Benghazi Commonwealth grave desecration and the spectre of anti-Islam

The destruction of headstones from World War II have caused outrage around the world. EPA/Mohamed Elryani

Around 50 Australians graves from World War II in Libya’s Benghazi Commonwealth war cemetery have been desecrated, apparently by Islamist militia. Footage of this violent destruction has spread around the world. It is distressing.

There are Australians alive still who can personally recall the men buried in that cemetery as brothers, fathers, and uncles. To see their graves desecrated will be painful.

Public responses to the event reflect a justifiable outrage, but people have also hitched the event to wider calls to cut aid, prevent Muslims entering Australia, and to assert an essentialist Islamic character.

There is a long history both of this kind of desecration, and of related anxieties about Islam. Both are related to the unique problem of locating such powerful symbols as graves in foreign countries.

World wide symbols

Spread literally across the world, Commonwealth war cemeteries of the First and Second World Wars are readily identifiable by their white headstones and prominent “Cross of Sacrifice”. They have been so long established as to make them seem almost natural and timeless.

But these sites are very specific in their references to time and place. Erected by the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission, they mark the resting places of those servicemen and women who died, and also provide a focus for their families’ private grieving.

Australians have reacted strongly to video footage of Libyans desecrating World War II graves. (Youtube)

These cemeteries were also intended as unambiguous symbols of the British Empire. Commission founder Sir Fabian Ware hoped they would play a genuine role in international diplomacy, representative of the common suffering of the European nations.

In the Middle East, however, the same symbols worked very differently. Ware wondered whether the “strength and grandeur of the British Commonwealth [could] be displayed to these people of the East” better than through these cemeteries, as exemplars of imperial power.

Such imperial symbolism is hardly an invitation or justification for the recent attack on the Benghazi cemetery. We should be aware, however, that even in Europe cemeteries and memorials have long been subject to politically-motivated vandalism.

In this sense Commonwealth war cemeteries are a presence in foreign landscapes that invite responses, from gratitude to indifference to hostility. Most often they are well tolerated, though the destruction of Australia’s Desert Mounted Corps memorial at Port Said during the 1956 Suez crisis reminds us that this is not always the case.

Grief and nationalism

For their part, Australians have invested a great deal of emotional energy in overseas war cemeteries, both in terms of private grieving, and as sites for the expression of Australian nationalism.

The dead of the two world wars have become the embodiment of the virtues Australians like to see in themselves, though increasingly their deaths are abstracted from the actual contexts in which they fought, and rendered as service to the nation beyond too much historical questioning.

Outraged responses to events in Benghazi are certainly understandable in these contexts. They should also be understood in terms of a history of anxiety about Muslim desecration of graves that goes back as far as the evacuation of Gallipoli in 1915, when the graves of Australian soldiers were left to the Turkish enemy.

Returning in 1918, Australians’ fears of systematic desecration let loose a flood of anti-Islamic sentiment, which slowly gave way to a lingering anxiety about the non-Christian soil of Gallipoli, and the long-term tenure of those graves.

In 1934 Turkish president and First World War veteran Mustapha Kemal Ataturk appealed to bereaved mothers to “wipe away your tears”. It was in part a response to those anxieties, assuring Australians that “After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

These are soothing words, yet this week’s responses are a powerful echo of that same anxiety, reconceived in the context of contemporary fears and prejudices surrounding Islam and its adherents.

Why can’t they see what we see?

In one sense this is grist for the mill of populist politics, rather than anything specifically about Australians’ relationships with war graves. At another level, however, responses show clearly a more enduring unease about our incapacity to assert universal meanings for our significant sites in foreign territories.

Columnists and contributors to web forums, for instance, have accused Libyans of ingratitude, not only in terms of recent support, but in terms of Libya’s Allied “liberation” in the Second World War.

We can’t be sure, of course, that locals see it this way, and the possibility that there are alternate narratives of the Australian presence in Libya – even ones not expressed in such violence – is troubling to these outraged Australians.

This was a troubling element too in the ructions over Gallipoli in 2005, when roadworks sparked broader tensions surrounding “ownership” of the peninsula and the stories attached to it. How could the resting places of the dead be assured if local understandings of their tombs conflict with our own?

At the extreme, some have suggested digging up the dead and bringing their remains to Australia. The realities of this, of course, are not so simple.

Unjust desecration

We should be saddened that the dead of conflicts past cannot be left at rest, and that those who mourn them still are pained further at such treatment. Officials in Libya have made clear their own disgust at the desecration of graves, and expect to punish the offenders; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission will repair the damage.

But despite our justifiable upset, we might be reminded that our marking of foreign landscapes not only speaks to our own experiences of war and loss, but remains a part of the histories and contemporary politics of other peoples’ countries.

These war graves are not frozen in the past, independent of the events and people around them. Reflecting more sombrely on the presence of our dead in foreign lands might also help us to reflect on our relationships with the people who live there.