John Stevens Pasha

I think it was Martin Van Creveld who said that enemies in a long war come to resemble each other over time. Whoever it was, Lord Stevens’s piece in the News of the World this week is good evidence for the thesis.

When will the Muslim community in this country accept an absolute, undeniable, total truth: that Islamic terrorism is THEIR problem? THEY own it. And it is THEIR duty to face it and eradicate it. (News of the World)

The notion that religious communities have a responsibility for the actions of their members, which requires them to interpose between the individual and the state is actually a distinctively Middle Eastern idea.

It was established for hundreds of years as the Millet system in the Ottoman Empire, (which Osama Bin Laden regards as the last incarnation of the Islamic caliphate.)

Britain arguably has a historic affinity to the Millet system because of the legacy of its own divide and rule approach to its colonial possessions.

[Amartya] Sen has good reason to fear religious sectarianism. Seared into his political consciousness is the memory of how India suddenly fragmented into a soup of religious identities in the period before partition, when people began increasingly to define themselves as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. "This is the way," he says, "that the British tried to interpret community divisions in India between Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. To Indian nationalists, it looked a further example of divide and rule, emphasising the divisions. The way that the British are handling it today makes one wonder whether the cultural confusion that the British had then has now been brought back home." (Amartya Sen, Guardian)

Michael Gove has adopted this argument in criticising the British Government’s search for Muslim community leaders. No doubt he will also be denouncing Lord Stevens for advocating what is essentially the Foreign office approach couched in more muscular language.

This is really the problem for commentators like Gove and Melanie Phillips. They want to cast Britain as the defender of enlightmentment values, without acknowledging that the British state’s relationship to the enlightment is actually highly ambivalent.

That may be one reason why the state’s reaction to terrorism has made Britain a little bit more like the society Bin Laden wants.






Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *