Flags have been around a long time, and with good reason. They evolved from the ‘standards’ that were historically carried into battle and gradually became adopted as national symbols. Every country in the world has one. Some have two. And if you are in America the power of the flag as both a rally-point and the spark of tension will be well enough known — and the Confederate flag that flies in many of the southern states of the USA, the losing side in the American Civil War, was front and centre in the last week.
Nine black people were murdered by a white supremacist terrorist as they attended a church prayer meeting in Charleston, South Carolina. Dylann Roof killed them with a handgun that he had bought and he was quickly captured and now awaits trial. The flag that Roof marched under was that of the Confederacy, and pictures have emerged of him displaying the Confederate flag and other symbols of his racism and his hatred for black people. Thus far nobody has claimed that the balance of his mind was disturbed or that he suffers from a mental illness. Roof knew what he was doing and wanted to do what he did.
In the southern states of the USA the Confederate flag is to be seen everywhere, from car number plates to the flagpole outside the South Carolina state legislature where it is actually padlocked to the flagpole, never to be removed. But nothing is forever…
The murders have yet again sparked a sterile debate over gun laws — but a much more vibrant and purposeful debate about the presence of the Confederate flag in prominent public places, particularly as it is symbolic of both the racism and the fight against slavery that was the cause of the Civil War in the first place. All of a sudden politicians that had for years — generations in some cases — wrapped themselves in the Confederate flag as an article of faith were beginning to distance themselves from it. Black and white people protested peacefully in Charleston and elsewhere against the display of the flag and only this morning, preparatory to writing this piece, I read that the largest flag-maker in the USA is to stop making the Confederate flag.
There is a rapid awakening, or perhaps not so much an awakening as a putting aside of denial, across American states that have yet to come to terms with the reality of being on the losing side in the war that determined the future of America. The gun laws are not about to change, but one or two other things just might. The arrogant racism that goes with the Confederate flag being one of them.
Which bring us to the white-and-green of our own flag. The white portion represents the minorities, all of them, whatever their faith-adherence and as with the black people of the southern states of America there is an angry undertone constantly rumbling in the background.
Taken as a whole our flag is not of itself a symbol of repression or discrimination, and I suspect that at the outset it was an honest attempt at creating a symbol of a new state that was representative of all its peoples. The Confederate flag really did start life as a battle standard (I looked it up) and only later became associated with racism and discrimination.
The black people of the southern states of America have both a voice and political leverage; they get listened to in the highest offices of state. They are never going to change the gun laws but they might, just might, be able to chip away at the institutionalised racism represented by the Confederate flag. For the minorities of Pakistan the white segment shrinks every day, and is often tinged red with the blood of those killed because of what they believe. They have no real voice, no economic power and live their lives in fear. For them, the flag has also become symbolic of oppression and discrimination, and the white portion next to the flagstaff symbolic of nothing of substance, but their chances of ever righting the balance are infinitesimal. By our flags are we known.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 25th, 2015.
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