Extremism struck again this week as Muslims at prayer were targeted in Christchurch, New Zealand. The perpetrator, nay the fundamentalist terrorist – let’s give him his proper name, cited numerous influences from Anders Brevik to Brexit in his manifesto of hate. His anti-invader/immigrant mythology also appears in ‘softer’ form in everything from ‘Make America Great Again’ to anti-migrant and refugee sentiment, the bolstering of borders and building of walls. How are we to instead build bridges between those that disagree and resort to extremism to put down their perceived enemies of the state – whether one that is built upon religion or race?
Invasion – ‘The Great Replacement’
The ideological language of the Christchurch killer conjures up the false idea of a Muslim invasion targeting the white Christian majority. Immigration is seen as “invasion”, as a “swarm“, “plague”, “flood“, “army”, the language of infestation and threat, when the majority are refugees and migrant peoples armed with nothing more than a determination to survive.
Who can forget the Twin Towers? The 9/11 World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Everyone remembers where they were on that day. I was watching television as the channel interrupted to show near-live footage of the terrorist atrocity. The prominent and powerful symbols of freedom, capitalism, the US (the ‘Great Satan‘), and the West itself, disintegrated in mere minutes as if they were the parabled house built upon sand and not rock.
Since then, and perhaps before, we have seen twin evils arise. Each blaming the other for their existence. Committing revenge attacks in response to real and imagined threats to their Caliphate or Caucasian identity. Claiming religious or racial purity as justification. Collecting new followers by radicalising susceptible minds wanting a cause. Creating separatist and supremacist ideologies and utopian or dystopian society worldviews, depending upon your point of view.
“The threat our societies face is so great, however, because it is a twin danger: a deadly combination of far-Right fascism and Islamist extremism….Our twin enemies are not madmen. They are driven by a purpose bigger than themselves and ideas that we must not underestimate.” – Ed Husain, Daily Telegraph, author of The House of Islam: A Global History (Bloomsbury, 2018) and a senior fellow at Civitas: Institute or the Study of Civil Society
The language of their recruiting, whether via brazen extremist preaching or hidden on message boards and the dark web, seeks to blame the ‘other’ and boast of themselves as the answer to prevent a perceived threat to their existence.
Chicken or Egg?
When summoned to the headteacher’s office after a fight, schoolkids would usually be challenged, “Who started it?” or was it “Six of one and half-a-dozen of the other”? How far back should we go – 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, the betrayal of the Arabs after the First World War, imperialism and empires, caliphates and crusades?
Whatever the origins the outcomes are clear, mutual radicalisation by further atrocity and response. Islamic State is all but decimated but it creates a power if not a revenge vacuum for disaffected and disillusioned fighters who are not deradicalised and rehabilitated. Out of Al Qaeda (1988) and its ideology has grown Al Shabab and others affiliating or aligning such as Boko Haram.
With the far right, when the BNP faded the EDL arose. From Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s to modern extreme nationalist movements, one fades and another arises, phoenix-like from its ashes. The UK-specific extremist right-wing parties have in common an ethnocentric identity as English or British and a xenophobic focus, often including Islamophobia, to their rhetoric – although, perhaps, rhetoric is too high-minded a phrase to describe an ancient art of discourse and persuasion.
Racism and Ostracism
Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and descendants vaunt the removal of all Western (and/or Judeo-Christian) foreign influences in Islamic countries leading to the creation of a new caliphate ruling over the entire Muslim world.
The hard and far-right similarly want the removal of all Middle Eastern influence (Jewish or Muslim) and an end to the immigration that, in their view, dilutes racial purity and an oppressed white-majority society.
Both extremisms promote a purity of religion or race as their fundamentalist base. They are similarly xenophobic – the hatred and ostracising of the ‘other’, whether the non-white or the non-Muslim. We’ve been there before with the Crusades and later Roman Empire in their attitudes to barbarians and infidels, essentially non-Romans and non-Christians.
Our liberal open societies – argues Ed Husain, are under threat. The moderate middle ground is being squeezed not only by radical and extreme left calls for revolution and far right wings threatening riots but by twin forces of ultra-conservatism and archaic-traditionalism that have become extreme and radicalised. They see each other as inherent evils in society and refuse to engage with each other. Liberal and centre which used to be harmonising language are now seen as the new elites and the ultimate compromisers of more radical solutions to society’s ills.
Brexit has created a new divide, over Europe, not simply Left or Right. Europe is seen as another liberal elite con creating a federalised coalition and increasingly common policies on finance, defence and foreign policy. These frustrate the feelings of independence that exist alike on the nationalist right and anarchist or anti-fa left.
Community and Cohesion
Without arguing for a lacklustre liberal middle-ground, since I am more on the Left myself, we must pursue greater community and cohesion, internationalism and inclusion. To avoid the scapegoating of the ‘other’ we must engage with each other – not platforming extremisms (although putting the BNP’s Nick Griffin on Question Time worked quite well to expose the flaws in his ideologies) but exploring the ideas and issues that may lead to radicalisation.
The reasons why people become disenfranchised, embittered and emboldened, and seek out cultish groups must be examined and policies put in place to re-engage with them and the causes that lead to their extremist leanings.
A former-EDL regional organiser I know challenged his own beliefs by visiting open mosques and engaging with difference. I was a religious fundamentalist (fortunately more charismatic creationist than militant apocalypsist) and right-winger in my now thankfully distant past but keeping an open mind eventually created one.
In my experience, at least, conversation and dialogue, opening lines of communication – with those willing to discuss issues in respectful ways, can ensure that moderates don’t drift to the extremes.
We need to challenge the real fascists and not just call everyone who disagrees with us one. The number of times I have heard “Nazi” and “Fascist” bandied around to simply describe all Leavers, or those that have economic objections to immigration, or that don’t support Muslims’ right to express their faith, or even those that critique transgender rights.
Sometimes, people seem beyond reach though, and our focus among them should be on countering all forms of hate-based violence and vitriol – online and in public – especially and particularly that which targets others based upon their religion or race, ethnicity and nationality.
We cease othering and ostracising best by encounter and engagement, meeting the human behind the label, discovering their difference but also realising our common humanity, emphasising that which unites and not that which divides.
The Confederate Flag – a stained or Stainless Banner?
The last fortnight has seen people simultaneously complaining about the flying of the “Rainbow Flag” and the “Confederate Flag” in the USA. In the UK, the “Union Jack” or more often the “St George’s Flag” of England has been hijacked for nationalist ends too. In the Scottish independence vote the “Saltire Flag” was flown for both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns and nobody objected to a strong sense of Scottish identity, so why not the American South?
Current Reactions to the Southern US Flag
In 2011, a Pew Research Center poll demonstrated that the majority of Americans don’t react to the “Southern Flag” and that 9% view it with positive pride, however, some 30% have a “negative reaction” when they see the Confederate flag.
Two years, later and a 2013 YouGov poll revealed 38% public disapproval of flying the flag in public places. Even more, around 44%, viewed the flag as a symbol associated with racism, rather than just 20% seeing it as symbolic of Southern pride.
Back in 1961, in the middle of civil rights and race activism, the South Carolina State Senate raised the Confederate flag on top of the Senate dome, where it remained until removed in 2000 when an alternate flag was instead flown from a flagpole in the grounds. It was this flag that was removed by protestor Bree Newsome on 27 June, this year. The flag, clearly, remains divisive.
Nationalism and pride
Nationalism is not a negative concept in itself, nor indeed are regionalism and localism. Being proud of your place of origin, wanting autonomy, independence, freedom, and asserting these things is not wrong. Even for a personal identity, rainbow flags and now many others, e.g., trans, non-binary, etc, are flown and worn at LGBT Pride events across the world. Flags unite, they are a banner under which to stand and draw people together – or symbolise rebellion against the establishment and regional pride as with Confederate flag adorned General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard:
But they can attract opposition too, and be used for aggression. Sometimes, going so far as to create a virtual or real barrier to keep people separate, outsiders out, spewing xenophobic bile about non-locals, inciting hatred and violence against immigrants, migrant communities, or those who are markedly different.
UK Independence and the Far Right
In the UK – Scottish, Welsh, and Irish independence are looked upon favourably in cultural and political terms but, somehow, English nationalism is seen as far right extremism – and many times, it is. The debate over English votes for English laws is the trade-off for giving more power to Scotland to avoid secession from the Union.
I remember the 1980s when Irish terrorism or freedom fighters, depending upon your definition, was still rife. When, even in Wales, the BBC‘s Not the Nine O’Clock News team ran the insensitive but funny sketch, “Come home to a real fire, but a cottage in Wales”, owing to the Welsh nationalist arson campaign against English second homes in Wales.
In English terms, we have witnessed the rise of a “Far Right” English nationalism: BNP, Britain First, EDL, UKIP etc. Hardly groups promoting English ‘culture’ but certainly fostering a “batten down the hatches” against ‘foreigners’ attitude. At public rallies they wrap themselves in English rather than UK flags, thus tarnishing the English St George’s flag.
William Thompson and the Stainless Banner
So, has the Confederate flag been similarly tarnished by the racist hatred of one warped young man in the Charleston black church massacre? Did it always and forever have the meaning of white supremacy? Some articles doing the rounds would suggest that it does, a “heaven ordained” white supremacy at that, according to its designer, William T Thompson.
Thompson was co-founder of the Savannah Daily Morning News newspaper in the 1850s and in the 1860s, along with one other, produced the design of the “Stainless Banner“, which came to be used as the Southern Confederacy’s national flag from 1863 to 1865, replacing the “Stars and Bars” which too closely resembled the ‘Yankee’ Union flag. Thompson said, in April 1863, that he opposed it, “on account of its resemblance to that of the abolition despotism against which we are fighting.” Many agreed that a flag that bore any similarity to the “Stars and Stripes” was wrong on the grounds of the South not wanting the emancipation of slaves.
The “stainless” aspect referred to the pure white field or background taking up the majority of the flag’s design. Though, later criticised and dropped for its association with surrender and truce, that element to Thompson and others represented the supremacy of “The White Man” and “the cause of a superior race”. Not far off Hitler’s ideology?
The American Civil War Battle Flag
It should be remembered though that the second Confederate flag (there were three and many modifications over the years) of Thompson included the now familiar Southern Confederate flag (white stars on a blue saltire cross on a red background) as its upper left element (where the stars and blue background are on the modern US flag). That flag element, also known as the “Battle Flag” was the banner of the Northern Virginian and Tennessee armies and several naval units. It was, however, never a united Confederate flag despite now being called the”Rebel Flag”, “Dixie Flag”, or “Southern Cross”, indeed, it is alleged that the cross would have been upright rather than diagonal had its designers not wanted to keep the Southern Jews on side.
How Symbols and their Interpretation change
Speaking of the Jewish people, a symbol of hate, the Swastika, was originally a symbol of benign fate and good luck in the Sanskrit language and religious cultures of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The Svastika or Gammadion Cross (based upon four Greek capital Gamma letters), Cross Cramponnée, or Manji, has been around for at least two millennia, if not ten (its first use can be traced back 10,000 years to a paleolithic settlement in modern Ukraine)!
The Nazis did not invent or invert it, they simply stole and reinterpreted it. Hitler allegedly believed the Aryan Germans were a supreme white tribe of Indian origins and semi-divine status.
Conclusion and debate
Thus, though Thompson’s “Confederate Flag” had white supremacy links, the lack of white on the current flag bears no relation to that. It does, however, have associations with Southern independence and battle against the Union and what the North stood for, including an end to slavery. Hopefully, few would argue for the return of slavery now, whether some still consider African-Americans ‘inferior’ is another matter. It it, therefore, debatable whether the flag when displayed now still has the associations of the past. Now it is more likely to be flown for reasons of Southern pride and freedom from Washington’s centralised federal governance. If it is also used by minority white supremacists and a hopefully isolated and not to be repeated white ‘terrorist’ attack against a black church (others have been arson-attacked recently though) then it clearly has negative associations for a sizeable group of the US population.
Symbols and meanings do evolve, get reclaimed, and reinvented. Removing the Southern flag from buildings may seem like an extreme reaction and is a matter of some sensitivity to both victims of race/colour hate and to proud fliers of Southern identity – which in the majority, it is hoped, are no longer inherently racist. Bree Newsome believes it is time for change:
“It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.”
Debate is needed on this and how to go forward respecting individual freedom, collective identity, and historical issues. Is flying the flag, indeed any flag, a soon to be proscribed act? In the UK only today, a man was stopped and not charged for wearing an Islamic State black flag whilst walking through Westminster, London.
The difficulty is ascribing guilt by association – do all flags have only one meaning? Is flying the Confederate flag like flying a Scots flag, a symbol of regional Southern pride, or is it a symbol of rebellion and white supremacy? The Nazi or ISIL flag more clearly represent hate-based movements.
I’ll leave the last word on flags to Eddie Izzard: