While the death of Queen Elizabeth II marked the end of a historical era, much has also been written about the swathes of people who mourned her on a very personal level and in their own unique ways. The period of national mourning in Britain was a modern-day religious spectacle, reminiscent of medieval rites of visitation for the Christian masses to grieve the deaths of popes. The queue for the Queen’s lying-in-state is now legendary, even affecting the fortunes of celebrities. Football legend David Beckham enjoyed a boost in popularity for spending hours in line whilst ITV presenters Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughby became tabloid hate figures overnight for allegedly jumping the sacred Queue.
Traditional media tributes to the Queen also sought to connect her personal qualities of public service, humility, humour and faith with her historical and symbolic role as the UK’s monarch and other jurisdictions where she was head of state. The Queen, we were assured, reigned over a remarkably peaceful dissolution of the British Empire and its graceful transition into the Commonwealth which she personally held dear. The lack of blemish in her record was underscored by the fact that the violent Partition of India and Pakistan occurred before she ascended the throne.
This narrative was and is not without its detractors within and beyond the borders of the UK. After all, did Elizabeth II not begin her reign in 1952, the same year that the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya erupted? Was the violent British military campaign to suppress the revolt and the racist imperial propaganda that painted it as the work of savages merely an aberration in Lilibet’s benevolent stewardship of the new Commonwealth of Nations?
To be fair, Queen Elizabeth II’s role as head of state was largely ceremonial. It would be stretching it to suggest that she was responsible for the British imperial response to Mau Mau or that she could have done much to change it. It is not the Queen’s personal legacy that is therefore the subject of this list. We are rather concerned with the ways in which dates, images, and events have been assembled by the British media and political establishment to present a nostalgic narrative of benign monarchy and imperialism. But for every archival morsel served, what were the historical ‘others’ that had to be consigned as political compost?
Our list retrieves ten historical others that have been suppressed in favour of more iconic representations of particular moments in history. We do not rank or rate these in order of importance. Rather, we construct but one possible snapshot of modern history as an example of a liberating counter-narrative of and for the dispossessed.
We begin with what must be the archetype of modern historical metonymy. We’re not language snobs, so we’ll spare you a pedantic definition of metonymy. But you get our drift – saying ‘the bench’ to refer to the judicial profession or ‘dish’ to refer not to the plate or bowl but to the food it contains. That sort of thing.
Similarly, September 11 – also styled 9/11, betraying its US-centric vantage point – now conjures images of Islamist terrorists crashing aeroplanes into the World Trade Centre in New York City in 2001. It’s become shorthand for Samuel Huntington’s infamous clash of civilisations thesis, with Islam cast as the violent ‘other’ to the West’s values of liberalism, democracy and humanism.
But what about the other 9/11s? In 1999, this date saw mass civil disobedience against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Ministerial Conference in Seattle, Washington. Tens of thousands of protesters opposed the injustices that they said were caused by neo-liberal capitalism and economic globalisation. The demonstrations escalated and spilled over the coming weeks, with the police and National Guard quelling them with pepper spray, tear gas and stun grenades.
More infamously, on 11 September 1973 the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was ousted and later died, perhaps by assassination, in a coup d’état backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Which brings us to the year…
The year that Salvador Allende was assassinated was also the year of Roe vs Wade, the US Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that the US Constitution conferred the right to have an abortion. This milestone in Western feminist activism was overturned in 2022 when the Supreme Court declared that the constitution did not recognise abortion as a right. The same year saw the build-up of the Watergate scandal that eventually led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
But what was happening elsewhere in the world? Barely a month after Allende’s death, the fourth Arab-Israeli War (also known as the October War, Ramadan War, or Yom Kippur War) erupted. In retaliation towards US support for Israel, the Arab members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) embarked on an oil embargo which then triggered a global energy crisis.
South America and the Middle East were not the only regions to experience convulsions in which US interference played a key role. One little-known historical ‘other’ that exemplifies Uncle Sam’s version of imperialism takes us back to the year when Allende was first elected, which was…
A few months before Allende became president in November of this year, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four unarmed students and wounded nine others at Kent State University, some forty miles south of Cleveland. The killings happened during a peace rally that opposed US involvement in the expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. How perverse that these students were murdered for objecting to documented killings by US forces, such as the mass murder of South Vietnamese civilians in the Mỹ Lai massacre of 1968.
Meanwhile, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated shortly after Mỹ Lai. By the time he died, King was courting controversy for refusing to rest on the laurels of the national civil rights movement. He had turned into a critic of US imperialism abroad, exemplified in the Vietnam War. In fact, the year before he died, King effectively recanted the ideals of his famous ‘I Have a Dream Speech’ in 1963, when he told the NBC network that his dream had ‘turned into a nightmare’.
It is not that things were easy for King before he became an anti-war activist and a critic of imperialism. The struggle for civil rights within the US was no picnic either, which brings us to the year…
We’ve already said that this was the year of Dr King’s fabled ‘I Have a Dream Speech’, which he delivered in August. Back in April of the same year, King penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, in which he laid out the rationale for non-violent civil disobedience, captured in the oft-quoted phrase ‘injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’. Between King’s incarceration and his iconic speech, another civil rights hero, Medgar Evers, was assassinated by a white supremacist in June.
It has become commonplace to wax lyrical about King, even in the UK, and to revere him as a modern-day prophet of peace and equality. It is not that King and many other civil rights activists were not remarkable moral leaders worthy of emulation. But putting disproportionate emphasis on the US civil rights movement downplays or even erases the struggles that were being fought contemporaneously elsewhere, including in the UK. After all, 1963 was also the year of the Bristol Bus Boycott against Bristol Omnibus Company for its refusal to employ Black or Asian bus crews.
This is the kind of detail that challenges the narrative of enlightened and orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth under Elizabeth II’s reign. If there was indeed a transition, it emerged out of deep struggle from grassroots communities, and was hardly bequeathed by a benevolent Crown and is far from complete.
Moreover, the situation in UK was no less perilous than it was in the US. A fortnight after King was assassinated in the US in 1968, the British Member of Parliament Enoch Powell delivered his famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. It is hard to decide which was more disturbing – its content (in which Powell warned that white Britons would soon be subjugated and colonised by swarms of swarthy immigrants) or its ecstatic reception by a significant portion of the British public.
This racist and anti-immigrant baiting by right-wing politicians would only grow in the following years. A couple of decades after Powell’s speech, Muslims (and Islam as a religion) became the new scapegoats in the British political landscape, which takes us to the year…
Yes, this was the year the infamous Satanic Verses controversy, more popularly known in the UK as the Rushdie Affair, kicked off in earnest. From book-burnings in Bradford to the infamous fatwa against Salman Rushdie by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, this was the year of the global blockbuster hit The News, starring Islam. Another blockbuster released during this year was The Fall of the Berlin Wall. But over the ensuing decades, it is Islam and Muslims that have proven to be the more profitable franchise, spawning innumerable sequels, prequels, and spin-offs.
Some of these instalments have received mixed reviews. For example, there is little reflection in Western media circles about another monumental struggle that developed in 1989 – the First Palestinian Intifada, which was ignited in 1987 and lasted more than five years. Instead, the Palestinian liberation struggle inaugurated an enduring Western media obsession with ‘Islamic’ terrorists and suicide bombers. And this brings us to…
This was a rare year in which the news headlines referred to fatal incidents of terrorism that did not involve Muslims, occurring in the same month on both sides of the Atlantic. The Columbine High School massacre on 20 April is probably the more well-known tragedy, where twelfth graders Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold murdered twelve students and one teacher in what, at the time, was the deadliest high school shooting in US history.
Lesser known and, if it is possible, more sinister were the London nail bombings which occurred over three consecutive weekends in the second half of the same month. David Copeland, a British Neo-Nazi militant, detonated home-made nail bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and the Admiral Duncan Club in Soho, targeting black, Bengali and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) communities. Overall, three people were killed and 140 were injured.
Copeland was motivated by a desire to start an apocalyptic race war, inspired by The Turner Diaries, a novel by the American Neo-Nazi and white supremacist William Luther Pierce III. The book, labelled by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as the ‘bible of the racist right’, was published in 1978, the year before…
This was, of course, the year of the Iranian Revolution which deposed the Pahlavi dynasty and transformed Iran into an Islamic republic headed by Ayatollah Khomeini as its Supreme Leader. But whilst this Revolution became the enduring face of ‘radical’ Islam in the traditional Western media, another Islamic revolt during the same year has quietly disappeared under the historical radar. Because this same year, another Islamic monarchy was also under threat – Saudi Arabia.
On 20 November, a former soldier of the Saudi National Guard, Juhayman al-Otaybi, and his followers laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca with the aim of overthrowing the House of Saud. In addition to his anti-monarchical stance, al-Otaybi also condemned the Saudi religious class, the ulama, for colluding with the corrupt Saudi monarchy. The siege lasted two weeks but, unlike the Iranian revolution, failed and al-Otaybi was publicly executed in Mecca the following year.
When juxtaposing the Iranian Revolution against the siege of Mecca, the line between terrorist and revolutionary becomes a bit murky. One leader who allegedly had no problem drawing this line was former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who, incidentally, came into power also in 1979.
Thatcher is infamously attributed with labelling Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress a terrorist organisation. This is the same Nelson Mandela, joint winner of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize (with FW de Klerk), who would go on to become the first president of post-apartheid South Africa in 1994, which was the year before…
This was the year that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
It was also the year of the Oklahoma City bombing (which claimed at least 168 lives and injured nearly 700 others), the Tokyo subway sarin attack (causing thirteen deaths, severely injuring fifty, and impairing more than 1,000 others), and the Srebrenica massacre (claiming more than 8,000 lives).
What do all these tragedies have in common? They were acts of terrorism or genocide that were not caused by Muslims. Sorry (not sorry) for belabouring the point.
For completeness, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir (an Orthodox Mizrahi Jew), the Oklahoma bombing was masterminded and led by Timothy McVeigh (a Gulf War veteran and lapsed Roman Catholic), the Tokyo attack was masterminded by Shoko Asahara, founder of Aum Shinrikyo (a Japanese religious movement derived from Buddhism), and the Srebrenica massacre was masterminded by the Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić.
But now that we’ve established that Muslims do not have a monopoly on terrorism and other acts of mass public violence, it is time to address the elephant in the room. This brings us to the year…
This year was bookended by horrific acts of terrorism that both happened in Paris, France. In January, two Islamist gunmen broke into the headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing twelve people. In November, a fortnight before the historic UN climate change negotiations in the city, COP21, a series of coordinated Islamist terrorist attacks targeted different locations in Paris. The highest death toll occurred at Bataclan nightclub, which claimed at least 90 lives. Similar attacks happened the day before in Lebanon.
But while Je suis Charlie became a political slogan for secular liberals, yet another startling development escaped the attention of traditional Western commentators, especially in the UK – probably because it was a shameful aspect of British history.
After the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, the British government agreed to pay £20 million in compensation – not to the people who were formerly enslaved but to 46,000 slave owners. And it was in 2015 that British taxpayers finally finished ‘paying off’ this debt which, according to the Bank of England’s inflation calculator, would have been the equivalent of £2 billion in 2015.
Is it the fact that it took 182 years for the British state to give out reparations to these former slavers that is so galling? Or is it that, knowing this to be a fact, ex-colonial powers such as the UK still refuse to fork out even minimum amounts of aid for – not to mention cancel the ‘debts’ of – formerly colonised peoples around the world?
We don’t have the answers. We’d rather end with an example that complicates our attempt to tell a singular story of history. And this brings us to the year…
This was the year that, shortly after midnight on 13 August, post-war Berlin was divided between the West and the Soviet-controlled East.
This was also the year which launched the civil disobedience of the Freedom Riders – civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated South in the US. They were violently attacked by white mobs, including the Ku Klux Klan, often with the tacit approval of the police. Many were also arrested.
In 1961, South Africa became a republic and withdrew from the Commonwealth because of objections from other member states towards its policy of apartheid.
And this was also the year in which Queen Elizabeth II famously danced with Kwame Nkrumah, the first president and prime minister of Ghana. The Netflix series, The Crown, portrayed this incident as having major global implications, suggesting that the dance was instrumental in keeping Ghana within the grip of British control. Historians have argued that this is unlikely and that the truth is not so simple.
More plausible, however, is the idea that the Queen did care about the future of the Commonwealth, and that her embrace of an African leader on the dance floor was her personal way of giving the royal middle finger to the apartheid regime of South Africa.