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The Return of Violent Identity Politics

There is nothing wrong with nationalism when it is simply a celebration of a country’s best values, traditions, and history. But politicians in Europe and the United States need to be careful that the populist nativism they are stoking does not morph into more violent forms of identity politics, as it has in Christchurch and Sri Lanka.

LONDON – I first visited Sri Lanka as Britain’s development minister in the 1980s, during the early stages of the vicious war between guerrilla fighters – the so-called Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – and Sri Lanka’s armed forces. This bloody ethnic conflict, pitting the largely Hindu Tamil minority against the largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority, surprised those who had previously regarded this beautiful country, with its clever population and its strategic location in South Asia, as a model of Asian democracy. And yet it was here that many of us first heard about suicide bombing, sometimes carried out by children.

The Indian Army had intervened to try to halt the violence. I was flown into the capital of the Tamil territory in the north of the country in an Indian helicopter gunship to see what humanitarian help could be provided. Evidence of the fighting was everywhere to be seen. I recall the systematic destruction of the computer laboratories and other facilities at the University of Jaffna.

Years later, I returned to Sri Lanka as a European Union commissioner to support the Norwegian government’s admirable efforts to end that same conflict. I was taken to see the LTTE’s head, Velupillai Prabhakaran, in his jungle headquarters. A taciturn and sinister fellow, Prabhakaran was not very interested in the peace terms that Norway, supported by the EU, was proposing. The other highlight (or maybe it was a lowlight!) of my visit was being burned in effigy by Sinhalese extremists for suggesting peace talks at all.

The civil war ended in a bloody assault on the defeated LTTE fighters in 2009. The violence and destruction seemed to be over.

And yet tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Hindu and Muslim minorities have never disappeared. As recently as last year, there were attacks by Sinhalese Buddhists on Muslim mosques and businesses, and the small Christian (mostly Catholic) community, numbering 1.5 million in a population of 21.4 million, has been trapped in the middle.

This religious and ethnic mix exploded on Easter Sunday, when Islamist extremists slaughtered at least 250 people, including Christian worshippers and foreign tourists, and wounded hundreds more. It was the worst recent example of identity politics, coming only weeks after the attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, by an Australian white supremacist.

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The French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf has described identity politics as a “leopard,” devouring men, women, and children and the values that customarily underpin any sense of common humanity. In his own study of identity and violence, the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen recalls seeing as a child in India a terrified Muslim being chased through his family’s front garden by a Hindu mob, which hacked the man to death.

We had largely forgotten about this sort of politics in much of the world, certainly in Europe and America, in the decades since one form of identity loyalty – extreme nationalism –remade entire societies. The Austrian Jewish intellectual Stefan Zweig’s book The World of Yesterday offers one of the best descriptions of how the rich, brilliant civilization of Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century was destroyed, first economically and then politically, by those who defined their identity overwhelmingly by their national loyalties, often attached to a bogus history and idealized institutions.

Recovering from those disasters in the second half of the last century, the world seemed to be divided over ideology, not identity: capitalism versus communism, freedom versus totalitarianism, and so on. But those divisions, and ways of defining ourselves, have given way in many cases to an overwhelming sense of nationhood, sometimes in its most atavistic forms. The consequences – including attacks like those in Colombo and Christchurch – would no doubt strike Zweig and Sen as painfully familiar.

There is nothing wrong with nationalism when it is simply a celebration of a country’s best values, traditions, and history. Call that patriotism. But nationalism can easily become a mindset that expresses itself most potently by defining people in zero-sum opposition to others.

Sometimes, these “others” are countries beyond one’s own national borders. Cooperating with them is attacked as an abrogation of the ability to make sovereign decisions. Sometimes, perhaps more dangerously, the “others” are members of a country’s own minorities, who may be recent or even not-so-recent immigrants, a different color, or have different languages or religious beliefs.

Politicians in Europe and the United States need to be careful that the populist nativism they are stoking, and from which they seek to benefit electorally, does not morph into more violent forms of identity politics.

What are the results of President Donald Trump’s verbal assaults on Mexicans? What are we to make of Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s attacks on Pope Francis for espousing Christian generosity to immigrants? How should we respond to right-wing political attacks on Muslims in Europe, or left-wing attacks on Jews in Britain? When does a daubed message on a wall or a racist tweet risk violent results? Liberal democracy is a more fragile construction than we believe.

In the United Kingdom, a large part of the Conservative Party has embraced English nationalism, which poses an existential threat to the country’s constitutional framework. There are also worries that this sort of nationalism – embodied, for example, in the new Brexit Party that Nigel Farage has launched to appeal to disgruntled Conservatives hostile to Europe – will give cover to sentiments that its avatars might well publicly condemn.

Those fears are justified. Playing with matches can be perilous. Once kindled, nationalism can easily rage out of control, consuming all moderating structures and leaving communities – and entire countries – at the mercy of even more dangerous arsonists.

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