Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Local and universal ideology

This interesting article by Abbas Milani points to tensions between Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Iran's religious Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Ahmadinejad, sometimes seen here as a religious fanatic, is apparently not fanatical enough:

He stands accused of advocating Iranian nationalism—something anathema to conservative clerics who promote ummat (spiritual community) over mellat (nation). He was criticized for lauding past kings, particularly Cyrus, praised in the Bible for freeing Jews from their Babylonian captivity. Cyrus may have been lambasted by the infamous “hanging judge,” a close ally of Khomeini, as a “Jew boy” and a “sodomite,” but the president went out of his way to praise him for his promulgation of human rights. Ahmadinejad was further criticized for celebrating the Persian new year, Nowruz, considered pagan by the pious and the subject of numerous attacks by Khamenei himself.

Political leaders in 19th century Europe sometimes struggled to compromise the universalist ideology and identity of Christianity with the exclusive, local ideology of nationalism too. It must be a tricky one to balance. They want to belong to a wider community or civilisation from whom they may draw support and a sense of moral legitimacy. But they also want a sense of internal cohesion and a justification for the existence of controlled borders.

The same was true for communist countries. Workers of the world were called to unite, but ethnic-nationalist loyalties rumbled under the surface. In China the European tradition of Marxist communism has shifted to a more free market model tempered with the memory of ancient Chinese glory. 'Lacking the procedural legitimacy accorded to democratically elected governments and facing the collapse of communist ideology, the CCP is increasingly dependent upon its nationalist credentials to rule,' argues China expert Peter Hays Gries.

Saddam Hussein shifted from ideology to ideology as suited him. In 1982 Hussein began to reconstruct the ancient Babylonian palace of King Nebuchadnezzar II. By 2003 Hussein was wise to the rise of political Islam and dropped his Babylonian nationalism in favour of Islamist rhetoric before the US invasion:

The aggression that the aggressors are carrying out against the stronghold of faith is an aggression on the religion, the wealth, the honor and the soul and an aggression on the land of Islam.

It will be interesting to see if Muslim leaders will begin to shift away from religious language in favour of some other ideology in the future, as Ahmadinejad is alleged to have done. Will Pakistani Muslims remember mighty Mughal Emperors, or even Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilisation? Could Egyptians emphasise the glory of Ramesses II and other great pre-Islamic leaders? Might Indonesian politicians boast about Hindu and Buddhist civilisations that predated the arrival of Islam there?

Closer to home we see ideological clashes of our own, albeit less dramatic, in the economic troubles of the EU. How much will populations in various EU member states be willing to risk to aid their fellow Europeans in stricken, but foreign, states? The struggle of local, civilisational and universal ideology continues.

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