6.2.4.6 Reaffirmation of Cultural Identity

When people are seeking security, and seeking to reverse recent changes in society such as those referred to in the previous sub-section (6.2.4.5), they sometimes retreat to the perceived safety and familiarity of their own cultural groups: racial and/or religious.

Minority groups might merely try to shut themselves off from the rest of society, but a dominant cultural group might try to suppress other groups – perhaps seizing upon immigration as the cause of all its problems.  In what has been termed the ‘alt-right’ movement, which has deep roots in America for example, racial supremacists exploit people’s feelings of insecurity and demonise other racial groups.  The Ku Klux Klan continues to be active in encouraging white supremacists, as reported by The Independent on 16 August 2017: KKK leader threatens to ‘burn’ black Latina journalist and calls her a ‘n*****’ during interview.  The historian Rick Perlstein acknowledged that he had underestimated the extent of the far right in America, in his article I Thought I Understood the American Right.  Trump Proved Me Wrong.

Sasha Abramsky’s article, Make America hate again, described Donald Trump’s appeal to a faction known as the ‘alt-right’ who helped to elect Donald Trump.  Whilst some of Trump’s rhetoric was undeniably racist in tone, referring to Mexicans as rapists and criminals for example, he didn’t explicitly accept alt-right support.  Nor did he condemn it.  When elected, he appointed Steve Bannon as his chief strategist.  A Quartz article, What Steve Bannon really wants, listed Bannon’s values as “Capitalism, nationalism, and ‘Judeo-Christian values’” – and he was described as The alt-right Leninist who boasted that he was using Trump as “a blunt instrument for us”.

A Washington Post article, The coded language of the alt-right is helping to power its rise, described its use of social media – using terms such as ‘snowflake’ (a weakling), ‘cuck’ (a traitor to the movement), and ‘SJW’ (Social Justice Warrior).  Hillary Clinton depicted them as a “basket of deplorables” during the 2016 American Presidential Election – but PatternsofPower.org, in a blog post Hillary isn’t reaching people, pointed out the risk of stigmatising them: it merely strengthened their sense of identity and opposition to everyone else, which is a familiar pattern in group behaviour (4.4.5.1).

As discussed later (6.7.4.2), political exploitation of cultural differences – otherwise known as ‘identity politics’ – is a dangerous path to tread.  Racial supremacism is even more dangerous if it is combined with fascism.  The Washington Post article by Ishaan Tharoor, On Election Day, the history of fascism matters, reminded readers what happens when an authoritarian government violently suppresses minorities – as happened in Germany in the 1930s.  There are some similarities between the modern alt-right movement and Nazism: a HuffPost article, 1 Neo-Nazi Group. 5 Murders In 8 Months, noted that “The Atomwaffen Division has emerged as one of the most disturbing and volatile hate groups in America” and that it uses “Third Reich imagery”; but when Robert Paxton, a leading authority on the history of fascism, was asked Is Donald Trump a Fascist?, he concluded that Trump’s style was very reminiscent to that of Mussolini and his call to restore national pride was also similar, but his agenda was to promote individualism and not to take the fascist line of completely suppressing it.

Religion is another aspect of cultural identity that can help people to feel grounded, but which can also be exploited to emphasise differences.  An unscrupulous leader can offer what must appear as the ultimate certainty to a religious believer: to follow a sacred text exactly to the letter.  The Independent article, Who are ISIS?, described one high-profile example: ISIS (also known as the so-called ‘Islamic State’, ISIL or Da’esh) is a Sunni Muslim group that has been waging war in Iraq and Syria, and has been carrying out acts of terrorism all over the world.  Such ‘Islamic fundamentalists’ conform to a form of Shariah law which was considered appropriate to nomadic Islamic societies in the 9th century.[1]  This can be seen as a resentful reaction to Western power – colonialism, followed by military intervention and commercial dominance – and the Sunni Muslims’ loss of status: as exemplified by an Al-Jazeera report, Iraq Sunnis rally against Shia-led government, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.  Although religious fundamentalism appears to be an ideal solution – to be obeying God – all religious texts have to be interpreted and the leader can select whatever passages suit his or her purpose, as noted earlier (4.4.4.1).

Children of Muslim immigrants who live in Western countries may feel left behind, as they experience discrimination against them in applying for jobs and find themselves uneasily bridging two cultures.  This makes some of them vulnerable to being recruited into jihadi organisations, as described in the International Business Times report: ISIS Recruiting Westerners.  An Economist book review, Men of war, noted that jihadism offers recruits a sense of direction, excitement, and belonging to a group in what is presented as a noble cause: serving God.

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[1] Reza Aslan, in his book No god but God, described the Sunna, which provide the source material for much of the Shariah, as “thousands upon thousands of stories, or hadith, that claim to recount Muhammad’s words and deeds as well as those of the earliest Companions” (p.163).  The Sunna were written in the ninth century (two centuries after the death of the prophet Muhammad), and Aslan characterised them in these terms:

“the Sunna is a far better reflection of the opinions of the ninth-century Ulama [religious scholars] than of the seventh-century Ummah [Muslim community]” (p. 164).

Irrespective of the accuracy of this historical account of the development of the Shariah, it is self-evident that rules designed for people living in the desert in the ninth century cannot be applied to people living in pluralist societies in the 21st century without a considerable and serious effort to interpret them – particularly to distinguish between religious principles and a description of a culture prevalent at that time.

Material on the philosophical foundations of Islamic fundamentalism, in an article of that name, was available in March 2020 at http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/H007.htm.

This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6246a.htm