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The blinding power of nationalism

United States
Middle East

Freshly named chair of the prestigious 2018 Man Booker prize for literature, Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah is one of the leading thinkers of our time.

In 2009, Forbes Magazine put him among the world’s seven most powerful thinkers, while Foreign Policy magazine named Appiah one the world’s 100 most powerful thinkers. President Barack Obama presented him and eight others with the National Humanities Medal in February 2012.

The appeal of malign fundamentalism begins with cultural resentment’

Philosopher, cultural theorist and novelist, Appiah was born in London, raised in Ghana, and received his Bachelor’s and PhD from Cambridge University. He specializes in moral and political philosophy, identity, ethnicity and race. In this interview, conducted before Trump was elected, he talks to New Internationalist about the dangers of nationalism and of all the politics of identity.

‘All forms of nationalism tend to blind people into willed ignorance about the dark side of the national story,’ he says.

Appiah’s highly praised books include In my Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture,  Color Conscious: The Political Culture of Race, The Ethics of Identity, and Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers. He has taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke, Harvard and Princeton universities and is a philosophy professor at New York University.

How can cosmopolitanism triumph over rigid worldviews such as Islamic fundamentalism on the stage of global public opinion?

The appeal of malign fundamentalism begins with cultural resentment. It’s attractive to people who think their historical Muslim identity has been assaulted and beaten back over the last century or two by something they refer to as The West or Christendom. It’s similar to a broader pattern of the anti-imperial resentment that you find in much of the post-colonial world. It is a recognizable state of mind.

In the long run, the only way for that to go away to is to make people feel like the identity, civilization, or nationality they represent, is doing well in a positive way in the world – and for that to happen, the situation has to change in many places. There has to be real democracy in Pakistan, there have to be real jobs available in Egypt, and so on. People have to feel confident and positive about their situation.

Is the good Muslim-bad Muslim culture talk misrepresenting the other identities Muslims have – asking an exclusive loyalty to one particular identity?

Everybody has lots of identities: almost no one is acting on just one of them all the time. It’s true that there are a small number people in the world who are motivated to do terrible things in the name of Islam, but it doesn’t follow that they are acting in the name of Islam – in the same way that if someone blew up a gay bar in the name of Christianity, that wouldn’t mean they were acting in a Christian way.

All forms of nationalism tend to blind people into willed ignorance about the dark side of the national story’

When someone acts in the name of something, it doesn’t follow that their act is justified by the religion or ideology they are referring to. Whatever explains the attitude of people who commit terrorist acts, it can’t be Islam, because if Islam explained it, there would be a billion people doing the same – and there aren’t. So the fact that someone does something in the name of an identity doesn’t mean we can blame everybody in that group.

When people do bad things in the name of the US, we repudiate them and claim that that isn’t what America stands for. We don’t say ‘OK, we [as Americans] accept responsibility for that.’ I don’t think Muslims should accept responsibility for people who have done terrible things just because they have claimed to have done it in the name of Islam. 

Some people who have been vocal about the need for moderate Muslims to speak out against Islamic fundamentalism still defend the Iraq War – and they supported atrocious regimes in central America, southeast Asia and Africa during the Reagan administration.

Is there a double standard at work here?

If we are going to ask people to repudiate things, we should be on the same page ourselves: there are a lot of things we might want to repudiate.

There are two problems here. One is that there is disagreement in this country about which actions should be repudiated. As an American, I’m happy to repudiate the Iraq War, Guantanamo Bay, and so on.  But there are people who think those things are OK.

Many in the US think that the conditions in Guantanamo Bay are OK, and the Iraq War was a mistake strategically, but not morally. A lot of people who think our assassination by drones is unlawful and the wrong way to deal with terrorism – they believe it shows a lack of respect for national sovereignty, and it causes a lot of collateral damage, killing innocent men, women and children. But most Americans are not going to repudiate drone strikes because they don’t think it’s wrong.

And even when Americans are forced to accept that we did something wrong, we’re not very good at repudiating it. We haven’t managed to get an American president to apologize for slavery, which ended in the 1860s.

Is there an American fundamentalism that keeps Americans from recognizing basic facts, like how much early America relied on African slavery, or the genocide or near-genocide of many Native American tribes?

All forms of nationalism, and American nationalism is no exception, tend to blind people into willed ignorance about the dark side of the national story. We do everything from renditions to assassination by drone, to invading another country and killing hundreds of thousands of people. But there are a lot of people who won’t admit our past mistakes – and that’s very unhelpful because it weakens our position in the world. It’s hard to get other people to admit their faults when we seem to be so unwilling to accept responsibility for our own faults.

Why, in a country with a free press, is it so hard to find people who readily concede that the US has backed terrorists in the past – such as the Contras in Nicaragua, UNITA in Angola and Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan?

There is an unwillingness that is a normal part of national identity to look these things squarely in the face. It’s not like the situation in North Korea, in which people don’t know what’s going on because no one is allowed to tell them.

I don’t think Muslims should accept responsibility for people who have done terrible things just because they have claimed to have done it in the name of Islam’

You mention UNITA: I bet the percentage of the population that knows where Angola is on a map is smaller than the percentage that controls more than 20 per cent of our wealth.

It’s not that the information isn’t available. While the Angolan civil war was going on, you could have read about it in the mainstream press and have asked yourself, ‘Why is the US supporting a former Maoist massacring peasants in Africa? What reason do we have for being there?’ You can’t argue that we didn’t continue to contribute to the deaths of Angolans – because there are still unexploded landmines going off in Angola right to this very day.

It’s puzzling why ordinary, moderate opinion doesn’t recognize these really bad things that have been done in the name of the US – because freedom of press means these are things you can find out about. But they are not a part of mainstream discussion or the media consensus. 

Do you think some of the world’s problems derive from an assault on the autonomy of individual? Could you comment on the attempts to place people into cultural boxes by claiming Asians have Asian values, Africans have African values, Westerners have Western values, Muslims have Islamic values, etc.?

In general, when you have politicized identities, people demand that members of their group agree with certain things they care about.

But while some people do have things in common, if you take large categories like ‘Asia’, ‘Africa’, or ‘The West’, there is a huge amount of in-group disagreement. There are people who think Christianity is the truth and people who believe atheism is largely correct. But they are all Westerners, and you can’t say Westerners believe in something, say gay marriage, when there are anti-gay movements in America and France.

These large categories tend to be much more heterogeneous within than people recognize. Even if I am Asian, and even if there were such a thing as Asian values, it’s not obvious why I should be obliged to go along with them. I could think that, ‘Maybe there are not many democratic traditions in Asia but I’m an Asian, and a Democrat.’ I don’t decide whether I should back abortion rights by taking a poll of my neighbours and trying to think about what the American view is: I think about the issue itself. It’s best to ask what’s right, not what’s traditional.

In the conversations about what’s right we have a lot to learn, not just from our neighbours with whom we share an identity, but from everybody.


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