he terrorist atrocities this
summer led to a knee jerk reaction from most of
the British press. The shock of seeing young British
muslims raised in a westernised society blowing
themselves up at the behest of a barbaric mediaeval
religion operated like a tsunami across a wide
range of opinion formers. The only coherent response
seemed to be to wave the Union Jack and argue for
a simplistic Little Englander nationalism. From
the Daily Telegraph to the Eastern Eye, journalists
have been waving the flag and defining “Britishness” as
a device to ward off the bombers. A moment’s
thought would show that creating an exclusive Them
and Us mentality is precisely what the proponents
of Jihad desire.
The reaction of leading writers for the New Statesman
illustrated the problems very clearly. In the immediate
aftermath of 7.7, John Pilger and Tristram Hunt
offered polarised views which had a common British
perspective. Pilger saw the root cause of the London
bombing in Blair’s decision to invade Iraq,
a front page headline approach which tied in with
the Statesman’s justified opposition to the
war. Hunt saw an antidote to the attraction of
British muslims for Jihad in an attempt to celebrate
Britishness, worryingly close to the views of the
Daily Telegraph who chose this summer to circulate
to primary schools H E Marshall’s tendentious
little Edwardian story book of the nation which
gave rise to the Raj.
The hatred some Muslim youth feels is possibly
fuelled by the Iraq invasion as Pilger argues.
It is also conceivable that youths who have turned
to Jihad from cricket and courses at British universities
can be turned back by extolling the values of Britishness,
as Hunt contends. But the root cause of the challenge
Jihad poses is not imperialism, or alienation from
Britain. It is religious hatred powered by ideas
dredged up from the Dark Ages.
In this, Jihad is simply the most dangerous element
of a world wide move against secularisation and
the Enlightenment. Until very recently intellectual
life across the globe was rationalist and scientific,
but it is no longer. The emergence of Christian
fundamentalism and Creationism in the USA, the
rise of scientology, Hindu fundamentalism and the
development of irrational sects from the Moonies
to the Branch Davidians, are examples of a global
turn against reason. At the start of the 21st Christian
century, the secular values which emerged with
the Enlightenment in the eighteenth Christian century
are facing a radical threat.
Islam is the most serious of these religious threats.
Islam is not a quietist faith. Die for the Cause,
and Islam offers a place in heaven for ever. It
is this wholly unprovable but seductive promise
which has fuelled Islam’s explosive potential
for violent conflict. Islam shares with other religions
absolute certainty on a range of moral issues,
and in its fundamentalist versions appears to deny
the possibility of progress – the central
belief of the Enlightenment. For its hard line
believers, human evolution stopped when the Koran
was written, and all answers can be provided by
a literal reading of that religious book.
The danger of Islamic fundamentalism is however
not confined to any one nation, and its appeal
to alienated Muslims cannot be dealt with by a
counter-nationalism. Al Qa’eda sees itself
as an international movement, using the internet
with astonishing skill. Those who have argued that
it can be tackled by a purely national approach
are heading into a cul de sac. The fundamental
error of the nationalist approach to Islamic extremism
is that it retreats into a siege mentality. It
was particularly bizarre for Tristram Hunt to argue
that because “Islamo-fascism claims lives
in London, Madrid, Amsterdam and elsewhere”,
we should “engage with the virtues of nationhood”.
Logically, given an international threat to impose
a new totalitarianism, a celebration of the virtues
of internationalism, rational debate and diversity
should be the order of the day.
This country is experienced a Summer of Fear,
leading to panic reactions. It is a knee jerk reaction
to embrace the politics of the nationalist right,
seeing the problem as the importation of alien
values whose exclusion will undermine the threat.
Hunt contrasted the decision to ban that noble
British tradition, the killing of foxes, with policies “happily
allowing in Muslim clerics committed to destroying
British values”. To argue thus comes close
to the views of Andrew Roberts and other luminaries
of the right. Roberts argued recently that the
policies of New Labour “made Britain a soft
touch for infiltration by her enemies”. This
kind of thinking leads automatically to fortress
Britain, a victory for the Fundamentalists which
would divide the world into a new Cold War run
on religious lines.
The proper reaction to the terrorist atrocities
cannot be a retreat into nationalism. That Britain
is under attack is clear, but so is every other
secular state on the planet. We cannot respond
to this by closing the borders, literally or metaphorically,
identifying the threat as solely from aliens from
abroad. To do so would trigger a witch hunt which
cannot stop until the far right have taken over
on a crusade to remove The Enemy Within. The threat
of playing into the hands of the BNP is very real.
Internationalism, rationalism and human rights
have to be at the heart of the battle against the
threat of religious fundamentalism. In this battle
there will be a role for patriotism, the celebration
of place and history. But patriotism is not nationalism,
which is by definition a flag waving mindlessness
which rejects other nations and cultures.
The distinction between patriotism and nationalism
will become increasingly important. Since the London
bombings, we have had too much nationalism and
not enough patriotism, and the balance has to be
redressed. Important though patriotism is, however,
the crucial issues are internationalism and rationalism.
Al Qa’eda and its acolytes have declared
war on the Enlightenment and the belief in Progress,
and it is this attack on Reason which is central.
In the battle for hearts and minds which lies ahead
the values of the Enlightenment, not the values
of a Little England nationalism, will be decisive.
Trevor Fisher is an historian and political writer
and vice-chair of Labour Reform. His latest book
is Oscar and Bosie - A fatal passion (Alan Sutton).