New Age Islam
Tue Oct 20 2020, 07:45 PM

Current Affairs ( 9 Oct 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

The Symbolism of National Flags and their Significance in Society

By Rashid Samnakay, New Age Islam

10 October 2016

There are 195 national flags on flag-poles at the UN in New York. Each design of the flag is different and represents the individual country that is a member of that organization. Only a couple of flags there are of Observers countries.

A flag is generally considered a symbol of a nation’s identity; identifying the nation for its place ‘among the powers of the earth’ and often depicting important characteristics and aspects of the nation by which it wishes to be recognised by others in the world.

Some nations take this symbol of their identity, the national flag very seriously and expect others to respect it. Some people can therefore make use of it to honour or humiliate a nation by treating its flag accordingly, to show their attitude towards that particular nation.

The exuberant expression of pride in one’s own country is very obviously displayed by athletes on sports fields lately, as at Olympics. In 2000 Olympics the Australian 400 meters gold medallist Cathy Freeman draped herself in an aboriginal flag along with an Australian national flag given to her by spectator after she had finished the race.

This was a clear demonstration of pride by her in her aboriginality and also Australian-ness. An important statement on her part of that sentiment. Though, some adverse comments were made on her having draped the aboriginal flag and not just the Australian flag. So the flag, as a symbol did matter to those who gave it to her and to Cathy herself; and to the others, it meant a lot too!

Recently this phenomenon played news-worthy part in this region. The so called ‘Budgie Nine’ - bunch of nine fully grown, young and educated men made international headlines by stripping down to their brief swimmers made of Malaysian national flag; and indulged in what seemed to be a drinking bout, drinking out of smelly shoes that one might say sweaty and therefore unhygienic, at the Formula 1 race where an Australian driver won the race. The whole episode was seen as vulgar by the authorities.

They were locked up for few days and taken to court and charged according to what the Malaysian authorities thought appropriate under its laws. Good sense prevailed and the young men apologised “unconditionally”, so they were set free and returned home:

لوٹ کے بُدھو کو گھر آۓ  - The fools made it home safely!

The fact that the young adults were educated and enlightened quickly learnt the lesson from their ordeal and issued a statement--"We urge all Australians travelling overseas in future to be very aware of cultural differences and sensitivities that exist in other nations"; it shows that they were no fools. The Prime Minister of Australia also acknowledged the fact that under the circumstances Malaysia’s act was "very lenient". All parties concerned therefore deserve kudos.

However one question that was never asked was: Why did the young Australians not celebrate the important event wearing readymade and readily available swimming trunks made of Australian flag material when it was the Australian driver who won the race, to show their loyalty to and pride in their own country and its driver winning the race in a foreign country?

The important aspect of this drama was that the Australian government recognised that it was a premeditated action on the part of the young people and it showed diplomatic maturity in giving out appropriate conciliatory statements, unlike previously on such occasion, as on the tragic ‘Bali Nine’ crisis in Indonesia where Australia was considered as playing the big brother card.

And so too did the Malaysian authorities act as any good neighbour should and accepted the unconditional apology and thus avoided another ‘diplomatic crisis’ between neighbours.

The latter is significant in that Malaysia is officially a Muslim country and anything in the name of ‘religion’ plays very heavily on Muslim psyche. This is even more so that the country is now more and more under the influence of the religious brigades. Also the fact that its flag design includes, among other national characteristics, the aspect of it being a Muslim country- nay, an Islamic country as some would like to say, as depicted by the ‘crescent’ on the flag.

That being the case, it augers well for the region that at least at higher level these sensitivities are being handled on mature basis by two differently cultured countries. Although in the Western culture it is often seen that during a mass protest flags are trampled upon and even set on fire; such scenes are taken in their stride by the law enforcement authorities and taken as an expression of the depth of feeling of the protestors.

A popular Australian broadcaster and honoured intellectual and author, Phillip Adams once referred to national flags, if my memory serves me right; as ‘piece of rag on a totem pole’!

But the above cannot be accepted so lightly. Every nation on earth uses its flag as an important symbol to usher in significant national event: Independence Day, Foundation Day, celebration and marking of some important successes. To mark and pay respect to the day when and honoured national or international personality passes away, the flags are flown at ‘half-mast’. Coffins of fallen heroes are covered with national flags. It is also hoisted and taken down with pomp and ceremony with band playing and bugles blaring and so on. Thus the whole identity is wrapped in that ‘piece of rag’ to the extent that it is not allowed to touch the ground, and the pole becomes an important ‘totem pole’ for the purpose.

These are some essential features of cultural differences that have to be appreciated in order to make the world a friendly place. The duty rests with all.

As is the case with Australians going to other countries of distinctly different national and social systems and cultures, so it is with those people coming to Australia must be ‘sensitive’ to the cultural differences that exists here. The responsibility does not diminish whether people are just visiting or coming to live permanently in the country. As it is with “custom duty” at the incoming ports for goods brought in so it is with importing confronting cultures in society. It is very easy for the welcome-mat to be pulled out under the visitors’ feet on entry.

It cannot be stressed enough that the onus of adapting to the differences in the country that one wants to make a ‘Home’ for themselves and their next generation, lies heavier on the shoulders of the migrants. The newcomers are duty bound to keep the peace and blend in harmoniously and give thanks for the welcome given to them. For this lesson to be learnt one does not have to turn the pages of the religious scriptures to find what should and should not be done. This was aptly demonstrated by the enlightened Australian youths.

Does that mean that the new comers should wear the swimming trunks or bikinis made out of the Australian flags when in their new home as the Australians do? No, not at all, for there is “no compulsion” either way. But if they do wish to do so, there is no cultural taboo attached to it at present; unless the law of the land changes and makes it illegal later, then all must obey the law!

A regular contributor to New Age Islam, Rashid Samnakay is a (Retd.) Engineer


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