One of the late, great postcolonial Muslim thinkers, Eqbal Ahmad, pointed out that 19th and 20th century Muslims living on the Indian subcontinent were utterly opposed to nationalism. The believed, unashamedly, that nationalism was anti-Islamic. Most of the religious scholars of pre-Independence India were opposed to the idea of Pakistan.
The people who bought nationalism to the masses of the colonial nations were those with European educations, but who were largely excluded from being truly ‘British’ or ‘Dutch’ by racism. Despite the fact that racism is often individualised and psychologized, racism is better understood as an integral facet of nationalist and patriotic ideologies.
Patriotism and nationalism were used to justify colonialism, but the educated elites of the conquered nations were quick to spot the massive hypocricy of colonial powers celebrating their ‘freedom’ whilst they enslaved millions. And the educated elites of the colonial nations were also well placed to exploit one of the key tools in perpetuating nationalism taught them by their masters – print capitalism.
Europe is adept at massaging its history, but contemporary European nations are really inventions, thought up largely by politicians rather than ordinary people, beginning with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Nationalism was further boosted by bloody events such as the French revolution and its imperial aftermath. The European wars of the 20th century would have been inconceivable without nationalism – whether it be Churchillian or fascist.
The problem is that, particularly in contintental Europe, cultural realities have rarely coincided with the political fantasies of nationalist ideologues. The Basque, with their unique linguistic heritage sprawling from Southern France to Spain, are perhaps the prime examples of this contradiction. But few if any have been able to resist the sweet smell of patriotism’s poison. The Balkan wars, which led to the massacre of Srebrenica, simply awakened a slumbering nationalism which had been frozen in time by the cold hand of communism.
Today, nationalism in Northern Europe is less about nations and borders, and much more about culture. This understanding was at the heart of the thinking that led Hazel Blears, who currently leads a government commission on “integrating minorities”, to suggest that Britain’s ethnic communities should “rebrand” their identities in an attempt to inspire greater patriotism. Muslim leaders could only respond by presenting a different version of nationalism and patriotism because the ideology of nationalism is now almost normative.
Nationalism, despite its claims to unite, always divides – the ‘natives’ from the ‘foreigners’, the whites from the blacks.It divides people into groups like a farmer separates different breeds of cattle. Islamophobia is simply a reformulation of this colour-based racism. Nationalism is a virus of hate, and now it has infected Muslims. Those fanatics who support the London suicide bombings of 7/7 follow a mutated genus of this disease – one which swears allegiance to a reified ummah and a king-god, whilst rejecting other ‘nations’ as the spawn of Satan. Indeed, extreme Islamic nationalism is at the heart of the debased theologies informing all global khalifa movements.
Islamic nationalism needs to be challenged. This does not mean that we should stop feeling the pain and suffering for our brothers and sisters in Palestine and Chechnya. It means extending this empathy to include all of humanity. Someone asked me, on hearing about the famine in Niger, whether it was a ‘Muslim country’. Does a Muslim child starve to death differently from the child of a Christian or an animist?
Nor does challenging Islamic nationalism mean opposing the unity we feel when praying in Jummah or other forms of Ibadah. There is nothing that prevents us from praying alongside Christians, or fasting alongide Jews, or even sitting next to atheists in silent contemplation. If we seek to unite the world, it should surely be in thought and remembrance of Allah.
Nations do not exist as communities in the same way as a rural village. They are, as Benedict Anderson says, imagined communities, created by appeal to a central script language and a material conception of temporality, and perpetuated by print-capitalism. But English is now a world language; time, like all meta-concepts, is open to challenge within the critical methodologies of poststructuralism; print capitalism has been subverted by cyberspace. As the Qur’an says, we were created so that we might know people different from ourselves. By Allah, let’s do it!
Yakoub Islam is a British Muslim who runs the weblog Anarcho Akbar.