Hugh Fitzgerald: May God Save 'God Save The Queen'
The 'dangerous' national anthem of Great Britain.
A Muslim student at King’s College London, and an officer of its Student Union (3 of its 5 top officers are Muslims), one Mahamed Abdullahi, has called for “God Save the Queen,” Great Britain’s national anthem, to be omitted from the school’s graduation ceremonies. He claims the song is “outdated” and “not reflective of the global values the college espouses.” Abdullahi – who is, by the way, a Danish citizen, though not exactly a Dane – insists that this anthem is dangerous “in the context” of the “increasing far-right nationalism across Europe and the legacy of the British Empire.” His obscenity-filled rant can be read here.
What makes “God Save the Queen” outdated? Has the monarchy fallen out of favor with the people of Great Britain? Or is their interest and enthusiasm for the Queen and the idea of the monarchy perfectly understandable, for the Royals are a human symbol of stability and national identity, in a world more dizzyingly in flux than ever before? Look at the British popular press, which appears to devote half its space to Kate Middleton’s children, and another quarter to the Queen. Clearly the British people have no wish to jettison their monarchy. If there were no royal family on which to focus, popular attention might instead be given, as in the United States, to empty celebrities, such as the Kardashians, or to the mix-n’-match couplings and uncouplings of assorted jolies and pitts.
“God Save The Queen” is mild in its winsome expression of national fervor (compare, for example, the martial theme of La Marseillaise); the first two verses go like this:
_God save our gracious Queen_!
Long live our noble Queen!
God save the Queen!
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the Queen.
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter her enemies
And make them fall;
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all!
There is nothing conceivably “far right” about these sentiments. I doubt if Mahamed Abdulllahi comprehends the useful role of the constitutional monarch in Great Britain as a focus of national identity, unity, and pride, providing the British with a sense of continuity and stability. What enrages him is the very idea that the British people in this deuteroelizabethan age should permit themselves to have feelings of national pride, and what’s more, to express them. For Abdullahi, that is enough to constitute “far-right nationalism.” When your child pledges allegiance “to the flag and to the republic for which it stands” and wishes “liberty and justice for all,” is he being “far-right”? At a baseball game, do you feel part of a “far-right” crowd because you listen to, or even join in singing, “The Star-Spangled Banner”? Of course not.
Is there any expression of pride in a national identity that Mahamed Abdullahi would find acceptable? I don’t think so. I think that the only kind of “identity” he approves of is that of the supranational umma, or Community of Muslim Believers, and that he obscurely senses that a shared sense of affection and pride in one’s own nation (as expressed in England in many ways, including singing “God Save the Queen) is also, nowadays, a part of the West’s psychological defense against the encroachments of aggressive Islam. For Mahamed Abdullahi, that’s enough to make it “far-right” nationalism.
What about the charge that “God Save the Queen” carries with it the “legacy of the British Empire”? (The anthem itself was first published in 1745, before there was much of a British Empire to celebrate.) Perhaps Abdullahi objects to the fact that many former colonies, once part of that Empire, are now enthusiastic members of the British Commonwealth, keeping up ties to Great Britain, and delighting in receiving visits from Queen Elizabeth II and younger members of the Royal Family. It is not just Canada and Australia and New Zealand that are thrilled, but India, Singapore, Uganda, Nigeria, Jamaica, indeed every country in the Commonwealth (save for Rwanda and Cameroon, but only because they are the latest to join, and the Queen hasn’t yet fit them into her schedule), eager to bask in the reflected glory of a royal visit.
Apparently very few of those actually in the Commonwealth share Mahamed Abdullahi’s sour vision of the “legacy of the British Empire.” Mahamed Abdullahi may have forgotten that even Yassir Arafat once hoped that his future state of “Palestine” would be allowed to join the Commonwealth.
But since he contemptuously dismisses the “legacy of the British Empire” without discussing it, perhaps we should ask: just what was that legacy? First, the English language, which has been perhaps the greatest gift to colonized peoples anywhere, the language that has served as a lingua franca for many different peoples in Africa and in the subcontinent; and the spread of English has allowed them entrée into the worlds of science, technology, business, sport, entertainment, and that same English brings with it, of course, an unrivalled literary heritage. Among the former British colonies in Africa, the spread of English now permits Nigerians to talk to Tanzanians and Kenyans to talk to Ghanaians. And in India, with a multitude of tongues — Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, and Punjabi being the most widely used – the educated in every state can communicate with each other, and with those similarly educated throughout India, in English. It is the English language that, paradoxically, unifies India.
Second, the British introduced the rule of law, specifically the Common Law, including what had been built up through centuries of cases as contract and property law, and rules of civil and criminal procedure. Third, public works – roads, bridges, canals, railroads – that the British built in so many of their colonies, and that promoted economic development.
Fourth – modern medicine, including vaccinations for many previously untreatable diseases. Fifth – free trade within the Empire, stimulating economic growth. Sixth—universal schooling, from elementary grades all the way up, in many of the colonies, to universities. And seventh, the abolition first of the slave trade, and then of slavery. The slave trade that the British abolished first was that vast and cruel enterprise conducted by Muslim Arabs in East and Central Africa and involving 17 million black Africans, many of them young boys castrated where they were captured and, if they survived the operation (only 20% did), were then brought to the slave markets of Islam, to be sold as eunuchs. It was the Royal Navy that finally stamped out that slave trade, preventing the Arab slavers from landing with their cargo on the Arabian peninsula.
Mahamed Abdullahi has nothing good to say about “legacy of the British Empire,” but we have a right and a duty to remind him of that positive legacy (language, law, public works, medicine, free trade, education), and particularly to remind him that it was the British who ended the brutal slave trade conducted by Muslim Arabs.
Finally, Mahamed Abdullahi claims that the British national anthem is “not reflective” of the “’global values’ the college espouses.” What are those “global values”? Would they include such values as equal treatment of all, including minorities and women, before the law? Would they include the free exercise of any religion or the right to believe in none? Would those “global values” include the right to change one’s religion? Would they include the right of both sexes to equal education?
Would they include the right to criticize religions, even if that offends some believers? Would they include the right of children not to be treated as their parents’ chattel? These are not so much “global” values, in fact, as values originating in the countries of the advanced West, and especially Great Britain and its political offspring, the United States. The university’s administrators, who had initially (and shamefully) shown themselves willing to discuss Abdullahi’s nauseating proposal, have fortunately been forced by public outrage to backtrack. Perhaps they need to be reminded – Mahamed Abdullahi can bring them up to snuff — on the Muslim version of “global values” espoused by such models of religious freedom and legal equality as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Sudan, and many dozens of other Muslim countries. And then he might also explain what the “legacy” of the Muslim Empire has been for so many different lands and peoples. That should prove most instructive.
And meanwhile, may God save “God Save The Queen.”