In a recent article David Cameron pledged lessons on the Magna Carta as he seeks to push British values. The Prime Minister wants to celebrate the political values and institutions that Britain gave to the world he said, “Britain has a lot to be proud of, and our values and institutions are right at the top of that list.”
Tony Blair shared a similar vision. “I value and honour our history enormously,” he said in a speech in 1997, but he thought that Britain’s empire should be the cause of “neither apology nor hand-wringing”; it should be used to further the country’s global influence.
Half a century after the end of the British Empire politicians of all persuasions still reminisce on the British imperial past with a sense of longing. Apologists for the new imperialism argue that Pax Britannica ushered in an unprecedented period of worldwide peace and prosperity. This new imperialism tries to justify itself with a story about Britain’s introduction of free trade, the rule of law, democracy and Western civilisation across the globe. It’s a story that is no different to the fable dreamt up by 19th-century propagandists to sell the benefits of empire to an uncertain public back home.
This populist retelling of history, is a desperate attempt to deflect from current failings, a last ditch attempt to salvage confidence in capitalist values, in the face of an ever increasing scepticism.
“Those who tell the stories also hold the power.” Plato
Why is it so important for the British government to promote its version of history? Well as George Orwell once wrote, “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” The history that is taught is designed to support the idea that Western civilisation is the most advanced form of civilisation known to man. This civilisation, that the British claim they brought to the world, is the end result of many millennia of progress and development. In order to support this notion, Western historians undermine the intellectual, moral, scientific and artistic achievements of all preceding ages and civilisations, in particular the civilisation that immediately preceded them, which is the Islamic civilisation. The achievements of preceding civilisations are instead attributed to the West itself. The West is thus seen to be a unique phenomenon rising far above all of history intellectually, morally and scientifically.
Therefore any people who differ with the values that underpin Britain and therefore Western civilisation, whether living in Britain or abroad, are seen as inferior and need to be civilised. This type of history curriculum produces an unquestioning British citizen unable to critique the values of society they live in while at the same time seeing themselves as the British “liberators” willing to offer “help” to those unfortunate Muslims living in Britain or requiring “liberating” in the Muslim World.
Yet presenting a rose tinted view of British history cannot mask the inherent problems of secular liberal capitalism in the contemporary world. The claim that Britain holds impeccable democratic credentials has been exposed with scandals involving corporate interests, lobbyists, wealthy donors, and financial abuse by its own MPs. It can no longer argue to have a “ethical” foreign policy, with its aggressive global colonisation and track record of supporting brutal, tyrannical dictatorships, and a colonial campaign to subjugate the world to British interests. Despite claiming to uphold the rule of law and celebrating the Magna Carta, Britain is a surveillance society, supports secret trials and readily strips people of their citizenship.
It seems then that the British government in its desperation is seeking to relive its imperial past to compensate for its current failings politically and economically, and to save what remains of the ebbing confidence in the capitalist values it is failing miserably to promote.
Sacred Myths – Magna Carta
A clear example of the framing of a particular historical narrative to project the moral superiority of British values is the retelling of the Magna Carta, which was signed by King John in 1215. David Cameron described it as “a great document in our history,” adding: “It is what my favourite book, ‘Our Island Story’, describes as the ‘foundation of all our laws and liberties’. In sealing it, King John had to accept his subjects were citizens – for the first time giving them rights, protections and security.”
Ironically, Mr Cameron himself had no idea what “Magna Carta” literally meant when challenged on US television in 2012. But more generally, Magna Carta is not what many politicians want us to think it is. As David Allen Green points out in the Financial Times, “much which is said about Magna Carta is myth. The limited articles which are still on our statute books have little if any legal effect”
For example, the legal document executed in 1215 was not the document that is now popularly known as Magna Carta. As for it being a “British” document, it was written in Latin and then translated into French. The document was specifically for nobles giving no such protection from arbitrary arrest and punishment for ordinary people. Others have demonstrated that the original document was discriminatory towards women and had more than a whiff of anti Jewish sentiment. In fact clauses 10 and 11 have been airbrushed from the official Magna Carta website for it’s derogatory references to the Jews. The Magna Carta was born out of a messy compromise between the monarch and his feudal barons and not out of high minded principles as it’s presented. The myth of the Magna Carta, is the myth that the rule of law is intrinsically linked to British values and institutions.
Contemporary politics and history have shown successive British governments have abandoned principles of rule of law on numerous occasions. For example, both the USA and the UK have been systematically involved in practices such as “extraordinary rendition”, torture of terror suspects, indefinite detention without charge, unjust treatment of foreign nationals, control orders placed on suspects who are unable to challenge any alleged evidence against themselves, secret trials, stripping of citizenship and intrusive spying on the whole British population.
This deficit of the rule of law is not just limited to the above. In June 2007, it emerged that Tony Blair had pulled the plug off a major fraud investigation by the Serious Fraud Office against the British arms manufacturer BAE Systems. It was reported that BAE secretly paid £1 billion to Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia as “secret commission”, thus effectively bribing the Saudis to place the largest British defence contract worth £43 billion, known as the al-Yamamah deal. It was allegedly in Britain’s “national interest” to terminate this SFO investigation, thus sacrificing the rule of law under the pretext of Britain’s oft-quoted “national interest”.
In reality David Cameron and his ilk only pay lip service to the “great charter”, and make references to populist history in an attempt to promote confidence in British values while attempting to cover the cracks over an inherently unjust system full of human frailties and biases.
The Islamic Values, Cause for Real Justice
The Muslims have a rich history that demonstrates the positive and immense impact Islam bought to the world. Its contributions to culture, sciences, accountable government and justice, led to the betterment of millions of Muslims and non-Muslims who lived under its rule for over 1300 years.
The confidence in Islamic values does not come from reliving this history or harking back to a mythical golden era. It comes from the values, thoughts and rules that Islam gave humanity through the divine revelation brought down to the Prophet Muhammad (saw). It was 600 years before the messy compromise that bought about the Magna Carta, that the Prophet (saw) brought down a Shariah that obliged the rule of law to be placed on both leader and common person alike. Thus if Muslims had a dispute with their rulers they were ordered to return it back to Islam through the Mahkamat Madhalim (Court of unjust acts) which could censure or even remove the ruler himself if he violated the Shariah.
“O you who believe! obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority from among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and very good in the end” Quran TMQ 4:59
The Prophet (saw) explained that all citizens must be subject to the rule of law irrespective of how rich or powerful they were, compare this to Blair’s abandonment of the rule of law, arguing it’s in the interest of a country not to prosecute bribery and corruption charges against a company. He (saw) said, “The nations before [us] were destroyed because if a noble person committed theft, they used to leave him, but if a weak person amongst them committed theft, they used to inflict the legal punishment on him. By Allah, if Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, committed theft, Muhammad would cut off her hand!” (Bukhari and Muslim)
Similarly the Prophet (saw) explained that those accused are innocent until proven guilty, “The burden of proof is upon the plaintiff, and the oath is upon the one who is accused.” (Tirmidhi)
On the prohibition of torture Islam cannot be more categorical in its ruling; the Prophet (saw) said, “Allah tortures those who torture the people in this life.” (Muslim)
There are numerous comprehensive rules laid down in the Islamic texts that preceded the largely abrogated texts of the Magna Carta. These rules are fixed and unchanging which are applied under the Islamic system of governance, the Khilafah, which promotes the idea of an elected and accountable leader.
On closer examination the British government’s attempt to push a particular British historical narrative is done in order to manufacture an unquestioning British citizen that presumes the superiority of British identity, and therefore Western civilisation, over all others.
However, Muslims must see past these political and ideological agendas in order to study history critically. Furthermore one needs to study the basis (aqeeda) of these values in order to determine their correctness, rather than simply adopting them based on some blind nationalistic sentiment.