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Lurching into nationalism

Trevor Fisher contends that nationalism cannot be an effective counter to religious fundamentalism.

The 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).