Can We Be Both Commemorative And Critical When Reflecting On War?

Controversy erupted this week on Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Day in Australia over the social media comments of part-time ABC presenter, engineer, author and Muslim activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

ANZAC Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand that commemorates armed service personnel, past and present, and their sacrifices. It is observed on April 25, the anniversary of the ANZAC’s landing in the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey, as part of a campaign in the First World War against the Ottoman Empire. It carries greater symbolic importance – the spirit of ANZAC is said to be crucial to forging the Australian identity and values of the then-fledgling nation.

However, critical uproar ensued this year after Abdel-Magied posted on Facebook:

“LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine)”

After being criticised on Facebook for the post, Abdel-Magied deleted it, explaining “It was brought to my attention that my last post was disrespectful, and for that, I apologize unreservedly.” Her new post simply read “Lest we forget.

The backlash did not cease with the edited post. She has continued to be condemned for being “disrespectful,” “disloyal,” and accused of hijacking the day for her personal political agenda. Conservative newspaper The Daily Telegragh’s front page read: “TWO FINGER SALUTE: ABC host’s ultimate insult to ANZAC legend.” Conservative politicians also jumped on board. Acting PM Barnaby Joyce called on the ABC and believe they should take “further action” against Abdel-Magied. The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, called her a “disgrace,” Senator Eriz Abetz labelled her comments “reprehensible,” and Liberal MP George Christensen wants her to be fired and to consider “self-deportation.” Many more attacks by media outlets, politicians and public commentators can be quickly found online. Even more alarming attacks can be found in social media comments.

While the ABC has so far stood by Abdel-Magied, the pressure is mounting. Petitions calling for her dismissal have been signed by tens of thousands, and Senator Abetz has written to Foreign Minister Julie Bishop calling for Abdel-Magied to be dropped as a board member of the Council for Australian-Arab Relations, run by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), urging that she is “unfit and lack[s] the judgement.”

All this furor over Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s 7-word post on ANZAC Day, is grossly exaggerated. The comment may have been untimely, and some preliminary explanation of what ANZAC Day means to her personally, or how it cannot (nor should it be) detached from contemporary issues perhaps would have allayed some of the outrage. Then again, perhaps the same reaction would have erupted with no surprise. The right-wing has concentrated on delivering personal and cultural attacks on Abdel-Magied – as an outspoken, articulate public activist, a woman of colour, and a Muslim, it is unfortunate, but likely, that this plays some part in the weight of the response.

Due to the already wide coverage of Abdel-Magied’s Facebook post, the focus should be put on questioning the way we remember ANZAC Day. This is a relevant point to make for non-Australians/New Zealanders as well. How can respect and recognition be given to the service of defence forces, all the while reconciling this with critical reflection about what we can learn from history for pursuing non-combative, peaceful solutions to global issues?

ANZAC Day should not be publicly hijacked for personal agenda-pushing. Respect should be shown for our service personnel, past and present, for that service and in many cases, their ultimate sacrifice. At the same time, ANZAC Day must be more than a narrow and tokenistic celebration. Above all, it should be about reflecting. With the sands of Gallipoli in 1915, and those involved in First World War inevitability becoming more distant as time passes, a crucial part of that reflection is considering the horrors of combat, the broader human suffering caused by war, and our failures, especially political, that lead us to taking up arms against each other, committing atrocities, violating freedoms (including speech) and obstructing justice. In this sense, the human rights violations of refugees by Australia on offshore detention centres in Manus and Nauru, our continued military expeditions in other sovereign nations that are neither simply for purposes of, nor adequate, humanitarian support, and indeed, our views on the expression of uncomfortable opinions that go towards our narrative of national identity, are relevant and important. Are not some of these contemporary issues reason for, or closely related to, our service personnel having fought and sacrificed their lives in various past conflicts?

To remember our service men and women (past and present) detached from this reality is not only disingenuous but disrespectful. Lest we forget individual sacrifices, but also lest we forget the lessons of history.

Lucas Hafey