When everyone is ‘them’
It is hard to depict Islamism as nationalism when there is no caliphate or even pan-Arab state; so it is not obvious at first that Islamism and nationalism are not mirror-images but parts of the same phenomenon.
Islamism casts itself as a version — indeed, the definition — of Islam. Yet it swept to its present virulence by prosecuting concerns that nationalists would have hijacked. Islamists who rejected governments in Islamic countries came to attack those countries’ US backers: global jihad was part of a sequence, even as it might justify itself retrospectively as a return to a caliphate.
As China tries to buttress itself against aging and change, and ‘harmonises’ Uighurs; as India’s younger economy hopes for infrastructure to support it, and ‘Hindutva’ politicians act against Muslims; it becomes still harder, as a result of Islamist atrocities in Europe, to show the shared pattern.
Muslims are not the only minorities in China or India to suffer from state policy. Mongolians, Tibetans and Christians get it hard as well — and Christians are also persecuted in countries where Muslim majorities are not.
It is difficult to make a case for rights when the test case is groups associated with campaigns against rights. At the same time it is no easier to warn against the slippage in liberal democracy by taking religion for an introductory theme because so much scandal has attended religion in a millennial’s lifetime that it seems a majority does not care if Christians now constitute the most persecuted faith in the world.
The big picture is therefore invisible. The destruction of freedoms and pluralism — cultural or religious — is not an issue for, or from, just one group. First they came for the Communists … It is more dangerous, the more unpopular the group; because more likely to succeed. The weariness which younger people feel towards democracy gains ground with every event that can be used to make Christians or Muslims appear anti-social, or government incompetent; but it is society and not faith which is being destroyed in the process.
Behind this creation of a single way of thinking is hard cash. Whether Chinese capital, Indian big business, US evangelical PACs, supposedly Islamic backers; in all cases: the culture war conceals a war to use culture to secure political leverage for just a few. It is like the struggle for soft power which began in the 1930s, only this one is the hands of other actors than states. It is not even a vast conspiracy (though conspirators vie within it); it is simply the logic of a kind of competition.
Islamism and nationalism are symptoms of a third phenomenon: the future of business.
The difference is that there are not two world powers now; there is not even one. In a multipolar century it is part of the single thinking that nationalist causes should seek to oppose one another; while the same backers, movers and shakers benefit overall. Before, when the USA had hegemony, history was said to have ended with a mixture of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism which in truth was liberalism just for the rich. Since 1990, as a new configuration has been forming, people grew an appetite for being sold the myths of identity and efficient top-down control instead.
But the same strategies proceed. It is a grab at cartel. Nations are being created and recreated because nationalism is needed as the vehicle. They are being reimagined in rewritten history books (and not only in India or China) because people must learn answers rather than questions if this is to succeed. There has been a failed attempt to use Islamism to bring into being the Islamic state which Islamists were claiming to restore. There is no alternative plan, nor can a plan be imagined until the picture is clear. As picture not as plan, then: what the world needs is, I believe, an attentive return to the critical traditions of South Asian pluralism, Persian or Ottoman breadth, Mongolian openness to cultures, freedom of expression from secularist crackdown, religion that engaged with science, liberal humanism and Christianity following Christ into love — and that is a change we can effect in ourselves.