Every April 23rd is celebrated as Saint George’s Day in the United Kingdom. St. George is the patron saint of England, and the English flag is the St. George’s cross.
Mythology and imagery surrounding the story of St. George taps into a lot of underlying assumptions about the relationship between Christianity and Islam in Western culture.
St. George Explicitly Links Englishness With Christianity and War
St. George first became connected to England back in the Middle Ages. There is a tradition that he flew the flag bearing the cross while waging the Third Crusade to try and recapture Jerusalem from the Kurdish general Saladin, although it is not confirmed to be true. Edward III made George the patron saint of England and flew his banner. He took the association of Saint George with martial prowess and courage in the face of adversity (he is credited with slaying a dragon, which is no easy feat) and promoted it as part of his idea of Englishness.
Images of Crusader knights sporting St. George’s red cross are a common motif in English culture. Soccer fans dress as Crusader knights at sporting events, children can buy Crusader costumes for fancy dress parties and many toys, such as the St. George Teddy Bear, wear his colors.
All of this imagery connects people to a history of Christians interacting with Muslims dating back a 1,000 years, as the Crusades were a religious war fought for control of Jerusalem and the holy land between Christian and Muslim kings.
That Heritage is Not Only Conflict
In England, the Crusades created a far more positive image of Islam than is commonly seen today. Far from seeing Muslims as savage barbarians, English writers developed an image of Saladin in particular as a romantic and noble figure. Especially in the Victorian era, he was portrayed as a model monarch, gracious in victory and dignified in defeat. Nor was this glorification of Saladin confined to England. Such was his reputation that Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered a wreath laid at Saladin’s tomb in Damascus.
Hollywood produced its own glamorous modern take on the Saladin-as-chivalric-hero trope in the 2005 blockbuster Kingdom of Heaven.
Shakespeare, whose birth is also celebrated on April 23, included Muslim characters in his plays. Most notably Othello, who is a noble and nuanced character brought down by a conspiracy masterminded by his jealous and racist ensign Iago.
This narrative of English history developed into a tradition that saw Arabs and Muslims as charming, sophisticated and honorable people. In particular, this attitude was widespread during the 19th century. Such a perception was, of course, drenched in paternalistic overtones (we’re talking about imperial era Britain, after all), but a basic respect was often there.
Perhaps no one exemplified this tradition better than the British Imperial officer T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, the military liaison to the Arab Revolt during World War I.
St. George is Now Bringing People Together
St. George is currently having a revival in the UK, this time as an icon of multiculturalism and diversity. Those who support this reading point to his origins as a Roman soldier in modern day Turkey in the third century CE. The fact that he was martyred by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for refusing to give up his Christian faith has earned him respect from those who stand for religious freedom.
Sections of the Left are very well aware that the perception they are unpatriotic has done them considerable electoral harm. They have such recognized the need to tap into patriotism in order to be able to project a vision of a collective purpose and shared journey that can rally people behind them.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, pledged in a St. George’s Day speech that if elected, he will make St. George’s Day a public holiday, along with the patron saints days of Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
By supporting this day, he hopes it will earn the Labour party back some amount of respect from England’s working class.
Muslim activists in the UK are also looking to St. George as way of building a shared narrative around England’s national traditions. Paul Armstrong, co-director of the Association of British Muslims, explains that Muslims also have a long tradition of venerating St. George. Armstrong argues that emphasizing that tradition can build bridges between the two communities.
Terrorism is a Recent Phenomenon
Despite its current domination of the news cycle, both jihadism and Islamism are relatively recent phenomenon that developed in the 20th century, largely as a revivalist response to the collapse of traditional forms of government in the face of modernity and overwhelming Western power.
Many political analyses of the relationship between Islam and the West tend to be focused on the present day. They forget that Europe has a history with Islam over a 1,000 years old and which has had many ups and downs and seen perceptions change over time.
Humans have an inbuilt bias to think that the way things are now is the way they always were or always will be. In truth, change is the only constant.