembrance is often associated with the world wars but increasingly extended to all forms of military conflict. Many recent conflicts have taken place in countries inhabited by many of Britain’s minorities, particularly Muslims. The conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are seen by some as symbols of Britain’s continuing imperialist ambitions. There is a fine line between honouring those who sacrificed their lives in defence of innocent lives, and celebrating those who lost their lives in defence of (nationalistic/imperialistic) ideals at home and abroad. The blurring of these lines, the linking of the poppy as a symbol of British values, reinforces the view that assimilation is the only way to belong as a minority in Britain.