Painting of “The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster”. This is one of the treaties leading to the Peace of Westphalia, in which the concept of the modern nation state was defined.
Wikimedia Commons / Gerard ter Borch (1617-1681)
Today, I read a very thoughtful essay by a Wall Street Journal editorial writer, Sohrab Ahmari, based in London, on why international events have taken such a disastrous turn for the West. Entitled How Nationalism Can Solve the Crisis of Islam, its subtitle is “Transnational liberalism breeds resentments and anxieties that are only beginning to surface across the developed world.”
With that title and subtitle, you can already sense the beginning of an attack on the conceits of modern day multiculturalism.
The Conceits of Western Multiculturalism
Ahmari’s thoughts were inspired by a conversation with a French philosopher and political scientist, Pierre Manent. Dr. Manent, a Eurosceptic, teaches at L’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in the Centre de recherches politiques Raymond Aron. As it turns out, that great French opponent of marxism,
Raymond Aron, was Manent’s mentor.
In Manent’s view, France’s new president, Immanuel Macron, has imbibed the “opium of the [multiculturalist] intellectuals” in the words of Manent’s mentor. Ahmari quoted Macron as saying in February,
There is no such thing as a single French culture. There is culture in France, and it is diverse.
Ahmadi reported that these assertions led Manent to conclude
that Mr. Macron has fully imbibed the “acceptable opinions, or the PC opinions,” about Islam and nationhood that prevail among trans-Atlantic elites. In these circles, even to suggest a problem with Islam is to invite “scowls,” he says. “Everything they say about the situation is determined by their purpose, which is to prove that there is no problem with Islam—against their own anxiety.” Not to mention the evidence.
One does not have to agree with Manent entirely about how our problems with jihadi terrorists are inherent with Islam itself to get his point about problems created by multiculturalism. For many decades now, at least since the end of World War II, the West has imagined itself the nucleus of a gradually expanding culture of human rights and liberal norms (however you might interpret that much misused word “liberal”). The borders between the various nation states were imagined to be gradually dissolving under the action of international trade, both economic and intellectual. As Ahmari writes, “Everyone would belong, including Muslims, who were expected to lose their distinctness.”
That dream might still be realized sometime in the far future, say several centuries from now, after cultural adjustments between the various nations permits universal toleration. Yet, that blessed condition is very far from us, as the war of the jihadis against everyone who does not agree with them makes clear. The dictates of the culture of one nation are sometimes incompatible with the cultures of other nations.
Meanwhile, the progressive elites of both Europe and the United States are very ready to dispense entirely with the limitations of the modern nation states. Dr. Manent contends that for the professional classes of the West, the only acceptable international interactions are between autonomous individuals and humanity as a whole. From this impulse comes the elitists’ desires to view themselves as “citizens of the world.” Government in their view should be turned over to increasingly larger international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations. Western progressives and other dirigistes no longer acknowledge the virtues, indeed the continuing necessity, of the nation state.
The Virtues of the Nation State
Believe it or not, the nation state is a relatively recent arrival on the stage of history. A state is any politically unified community living under a single, independent government. A nation on the other hand is a group of people sharing a common language, traditions, customs, and (sometimes) ethnicity. That is, a nation is a community that is a cultural unit. Prior to the 15th century, it was very rare for a nation to be congruent with a state. Instead, in the ancient world it was most usual to find a nation divided among a number of tribes or city-states, as with the Mongol tribes or the Greek city-states. Alternatively, there were multinational empires incorporating many nations, as with the Roman and Persian empires.
The idea of the modern nation state, in which a single state is congruent with a single nation, is usually associated with the end of the European wars of religion from 1524 to 1648 between Protestants and Roman Catholics. These wars were terminated with the Peace of Westphalia (sometimes referred to as the Treaty of Westphalia), which was a combination of three complementary peace treaties signed in the Westphalian cities of Münster and Osnabrück. As a result of these agreements, a new system of European political order arose that later was called Westphalian sovereignty. The wars of religion had sorted out the individual European nations into their own political states, which were all recognized by the Peace of Westphalia. The new principle of Westphalian sovereignty said that each of these nation states had sovereignty over its own territory and domestic affairs; and that no matter what its size, each state was equal to any other in international law, i.e. in the system of international treaties. As Europeans increased their reach across the world with the growth of their empires, they took the Westphalian system of nation states with them. In this way the Westphalian system has become central to the current world order of independent states.
The advent of the modern nation state was a stroke of almost unbelievable good fortune for humanity. The various European colonial empires broke up into their constituent nation states, with each state being ruled by its own native culture. In at least one case (India), the devolving country broke apart again into three separate nation states because of cultural differences between Hindus and Muslims. For a country to have rulers sharing the same culture decreases the probability for intolerable, culturally incompatible demands on the country’s people. Believers in representative democracy would add if the people had a more direct input into the government, that probability would be reduced even further. That however would assume the indigenous culture allowed such a representative democracy.
Humanity is too diverse in its cultures to be always compatible in personal interactions. In the case of Islamic jihadists, there is absolutely no compatibility with the West at all. The Western nations, particularly in Europe, have relegated religious faith to an individual’s private life, but for the soldiers of ISIS and al Qaeda, religious faith totally defines social life. When the jihadists see modern Europe, they cannot perceive a secular union with democratic ideals, personal freedoms, trade ties, and many possible lifestyles. Instead they see the land of the crusaders, the land of the cross. Because the non-muslim population of Europe and of North America do not accept the Muslim faith and do not accept their view of Sharia law, ISIS is bound by their interpretation of the Quran’s “Verse of the Sword” (Sura 9, verse 5) to wage a war of extinction against Western Civilization. In the Abdullah Yusuf Ali 1934 translation of The Holy Qur’an, this verse demands the following:
But when the forbidden months are past,
then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them,
and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war);
but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practise regular charity, then open the way for them:
for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.
No matter how you or any other Muslim interprets this text, the members of the radical jihadi groups interpret it to mean that they are to war against not only Western Civilization, but also against all Muslims who do not agree with them.
What should all this mean to the Western elites? In particular what it should suggest to them is they should not be so quick to consign the nation state to the dustbin of history. Even more particularly, they should not even think of weakening their own characteristics as nation states. As is now almost commonly observed, borders should be enforced and immigrants required to go through a process of assimilation. We have absolutely no ethical requirement to abandon our own values, nor to drink the multiculturalist kool-aid.
None of these observations requires Western nations not to interact with non-Western cultures. By all means we should engage in voluntary trade in both goods and ideas, but the stress should be on the word “voluntary.” In addition, until we can persuade all Muslims they have more to gain from friendly exchanges and coexistence than from attempts to kill us, we must be prepared to kill as many of the jihadi terrorists as we can.