"On Nationalism And Morality"

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
Setting out my case for the toxic impact of Nationalism in any given country on the morality of its people.

Submitted: February 19, 2015

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Submitted: February 19, 2015

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On Nationalism and Morality

No great rhetoric or sophistication is required to demonstrate a simple proposition that rejects the very project of a value-free account of morality. One could argue that the emergence of British morality as we know it coincided with nineteeth century capitalism. It therefore expresses a particular ideology. To learn more about the operational nature of this ideology I would direct readers to what Slavoj Zizek defines as the purest form of ideology - the unknown knowns; that is the things you do not know that you know.

In order to maintain moral standards they need to be continually recalibrated otherwise they are driven down by the herd; what we can refer to for the purposes of this discussion as the herd morality and what Alexis de Tocqueville in his great book Democracy in America indicated by his phrase ‘the tyranny of the majority’. This recalibration serves as a  necessary corrective of the simple minded understandings of democracy which can damage our moral sensibility, if only by simply addressing the need to consciously relate our ultimate goal back to our day-to-day actions, which in most cases is reducible to one thing alone: good judgment.

Tocqueville was thinking primarily, not of democratic laws or other overt and deliberate political measures of an illiberal tendency, but of a more subtle kind of tyranny: that exercised by a popular ethos over personal beliefs. John Stuart Mill developed this idea in predicting that when democratic majorities have come to feel their power they will be tempted to use it to excess with the surprising effect that civil liberty will be no less invaded by government action than social liberty had been invaded by social opinion.

An modern incarnation of the potentially destructive power of democratic majorities is the increasing use of the modern British press to lead the government and police on law and order relates to the moral panic surrounding paedophilia in the late 1990s. The News of the World (23 July 2000) used the abduction, rape and killing of Sarah Payne in 2000 to launch a campaign calling for sex offenders to be locked up for life. As part of their campaign they published photographs and information concerning 49 paedophiles and threatened to publish a list of 100, 000 others.

This led to vigilante action against many of those depicted and even to attacks on paediatricians as people were unsure of the difference between them and paedophiles. The government in response to the clear public outrage published proposals to toughen sentences for certain child sex offences. Later the News of the World (30 July 2000) began a second campaign calling for parents to be informed of a sex offender in their area and for life to mean life - this was dubbed the call for Sarah’s Law to mimic laws already available in most states in the US (called Megan’s Laws).

Largely as a result of these media campaigns most people erroneously view paedophiles as predatory criminals whereas most sexual abuse of children is committed by close friends or family members. Now one might argue that any parent placed in a situation in which a convicted paedophile was living near to their family would want to know however, if this is the case, it is for the politicians to put the case forward for reform. We pay government departments and politicians for a reason - to formulate policies based on detailed research and reasoned discussion, not based on what they believe the readers of the tabloid press would support. The problem with consumerist politics, that is where politicians are told what to do by the people rather than the other way around, is that the customer is not always right. The captain of the Titanic, who believed his ship was unsinkable, was an extremely satisfied customer but was none the better for it.

Mill had previously explained that democracy in representative form maximizes the happiness of the governed by providing them with the means of sacking those governors who make them miserable. Democracy conforms to the fundamental utilitarian principle that ‘if the end of Government be to produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number, that end cannot be attained by making the greatest number slaves’. The ‘evils of unbridled power’ and the enslavement to rulers is a constant political problem because all men - Mill thought women and children were non-players in the game of politics - strive constantly for power over others.

What Mill referred to as the ‘yoke of opinion’ is weighing very heavy in Britain today, in part a consequence of it being unchecked because of the public fear of Islamist terrorism and immigration, which I would humbly submit are at critical levels. It is not my intention here to outline the growth of nationalism in Britain in each of its many faces - largely because a serious study of that subject would require me to write a whole book. I intend rather to approach the subject at an angle, which will enable us to place this surge in nationalist sentiment into some type of context and better elucidate my thesis about the interaction between nationalism and morality.

A manifestation of this rising nationalist sentiment in Britain is the growing amount of media attention devoted to reporting news relating to the British troops. One might argue that it is only natural for our media to report on the progress of our troops when we are at war however the sheer deference with which they are treated has assuredly been on the rise particularly in the past couple of years even though the Iraq invasion took place in 2003. The current levels of jingoism being summoned up by the national press on behalf of the armed forces can be likened to a religious fervour. The notion that the conduct of the British military be subjected to rigorous military scrutiny has become all too easy to dismiss. Yet authority and the criminal justice system and its employees are not today seen as necessarily good. The acceptability and effectiveness of the system and of criminal laws are questioned and those in the criminal justice system or law enforcement are seen as no different from anyone else and therefore as needing to prove their daily worth.

At the start of the invasion much more time in news programmes was devoted to detailing the suffering of the Iraqi people, civilian casualties and other such stories but now, as a result of campaign after campaign for unwavering support for the British armed forces by the tabloids in the same vein as those that take place in America, the weight is heavily tipped in favour of our armed services. Why? Because they are British. Now the death of one British soldier is headline news whereas the death of 15 Iraqi children is not worthy of any news attention whatsoever. The upshot of all this is that the conduct of our armed services are not being subjected to any type of moral scrutiny and when the odd story of abuse of Iraqi civilians by our troops does emerge from time to time, it is far more likely to be buried under accusations of a lack of patriotism.

This driving down of moral standards is inextricably linked to the surge of nationalism in Britain today. Somehow, somewhere along the line, it became acceptable for British people to think about our place in the world in the same egotistical terms that Americans do. America, as de Tocqueville knew only too well, has a lot to answer for. I remember being shocked a few years ago, whilst a great international debate was taking place about the merits of going to war with Iraq, by the sheer intellectual and moral apathy of our friends on the other side of the Atlantic. George Michael, the pop superstar, had just released a single called “Shoot the Dog” the lyrics of and video of which ridiculed British support of US foreign policy. George Michael was invited onto a US talkshow for a “debate” about his views, during which he was subjected to a series of boos and hisses from a furious American audience, still reeling from the 9/11 attacks. (Incidentally, more Americans die in their own bathtubs each year than from Islamist terrorism.) One hysterical lady stood up and said: “Well it’s that old saying. I’m happy to criticise my own family, but I’ll be damned if I let anyone else criticise my family!” and was rewarded with a generous round of applause.

This struck me as an utterly pathetic and completely morally and intellectually bankrupt point of view. After all, could not Saddam Hussein, or any crackpot dictator argue exactly the same thing when faced with criticism for gassing his own civilians? How morally low does one have to sink in order to adhere to such a principle? If a father rapes his own daughter, should we abstain from criticising his behaviour merely because we are not fortunate enough to be a part of his family? This is not the basis of an effective code of moral conduct.

I remember remarking to myself as a young British man how relatively good we had it in Britain where our citizens are generally less jingoistic, far better educated and less prone to pledging our support to a government, benevolent or malevolent, simply because it is our government. Imagine then, my bitter disappointment, when just a few months ago a debate triggered by a Republican Party politician who criticised the British National Health Service during an attempt by Obama to reform the American system resulted in a similarly brainless chorus of opposition from our national press. Graham Linegan, a comedian and writer who I had hitherto had unreserved respect for, created the #welovetheNHS campaign on Twitter in response and commented on Channel 4 news: “Well it’s that old saying. I’m happy to criticise my own family, but I’ll be damned if I let anyone else criticise my family.”

My point here is not primarily about the growth in nationalism in Britain. As regrettable as that is, further elaboration on that is beyond the scope of this discussion. The point I am making is that once people exchange individual moral courage for the tyranny of the majority, moral standards are inevitably driven down. To put it plainly and without artifice, the majority can not be trusted. If you ask the herd for an opinion, you should prepare yourself for a bigoted and ignorant response.

Why? This is neither a matter of elitism nor moral narcissism. It is simply a matter of political common sense. In order to be a moral actor, the action in question needs to be debated. In order for the action to be debated, you need to have both sides of a debate. In order to have both sides of a debate, you need to have a range of or even polarisation of opinion. But you will never have this where you follow the tyranny of the majority.

In America the media, from which most people get their views, are generally deferential to authority and rarely critical of their leaders in foreign affairs. American  politicians are subjected to a far lower standard of scrutiny than ours by their media and they rarely submit to sustained critical questioning from each other or from other reporters and the President very rarely does.

Under the Bush administration press conferences journalists typically ask a single question. When the question is evaded, which is almost always the case with difficult questions, they do not follow up. Political programmes which pose as serious debates are in actual fact much closer to Orwell’s “Two Minutes Hates” - little more than a gallery of grotesque faces being broadcast on a screen as the audiences chant “Arab - bad!!, America - good!!”. NBC promptly fired Phil Donahue, the one television network host who opposed the Iraq invasion. It also fired the veteran war reporter, Peter Arnett, who appeared on Iraqi television suggesting to the Iraqis that they tolerate foreign policy journalists in Baghdad on the grounds that their reports aided the US anti-war movement. All this self-censorship serves to muzzle American democracy. The acceptance of the limbo for prisoners in Guantanamo Bay has been aided by the muted condemnation of the total removal of their rights and unclear status.

In pursuing its foreign policy objectives since the Second World War, which amount to little more than attempting to play a separate power role at the hub of world politics - apart from Europe - based on a ’special relationship’ with the United States, Britain has emasculated itself. Britain has gutted its own moral character like a fish.

What the premise of this ‘special relationship’ rests upon is the rule that, because of the global reach of US economic, political and military power - and whether its foreign policy is right or wrong - we will support her. Regardless of whether or not this is necessary for the maintenance of Britain’s global interests, this is not the basis of a good relationship, as the Suez crisis of 1956 demonstrated. The crisis followed the decision by Egyptian President Nasser to nationalise the Suez Canal, an act that was seen by the Eden Government as a fundamental threat to British interests in the Middle East. A plan was hatched with the French and the Israelis whereby a prearranged Israeli invasion ostensibly to separate the combatants and to protect the integrity of the Suez Canal. The latter invasion however was brought to a premature halt by a run on sterling as the United States government made it clear that it would only be prepared to support the pound if Anglo-French forces were immediately withdrawn. What sort of a ‘special relationship’ did Britain have with the United States if one partner could be so humiliated by the other?

A very crude characterisation of Britain in 2009 might locate it in the same position as an elderly person, whose physical capacities are diminishing. Rather than trying to assert its self-esteem by trying to compete with younger and stronger nations for glory, it would do far better to try create a new diplomatic role which focuses on deriving self-worth and satisfaction from passing on knowledge and playing a conciliatory role in foreign affairs. Maintaining the commitment to our relationship with the United States, a nation which rules with its fist, is likely to erode our capacity to perform this bridge building role.

When Michael Mann, the author of Incoherent Empire, asks of the Iraq war: “Where was the British national interest in this folly? I have been repeatedly asked  by Americans to explain British participation in the [Iraq] invasion. I can only explain it  as a tragic mistake.”, he misses the truth because it seems rather too obvious. The real reason why Blair supported the Iraq war was not because he thought it was the right thing to do. The invasion simply represented an opportunity for a Britain still suffering from post-imperial delusions to exert a fresh influence on international affairs.  The excessive willingness of Britain to underwrite American foreign policy might very well allow Britain to wear an old, ill-fitting but nevertheless comfortable suit but in reality this brand of Atlanticism provides little scope for the pursuit of this objective.

The impact of nationalism upon morality is necessarily corrosive. Nationalist politics, if they do not generate into repression, may well degenerate into fatuity. A nation-state must behave as though it is militarily, culturally and economically independent. When this is not patently the case, its politics are liable to enter a world of make-believe and self-deception. A good modern day example is Poland. In the shadow of Western Europe, she cannot be effectively independent. But her politics rest, as they must, on the contrary assumption. After the invasion of Iraq I asked some Polish friends of mine why they thought the Polish government had supported America.

My suspicion was then, as it is now, that the real motivation for doing so was related to the financial incentives offered in exchange for her support and the hope that this would lead to fresh opportunities for Polish people to settle in the US with American visas. My Polish friends always claimed: “Poland supported the US because it believed it was the right thing to do.” However the then Polish Foreign Minister was much more forthright. As Poland was rewarded with 48 f-16 fighters, almost one per special forces soldier, he was heard to crow: “It’s the contract of the century!” Polish nationalism has enabled its government to dress up its mercenary morality as high principle. Perhaps not to the outside world. But at least to its own people. When Polish people say their government supported the Iraq war because it was the right thing to do, these are just careless, delusory remarks, which have been uttered first by politicians and which are now simply being repeated by her citizens. And there is no one to take these politicians by the collar and to say: “Speak in concrete terms and show me why you believe it was the right thing to do”.

The drift towards nationalistic politics is rendered far more likely when society works on a limited intellectual stock-in-trade of ideas, cliches, stories, heroes and villains.

In twenty first century Britain, that villain is the Muslim. When I was growing up in the London of the 1990s the British Muslim community enjoyed a relatively low profile and the apparent gulf between them and modern secular Britain was far less accentuated than it in 2010. Today the belief is commonly expounded that Muslims are an oppressive, violent and powerful threat to Britain who are excessively sensitive to criticism and that there is a very real danger of the (what has been clumsily labelled) “Islamisation” of the UK taking place in the next few years. There does appear to be prevalent amongst the majority of Britons a large fear of victimisation by the British Muslim community. The “Muslim problem” in Britain has often been presented by the media as a victim/aggressor dichotomy - a law abiding British majority being terrorised by a criminal Muslim minority threatening the harmony of our peaceful existence.

In the interests of objectivity the question needs to be asked: is this a false dichotomy? When I first volunteered at the Forum Against Islamophobia and Racism (FAIR) as a young lawyer, I was very sceptical of the need for such an organisation. I felt that what some Muslims call Islamophobia might in reality be a vehicle for stifling our freedom to criticise their religion and I was equally dubious about the level of racial victimisation of the British Muslim community. However it soon became clear that if anything the level of hostility directed against Muslims in Britain has been irresponsibly ignored. Police figures revealed on 2 August 2005 showed a 600% increase in faith-hate crimes.

These crimes include relatively small ones such as verbal abuse, spitting and minor assaults. However there have been plenty of very serious incidents too, which include to list just a few; the murder of a 48-year old Pakistani Kamal Butt, the case of a disabled Hindu man who was beaten up by his neighbour while being called ‘al-Qaeda’, a 32-year-old woman stabbing 17-year-old Tarik Husan while he was standing at a bus stop and she shouted: “You’re all terrorists”, the release of a CS gas capsule in a Worcester mosque and the case of Amjid Mehmood, who was subjected to racial harassment and abuse by co-workers over a period of nine months in 2005-2006. During that time, he was publicly humiliated and threatened, force-fed bacon, set on fire, and tied to railings along a public motorway.

It is worthwhile to conduct a simple thought experiment involving a reversal of roles in order to determine whether or not Muslims are indeed being treated unfairly in Britain. Imagine that a Muslim extremist phones the police saying a bomb was due to go off in the country's biggest church and then says that he would behead one Christian a week until there were no other churches in the country. Do you think that this story would receive any media attention? Given the sensationalism with which the terrorism issue has been covered by the national news media, one would certainly think so. And there would rightly be moral outrage.

Having accepted this I am at a loss to explain the case of the Glasgow Mosque terrorist threat, in which Neil MacGregor pleaded guilty to doing all of the above, which went by largely unmentioned and unnoticed. Contrary to public opinion the biggest terrorist arsenal found in Britain since the 1960s was not stored by jihadis or fringe Irish nationalists but by white “neo-Nazis” who want to murder black people, Jews, Asians and gays in the bizarre belief that it will trigger a “race war”. This disjunction exposes a rash of hypocrisy: the people who gleefully blame all Muslims for the actions of a minority are mysteriously reluctant to apply the same arguments to themselves. In one of the most sickening cases that FAIR brought to public attention, a female asylum seeker from Algeria and her son were sexually assaulted as she took the baby out in his pram.

And all this whilst people protest about the need to defend our culture in the nation that once served as the world’s moral compass. One has to ask oneself how far away this all is from a substantive debate about the impact of Islam on British culture - and indeed whether any of these attacks are a response to “legitimate grievances”. It is my assertion that strong nationalistic sentiments and these awful attacks are all part of the same continuum and nationalism, if unchecked, becomes a morally bottomless pit. There is no limit to how low people will sink when given the opportunity to disguise their more deranged impulses with an attempt to pursue a nationalistic agenda.

I am deeply sceptical about the merits of a points-based test for British citizenship for a number of reasons. However in light of this subtext I was particularly perplexed by the comments made by the then Home Secretary Alan Johnston to the News of the World that points could be docked for a lack of commitment to Britain and its policies. What exactly does this mean? It is paradoxical to suggest that migrants could be prevented from acquiring citizenship for engaging in behaviour that British citizens take for granted. People should not be barred from becoming British citizens merely because they have the temerity to criticise government policy. If that were the case, I would have failed any citizenship test many times over.

The political pluralism essential to a democratic society must also rest on a foundation of cultural pluralism. Free elections must to an extent rest on a plural structure of political parties, and if these do not rest on differences of ideas, they will be differentiated only by opportunism. What we have seen since the turn of the last century in Europe and much of the Western hemisphere is the break down of the “two party” system of government facilitated by a drift to political centrism (inevitably to the right of the centre).

To test my thesis that in order for moral standards to be maintained they need to be continually recalibrated, it is necessary to take two prevalent strands of political thought in the US and the Arab world. I would hesitate to call these schools polar opposites for I happen to believe that religious fundamentalism and extreme nationalism are two sides of the same coin.

A good Marxist would believe that the ‘root causes’ of Saddam Hussein lie in the arrangement of classes and patterns of economic exploitation. I submit that it would be misleading to place the blame for the Middle East region’s disasters on Western imperialism and racism for this ignores the home-grown disasters of Arab nationalism and Islamism.

Consider the following incarnation of Arab nationalism, which bears a striking resemblance to European fascism and communism in its state-sponsored sadism of the all-powerful ruling party. Michel Aflaq, a pan-Arabist, was one of the Baath’s chief ideologues who wanted a single state for all of the Arabs of the Middle East. Aflaq explained that the Baathists explained the people to devote themselves to the party like lovers to an impulsive mistress. Laying down the law to Arab intellectuals in 1959, he said: “The nationalism we are calling for is love before anything else. He who loves does not ask for reasons.” So this was the recipe for Iraqi dictatorship - blind faith.

In a speech in 1977, Saddam Hussein told history teachers what the Baath expected of them: “Those researchers and historians who call themselves objective might very well be presenting different viewpoints and possibilities to explain one event…leaving it to the reader to draw his or her own conclusions…The Baathist must never deal with history and all other intellectual and social questions in this way…They must take on the same specificity as our Baathist way; in other words, the writing of Arab history should be from our point of view with an emphasis on analysis and not realistic story telling.” By the time the Americans and their allies overthrew him in 2003, the Baathists had murdered around 400,000 Iraqis in internal persecutions.

Now consider the orders of Chief Warrant Officer Dave Riaz, heading the first of the US Special Forces A-Teams in Afghanistan directing the bombers onto their targets. He told his men: “Yes, it is a civilian village, mud hut, like everything else in this country. But don’t say that. Say it’s a military compound. It’s a built-up area, barracks, command and control. Just like with the convoys: if it really was a convoy with civilian vehicles they were using for transport, we would just say hey, military convoy, troop transport.” A cavalier attitude to evidence, investigation and public review of military policies to reduce civilian casualties in Afghanistan were the unashamed products of Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, which systematically concealed the truth. He set up a Pentagon Office of Strategic Influence part of whose stated mission was to generate disinformation and propaganda.

The objective of this comparison is not to allege some type of moral equivalency between the respective governments of the US and Afghanistan. However I would submit that these two simple examples do at least serve to illustrate that whenever governments are given the freedom to stamp out pluralism and act in a dogmatic fashion, a) truth is high on the casualty list and b) moral standards go into decline. If we accept this very basic premise, we must in turn accept that the solution to the decline of moral standards lies in the proliferation of political pluralism.

My advice therefore to an Iraqi history teacher in 1977 would ideally have been to draw his own conclusions, to seek out differing interpretations and to attempt to avoid writing history from an Arab point of view. I do appreciate that this following this advice in the Baathist regime would very likely place an Iraqi dictator in physical danger.

However American journalists and academics do not have the luxury of this excuse. The Pentagon’s ability to control the media by operating a tightly controlled media pool in the war zone has increased in recent wars. The 9/11 atrocity encouraged self-censorship by reporters affected by the coercive emotional patriotism sweeping America. Any criticism of the war in Afghanistan was widely regarded, not just as unpatriotic, but also a disrespect for the dead (which takes us back to my moral objection to unwavering support for the British troops). After a storm of protest about the euphemistically titled Office of Strategic Influence, Rumsfeld assured us American people that the Pentagon would never lie to Americans. He shut down the office but recreated it in 2002 headed by an undersecretary responsible for “special plans” - or to put it more plainly - deception.

It is part of the definition of research that you do not know what you are going to find out. Abidance by this principle is also the hallmark of good journalism. Over the course of the past ten years journalistic (and intellectual) standards in the UK have taken a massive dip as our mode of journalistic inquiry has drifted closer towards the American model where the press help to build up moral panics and fear such that rights can be eroded and the state moves closer to tyrannical actions.

I have to remind myself to exercise a degree of self-restraint when commenting on the damage that remodelling ourselves in America’s image has done to British culture as well as to our democracy. I too am guilty of being infected by the nightmare images of America that have always haunted the European psyche - a degenerate image of Europe’s own dystopian future. However it must be borne in mind when discussing nationalism in any context that although intellectual work is a critical activity (which involves recognising pitfalls and acting negatively), it does also entail an affirmative aspect.

Americans need to be made more aware that democratic virtues are not inherited but earned. They should re-learn to distinguish between “hard power”, which compels others to behave as we wish, and “soft power”, which persuades people to want what we want - because what we want embodies certain virtues. A particularly acute source of its current ideological weakness is its quasi-racial hatred of Arabs and the decline genuine anthropological knowledge of Muslim societies and cultures.

Somehow somewhere along the line, Americans lost the ability to think critically about themselves and their place in the world. This is a basic but very important life skill. Consequently there is a huge gap between the self-perception of Americans and the reality. Opinion polls reveal that the average American thinks the US spends above 15 percent of its total budget on foreign aid. That would be extraordinarily generous. In fact thirty years ago the UN asked wealthier countries to contribute 0.7 percent of their GDP to aid - hardly a crippling figure. Only four countries (all in Europe) met that target. The US unsurprisingly ranks last of all the 22 wealthiest countries. The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark give almost ten times more per head of population.

Colin Powell expressed the same self-righteousness when lecturing the UN about the need to pay heed to the US because it was the oldest democracy in the world. I wonder from when he was dating the beginnings of this democracy. Was it perhaps the 1780s when only white male property owners had the vote, Native Indians were being exterminated, and African-Americans were slaves? Or did he mean the 1950s when people of his own skin colour still did not enjoy the vote across the whole of America and in some parts were being lynched from trees?

Polls indicate that most Americans want to bring, peace, democracy, human rights and economic development to the world. Surprising then that when one considers the stark words of CIA Chief in Latin America from 1981-1984 Duane Clarridge when interviewed by British journalist John Pilger in his docu-film The War on Democracy. In the 1970s and 1980s the US government brutally suppressed most movements for democracy in several countries in Latin America whenever they collided with her own economic interests (remember America apparently invaded Iraq to establish democracy although there is a bitter irony in America only bringing this up recently, having conveniently overlooked it during the many years in which Saddam served US interests). The American government was supplying arms to dictators all over the region such as General Pinochet.

After Nicaragua, a small and feeble country in Latin America, had the temerity to overthrow another US backed dictator, America sent deaths squads into the country indiscriminately killing thousands of civilians, many of whom were inevitably women and children. When a Pilger asks Clarridge about what right the US had to do this, he answers: “That’s just tough. We will “intervene” whenever we decide it is in our national interests. And if you don’t like it, lump it! Get used to it world!.” He also goes on to describe Amnesty International, who were deeply sceptical of US foreign policy in Latin America during this period, as a “propaganda mill”. This does not appear to my thinking to be a case of American good versus rogue state evil.

However the single step that begins the journey for those many Americans who do want to make the world a better place is the simple admission that there might be good reason for some countries to hate America. Try saying it to yourselves in the mirror. “I can understand why some countries hate America.” Even the obvious can not be recognised as true until someone says it.

I can virtually hear the chorus of objections that allege this is all another example of political correctness being taken too far. To my mind political correctness is one of the most widely misunderstood and misused terms in the English language - the most common fallacy being the arrogant assumption that it is a muzzle that only the privileged are force to wear. I can not count the number of times I have cringed when one of my male colleagues has complained about the level of political correctness that operates in favour of female lawyers in the office. So how often do female lawyers enter the office and complain about thousands of years of social repression, inequality and sexual exploitation? Equally a very prevalent grievance of those who object to the omnipresence of political correctness in modern British society is that white British people are not allowed to complain about the presence of ethnic minority immigrants in Britain. But why should a white British person feel he is doing a British Indian a favour by not reminding him of his relative foreign status any more than a British Indian should feel the same about staying silent on the rape and enslavement of his Indian ancestors by white British people for hundreds of years?

To summarise one must remember that political correctness works both ways. We all know that Britain was the biggest Muslim power in the world during just as we all know that the vast majority of sex offenders and rapists are men. In reality we all benefit from and suffer on account of political correctness in more or less equal measure.

Secondly most human beings engage in self-censorship more or less constantly in their every day lives to make them practically workable anyway. How hypocritical is it for a British man to complain to his friends about not being allowed to complain about A8 immigration if he knows very well that he is not going to mention this during his date with a Czech stranger that very evening? It would seem that we are all happy to be politically correct when it serves our own interest.

However neither of these reasons relate to the strongest objection to my patronizing recommendations to Arab historians and American citizens on the grounds that it is politically correct. For one might accept that political correctness does work both ways and can be self-interested but still feel that it will not protect our morality because it takes us away from the truth. I am quite prepared to concede some ground on this point however I do not accept that my thesis takes us away from the truth. I submit that it leads us closer to it.

In order to fully elaborate upon this point, I feel it is convenient to introduce a philosophical framework which serves that purpose. The first question that needs to be resolved is: what does Islam mean in the modern world? My concern here does not relate in any way to the different meanings of Islam. What I mean is that we consider Islam to be a religion that gives people an identity and, on other occasions, we consider it to be a religion that teaches truths.

The Islam of identity is little more than a guise for cultural identity. The Islam of truth is a repository of truths that direct believers toward the path of worldly and outwardly salvation. Identity-based Islam represents one of the greatest theoretical plagues of the Islamic world and the confusion of identity based Islam with truth-based Islam represents one of the greatest fallacies of the Western world.

Different judgments apply to identities and truths. In the context of truths, we think in terms of truth or falsehood. When someone presents something to one as a truth, one feels a duty to investigate its truth or falsehood. But identities have nothing to do with truth or falsehood. One either identifies oneself with Islam or one does not. In the context of identities, we think purely in terms of honour or servility. An identity is either great and noble or servile; it is either revered or reviled. Now, if one people humiliates another people and tramples its identity and honour, those who have been humiliated react in an identity-based way. Hence, it's not just a question of reasoning and logic here. If one’s identity  is attacked, it's clear what one’s reaction will be and this is what has happened in the modern world.

Arab nationalism can never be defeated by American nationalism. Two identities must necessarily fight each other, while two truths will cooperate. One of the most important differences between the Muslim world and the Western one is that in the latter there is very rarely any conflict between people’s national identity and their religious one. With respect to Christianity, we can say that something by the name of a Christian identity is no longer defined for anyone in the general social sphere.

So in the West national identities have for the most part pushed aside this religious identity. But  this is because of religion's weakness. If people's religious identity becomes more prominent, regardless of the cause, this conflict can become very severe. Fundamentalism is nothing other than this. A religious identity is making its presence felt. In other words, some people are saying: “We're neither British, nor Pakistanis, nor Asians; we're Muslims and this is our identity and we're at war with the US in the name of our Islamic identity.” Islam becomes a symbol of the threatened Muslim community and its threatened identity that must be protected by repelling the foreign invader.

This has been called 'fundamentalism' and perhaps it would have been better if it had been called 'identity-ism'. But if we had called it 'identity-ism', then, it would have raised a question that we would never have been able to answer: If 'identity-ism' is inherently bad, why are we 'identity-ists' yourselves? Why is it that a US or British identity is good but an Islamic identity is bad?

It is not for nothing that the past decade has been characterised by a surge in ‘identity-ism’ in the Arab and Islamic world. As long as we continue our identity-based enmity towards Muslims, this “clash of civilisations” will continue. Furthermore this approach is also deeply flawed. When we attack the Islamic world for having its Islamic identity, we ignore the fact that our theories are semantic, meaning that they describe the nature of Islam by describing its most obvious features, and then identifying which of those features are the most essential in explaining how the word ‘Islam’ is used. However the decision as to what is essential may be a matter of opinion and in fact opinion does differ greatly between people. We also assume that people who fall into the tribal trap of associating themselves with the Islam of identity must necessarily be fundamentalists only because of their are guilt by association. This is what I refer to as the “semantic sting”.

Is this in actual fact the case? How strong is the Islam of truth in countries where we are at war with the Islam of identity? Take the example of Iran - a nation which is currently arguably the most likely candidate to be invaded by the West. Anybody who knows anything about the Iranian people will tell you that in fact their religious faith is not very strong at all. I would argue that most Americans are more strong in their Christian faith than Iranians are in their Muslim one. It is a country in which what might pose as religious fundamentalism is most commonly no more than the beating of this identity drum. In reality alcohol is covertly sold on street corners, both men and women go to ever more inventive lengths to exercise sexual freedoms and of course most people would secretly prefer a Western style democracy and the overthrow of the mullahs to their current one.

In fact all polls indicate that Muslim countries support capitalist democracy as the best means of government more than the West does (absence makes the heart grow fonder) and that an American majority denies that the US is engaged in a war with Islam, and agrees that the real message of Islam - like all religions - is peaceful. This is not the place to expound my own views as to whether or not capitalist democracy is the best means of government or any religion is truly peaceful but it does beg the questions, when we talk about the clash of civilisations, a) what exactly do we mean and b) are we as far apart from the Muslim world as we think we are? A recent BBC poll that found that 79% of Muslims think Christianity should have a strong role in Britain was not deemed ‘newsworthy’ as the fight for newspapers to obtain a wider readership is generally achieved by titillating their patrons with sensational information. For example racial attacks are particularly newsworthy - but only where the majority race is threatened.

‘Identity-ism’ compels us to apply a false dichotomy between the Muslim world and the West which is not representative of reality and ignores the huge degree of common ground that actually exists. This is why my plea for what I call depolarisation but what many might lazily label political correctness takes us further to the truth than away from it. If an Arab historian were to choose to avoid working from a pan-Arabist bias which assumes an evil Judeo-Christian conspiracy and an American journalist in Iran were to choose to avoid working from the assumption that most Iranians are unhinged, would-be terrorists, we just might get start to get somewhere.

To put the central tenet of my thesis another way, in order to avoid the catastrophic effects that nationalism wreaks upon our morality, it is important not to recognise that we too have faults. We must not blame others whilst exonerating ourselves. This is as true for people in the English speaking world as it for people in the Arabic speaking one.

In order to shed more light on this normative point we should consider the clash  between science and religion in the Western world, which helped to catapult us into modernity. Much of the Muslim world has not yet experienced such a clash, but this has been to their detriment, not to their benefit. The clash that took place between modern science and the Church and Scripture was the harbinger of many blessings, and both science and religion, and both the bearers of science and the bearers of religion benefited from these blessings. In a word the blessing was that both science and religion became more modest or depolarised. And of course a ceasefire was established between them. I am not arguing that the clash was fully resolved. No! But a ceasefire was established; a ceasefire that is broken from time to time but without ever escalating into the fierce battle that it was four centuries ago.

The paradox is that if the Western and Muslim worlds were to consciously engage in a process of political depolarisation and recalibration of geopolitical objectives, surely there would have to be some type of meeting in the middle, which constitute an optimal point from both a moral and a pragmatic perspective. Therefore any further recalibration would by definition only serve to damage our morality.

 


© Copyright 2018 Elliot Borges. All rights reserved.

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