Cabbages & Kings: A haunting spectre
“Don’t shed those tears
There’ll be no end
Leave the crying
To me, my friend.
Don’t laugh too loud
Its echo mocks
The fading beauty
Of your wavy locks…”
From The Cynical Proverbs of Bachchoo
A spectre is haunting Europe” wrote Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto in 1848. The pan-nationalist prediction or sentiment was in keeping with idea that a Communist utopia would do away with all nationalism. The workers of the world would unite in an allegiance to their class and not to Scotland, Catalonia or the Archduke of Austria.
This opening sentence doesn’t embrace the Americas or Asia, perhaps because its authors had no faith in an American uprising and because Asia was not yet Proletarianised.
As an Indian, not quite one of midnight’s children, but an 11th-hour-wallah, I grew up to assess the Pakistan project and the Partition of India as negative and destructive historical movements and occurrences.
As an immigrant to Britain I and the few million of UK’s immigrant population assessed the Union-Jack-waving nationalism of the Brits as inherently racist. A certain spirit in the generation of the 1960s and ’70s saw narrow nationalism as a prejudice and the flower-power young of the US and Europe saw themselves taking over and making-over a compassionate planet.
What idealism! What self-deception!
And yet one can’t see this trans-nationalistic ideal as at all negative. It was against greed and materialism. It had no terror strategy or tactic attached to it. Its ideologies ranged from the spiritual nonsense of flower power to the hard-headed and complex theories of the overthrow of capitalism a la Marx and possibly Herbert Marcuse with some reference to Mao Zedong’s military methods and a lot of criticisms of Stalin’s oppressive and fratricidal regime.
There is today a very real spectre haunting Britain and the United States and perhaps France and other European countries from which young men and women of Islamist persuasion have gone to Syria and Iraq to join the murdering, genocidal jihadists of the declared Islamic Caliphate which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The specific fear, openly acknowledged by the governments of the US and by Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain is that some of these “British” jihadists will go undetected when returning to the cities of Britain and will, or indeed are already, forming terrorist cells to bring death and destruction to London or Birmingham.
Last week, British home secretary Theresa May announced that the danger level or imminence of such a terror attack had been raised from likely to “critical”. This sort of alert is based on intelligence from the agencies which track, through surveillance of people and communication networks the potential for terror.
A Muslim MP, a member of the Labour Party from Birmingham, estimates that 1,500 such jihadists have gone to join the ISIS and to boastfully take part in the genocide of Yezidis and Shias, the beheadings of Americans and other “kafirs”, the crucifixion of Christians and other unspeakable medieval atrocities. Of these volunteer combatants, some may have returned to Britain by undetected circuitous routes with plans to bring, without the least apprehension of its absurdity, the rule of the Caliphate to Blackpool and Tunbridge Wells.
What makes these men and yes, even young women, born and brought up in Britain go searching for this violence in the first place? Part of their upbringing in Britain is being subject to the influence of Islamist career preachers, who are sustained and financed by regimes such as Saudi Arabia. The international ironies multiply. The Saudi regime now wants the United States to protect it from invasion by the forces of the ISIS whom they and the Qataris financed and armed in the first place.
After the beheading of American journalist James Foley and the boasting and threat of the British-accented jihadi, who purportedly carried out the execution, the Saudis began to assess the threat and appeal to US President Barack Obama. That the Saudi regime regularly and routinely beheads people whom their Sharia courts condemn, some of them wretched Indian or Pakistani workers, goes without mention.
But back to the conundrum of why Westerners would give up the boredom of perhaps a regular meaningless job, a possibly tediously routine relationship, a constant if unjustified feeling of alienation from the society around you and other instabilities that beset us all, for a dedication to a singular if critically dangerous do-and-die mission?
All of these recruits to jihad would not acknowledge that they were British. Their denial of all nationalist sentiment or allegiance to the place of their birth, or the societies which formed them is replaced by a fantasy of supra-nationalistic religious nationalism: Down with Queen and country and democracy, up with the Caliph Mr Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS and Sharia law!
Any amateur sociologist will classify such a state of mind as “alienation”. Mr Cameron and his think-tanks have certainly identified the phenomenon as such and people speaking on behalf of the government regularly spout the injunction to endow all our citizens with a spirit of citizenship.
My own feeling is that it’s a lost cause. All over the world there are millions who will profess allegiance to a religion or a philosophy first and to a nation or a national culture second, if at all.
On a trip to a Bangladesh literary festival earlier this year — my third sojourn in the country — I was asked by a journalist if I would venture a sentence encapsulating what she called “the narrative of Bangladesh”.
From what I could see through my passing and shallow acquaintance with the country, the national story, politically and culturally was a tension between being Bengali and being Muslim. Neither allegiance has decisively triumphed.
For the British jihadi, the allegiance is to their version of the religion. They are British only because it’s a convenient passport to have — that’s if they haven’t burnt their passport and placed a video of the burning on Facebook.