Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

16 August 2010

‘Racist’ English nationalism: an alibi for Britain’s anglophobia and Islamophobia

It’s become something of a cliché in the discourse of the progressive wing of so-called British politics to refer to a supposed association between English nationalism and the racist far right. The key illustration of this link that is usually brought forward nowadays is the English Defence League: the protest organisation set up to resist the alleged spread of Shariah Law, and the ‘Islamification’ of England and the UK as a whole.

The EDL itself refutes the charge of racism; and as a general point, the question of the connection between ‘anti-Islamism’ / Islamophobia and racism is an interesting and complex one, which I’ll discuss quite a bit during the course of this post. While it’s true that hostility or wariness towards Islam, or some of its manifestations, by no means intrinsically involve racism, they are often a cover for it. This is certainly the case with the British National Party (BNP), which uses opposition to ‘Islamism’ (radical, political, militant Islam) as a displaced channel for racial hatred and phobia – the Muslims in question being invariably Pakistanis, Turks, North Africans, Arabs and other ethnic communities the BNP would like to expel from Britain.

Russian girl leads a recent EDL protest march in Dudley, bearing the Russian flag (from the EDL website)

And herein lies a problem: it’s the British-nationalist parties such as the BNP and UKIP that tend to exploit Islamophobia more systematically in pursuit of anti-immigration and racist political agendas, not ‘English-nationalist’ movements such as the EDL or the English Democrats. (And for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not suggesting there is an intrinsic link between racism and opposition to mass immigration – any more than I’m arguing there’s an intrinsic association between Islamophobia and racism – but the two do often go hand in hand: racist sentiment is exploited in pursuit of anti-immigration policies, while anti-immigration politics often serve as a displaced, legitimised channel for racism.)

In addition, it’s questionable to what extent the EDL really qualifies as an English-nationalist movement as such, i.e. one that believes that England is a sovereign nation that is entitled to determine for itself how it should be governed, whether as an independent state or as part of a continuing United Kingdom of some sort. On its website, the EDL talks just as much about defending Britain, the United Kingdom and ‘our country’ (the usual term for avoiding being explicit about whether you are referring to England or Britain) as it talks about England. If anything, the EDL appeals to what you could call the British nationalism of English patriots: that traditional English pride in Great Britain that sees no fundamental contradiction or difference between Britain and England, and sees defending the English way of life and the sovereign British state as one and the same thing.

It’s a mark perhaps of the extent to which all things England have been marginalised and repudiated by the liberal British establishment that this English pride in Great Britain now expresses itself primarily in terms of English-national symbols as opposed to British ones, even as the traditional ambiguities regarding the distinction between England and Britain persist: the British symbols have become so tainted with both racism of the BNP variety and the anglophobic bias of the British government that the only way that non-racist English pride in Britain can be asserted is through the symbols of England that traditionally were not viewed as contrary to an inclusive British patriotism.

And let’s not forget the catalyst that sparked the creation of the EDL: the insults that were directed at British troops returning from Iraq by a handful of Muslim hotheads in Luton, in March 2009. The said troops are of course part of the British Army, sent out to that Muslim country for the alleged purpose of defending Britain and British interests, not England as such. The EDL are in a sense, and perhaps even see themselves, rather like a latter-day Home Guard, set up to defend the ‘home front’ (England) in support of our boys on the eastern front in Iraq and Afghanistan. And let’s not forget that the theme tune for the TV sitcom Dads’ Army proclaimed, ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, If you think old England‘s done!’, even as the arrows representing the retreating western front on the map of Britain and France displayed the Union Flag: the defence of Britain and the defence of England seen as one and the same thing.

The difference now is that the enemy is not Nazi Germany but ‘Islamism’, which, despite its radically different philosophical basis and political agenda, is viewed by its opponents in a similar light to Nazism. Note the pejorative impact of adding an ‘ism’ to the end of a word: Nazism, Islamism, racism, nationalism indeed; the word ‘Nazi’ itself being a shortened form for ‘national socialism’ – the effect of the ‘ism’ being to imply the existence of doctrinaire extremism, thereby foreclosing a more open and enquiring discussion about the phenomena at issue, whether Islam or nationalism.

Indeed, it’s in their opposition to ‘Islamism’ that the EDL and the British government find common cause: the avowed purpose of the EDL being to resist the influence of Islamists at home, while the mission of the British Armed Forces was often presented as that of destroying Islamist terror movements in their home base in Iraq and Afghanistan. I say ‘was’, as the rhetoric around the concept of Islamism, on the part of the British government at least, seems to have died down a bit since the demise of President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. And indeed, it’s perhaps mainly in reaction to the perception that the British government’s determination to vanquish Jihadist Islam was slacking (troops returning from Iraq, with the police allowing Muslims to jeer at them; the soldiers in Afghanistan not being adequately equipped for the task; etc.) that the EDL was formed. So the EDL is not in fact primarily an English-nationalist movement at all, but an English movement for the defence of Britain whose motivations are remarkably similar to those of the British government itself during the last decade: a reaction to Islamist ‘Terror’ and the fear of Islam.

Picture and caption from the BNP website

By contrast, the overtly racist BNP rejects what it terms Britain’s illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that this is partly, ironically, because the BNP does not wish to be seen to be condoning violence against Muslims, which – whatever justificatory gloss you put on it – Britain’s military adventures in those countries have undoubtedly involved. But this position on the part of the BNP also allows it to whip up hysteria against ‘the enemy within’ (Islamism) in pursuit of its racism-fuelled anti-immigration agenda: “Mass immigration has created a large pool of Muslims in Britain from which the Islamists — who have been waging war against the infidel khufars of Europe for over 1,300 years — can actively recruit. Britain’s biased foreign policy has given these Islamists, who are already not short of hatred for all things Western, a gift horse with which they can justify attacks inside Britain” (quote from the BNP website).

So to summarise the discussion so far: the EDL, which sees itself as anti-Islamist but not racist, defends Britain’s military campaigns in Muslim countries; whereas the BNP, which also sees itself as anti-Islamist and anti-immigration, and is racist whether it accepts the accusation or not, rejects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the better to refocus attention on the ‘war’ against Islamism within Britain, which it hopes will eventually result in the mass expulsion of Asian Muslims from the UK. Neither of these movements, however, can accurately be described as English-nationalist.

The main political force that is avowedly English-nationalist, the English Democrats Party (EDP), seems at first sight to be altogether unconcerned by the supposed Islamist threat: I could not find a single reference on the party’s website to either ‘Islamism’ / ‘Islamist’ (or indeed ‘Islam’), ‘Shariah’ or ‘Muslim’. The one mention of ‘burka’ was a link to a Daily Telegraph article reporting the words of that doyen of secular-liberal, anti-religious respectability, Richard Dawkins, comparing the burka to a “full bin-liner thing” – thereby perhaps making a comical, unconscious association between ‘bin liner’ and ‘Bin Laden’. Dawkins did go on to clarify that, “as a liberal”, he did not support a ban on women wearing the burka in public – although his words were reportedly condemned as Islamophobic by a representative of the Muslim Association of Britain.

By contrast, a ban on the burka is one of the pet causes of the UK Independence Party, whose website mentions the word on no fewer than 179 occasions (according to my Yahoo! search restricted to the UKIP site). UKIP would reject the charge that its proposed ban on the burka is an expression of Islamophobia. Such justification that is brought forward for it centres around security concerns and an opposition to divisive forms of multiculturalism. However, UKIP’s advocacy of bans on face and head coverings (including the niqab, or full veil, but not, I assume, the Islamic head scarf, or hijab) is expressed in terms that link legitimate security concerns to the more irrational element of fear that is the very essence of Islamophobia: “one of the 21/7 bombers escaped wearing the burka; the hidden face can also hide a terrorist. When we talk of terrorism, we usually refer to a problem coming from within Islam. Of all the religions, Islam is the only one whose leaders do not wish their followers to integrate into our society, and Sharia, which can alas [also?] be described as gender apartheid, holds growing sway in too many parts of our country. So the burka is a symbol of separation, discrimination and fear”.

These words from the pen of UKIP’s leader Lord Pearson could easily have slipped from the mouth of BNP chief Nick Griffin, and illustrate how wariness towards Islam, or certain aspects of it, that could be seen as based on legitimate, indeed liberal, concerns around security, women’s rights and cultural integration is often also informed by more irrational motivations such as pure fear, and cultural, racial and (anti-)religious prejudice: the real threat of terrorism sliding over into the spectre of the Islamist Terror, and the burka being not so much an objective symbol of fear but the object of the viewer’s fear.

The same concerns inform but do not exhaustively explain UKIP’s anti-immigration policy: “A significant proportion of immigrants and their descendents are neither assimilating nor integrating into British society. This problem is encouraged by the official promotion of multiculturalism which threatens social cohesion”. Many ordinary conservative- and indeed liberal-minded English folk [deliberate small ‘c’ and ‘l’] would agree with this proposition. In fact, I myself would agree with it, to the extent that I believe that multiculturalism has been used to promote a new form of multi-ethnic Britishness that is opposed to the supposedly mono-ethnic culture at the heart of traditional Britishness, which I would call the English culture: multiculturalism and anglophobia united in an unholy alliance to create a new Britain in which ‘the English’ (viewed by the liberals as an ethnic term, i.e. the white English) are just one ethnic group among many, and no longer the core culture.

This is a more nuanced position on multiculturalism and the role of Islam, which argues that it is not so much the existence of a multiplicity of cultures, races and religious practices in England that is marginalising the English culture and identity in its own country, although there have to be limits on the number of people from whatever cultural background that come into England, which is arguably already overcrowded. The problem, rather, is the way that cultural diversity has become another ‘ism’ (multiculturalism): a key plank of a progressive ‘British’ political agenda that styles itself as anti-(English) nationalist by virtue of being anti the very concept of the / an English nation.

Having defended the English Democrats against the charge of Islamophobia, I have to admit, however, that the English Democrats’ policies on immigration and multiculturalism are expressed in terms remarkably similar to those of UKIP and the BNP, except the primary reference for the ‘nation’ allegedly threatened by mass immigration is England, not Britain, and there is no explicit singling out of Muslims: “Many English cities are being colonised by immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values. Which begs the question: why did they come here in the first place? And leads to the second question: why not go back to wherever they feel they actually belong and give us back our cities? . . . Mass immigration must be ended. We would deport illegal immigrants and all those immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals. We would regain control of our immigration systems by leaving the European Union”.

There’s no explicit reference to Islam here, but it’s clear what is mainly meant by “immigrant communities who do not want to be part of English society, who want their own language and laws and reject English ‘Western’ values” and by “immigrants who are extremists, terrorists and criminals”: it’s the same suspicion and fear of the Islamist Terror – the fear of radical Islam because it symbolises the radically Other – exacerbated, in the case of English nationalists, by the genuine onslaught against English identity that has been carried out by the British establishment in tandem with the ideology of multiculturalism.

So how can we unpick this tangled web of complex cross-overs between racism, anti-Islamism / Islamophobia, opposition to mass immigration, nationalism and British-establishment liberalism (by which I mean the British political and cultural establishment, and its broad liberal consensus around fundamental values, under New Labour and now the ConDem coalition)? One way to try to make sense of it all is to set out the different positions of the movements and ideologies I’ve discussed in relation to these issues in a table, as follows:

Party / Ideology Is racist and, if so, towards which groups? Is anti-Islamist / Islamophobic? Viewpoint on mass immigration Backs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sees itself as defending which (concept of) the nation?
EDL Strongly denies it Yes Against Yes England and Britain without distinction
BNP Yes: towards any ‘non-white-British’ groups Yes Against No Britain (with England seen as an integral but subordinate part of Britain)
UKIP Not overtly Yes Against Yes, but in a qualified way Britain / the UK
EDP Not overtly Yes, but implicitly Against Yes, but in a qualified way England
British-establishment liberalism Yes: towards the ‘white-English’ Yes, but implicitly Has encouraged it Yes Britain / the UK

All of these movements and ideologies could be described as nationalisms of one sort or another; and they’re mostly in fact variants of British nationalism, even the EDL, as I argued above. The only properly English-nationalist movement here is the EDP. And what in fact all of these nationalisms share in common is Islamophobia to varying degrees of intensity and explicitness.

Some readers will no doubt reject my characterisation of British-establishment liberalism as a form of nationalism, along with the charge that it is marked by Islamophobia. But as I’ve tried to bring out in the argument and quotations above, there is really only a sliding scale separating more liberal justifications for suspiciousness towards Islam, and for war in Muslim countries, and more irrational fears about the intentions of Muslims and the effects of (mainly Muslim) mass immigration on the culture, identity and even survival of the ‘nation’.

In addition, the British government under New Labour, and now, it seems, under the ConDems, have indeed ruthlessly pursued what can adequately be described only as a nationalist agenda to articulate, maintain and impose the idea of an integral British nation over and against the internal and external threats to its existence, both real and imagined: (English) nationalism, mass immigration and multiculturalism and the hostility towards them, Islamism, and terrorism. Furthermore, this has involved the most aggressive foreign policy that Britain has seen in decades – arguably, not since the botched Suez War – involving an apparent readiness to sanction dubiously legal pre-emptive military action against Muslim countries, supposedly in the national interest.

In all of these forms of nationalism, I’m arguing that there’s a more or less narrow scale leading from anti-Islamism via Islamophobia to racism. In the case of UKIP and the EDP, the specific racial make-up of the Muslims / Islamists that are the object of anti-immigration resentment and general suspicion is not usually referred to explicitly. We need to read the pronouncements of the BNP and, to a lesser extent, the EDL to get explicit references to what is only implied by UKIP and the EDP: these are ‘Asians’, used in a more or less restrictive sense – sometimes mainly meaning the Pakistani community, sometimes covering pretty much the whole extended Islamic community and faith seen as the expression of an alien (Asian) culture that is radically different from our European and Christian civilisation. The word ‘culture’ is, after all, so often used as a politically correct euphemism for ‘ethnicity’ or ‘race’; so that, by extension, the much despised multiculturalism also implies multi-racialism, and the immigrants who are viewed as wishing only to retain their own culture and law are Muslims of another race who are perceived as preferring to keep up a sort of apartheid separating them from the (white) English than integrate with the English community at large.

In addition, British-establishment liberalism, rather than being merely anti-Islamist and anti-Asian-racist to a greater or lesser degree, is anti-Islamist-racist and anti-English-racist: both Islamophobic and anglophobic. How does that compute? This is a case of denied and inverted racism: the English as such are the ‘acceptable’ object of liberal-establishment racism, in part because they are the projection of the anti-Muslim racism the establishment won’t admit to but which it expresses violently outside of Britain, in its wars in Muslim lands. In other words, the establishment denies the Islamophobic racism at its heart by projecting it outwards: physically outside of Britain, by taking it out on Muslim countries; and symbolically, by ascribing it to the English, thereby evincing inverted racism – the English becoming the symbol of the British establishment’s own racism, in its very heart, which it used to be proud to call ‘England’. In this way, the supposedly racist ‘English nationalists’ represent Britain’s ‘alibi’: the group it can point to in order to exonerate itself of racial crimes abroad by saying, ‘no, that’s where the racism was at the time of the alleged incident: at home in England, whereas I was just out doing my work and my duty defending Britain in Iraq and Afghanistan!’

My view that the establishment is both anti-Muslim-racist (and by implication, anti-Asian-racist) and racist towards the English is based on how I view Islamophobia and anti-Islamism. Let me clear about this: I’m not saying that some of the forces of militant Islam don’t pose a threat to the security of Western countries. The events of 9/11 and 7/7 provided ample proof of that. But where concerns about this threat cross over into frankly hysterical fears about the imminent imposition of Shariah and the Islamification of England and Britain, this is where Islamophobia (the irrational fear and loathing of Islam) is at work; and Islamophobia, in my view, always involves a racial element, which some people (e.g. the BNP) try to exploit for their own political purposes.

With regard to the Islamophobia at play within establishment liberalism, you could say of it what used to be said of anti-Catholicism: that anti-Catholicism [replace with ‘anti-Islamism’] is the anti-semitism of the liberal. Anti-Islamism is indeed in many respects the new anti-semitism: like the Jews before the war (the Second World War, that is) and in Nazi Germany, today’s Muslims are a combined racial-religious minority, some of whom insist – how dare they? – on continuing to adhere to their religious Law and in not mixing, socially and racially, with the surrounding population, call them Gentiles or kuffar.

In the liberal context, the suspicion and anxiety provoked by this racial-religious minority that appears to reject Western liberal values articulates itself in relation to typical liberal concerns around women’s rights (e.g. the burka issue), the desired goal of racial-cultural integration, and the supposedly irrational and archaic nature of the Muslim faith and religious practices. The words of Richard Dawkins, in the article referred to above where he’s reported as describing the burka as a ‘bin liner’, are perhaps instructive here: “I do feel visceral revulsion at the burka because for me it is a symbol of the oppression of women. . . . As a liberal I would hesitate to propose a blanket ban [unfortunate choice of words] on any style of dress because of the implications for individual liberty and freedom of choice”.

Picture from the Daily Telegraph article

The phrase ‘visceral revulsion’ conveys a highly emotional reaction – suggesting that Dawkins is almost sick to his gut at the sight of burka-wearing women – and responses to seeing the burka and niqab are often expressed in such emotive terms, as if an instinctive abhorrence or fear is more natural and spontaneous, and therefore not dependent on cultural (and racial) assumptions and prejudices. But these are what Dawkins then immediately adduces to justify his reaction: the burka being, for him, a symbol of the oppression of women; and no doubt, his Western liberal-secular and atheistic beliefs also make him recoil at such an apparently ‘primitive’, religiously motivated, ‘irrational’ and distasteful cultural practice, so alien to those of the ‘civilised’ West.

At least, Dawkins does have the rather English decency not to advocate banning the burka, as is urged by some of the British nationalists I’ve discussed plus their associates in far-right parties on the European continent. But not only by the far right, as legislators in both France and Belgium have voted to ban people from wearing the burka and all face coverings. And they’ve done so precisely out of the same ‘liberal’ considerations that motivate both Dawkins’ gut reaction and his reluctance to propose a burka prohibition: to eliminate a supposed means to oppress women and to oblige Muslims to integrate more with the mainstream culture.

But did the legislators in question bother to ask the women themselves whether they wore the burka out of allegedly religiously justified but ‘in fact’ cultural oppression by their North African, Turkish and Arab menfolk? Perhaps they could have tried to take those women aside and use the services of trained counsellors to try and elicit whether emotional and physical abuse was going on, in much the same manner as they would deal with presumed victims of domestic violence and rape – but not by insisting, as Jack Straw infamously did, that the women strip off their veils so the emotions written on their naked faces could be read.

According to some of the reports I’ve read, the number of women wearing the burka in France is absolutely minimal: around 200 or so. You’d think the lawmakers could find a better use of their time and of taxpayers’ resources rather than bothering themselves with such a minor social issue! Except, of course, the issue isn’t important primarily by virtue of its physical impact on actual women’s lives but as a symbolic matter: it’s a question of banning the burka as a ‘symbol’ of women’s oppression or, as Lord Pearson similarly put it, a “symbol of discrimination, separation and fear” – never mind how much real oppression, fear, and forced gender and racial apartheid are involved. Ultimately, then, laws proscribing Islamic face coverings are about symbolically and bullyingly asserting the primacy of Western values, laws and culture over the values, laws and culture of the Muslim ethnic minorities living in our midst. But the effect of such proscriptive legislation is not to achieve greater integration and acceptance of Western values on the part of the Muslim communities targeted in this way, but to drive further divisions between them and mainstream society, and in fact to ghettoise those communities still further, so they can express their culture and religious practices safely on their own territory without fear of persecution backed by the might of the law.

But, as I say, in England and Britain, we’ve stopped short of banning the burka. But that doesn’t make Britain any less Islamophobic than mainland Europe: whereas their expression of Islamophobia is to ban the hijab from schools (in France), and now ban face coverings in public buildings and transport, the British expression of it has been our military forays in Iraq and Afghanistan; and whereas some in the British establishment might lament the intolerance they see in the French and Belgian laws, politicians in those nations have vehemently criticised what they portray as Britain’s ‘brutal’, indeed unlawful, actions in those Muslim countries, in stooge-like support of our American allies.

We might say that, whereas continental Europeans have directed their anti-Islamist fears inwards, against their own Muslim populations, we’ve directed it outwards against the Muslim populations of other lands. In this sense, the actions of the French secular-liberal state could be compared with BNP policy: focusing the aggression on the enemy within rather than without. I guess the urge to commit acts of violence against Muslims, whether ‘symbolic’ or physical, in revenge for the violence we have suffered at the hands of self-styled Jihadists, has to go somewhere; so it goes where it can. And joining the US anti-Islamist / anti-‘Terror’ bandwagon was the perfect opportunity for Britain to direct this violence outwards, rather than inwards towards its own substantial Muslim minorities, which could have dangerously exacerbated racial tensions in England and would have gone against the hallowed doctrine of multiculturalism.

Ultimately, what I’m implying about the British military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they could not have been justified by the establishment if the countries in question had not been Muslim and non-European (racially and culturally), and if the establishment had not drawn on, shall we call it, the popular or populist Islamophobia at work in the nationalist movements I’ve discussed, and also in the liberal and conservative English and British population at large. It’s this Islamophobia that made the propaganda around WMD credible to so many in the run up to the Iraq War; and it’s the same Terror of Islam that has been used to argue that Britain’s presence in Afghanistan is about wiping out Islamist-terrorist infrastructure. Whereas, in fact, there were no WMD in Iraq, and Al Qaeda disappeared like a puff of smoke in Afghanistan, leaving our brave troops – for whom I have nothing but admiration – shadow-boxing against the hardline-Muslim Taliban in a sterile conflict they cannot win, and without any evidence this has helped reduce the real terrorist threat – if anything, the contrary.

But at least, sending our boys out to bash the Muslims provided an outlet for anti-Islam sentiment. However, as these military escapades have been unsuccessful at realising their declared aims (and how could they have been successful, as those aims were themselves phantasms conjured up by fear?), this has created more of a potential for the Islamophobia to seek expression domestically, through organisations such as the EDL, whose formation, as I discussed above, was in part a reaction to a frustration of the desire to see fanatical Muslims defeated abroad and the terror threat – both real and imagined – lifted.

As the example of the EDL suggests, the relationship between British-establishment Islamophobia and that of nationalist groups is to an extent organic: the military forays in Muslim lands represent in part an attempt to channel anti-Islam sentiment outside of Britain, away from its potential to generate inter-community and inter-racial violence, such as that which has indeed been seen in the past in places such as Oldham. But the very act of doing so partakes of the very same Islamophobia, which is present in a more subtle form in liberal repugnance at, and preconceptions about, Islam, including that religion’s treatment of women, which is of course also one of the retrospective justifications brought forward for Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan.

It is this channelling of anti-Muslim aggression into an overtly more reasonable and liberal outlet that enables the establishment to dissociate itself from populist Islamophobia by claiming that this domestic anti-Islamism is a characterstic of English nationalism rather than of the British nationalism that it itself represents. But, as we’ve seen, there’s only really a sliding scale between liberal Islamophobia and the more overtly racist expressions of it; and both of these are far more typically associated with the symbols and discourse of the ‘British nation’ than with those of England.

England is therefore, as I’ve said, Britain’s alibi. But ascribing racism to English nationalism also provides a convenient extra weapon in the armoury of the British establishment’s assault on any idea or expression of English nationhood – a powerful tool to fallaciously persuade the great liberal and conservative English majority that any assertion of English nationhood will inevitably stir up the mythical demons of an allegedly racist English past.

I say the liberals and conservatives (small ‘l’ and ‘c’) because the progressives don’t need convincing: they’re already sold on the myth that English nationalism is inherently tied up with the assertion of white-racial supremacy, and that only ‘Britain’ can serve as a vessel for multiculturalism and multi-racialism. And it is this hooking of the ‘Britain’ brand to the ideals of multiculturalism that creates such an imperative for the British establishment to disown the Islamophobia at the very heart of its own liberalism, given that racially underpinned prejudice towards one of the many cultures that are meant to be accommodated within the multicultural framework is apparently so radically at odds with that multiculturalism itself.

Hence, it is so convenient to point the finger of blame for racist Islamophobia on the English nationalists, and to ascribe it to those – mostly British nationalists, but also some English nationalists – who would rather have a mono-racial, mono-cultural England and Britain, rather than to English and British society at large and a more all-pervading suspiciousness towards Islam.

But is multiculturalism really a counter-racist, inclusive ideal? On the contrary, it seems to me, the so-called British model of multiculturalism is quite profoundly racist in a rather subtle way, which in turn reveals what British anglophobia and British Islamophobia have in common. This is because British multiculturalism involves the idea that the different cultures in Britain should remain different, multiple and separate; and the state and the public sector provides support for the different communities to preserve and express their distinct cultures. But it’s this that reinforces cultural and racial apartheid: each ethnic group in their separate compartments, not overlapping, intermingling and being transformed in the mutual exchange of values, customs and shared humanity. It’s the apartheid of the ethnic-racial tick box, as per the profoundly racist Census of England and Wales: ‘British-Pakistani’ and ‘White-English’ in radically separate categories because the whole population has been broken up into a thousand and one distinct racial-cultural ethnic groups, the ‘English’ being just one, and a white-only one to boot.

The deeply racist reaction of the British establishment in the face of the fracturing of (the idea of) a monolithic British nation through the combined impact of nationalisms (including, and perhaps primarily (if the truth be told), the Scottish and Welsh variety) and mass immigration has been to redefine the unity and integrity of Britain in terms of its very diversity and multiplicity, and to celebrate and reinforce that rather than truly trying to integrate it within the core culture and tradition of the realm. And that’s because the core culture and identity are those of England, not Britain as such.

The British establishment has carried on a sort of racial divide and rule: divide the population into apparently irreconcilable units, racially and culturally, the better to promulgate the idea of Britain and the authority of the British state as the only things that can hold it all together. By contrast, the only way true cultural cohesion could be fostered in England would be by celebrating England itself as the nation into which immigrants have come to make their home, and Englishness as the culture they should aspire to embrace – rather than a multicultural Britishness that exempts them and the English from coming together. For it has to be a mutual process: the English sharing of their culture in a spirit of welcome and generosity, and migrants sharing the riches of their cultures in a way that is respectful of but not subservient to the host culture – and both being transformed in the process.

This is the only way forward for English nationalists and for Muslims that seek genuine dialogue and integration within English society, without having to give up the aspects of their culture and faith they hold most dear. The ‘enemy’ for the English is not the Muslims, nor should we English allow ourselves to become enemies to the Muslims. The true enemy is the racism in all our hearts, which the British establishment would rather we directed against each other instead of transcending it to create a new England, freed from the prejudices and divisions that are Britain’s stock in trade and only hope.

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21 August 2007

Afghanistan: A Liberal and Just Cause?

Am I alone in feeling disappointed at the statement of support for the war in Afghanistan provided in an interview on Sunday by Menzies Campbell, the leader of the British Liberal Democratic Party (Lib Dems)? This came in the context of his call for the complete withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. Some of the forces could then be re-deployed in Afghanistan, where they were needed and could be utilised more effectively, according to Mr Campbell.

I suppose I already knew that the Lib Dems (the only major UK party to oppose sending British troops into Iraq) supported our participation in the fighting in Afghanistan. But for me, Campbell’s endorsement provided confirmation of what I’ve been saying in different posts throughout this blog: that there’s been a concerted campaign recently to build support from liberals for the war in Afghanistan.

How is it that Afghanistan is a liberal cause while Iraq is not? The obvious answer is that the Taliban-Al Qaeda (often conflated as the one Enemy in Afghanistan) represents an anti-liberal, anti-democratic, tyrannical ideology. But so did Saddam Hussein. OK: the Taliban-Al Qaeda had proved through 9/11 that they were a serious threat to the West and that therefore they had to be eliminated. The war against them qualified as a Just War, whereas the WMD threat in Iraq was non-existent and we were hoodwinked into believing in it by Tony Blair.

Well, to qualify as a Just War, there needs to be 1) a strong chance that the just aims of the war can actually be achieved through the conflict; and 2) a rational basis for believing that the benefit that is sought outweighs the evil of the destruction and loss of life that the war brings about. If the first of these conditions is not met, it follows that the second condition also does not obtain. As I’ve argued in my previous two posts on Afghanistan, there is very little likelihood that the US and Britain (and whatever other NATO allies get involved) will be able to defeat the Taliban by military means. Nor is there much convincing evidence that the struggle against Al Qaeda or Islamically inspired terrorism in general has been advanced by the war in Afghanistan.

But even if one sincerely believed that the Taliban-Al Qaeda could be defeated militarily in Afghanistan, there would still be the question of whether the goal of removing them from power justifies all the loss and damage of innocent lives that has been the inevitable consequence of the war. Maybe if Al Qaeda was eliminated for good, you could think that this might constitute a moral benefit that was so great that lives had unfortunately to be sacrificed in pursuit of it. But who really believes that a putative military victory in Afghanistan would result in the demise of Al Qaeda? In some ways, it might strengthen support for them. And as for the Taliban, one is reminded of the old Cold War saying, ‘better red than dead’! In this case, ask the Afghans who’ve lost dear relatives and friends whether they’d prefer them alive if it meant the Taliban were back in power. Admittedly, some might say the sacrifice was worthwhile; but I bet more would say it wasn’t.

And yet, we’ve decided on their behalf that all those deaths are worthwhile – in the name of democracy. But what chance have we got of (re)-establishing democracy in Afghanistan: a country riven by regional and tribal differences, and in the hands of the warlords and drug barons? The US drive to democratise the Middle East is widely viewed in Muslim countries as a synonym for attempting to impose Western control and secularise Islamic states. So do we think we’ll win much support – inside and outside the country – for our efforts to defend democracy through military conflict with (nominally) Islamic forces in Afghanistan?

But maybe that’s what our presence in Afghanistan is really about – that ‘liberation of the Afghan people’ business being just so much PR fluff: we want the country to be under Western control and we want to replace an Islamic system of government with a secular democracy. Those are the objectives, aren’t they? So the (extremist) Muslim critics of our actions have got it right in this case. But we think we’re in the right.

We characterise the first of these objectives as ‘self-defence’: we have to be in control in Afghanistan, because if we’re not, the Taliban-Al Qaeda will be, and then we’ll be even more vulnerable to terrorism. Whether this consequence would actually flow from the Taliban getting back into power in Afghanistan is debatable: there are other and better ways of fighting terrorism than slugging it out with the Taliban-Al Qaeda in a South Asian backwater. But then, as I’ve argued in my previous posts on Afghanistan, it’s about more than just winning an isolated battle against the terrorists: at stake are the goals of maintaining Western control of the Middle East as a whole, isolating Iran, and preventing Al Qaeda from getting their hands on the potential nuclear arsenal of that country or the actual nuclear arsenal of Pakistan. It’s a region-wide strategic conflict, according to whose logic Afghanistan just can’t be allowed to fall to the Taliban.

Especially as the Taliban represent everything that we find odious, primitive and barbaric about Islam. The Taliban gives us a form of Islam that is a worthy object of our dislike and fear of that faith (our Islamophobia). Because the Taliban are so authoritarian, oppressive, sexist, and narrowly literalistic and dogmatic in their interpretation of Islam, this allows us to feel justified in ejecting them from power and attempting to set up a secular democracy in their place. It’s not ‘regime change’ as in Iraq, we say to ourselves, but a fight that has been elevated to truly symbolic proportions: one between our real Enemy – ‘Islamism’, ‘extreme Islam’ – and what we think we represent: freedom, equality, progress. On top of the whole strategic game, that’s the other reason why we think we can’t and mustn’t lose in Afghanistan: it could be used by the Islamists to show to the Muslim world that history is not necessarily on the side of the West; that the ‘end of history’ may not have to be the triumph of secular-liberal democracy everywhere – first against Communism, and then against Islam. And maybe defeat would shake our own conviction a little that the future belongs to us and our values.

But this is a long way from a simple war objective – ridding Afghanistan of a tyranny – that might provide a Just War-based vindication of all the carnage there, if we thought we could actually achieve it. It’s not ultimately about defending the Afghan people; seriously, how many people in the West really care about the Afghan people the way, for instance, they claim to care about the poor in Africa or other parts of Asia? On one level, we probably think they’re actually to blame for the misery of indigence and violent conflict that has been their lot for at least the past 30 years. They’re primitive, ill-educated people – we say to ourselves – that have allowed themselves to be easy prey to warlords and extremists; and not only that, but they produce opium crops on an industrial scale for export to the West. It’s not surprising that a people like that was so ignorant and docile as to accept the Taliban yoke.

In short, they’re the sort of Muslim for whom one can feel little sympathy. No wonder we think their lives are so expendable in defence of our Western interests and values. The liberal cause must be upheld after all – at any price.

2 August 2007

Afghanistan: Important Not To Fail; But Possible and Desirable To Succeed?

David Cameron, the beleaguered British Conservative Party leader, joined the debate on Afghanistan yesterday by reaffirming the government’s line that “we cannot afford to fail” in Afghanistan.

How is ‘failure’ defined? This is not so much losing the war, as no one is prepared to refer openly to the possibility of a rout such as that which the Afghan Mujahideen inflicted on the Russians or the Vietcong inflicted on the US in Vietnam. No, ‘failure’ is thought of as not seeing the mission through to the end: giving up on it and leaving Afghanistan to its own devices.

As Mr Cameron put it, “We need to look at how we’re working together with our NATO allies and with the Americans, to make sure there’s more unity in our command and in our purpose, and we also do need other NATO countries to do more”. In other words, we need to stick to our purpose and, in order to ensure that we don’t lose our morale and will to go on, there needs to be more commitment from America’s and Britain’s NATO allies. And underlying this, there is indeed the tacit fear that the whole thing could unravel and we could be staring military defeat in the face: “Britain is definitely bearing its share of the burden, but we need more helicopters, we need more support, and also we need other NATO countries to play their part”.

But while failure is giving up or (unspoken nightmare scenario) actual defeat, the politicians are not prepared to openly articulate what the nature and cost of ‘success’ might be. Mr Cameron merely alluded to this when he called for “gritty, hard-headed decisions” on how the international community operates in Afghanistan. This is code for being prepared to support an escalation of the US / NATO military campaign to defeat the Taliban. In other words, a new counter-offensive against the Taliban may be being planned, and we’re going to have to accept the brutality and destructiveness of this campaign, which may be the only means to avoid the afore-mentioned ‘failure’.

If truth is the first casualty of war, then real, human casualties are the first consequence of the warmongers’ deceits. One of the reasons why Western political and military will over Afghanistan may be wavering at the moment is that politicians realise the immense human cost that would have to be paid to secure anything reminiscent of a military ‘victory’ over the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies. A huge deployment of military personnel and firepower would be necessary: clearly, therefore, requiring the support of all the members of NATO. We’d be looking at a large-scale, probably long-term, intensive counter-insurgency / anti-guerrilla war waged on multiple fronts, including – most dangerously of all – across the border in Pakistan. And we’d have to be willing to undertake the mass killing of Taliban and Al-Qaeda combatants and supporters, including probably civilian sympathisers, suppliers and informers – difficult in a violent and fast-moving combat situation to make a clear-cut distinction between active terrorists (directly involved in acts of violence) and passive terrorists (those who provide the infrastructure, and moral and practical support vital for any insurgency to be prosecuted).

Are we really willing for a military campaign such as this to be waged on our behalf in Afghanistan? Would such a brutal war be morally justifiable, even apart from its uncertain prospects of success (see my opinion in the previous blog entry that we cannot achieve a military victory in Afghanistan)? Furthermore, if we enter into an all-out war such as this without our eyes being wide open to the scale of the conflict and the carnage that would be necessary, on our side as well as the enemy’s – and without being 100% behind the effort and prepared to accept all the human and economic costs – then we could well be heading for the even greater failure of military defeat, as opposed to the limited failure of abandoning the mission. We have to be aware and honest about what ‘success’ would entail in Afghanistan and make an open, conscious decision to embrace the measures necessary to achieve it. Then, at least, if (and I would say when) defeat came, we could at least say in all conscience that we took our choice and paid the price. But going into something like this without being honest about what’s involved entails accepting the casualties of war while lacking the will to take moral and practical responsibility for them – and making failure more certain than ever as our will and purpose is not set and definite.

And even if the unlikely event of military victory occurred, would this really constitute success? In two senses: firstly, by the brutality of our actions and the inevitable destruction of innocent lives, we would have demonstrated to those in the Muslim world who are inclined to be sympathetic towards extremist beliefs and movements that their hostility towards the West is justified, and that they should perhaps consider escalating their moral support for Al-Qaeda and other ‘Islamist’ organisations into practical and active commitment to the struggle. In this way, we would have strengthened the hand of the terrorists and ensured that the fight against them would last even longer. We would have won the battle but not the war. And if the Islamist cause was boosted in this way, how long would it be before we faced a new version of the Taliban and a new insurgency in Afghanistan?

Secondly, and related to this, we would have greatly damaged the moral credibility of our cause, with the possible consequence that our will to continue the fight against terrorism would be weakened at the very moment that our resolve needed to be stronger than ever, given the increased support for terrorism that our very actions had brought about. The ‘failure’ of the Americans in Vietnam and that of the Soviets in Afghanistan had similar consequences: undermining belief and confidence in the values and social structures of the defeated countries. Whether we were ‘victorious’ or – as is more likely – defeated in an all-out war against the Taliban, the demoralising effect could be the same – as could the ultimate outcome, in that the future and peace of Afghanistan would still be far from secure even in victory.

And this is precisely what the terrorists are striving to achieve: their long-term strategy all along has been to suck the US and its Western allies into a devastating long-term conflict that can’t be won; because as soon as the terrorists are thwarted in one theatre of war or tactic, they spring up in another war zone and come up with new terrifying forms of violence. Their ultimate objective is to sap the morale, the economy and the military power of the West – and to finally render us incapable or unwilling to resist their power grab in regions we can no longer control, and in societies where we have lost our credibility and influence.

Far better, then, to step back from the abyss that awaits us in Afghanistan. This would not be failure but a strategic retreat. The greater failure would be the long-term moral and tactical error that prosecuting war against the Taliban to the bitter end – victorious or not – would represent. And given that defeat in such a war would be the more likely scenario than victory, far better to carry out an orderly retreat while we can than to run into another Dunkirk.

If the Taliban subsequently seized back power in Afghanistan, this would regrettably be Afghanistan’s tragedy but not ours, which is what would result from going on in pursuit of a pyrrhic or elusive victory.

And this would not necessarily be the enormous setback in the war against terrorism that the politicians try to make out that it would be. Terrorism cannot be defeated by conventional military means. Terrorism springs from a combination of hatred and moral outrage supported by an absolute belief system. The only way to defeat it is to address the real grievances and problems upon which that hatred and outrage feed. We need to focus on being reconciled with the Muslim world and demonstrating that we are not its enemies. But to do this we have to be truly honest about the extent to which we are or are not really hostile or prejudiced towards Islam.

Only by openly confronting our fears can we begin to overcome them. One of the consequences of a failure to do this will surely be the moral and tactical failure of further futile violence in Afghanistan.

29 July 2007

What Is Britain Doing In Afghanistan?

Most people in Britain probably don’t have a very clear idea about what British forces are doing in Afghanistan – apart from the obvious: fighting fierce battles with the Taliban on a daily basis and incurring casualties. Probably, not many people really care that much about Afghanistan, either. They do care about the safety of our troops and might vaguely buy into the proposition that the work they are doing out there is of vital importance to national security. But the war in Afghanistan is not very high up in their list of political priorities – not even in the top ten for the great majority, I suspect.

With a sigh, we say to ourselves that at least the government must know what they’re doing and we have to trust them. I, too, would like to believe that the government has a plan. But if they do, they haven’t made it their business to communicate it in plain English.

OK, so we all know we’re fighting the Taliban-Al Qaeda (the two seem to have merged into one in media discourse); and that we mustn’t allow them to get back into power in Afghanistan or continue to build a power base across the border in Pakistan and so risk destabilising that country. But do we really think we can defeat the Taliban militarily? Let’s remember: these are essentially the same guys who saw off the might of the Red Army. They’re hardened, skilled fighters; well equipped; about as highly motivated as they come; they know the impenetrable terrain like a taxi driver knows the Knowledge; and they have a dense network of logistical and manpower support composed of a ragtag alliance of local warlords, drug producers (whom they doubtless protect and derive revenue from) and Islamic hardliners, whether of local origin or coming to them from all over the world via Pakistan.

I don’t think our under-equipped and under-manned forces, however brave and well trained they are, will be able to bust that sort of operation. The Americans certainly won’t. Besides which, looking at it from a historical angle (would that our leaders did so more often!), no one to my knowledge has a) ever actually won a guerilla war, which is what this has become, or b) ever successfully invaded and imposed their will on Afghanistan – not in thousands of years of empires that have come and gone, including the British one.

So one word that could be used to describe what the British are doing in Afghanistan is folly: we’re fighting a war we can’t win and which, moreover, the government probably realises we can’t win. One military or political authority on these matters – I can’t remember who it was now – hit the headlines a few days ago with the claim that we may need to remain in Afghanistan for 40 years or so to achieve our objectives. In my book, that’s code for saying we can’t win. Otherwise, what on earth is such a proposition based on? Why 40 years? Why not make a plan for two years, or a plan a, b and c, plus a worst-case scenario, so at least we know roughly when we can expect to get out, whether ‘victorious’ or not?

The obvious inference is there is no such plan; that no one has the vaguest idea when we’ll be able to extricate ourselves from the stalemate we appear to have got ourselves into. There’s just the ill-defined hope that eventually, over time, the Islamist cause will burn out and be revealed as a failed ideological project, in just the same way that Soviet Communism eventually had to admit that it was non-viable and imploded. That’s where the 40-years idea comes from: on the analogy with the 40 years it took us to ‘win’ the Cold War.

This reminds me of our dear old friend Sir Alan West, the UK Security Minister (see blog of 10 July), who estimated earlier this month that the fight against terrorism in this country could take 15 years. What was that based on? A wet finger held up in the wind? A calculation that we could use the skills gained in the struggle against Northern Irish terrorism, plus our greater ability to isolate Islamic terrorist groups (in part through the willingness of other British people, Muslims or not, to ‘snitch’ on them), to ensure that we could, say, halve the time it took for us to defeat the IRA? And does all this rest on a plan of some kind?

Did Tony Blair have a plan when he sent our troops into Afghanistan? Perhaps a hidden one he was keeping close to his chest? On the face of it, Afghanistan could be written off as one of the prime examples of Tony Blair’s tragic hubris and folly: the man who thought he could do no wrong and who chose to use force to bring about justice and freedom, and found instead that it brought about the opposite of what he intended. Perhaps even the tragedy of a basically good man trapped in a situation of violence which he thinks he can control and direct by going along with it to a limited extent – but then finds he can’t stop the runaway train.

Whatever the hidden wellsprings of the Afghan tragedy within Tony Blair’s ‘heart and mind’ (idealism, Christian hope, megalomania, hubris), the decision to send British forces on this mission and the thinking about their continuing – perhaps indefinite – presence there could certainly be said to exemplify the folly of Britology. The concept of the British mission in Afghanistan involves the idea that Britain is a ‘great power’: a world power, indeed, that has the capability and, by that token, almost the duty and calling to stand up and be counted, and to take a lead in the fight against those who would destroy ‘our values’, ‘our civilisation’ and ‘our way of life’. This notion was expressed by Tony Blair on numerous occasions when he was PM. It was recently re-stated by Jack Straw, Blair’s erstwhile ally and now in charge of formulating GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] constitutional reforms. In a BBC Radio Four interview, defending the integrity of the United Kingdom against those who wish to see more independence for its constituent countries, Jack Straw again argued that we should not forget that the UK is a great power at the international level, which should not be compromised by breaking it up.

Well, clearly, we do have a duty (every nation has a duty) to defend all that is good, true, civilised, sacred and human, wherever we are in a position to do so. But is Britain really a ‘great power’ that should or can do this in Afghanistan – even supposing that that’s what we’re really doing there? In fact, we’re not even a significant regional power. The reason why Afghanistan is strategically important is that it’s sandwiched between three of the real superpowers of the 21st century, all of which have an interest in what happens there: Russia, China and India. In addition, it neighbours Iran, which appears to have – or has been represented as having – ambitions of its own to be a regional (nuclear) superpower.

One way of looking at it is that we’re doing Russia’s and India’s job for them: both countries are engaged in struggles with Islamic insurgents within their own borders (in Chechenia and Kashmir); both therefore have a clear interest in the suppression of Taliban and Al-Qaeda militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan; but neither country can really intervene directly – Russia because it has already experienced its own ‘Vietnam’ in Afghanistan, and India because of its troubled relations with Pakistan. And everyone wants to keep China out of the frame. China pursues a clearly self-interested, non-ethical foreign policy; and it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility that it would have tried to establish a mutually beneficial relationship with whatever regime was in power in Afghanistan if there was an economic interest in doing so. It must have been part of the mix of strategic thinking (at least, I like to think there are strategists in the US State Department that think along these lines) to get into Afghanistan before the Chinese got a toehold there, in terms of economic-development and social projects, and supporting personnel.

But what advantage do we Britons get out of our presence and sacrifices in Afghanistan? Isn’t it about time we pursued a somewhat more self-interested foreign policy, or at least did not put ourselves – and our soldiers – out on a limb for our ‘international partners’, some of whom don’t appear to be that appreciative? It’s far from clear that our involvement in Afghanistan has brought any significant benefits for us in the fight against Al-Qaeda and Islamically inspired terrorism, both in the region and at home. Arguably, the opposite: we’ve pushed Al-Qaeda into the mountainous borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where they seem to be able to operate with impunity; and our intervention has provided grist to the mill for the terrorist recruiters, who point to it as yet another sign that we’re engaged in a persecutory ‘crusade’ against Islam.

Primarily, of course, the Afghan escapade is a US-led project. But from recent media coverage in Britain, you could be forgiven for not being aware of this. It’s always the British role, British ‘contacts’ with the Taliban and British casualties we hear about, hardly ever those of the US. It’s as if the Afghan War is being positioned as a / the British war, just as the Iraq War and consequent insurgency has been positioned as predominantly a US affair that the British have just gone along with and supported. Is this because, yet again, we’re providing ‘cover’ for the Americans in Afghanistan: concealing the extent of their continuing presence there and, more particularly, in the border territory with Pakistan? The Americans were reported this week to have been pushing to be allowed to take a more leading (and overt) role in the military efforts to attack Islamist strongholds on the Pakistani side of the border. So while us brave Brits have been taking the hit in Helmand (three more soldiers killed in the last three days), have we just been distracting attention from all that the Americans have been busily getting on with?

And there’s another reason why it’s been useful for the media to try to depict Afghanistan as ‘our war’ – apart from the fact that they couldn’t get away with this in relation to Iraq. This is that it allows emotional support for our forces’ presence in Afghanistan to be built up by playing on the whole British thing referred to above: our young lads, with all the skill and bravery of the British Army, nobly defending our way of life from its enemies – taking the fight to the terrorists, indeed – and in some cases, sacrificing their lives in the cause.

Caught a bit of the latest episode of the ITV series Guarding the Queen last week. This is a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the Coldstream Guards, who are the regiment responsible for guarding the royal residences. Last week’s programme saw them getting ready and departing for a tour of duty in Afghanistan: young soldiers talking about their excitement at setting off for the “adventure” [sic] of serving in one of the most dangerous war zones on the planet; regiment commander speaking of the inevitable fatalities but asserting that we’re not just fighting our enemies at home, but the nation is also being defended thousands of miles away in places like Afghanistan; embarking soldiers being exhorted by their commanding officer to give no quarter to the enemy when they’re out there and to “give them hell” [verbatim].

OK, so this is fighting talk intended to help his men be psyched up and ready for the tough fighting that awaits them. However, on national TV, this is not the kind of language to reassure Muslims that we’re not anti-Islam, e.g. that we don’t in fact want to cast all Muslims into hell. Some people in the Muslim world think we mean such statements literally. Equally, it seems rather tasteless for the programme to have played along with the idea that the war in Afghanistan was some sort of exciting Boys’ Own adventure awaiting our brave young men. War is not an adventure; it’s horrific. No doubt those lads will experience the thrill of the chase and the adrenalin rush of armed combat, which is a life they’ve chosen, after all. But they’ll also encounter something of the hell their commander was urging them to give their enemies.

In fairness to the programme, the next instalment promises to show the reality of the regiment’s tour in Afghanistan; and from the excerpts they showed, there’ll be some men returning home in a box. But one can’t help thinking that this is basically war propaganda and part of an unspoken army recruitment drive. This is because if the powers that be are imagining that we could be staying in Afghanistan (and Iraq?) indefinitely, we’re going to need a steady supply of new recruits to replace those lost in the fighting, and to build up the overall personnel levels to overcome the serious over-stretching of human and material resources that the Army Chief of Staff was talking about last week.

All the same, that commander’s fighting talk about wiping out the enemy – which reminded me of the Royal Irish Regiment commander Tim Collins’ similar blood-thirsty call to arms ahead of the Iraq War – did make me wonder whether the Taliban are a fitting object for such homicidal zeal, albeit in a supposedly noble cause. Do we the British really have such a quarrel with the Taliban that we should seek to utterly exterminate them, or at least rhetorically posture that that’s what we’re about? Obviously, we don’t like them; and there’s much not to like. Equally, if they’re attacking us to the death, we have a right to kill them in self-defence. But do we really want to destroy them completely?

If we do want to exterminate the Taliban, two questions follow: 1) is it morally right to seek this objective, and 2) do we actually plan to achieve it, as opposed to merely wanting to do so? If that’s really what we’re at, maybe the logic would indeed require some US-style – but more effectively implemented – scorched-earth policy, employing massive resources and fire power to really have a good go at them once and for all, with all the consequent risk of loss of innocent lives and wanton destruction. Because with the current level of resourcing, it is indeed hard to envisage an end to the cycle that’s started to set in: our boys get the Taliban on the run; but then they haven’t got the resources to chase them into their strongholds and finish them off; so not surprisingly, a short while later, the Taliban have regrouped and are said to be ‘resurgent’. (I don’t in fact advocate this scorched-earth policy; but the current tactics don’t appear to be getting anywhere – so the logic would be either to do enough to give oneself a chance of winning (futile in Afghanistan, in my view, for the reasons indicated earlier) or get out.)

But, so the argument goes, the main enemy we’re after is Al-Qaeda not the Taliban – except that the two have become almost synonymous in Afghanistan, as was observed above. But was that always the primary objective? If so, it appears not to have been well served by US and British intervention in Afghanistan. But was the main goal not regime change, in any case; and the hunt for those responsible for 9/11 provided a perfect pretext, just as the removal of WMD provided such a flawed pretext for going into Iraq?

I say this based on a view about the Americans’ guiding strategic vision, if indeed they have one. What they seem to have been trying to prevent is a sort of nightmare Domino Effect (funny how these Cold War throw-backs keep surfacing), whereby one state after another stretching from Pakistan right through to Saudi Arabia would fall to (Al-Qaeda-backed) Islamists. And two of these countries potentially would have nuclear arsenals: Pakistan, which already does, and Iran. If Al-Qaeda got their hands on these weapons, there’d be no telling what kind of damage they might do. So the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were mainly intended to establish buffer states – Western-style democracies – between Iran and Pakistan, on one side, and Iran and Saudi Arabia, on the other. Iran would thereby be isolated and, who knows, she could be made to bow to US pressure over her nuclear programme and democratic reforms; and Al-Qaeda would be robbed of its power base in the region.

Except, of course, pretty much the opposite has happened. Afghanistan and Iraq have been destabilised, and American intervention has created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda to increase their influence in those countries: joining their efforts with those of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and working alongside Sunni insurgents in Iraq to have a go at the Americans and their allies, and make a serious bid for power, which would have been inconceivable under Saddam.

The nightmare vision that the Americans seem to have been motivated to prevent, if I’m right, illustrates the conceptual bankruptcy that informs Western thinking about the ‘Islamist’ threat and / or the War on Terror. Even if all of the five countries I mentioned had been allowed to remain, or to move further in the direction of becoming, fundamentalist Islamic states, they would all have had quite a different character and understanding of Islam; and it’s by no means certain they would all have been natural allies of Al-Qaeda. The Iranians are (Shi’ite) fundamentalists, but they don’t share Al-Qaeda’s Sunni-based jihadism nor Saudi-style fundamentalism. And the extent to which the different strands of radical Islamic belief are not natural bed-fellows is demonstrated by the civil war in Iraq, setting Shi’ites against Sunnis. It might have been far smarter for the Americans to have cultivated improved relations with both Iran and Iraq (a former ally), for instance by getting some real momentum behind peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians. After all, it’s not unprecedented for the West to maintain expedient friendships with Islamic regimes we find objectionable from a political and religious point of view; cf. Saudi Arabia itself and the less than perfectly democratic, two-faced regime of President Musharraf in Pakistan. That way, Afghanistan would really have been isolated, and co-ordinated international efforts could have been mounted to restrict the flow of money, personnel and logistical support to the Taliban regime and Al-Qaeda.

Instead, the American thinking bears all the hallmarks of that of the Cold War, as I’ve been remarking. They seem to treat ‘Islamism’ as a single, unified ideology and organised threat in the same way as Soviet communism. In response to this, they believe (or believed, at least, before the Iraqi fiasco) that Western doctrines of freedom, democracy and secular governance could carry the day throughout the region, just as they had done throughout former Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. But this is totally disastrous when applied to the Muslim Middle East on top of the long, humiliating history of Western support for Israel. It can only heap fuel on the fire of suspicion that the US does want to replace Islam with its own values as the basis for political power in the region, which – as I’ve argued elsewhere in this blog – is a plausible description of what the US and the West would really like to happen in the Middle East. This then makes Al-Qaeda seem more credible as a defender of the integrity of Islam in its heartlands, and as the main organisation that is really willing and able to take on the US and its allies, particularly Britain.

If the Americans did start to take over direct responsibility for anti-insurgent operations in Pakistan, one can’t help fearing that this would push that country into the same chaos as Iraq, thereby increasing the threat that Al-Qaeda could gain real influence over the ‘Islamists’ in that country and, who knows, eventually get its hands on Pakistan’s nuclear armoury. In this respect, Britain is exercising a much-needed moderating role in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and, reading between the lines, this must have been high on the agenda in last week’s visit of David Miliband – the new British Foreign Secretary and golden boy of British politics – to both countries. This coming week, GB is off to meet the President and to reaffirm the Special Relationship. Up to now, GB has been, as usual, shrewdly reticent about what his plans are for the continuing British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. But if I’ve read the runes of cultural and media discourse on the subject correctly (Salman Rushdie knighthood as a tactic to consolidate liberal support for the war effort; general effort to enhance emotional endorsement and sympathy for the struggle in Afghanistan), we’re not about to see a substantial change of tack.

But then perhaps it might ultimately be not such a bad thing that we don’t have a policy reversal, at least for the present. Maybe, indeed, the potentially moderating influence we can exercise on the US is the most important reason for us to maintain a military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. At least, we can try to stop the Americans f***ing up in Pakistan as they did in Iraq!

And maybe this was the reason for us being part of the show from day one. I’ve occasionally wondered whether the real reason for Tony Blair providing such apparently uncritical support for US action in Afghanistan and Iraq was that he was concerned to prevent the Americans from being totally isolated internationally: without any support from any of their traditional and more newfound allies for their policies, and thereby more vulnerable than ever to the terror threat. One can certainly see how Tony Blair would have thought that the world would be a much more dangerous place if the Americans went ahead with their strategy on their own, without the support of even their closest historical ally; or even if they retreated, partly out of pique, into the kind of 1930s-style isolationism that helped to precipitate the Second World War. Maybe, by staying on the inside, Mr Blair thought this was the only way to prevent an even greater catastrophe from happening, and to avert the disaster of a USA that felt it had no friends in the world and therefore had no alternative but to take all necessary measures on its own.

If this is true – even if just part of the complex and troubling set of motivations for Mr Blair leading British forces into battle in Afghanistan and Iraq – then maybe our ex-PM is more of a Saint Tony than any of us realised at the time. And maybe now his mission to bring peace in Palestine is his way to expiate all the errors committed in those two countries and to concentrate on what he knew all along was the only way that reconciliation could be brought to the Middle East and terrorism could be defeated.

And perhaps this is the most important – and perhaps the only – reason why Britain should be doing what it is in Afghanistan.

15 July 2007

British Ethnicity

Dicey subject, this! The reason I bring it up, apart from enjoying a bit of controversy (!), is that I was filling in a medical form earlier this evening, which asked you to state which ethnic group you belonged to. The options were as follows:

White British

White & Black African

Asian or Asian British Pakistani

Black or Black British African

White Irish

White & Asian

Asian or Asian British Bangladeshi

Other Black background

Other white background

Other mixed background

Other Asian background

Chinese

White & Black Caribbean

Asian or Asian British Indian

Black or Black British Caribbean

Any other ethnic group

I entered, ‘Other white background’, even though someone of my background would be expected to declare ‘white British’. My reason for doing this wasn’t an English-nationalist protest about being made to refer to myself as British rather than English, although it does seem – or could be construed as – discriminatory that someone of an Irish background is allowed to specify Irishness as part of their ethnicity while someone of an English background is not allowed to declare their Englishness.

The problem, rather, is the fact of using the word ‘British’ to denote ethnicity at all. Firstly, if there is such a thing as a ‘white-British’ ethnic group as distinct from a ‘white-Irish’ group – which is disputable, to say the least – then my own ethnicity could not really be encompassed by either but would have to be described as ‘white British & white Irish’, on the analogy of the mixed-race groups such as ‘white & black African’. This is because I had an Irish grandmother on my father’s side, and my father has joint-British and -Irish nationality, which makes me ‘mixed-race’, or ‘of mixed background’ in the terms of the form.

Secondly, ‘British’ is being used inconsistently as a signifier of ethnicity on the form. In relation to the use of the term ‘white British’ – ignoring the politically-correct addition of ‘white Irish’ for the moment – it is reasonable to suppose that it implies that there is such a thing as a distinct, white ethnic group that you might call ‘indigenous or native Britons’. This implication is further supported by the use of the option ‘other white background’, which is clearly not intended to be used in the contrary way that I did but must refer to the general category of ‘white-European’ (as opposed to ‘white British’), encompassing anything from Scandinavians to Mediterraneans and Turks. When crossing the box for that category, I wondered in fact whether I would be assumed to be originally or ancestrally from France or Eastern Europe, for instance, even if I was a British national.

And this is the point: shouldn’t the British option have read, ‘white or white British European’ if it was going to be consistent with categories such as ‘black or black British Caribbean’ and ‘Asian or Asian British Pakistani’? The first term (‘black’) in the string ‘black British Caribbean’ is the real signifier of ethnicity (as is ‘white’ and ‘Asian’); the third term (‘Caribbean’ or ‘Pakistani’) denotes the region or country from where that ethnicity originates, as related to the individual concerned.

However, ‘British’ for the Black Caribbean or the Asian Pakistani is merely an optional extra designating national identity rather than ethnicity. It is being assumed that someone ticking such a box might say, ‘yes, I’m black and of Caribbean descent but I’m really British, too’ – but you can decide to waive the British bit and it won’t affect your ethnicity. The white person of British descent, on the other hand, has no choice but to accept ‘British’ as the designator both of their nationality and ethnicity: I’m not an ethnically white person of European heritage who chooses to call myself British (and am in fact a British national) but I’m ethnically British as well.

Does it matter that some UK citizens can effectively choose to have three ethnic-national identities while others are only allowed one? The Asian person in the above example is able to define themselves as (ethnically) Asian / (nationally) British / of Pakistani (family) background. The white-British person, on the other hand, is considered to be only British in all three respects.

This does matter, for a number of reasons. First, it’s rather disingenuous. You could view forms like this as having little to do with ethnicity. In reality, they’re a coded way to gather cultural information about the patient, such as religious affiliation (if they’re an ‘Asian British Bangladeshi’ or an ‘Asian British Pakistani’, for instance); and also to elicit census-type information enabling statisticians to track things like the distribution of immigrant-origin communities, their health problems and their use of public services.

Second, it’s not what you’d call conducive to cultural and national integration if ‘Britishness’ for some races (and it’s explicitly framed in ethnic terms by such forms) is a kind of optional extra that you can choose to take on, if you wish, while holding on to an ‘ethnic’ identity (a more profound identification) that actually ties you not just to a different race but to a different nation (e.g. Pakistan, India or China on this form).

Third, it is in fact rather discriminatory if ‘British’ is an optional extra for people of non-British family origin but not optional for people of British descent. Such people might, for example, wish to adopt a different designator of national identity to ‘British’ while retaining ‘British’, ‘white’, ‘European’ or something else entirely as the descriptor of their ethnicity. So, for instance, why can’t someone describe themself as ‘white English British’, if it’s legitimate for others now to call themselves ‘white Irish’ or ‘Asian Pakistani’ while at the same time being British nationals? ‘White English’ would not necessarily need to be a reinvention of the intrinsic linkage that my NHS form appeared to be making between the ‘white race’ and Britishness; but the ‘English’ could stand for the idea of the individual’s family’s country of origin (their ‘background’), which they could choose either to associate with or uncouple from Britishness in a national sense.

Official forms like this do not allow any separation between British statehood and English, Scottish or Welsh nationality and identity defined in a more personal, familial and cultural way; but they will allow a separation of that sort for ‘other races’. In this, for all its politically-correct contortions, my NHS form is quite racist: it implies that to be a truly British person, you can only be ‘white-British’. Any other use of the British tag by people of other ethnic origins is a sort of value-added extra and as it were a metaphorical national Britishness, which can never be on a par with ‘authentic’ British ethnicity that is automatic and not an option for the persons concerned.

In this, we have an illustration of the fallaciousness of Britology, which attempts to establish a core, timeless Britishness. In this instance, it’s identified with race. But there is no such thing as a British race that all who trace their family origins in Britain are obliged to adhere to. Britishness is a label we can reject and, by doing so, usher in a more open, diverse nation in which ethnically ‘British’, ethnically black and ethnically Asian people are all equally entitled and welcome to be called English.

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11 July 2007

Salman Rushdie Affair: Al-Qaeda’s Vain Threats, Britain’s Lame Excuse

Neither Al-Qaeda nor the British government come out of the Salman Rushdie controversy with their reputation enhanced. The threats issued towards Britain yesterday by Osama Bin Laden’s deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are not only morally unacceptable but betray weakness: you make threats like this when you’re not necessarily in a position to carry them out. Of course, we have to take these threats in deadly earnest. But they’re a rather delayed response to the award of the knighthood to Rushdie, probably largely for logistical reasons. And this does at least indicate that Al-Qaeda is struggling to maintain leadership of the hardline anti-Western Islamic cause. I hesitate to call it the ‘jihadist’ cause (and certainly not the conceptually unhelpful ‘islamist’) because al-Zawahiri refers to a “very precise response”. This suggests a one-off, symbolically targeted attack or series of attacks, not all-out jihad. Al-Qaeda might wish to carry out full-scale jihad but would appear not to be in the position to do so, after all.

Al-Zawahiri’s response was also a highly predictable one: an inevitable consequence of the knighthood award, as I’ve argued in previous blog entries on the Salman Rushdie topic. Rushdie’s much-reviled novel The Satanic Verses is indeed insulting to many Muslims, not just the hardliners; and the British government would have known that awarding an honour to its author would provoke manifestations of more or less orchestrated outrage on the part of Iran, Pakistan, Al-Qaeda and elsewhere. So the decision to go ahead with it was a deliberate choice to fly in the face of such protests and to make Rushdie a symbol of the ‘British way of life’ and its associated ‘values’ that are supposedly under threat from terrorism. As I stated in my article ‘Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?‘, this was a calculated move designed to stir up Islamophobic sentiment in Britain, and to strengthen support for tougher anti-terror measures and the continuing presence of British armed forces in Afghanistan and Iran.

In this context, the government’s statement rebuffing al-Zawahiri’s threats is remarkably feeble. The Foreign Office maintained that the knighthood had been awarded in ‘reflection of his contribution to literature’. When the award was initially announced, very few people in literary circles thought it was merited on those grounds; although, of course, now many luminaries are running around in Mr Rushdie’s defence, including the novelist-cum-presenter Melvyn Bragg, I noticed last night (was he standing outside 10 Downing Street? . . .).

Downing Street itself stated last night that “The government has already made clear that Rushdie’s honour was not intended as an insult to Islam or the Prophet Muhammad”. Yeah, right! This sort of excuse puts me in mind of a husband and wife row in which the husband knew that something he’s just done would provoke emotional upset on the part of his wife but did it anyway, because he didn’t think that such a response was reasonable! And so the apology goes, ‘Sorry for hurting you, dear’, rather than apologising for the action itself.

But the government must have known the honour would offend many, many Muslims, including many so-called ‘moderates’. And if they genuinely didn’t realise this, what hope have we got that they will ever be able to address the root causes of Islamically inspired terrorism?

25 June 2007

Islamophobia: Driver Of the War On Terror

It used to be said that anti-Catholicism is the anti-semitism of the liberal. It is fairly obvious which religion has taken over that mantle today. Views that would be widely regarded as prejudiced and offensive if directed towards other religious or ethnic groups are often seen as acceptable when expressed about Islam. These opinions and sentiments slip beneath liberals’ politically-correct censorship monitor in the guise of a supposed defence of the very liberal values that dictate political correctness in the first place; above all, in the guise of a defence of tolerance. The consequence is that advocates of the liberal position are frequently completely blind to the Islamophobia they are articulating and helping to inflame.

On Fridays, on the ‘PM’ programme on Radio Four, they round off the week with a review of letters and emails sent by listeners during the course of the preceding days. This last Friday, there were several letters relating to the award of a knighthood to Salman Rushdie. The famous BBC balance was conspicuous by its absence: not a single correspondent cited was critical of the award; there were only ‘indignant-from-Tunbridge Wells’-type comments to the effect of: who did Muslims in Iran and Pakistan think they were, trying to dictate to us who we honour or not, and impinging on our freedom of speech; that, unlike them, we were a tolerant society that accepts the right of people like Rushdie to express their point of view; and were we supposed to live under Shariah law now? It made me feel as though I was in a minority of one.

Implicit or explicit in the PM listeners’ comments was an assumption that Mr Rushdie’s knighthood had been conferred upon him in genuine recognition of the literary merit of his works and, in a more general sense, of their cultural importance in the current context of a perceived threat to Western civilisation from certain quarters of the Islamic world. But it appears totally obvious to me that the whole thing was politically driven. Indeed, comments from the Home Secretary on Wednesday of last week included an admission that senior members of the government had been involved in the decision (see my blog of 21 June). Furthermore, I haven’t heard one voice from the literary establishment who regards the award as merited and timely from a purely literary point of view.

In my blog entry of 19 June, I argued that the political intention behind the award was to express defiance towards Iran, to promote public perception of an increased threat from terrorism (in order to help get the new Terror Bill through parliament), and to tighten the pressure on Muslim communities in this country, which might enable more so-called extremists and terror suspects to be flushed out. A further more general objective, which supports all of these aims, is that of increasing the climate of Islamophobia in Britain. It was evident from the content of the PM mailbag that this was succeeding. Virtually all the correspondence on the subject expressed resentment towards the angry reaction to the knighthood from some Muslims, as reported in the media. And in one or two instances, this resentment was articulated in terms of indifference and even hostility towards the religious basis for Muslims’ sense of hurt. Paraphrasing one comment from memory: ‘I don’t even care about the religious reason for the offence caused; religious people have been getting their way for too long in these matters – why should they continue to dictate to the rest of us any more?’

Before I go any further, it would be useful to clarify what I mean by Islamophobia. This word covers a whole gamut of negative beliefs and attitudes towards Islam and Muslims that are based on prejudice, misconception, blame, resentment and fear. As stated above, it is the same sort of phenomenon as racism or any other form of aggressive prejudice. But what is particularly insidious about Islamophobia in the present context is, as I have said, the way it is articulated in liberal terms. In essence, what unites the liberal critics of Islam and those who express their Islamophobia in cruder, more violent ways is ultimately a wish to displace Islam as the core value system and political philosophy of Muslim-majority countries; even a wish that it had never arisen in the first place. The liberals won’t, can’t, acknowledge this; but their desire for a liberal reform of Islam is predicated on a denial of the validity of Islam’s claims to truth (based on the supposed revelation received by Mohammed) and of the whole system of law and political authority that derives from it. A liberalisation of Islam would in reality be a take-over of the Islamic world by Western liberalism. In those circumstances, law in Muslim countries would be secularised: it would be determined on the basis of rationalist, libertarian and egalitarian principles, not of an unreformed medieval set of rules that have ‘falsely’ passed themselves off as divine writ for 1400-odd years. The public / political and the private / faith spheres would be separated, as they are in the West, and both domains would be thrown open to competition, otherwise known as democracy and freedom of conscience respectively.

Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses articulates just such a liberal critique and would-be subversion of the very foundations of Islam. I’ve refreshed my memory of the novel, read for the first time in 1991, when the original fatwa issued against the author by the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini was still very much in force. What is particularly clever about the book (from a liberal-intellectual point of view), and at the same time Islamophobic (hostile towards Islam, indeed seeking to undermine it) is not so much the substance of what Rushdie writes about Mohammed and the disputed ‘satanic verses’ allegedly accepted into the Qu’ran and then later rejected. The real offence, from the Islamic perspective, is the way the ironic, self-reflexive structures of the novel frame all writing – including that of the Qu’ran – as fundamentally fictive: not containing within itself any absolutely reliable guarantee of its authenticity and truthfulness. I heard one reviewer of this Saturday’s papers on BBC News 24 patronisingly assert that Muslims were being naïve in their indignation at the novel’s version of the ancient legend concerning the satanic verses (that they were in fact the work of the Angel Gabriel himself) because this story, in Rushdie’s novel, was merely a fiction. How silly of them not to realise the distinction! But the whole point about the novel is that it (admittedly, fictively) questions the validity of any distinction between fiction and revelation. So it is not so much the story of the satanic verses – in the novel – that Muslims are reacting to; but the novel The Satanic Verses as a whole, which is turning round to them and saying ‘all you believe in is no different from this novel: a fiction, a fabrication and a lie’. Their reaction to the book was in this sense virtually programmed and anticipated by it: Rushdie calculated the effect, loaded the gun and pulled the trigger.

British politicians and commentators have defended the original decision to approve the publication of The Satanic Verses and the recognition its author has now received, on the basis that this demonstrates the tolerance of British society. But what they are effectively saying is that Islamic societies should exhibit the same sort of tolerance in their turn, i.e. that they should accept the same sort of diversity of opinion and belief as Western societies. Muslim societies should move to the more ‘advanced’ situation of modern Western culture: embracing a plurality of truths, rather than the singularity of revelation, and leaving it to the liberal economic and cultural market place to sort out which version of reality is more widely accepted and narratively convincing. Or, putting it another way, the Islamic world should cease to be different and antagonistic to our own; it should become Western and liberal.

In this way, fundamental, indeed aggressive, hostility towards Islam and ‘reasonable’ liberal critique of Islamic belief and society are inseparable bedfellows. As one intensifies, so does the other. 9/11 sparks off an understandable wave of blame and vengeful feelings towards Muslims; but these are acted out in the invasion of Afghanistan: not an act of violence against a Muslim country, so it is said, but an attempt to bring it the benefits of Western secular democracy and liberalism – in other words, to destroy its particular brand of fundamentalist Islam, in which everything was based on an extremely narrow, literalistic interpretation of the Qu’ran. However, fast forward six years, and our boys are still slugging it out with the never-say-die Taliban. Is something wrong with our conceptual model here, and do Afghanis not actually see us as their saviours? The truth is probably somewhere in between: common ground to be discovered.

Similarly, the UK government decides to award a knighthood to the personification of the ideal of ‘tolerant Islam’ (actually, someone – strangely – who is no longer a believer), ostensibly because of the literary merit of his works and his impeccable liberal credentials – but also out of hostility and fundamental enmity towards Islam. The resultant violent reaction from the most ‘fundamentalist’ countries provokes both increased resentment and anger towards Muslims among the British population, and further exasperated criticism of the backwardness and intellectual blindness of such Muslims, who simply don’t have the wit or education to appreciate that it’s all just a sophisticated sort of mind game. Except you don’t play fanciful, deceptive mind games with what is most sacred in life. And who is really being most blind here: the Muslims who can see a direct assault on the foundations of their faith and societies on the part of a hostile West; or the West which can’t see that that’s what it’s doing?

But, to return to my original point of departure, the stimulation of this sort of Islamophobia (liberal – and therefore unself-knowingly aggressive – hostility and contempt towards Islam) is politically useful to the British government. The reason for this is that it increases support for the measures the government has taken and intends to take in support of the so-called War on Terror. In my blog of 19 June, I emphasised the domestic political benefits (passing of the new Terror Bill, ability to detain ‘suspects’ for up to 90 days without charge, etc.). But I could just as easily have stressed the international agenda. Let’s put this in political diary form:

  • Saturday 16 June: announcement of Salman Rushdie’s knighthood

  • Sunday 17 and Monday 18 June: predicted protests follow in Iran and Pakistan; effigies of the queen and flags of St. George are burnt; Pakistani minister makes speech appearing to justify suicide bombings in response to the award; this follows on from similar anti-British protests in Tehran the week before. Stokes up British resentment towards and fear of global Islamic assault on Western civilisation and values, and willingness to support all necessary measures to combat it

  • Thursday 21 June: US general involved in the Iraqi ‘surge’ expresses belief that the foreign hostages taken two or three weeks earlier (including Britons) are being held by an Iranian-backed group.

  • Friday 22 June: it’s reported that British troops are beginning a major offensive against the Taliban in Afghanistan; and it’s well known that the Taliban are being supplied with increasingly sophisticated weaponry by the Iranians, and are being funded and harboured by sympathetic Pakistanis.

 

In short, the decision to knight Salman Rushdie was intended to provoke an occasion for Islamophobia: feelings of fear, anger and resentment coupled with liberal disparagement of the barbaric intolerance and ignorance of those effigy-burning Muslims. And, at the same time, the latest developments in the War on Terror are communicated to the media as being concentrated precisely around the Muslims involved in the latest episodes of extremist Islamic behaviour: the Iranians, waging war against Britain through every avenue available to them (notably, through the insurgency in Iraq and via the Taliban in Afghanistan), and the Pakistanis (the Taliban’s principal ally). The War on Terror – far from being a grotesque foreign-policy misadventure – suddenly starts to seem necessary and worth fighting. Could it be that one of GB’s [Gordon Brown’s] first major achievements will be something that Blair so singularly failed to do: winning liberal backing for military action in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Islamophobia enables the creation of an enemy in the War on Terror: we’re no longer shadow-boxing Al-Qaeda in the mountainous borderland between Pakistan and Afghanistan but fighting a real-life enemy – the Taliban – that really is radically opposed to Western civilisation and is out to get us. And we’re no longer dealing with a nebulous group of internecine, homicidal insurgents in Iraq but with fighters that are being organised and equipped by the would-be regional Islamist nuclear superpower; and a country which has also, including in the Rushdie affair, demonstrated its violent hostility and aggression towards Britain on more than one occasion – and so needs to be stopped, if necessary by Western military force in Iraq.

So the whipping up of Islamophobia, and then focusing it in on specific enemies of British and Western forces, is an attempt to overcome the real PR problem faced by the Iraq War: the failure to find a real enemy and a real threat to correspond to the Terror that the war was supposed to be directed against. Indeed, if you don’t know who your enemy is but know that he’s out there, plotting against you, this does indeed accentuate the power of the terror that is hanging over you: worse the enemy you don’t know than the enemy you do.

But is there not a sense that even the Iranians and the Taliban are not our ‘real’ enemy here? Does the threat they pose really justify Britain in fighting battles that are leaving our armed forces overstretched and possibly under-equipped, and are resulting in the steady attrition of loss of life – not just among our brave soldiers but among all the casualties of war, including many thousands of civilians? Or if the specific threat to Western civilisation or, more concretely, the Western global economic order from the likes of Iran is that significant, should there not be a much more concerted, collective effort on the part of all Western countries – including military action as a last resort – to ensure that the ‘evil’ that is threatening us is eliminated? (Maybe GB is calculating on creating a wave of support for more funding, resources and personnel in the war against our newly defined enemies – who knows?)

The Iranians and the Taliban remain slightly surreal and incomplete symbols for our real enemy in the War of Terror – the one which, as good liberals, we are incapable of seeing as our enemy: Islam itself. The terror in the War on Terror is our Islamo-phobia: our fear of Islam. But this fear can only exercise its power over us if it is unacknowledged, suppressed beneath our liberal reasonableness, and our attempts to rationalise and objectify the threat we feel in the shape of specific, tangible menaces. If we recognise that what we are really afraid of is being defeated in a global clash of civilisations with Islam, and being subordinated to Islam, then this is the beginning of a way out of our terrors. We can either fight the shadows or engage with the reality. We and Islam don’t have to be enemies; we can live together and equitably share the threatened resources of the earth (including those of Middle Eastern oil) that we all need.

The lesson from the Troubles in Northern Ireland was that you don’t defeat terrorism by continuing to deny the dignity and the rights of those whose cause is championed in extremis by the men of violence, and by trying to secure a military victory over them. The resolution can come only through reconciliation, dialogue and the recovery of mutual respect. But in order to achieve this in relation to Islam, we may have to compromise something of our liberal sense of superiority over that vibrant monotheistic faith. We certainly will also have to attend to healing the open wound at the heart of the whole conflict: the suffering of the Palestinians and, through and beyond that, the question of ownership of the Holy Land and Jerusalem – Judaeo-Christian or Muslim? No one should be under any illusion that the reconciliation will be easy – there are real enemies out there. But we have an obligation to seek grounds for peace, not false reasons for war.

Can our intransigent liberalism be reconciled with dogmatic Islam? Doubtless, there’ll need to be movement on both sides. And will that mean that we, too, may have to recover some of our own, Christian, ground of truth? Perhaps only then can we really meet our Muslim brothers face to face, and heart to heart, and see our common humanity to which our terror blinded us.

19 June 2007

Arise Sir Salman: The New Ambassador For British Values?

I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Salman Rushdie had been awarded a knighthood in the Birthday Honours List. How incredibly stupid! If anything was calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with Muslims in this country, that was it.

And sure enough, Iran’s knee-jerk reaction followed the day after as an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman asserted that the award revealed Islamophobia among senior British officials. The Pakistani parliament followed suit yesterday, and the Religious Affairs minister went so far as to suggest that such insults could even justify suicide bombings.

Nice work by the Downing Street team! Perhaps they should have listened a bit more to the boys and girls at the FO. Or perhaps they did: maybe calculated to aggravate relations with Iran and with British Muslims is exactly what it was.

To understand decisions like this that at first sight seem incomprehensible, it’s useful to focus on a) the message that it might be conveying, and b) its political effect: as the consequences of the decision unfold, think what political advantages there are to be had from some of them.

For a start, it’s clear that Rushdie’s elevation is in part intended to send Iran the message that Britain will not be intimidated, following the recent episodes of the seizure of British seamen on patrol and the protests outside the British Embassy in Tehran last week. It just so happens that two reports about the capture of the British naval personnel come out today, and this incident has been described as a ‘national humiliation’ (was it, though, really?). So Salman Rushdie’s award was indeed a timely demonstration of Britain’s resolve in relation to Iran!

Incidentally, it was curious how reports on last week’s demonstrations in Tehran mentioned that some of the protests were directed against ‘England’ rather than Britain. I’ve tried to find out why the demonstrators felt compelled to single out England in this way but haven’t as yet been successful. Is it simply that ‘England’ is used interchangeably with ‘Britain’ in Farsi, or was this, too, calculated to be especially insulting – the Iranians realising that insulting ‘England’ is more offensive to most British people than directing contempt merely towards Britain?

Quite whether conferring an honour on one of the most hated personalities in the Islamic world is the smartest way to communicate this message of defiance is another matter. I haven’t been able to shake out of my mind an image this suggests: one of a leering, Union Jack-sporting, 1970s-style punk sticking two fingers up the nose of an Arab sheikh. Or perhaps that’s just the kind of cartoonish, caricatural way it might be presented in Islamic media.

In fact, the knighting of Sir Salman puts one in mind of that other incident involving cartoons: those Danish images of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked such a furore of outrage in many parts of the Muslim world towards the end of last year. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and those cartoons are comparably insensitive in the way they play fast and loose with sacrosanct tenets of Islam. Conferring a knighthood on Rushdie, supposedly in recognition of his services to literature, is indeed tantamount to saying that insults to Islam are perfectly acceptable in British culture: not just in the popular culture, which creates hateful images of Muslims out of prejudice and fear of terrorism, but in high culture and art. In this respect, at least, the Pakistani Minister for Religious Affairs is on the mark in his criticisms.

But why would such a clear insult to Muslims be apparently sanctioned at the highest level? Look at the effect and infer the intentions. One effect is the one described above: Pakistani ministers appearing to legitimise suicide bombings to defend the honour of the Prophet. As if to back this up, the BBC Breakfast programme this morning slipped in a short, unobtrusive item (almost subliminal and appearing to be one that was waiting in their video library) showing a Taliban leader exhorting a group of Pakistani terrorist trainees to go and carry out suicide bombings in Britain and other Western countries.

In other words, part of the government’s intention appears to have been to engineer a perception of a heightened terrorist threat to this country. Too conspiracy-theory? Well, the government must have realised this would be the reaction on the part of the religious hardliners in Iran and Pakistan; so why do it unless it was something that procured some benefit? What’s the benefit? Well, Mr Brown’s got a new Terror Bill to steer through parliament, hasn’t he? The rebel Labour MPs are going to be just a little more reluctant to stick one over on their new leader if the public is getting more worried about the terror threat again. So not stupid, at all; very clever, as far as it goes. In GB (as I’ll henceforth call Gordon Brown in honour of his Britological credentials), we are after all dealing with the secret spin-meister par excellence! Does it matter that / whether the actual threat level is raised or not? Well, politics, among other things, is the art of short-term risk taking for the sake of long-term objectives. If, six months from now, another horrendous terrorist outrage hits London, how many people will make the link with Salman Rushdie’s knighthood? But we may then be having to live with 90-days’ detention of terror suspects without charge, which will seem a small sacrifice of our liberties against such atrocities.

And what about the other ‘benefit’ that could accrue from Sir Rushdie’s honour: the antagonism of Muslim communities in this country? Every time the government wishes to talk up the terror threat, it seems they also feel it opportune to do something to make the Muslim faithful appear to justify suspicions of their terrorist sympathies. After all, this government’s done this before, last autumn, when it stirred up a largely unnecessary ‘debate’ about Muslim women who wear the niqab, or full veil. The effect of this, as opposed to the avowed intention, was merely to exacerbate people’s understandable sense of unease when encountering women thus attired, and to implant in the collective consciousness the idea that Muslims who choose to demonstrate their adherence to Islam in such a striking visual way are more likely to be extremists or even potential terrorists in disguise.

In a similar way, Muslim organisations and individuals in this country who protest too vehemently about Rushdie’s honour can now be dismissed as extremists – ignoring the fact that this award is probably offensive (and understandably so) even to more liberal-minded Muslims. The government’s tactic, in this as in the whole veil episode, appears to be to drive a wedge between the so-called ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ in the Muslim community. On the one hand, the moderates are intimidated by the enhanced general atmosphere of Islamophobia (in the sense of ‘fear of Islam’) into doing what the government has urged them to do: to try to take control of their communities and impose their more moderate views. On the other hand, it’s a way to more easily isolate the extremists, who’ll be provoked into taking more radical public positions, which will then make them easier to police and which is likely to land a fair few of them with 90-day terms of detention without charge.

As part of this campaign to stigmatise and discredit the so-called extremists, the government has probably thought it could use Rushdie as an exemplar of a Muslim who has fully embraced ‘British values’ of liberalism, moderation and freedom of speech. They must have consulted with Rushdie himself about the whys and wherefores of accepting the honour. They would have explained the risks to the man: that there’d doubtless be a wave of revulsion across the Muslim world, even that the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini previously placed upon him could be revived. But if he was willing to take this on, he could accomplish something really worthwhile by setting an example of a Muslim who had fully integrated with British values and culture, even to the extent of obtaining the highest possible accolade that Britain can bestow. If things went belly up, and both Britain and Rushdie received death threats in the form of incitements to acts of terrorism and a renewed fatwa, then this integration theme could be underplayed, and Rushdie could be celebrated and pitied as a victim of Islamist extremism: perhaps even literally as a ‘martyr’ for British liberalism. (But maybe they didn’t discuss that bit of the deal in too much detail.)

Did they really think Rushdie would have any credibility at all as a symbol of the integration of Muslims with British values and society? He can’t even be seen as a liberal Muslim, as he’s renounced Islam – which it is of course his right to do; but more sensible (and dare I say ‘English’) to do so in less deliberately offensive a manner. He’s more precisely a paragon of what you might call the ‘religious liberalism’ that is a characteristic of the Britologists’ British values: liberalism blended with a certain number of inherited Christian concepts (even though it’s ultimately secular in its core assumptions), and espoused and advocated with a certain quasi-religious, even arrogantly absolutist zeal by Blairites and Brownites alike. [It’s what I like to call ‘evangeliberalism’ – but then the love of neologisms is truly one of my biggest sins!]

Yes, indeed, Salman Rushdie is truly a worthy cultural ambassador of this form of liberalism. Look at the Satanic Verses: a liberal, novelistic conceit (and therefore not to be read in a literal manner like those naïve Muslims who read their own Holy Book in such a way) that re-plays an ancient Christian calumny about Islam – that it was Satan who whispered it into the ears of Mohammed, not the Angel Gabriel speaking the words of God. Added to this, a suggestive thematic around the lack of modesty and virtue of the Prophet’s wives, adding grist to the mill that it is threatened, autocratic Muslim patriarchs who impose the veil on their wives, merely because they can’t tolerate the modern secular idea that women are entitled to full sexual and personal freedom.

Is it any wonder, then, that so many Muslims are up in arms? The Satanic Verses is a poisonous cocktail, appealing at once to Christian-derived prejudices and myths about Islam, and liberal contempt towards its literalism, and its ‘uncritical’ veneration of Mohammed and God himself. Indeed, it embodies precisely the sort of pernicious mix that informs so many of the actions and statements towards Muslims of those who have declared themselves the champions of British values.

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