Global Islam vs the Western nation-state

If the anger against the anti-Islam video tells us anything, it’s that extremism fuels extremism.

Demonstration against the killing of U.S. Ambassador and the destruction and burning of the U.S. embassy in Benghazi
Lost in the noise was that more people in Benghazi demonstrated against the extremists who were responsible for the protests that resulted in the destruction of the American consulate and the death of Ambassador Stevens [REUTERS]

In the recent wave of anti-Western demonstrations, political Islam has operated globally. The West’s response has been mired in the local politics of its separate nation-states.

It is a curious reversal of the historic imperial relation, in which it was the West who did the dividing and ruling.

As Hamid Dabashi has argued on these pages, salafist and other militant Islamists are using the demonstrations over a film insulting the Prophet to claim the Arab Spring for Islamic fundamentalism. After all, the Iranian Islamists took over the plural, anti-imperial and popular character of the revolution of 1979 in part by attacking embassies.

But just how do relatively small militant groups drive events around the world in their preferred direction? Part of the answer is that they can operate in several countries at once, creating an international crisis. Hezbollah has called for further demonstrations, and incidents have occurred as far afield as Afghanistan and the Philippines.

Whoever they were, that small band of fighters who killed a US ambassador and three of his staff in Benghazi are playing a role in the national elections of the most powerful country on earth. So too are every group of militants who turn peaceful demonstrations into violent ones.

Candidate Obama is made to look weak if he does not respond robustly to anti-Americanism. President Obama knows that a rational and sensitive approach is required to serve US interests.

Just like their counterparts ransacking schools in Tunisia, it is the extremists and fundamentalists in American politics who benefit from the violence.

Each anti-American demonstration in the Islamic world, duly reported on the news, is an advertisement for Romney and the Republican Party. If elected, Romney’s policies would further inflame Muslim opinion, giving further impetus to the Islamists’ cause. We are lucky Romney is such a weak candidate.

Netanyahu too joined the Islamists in trying to corner Obama. The Israeli Prime Minister appeared on a Sunday talk show in the US raising the alarm over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. The idea is to try and make Obama declare at what point he will attack Iran over its nuclear weapons programme. If he does not, he is made to look soft on national security and lacking in support for Israel in the face of Islamic threats. Peace loses either way.

And so it is that the right-wing, religious fundamentalists, and those on all sides favouring intensified conflict between the West and the Muslim world who are benefitting from the current round of angry demonstrations and violence.

The historic vehicle of the rise of Western world power – the nation-state – suddenly seems to be a source of weakness and a path for international influence. The West is facing many threats to its continued wealth and power, in a context of relative world decline, but is unable to organise effective responses.

One of the reasons is that the problems and threats the West faces are irreducibly global in character. Political Islam is a perfect example. The threat posed to the West by militant Islam does not reside in any one country, but is ubiquitous. It is found in Afghanistan and Syria; in immigrant neighbourhoods in Birmingham, Marseilles and Detroit; in Indonesia and in Mali; and so on.

Of course, this “threat” is blown out of proportion in the fervid imaginations of the neocons, the Israeli right, and Western security officials and commentators. But the very fact of its globality is what so easily allows it to be constructed as a major danger.

Islam is global in another sense. The film insulting the Prophet is only the latest in the litany of hurt and disrespect the West has inflicted on Islam. Muslims everywhere feel this hurt and react out of shared emotion. They are essentially making a collective demand on the West to respect their religion. This is not dissimilar from other global ethical demands like those associated with human rights and the environment – global issues about which people around the world feel deeply.

The problem for the West is that it must organise its response to global problems and claims through the local politics of its nation-states. This is how Obama becomes hamstrung between his election campaign and the worldwide demands on US policy. Global Islam exposes this weakness, but it applies far more generally.

US envoy to OIC discusses anti-Islam video

The European Union must organise a Europe-wide response to the financial crisis. But German, French and Dutch politicians have to convince their citizens they are not just bailing out “lazy” Greeks, Italians or Spaniards. As a consequence, European policy is too little, too late, again and again.

More generally, in a context of economic decline, Western politicians have little to offer their citizens but more austerity. So they pander to petty nationalisms and prejudices. In the United Kingdom, British conservative politicians have stoked racism against immigrants. Much like militant Islam, they offer little but hate to their constituents because they have no positive, attractive policy.

The result is perverse. In a globalised world, the UK desperately needs migrants who contribute everything from investment to hard work to its economy. It also needs foreign students to keep its university sector – one of its most successful export industries – financially viable for British students. But anti-immigrant populism – much of it directed at Africans and Muslims – has led to a clampdown on foreign students. Universities are being incorporated into the UK’s border control regime. Foreign students have options; they and their money are likely to start going elsewhere in greater numbers.

Everywhere, it seems, we are trapped in self-reinforcing global cycles of hate and extremism, unable to organise effective national responses. That more people in Benghazi demonstrated against the extremists at memorial demonstrations for the much-loved and locally respected Ambassador Chris Stevens was lost in the din.

We are desperately in need of new thinking and political innovation that will foster global dynamics of mutual respect and understanding. This is the only path to finding a basis for common and effective responses to global problems. 

Tarak Barkawi is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics, New School for Social Research.