[lit-ideas] Guardian Unlimited: Where Islam is Popery and Muslims the enemy within

  • From: omarkusto@xxxxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Sat, 1 May 2004 10:01:15 +0000 (UTC)

Omar spotted this on the Guardian Unlimited site and thought you should see it.

To see this story with its related links on the Guardian Unlimited site, go to 

Where Islam is Popery and Muslims the enemy within
The BNP manipulates dormant folk memories of British identity
Jeremy Seabrook
Saturday May 01 2004
The Guardian

The British National party is expected to make gains in the council elections 
in the former mill towns of Lancashire and West Yorkshire and in Black Country 
sites of industrial dereliction. But its "success" should be judged less in 
terms of seats won than in its disturbing ability to connect with an older 
story of the meaning of Britishness. 

The BNP finds powerful echoes in the places of broken working-class identity, 
where disused railway lines, rusty metal and buddleia have been landscaped into 
retail gallerias and upmarket housing. But the rising appeal of the far-right 
party conceals an even more important secret than its insight into the lives of 
the evictees of industrialism - a secret which mainstream politicians, church 
leaders and many left-leaning intellectuals deny.  

The BNP recognises that industrialism in Britain has proved a less-lasting 
influence than we imagined upon our sense of who we are. As it passed away it 
uncovered dormant myths on which the BNP has been able to draw.  

The tale the BNP tells today, in the rundown streets of the fearful old and the 
disinherited young, is about the spread of an alien creed, aided by the fifth 
column of an enemy within, and of hordes of migrant strangers at our border. 
The detail - "islands of Islam in our communities", "a race relations industry 
kowtowing to the apologists for terror", even "the imminent extinction of the 
white man" - however ghoulish, is less significant than the narrative of the 
nation in danger; for this resonates strongly with earlier versions of these 
islands in jeopardy.  

In her account of the creation of British identity in the 18th and early 19th 
centuries, the historian Linda Colley identifies protestantism and empire as 
its principal components. "Popery" - a word now found only in the vocabulary of 
archaic bigots - remained the enemy until Catholic emancipation in 1829.  

For the BNP, Islam is the new Popery. The superstition and malevolence once 
projected on to Catholicism appear to be made manifest once more in the 
fanaticism and extremism which new holy warriors believe they have located in 
Islam. Folk memory is a powerful generator of fables for those who know how to 
manipulate them.  

Fears of invasion - by the Spanish in the 16th century, Stuart claimants to the 
throne in the 18th and the French during the Napoleonic wars - were the second 
determinant in the forging of British patriotism. Our resolve to defend the 
country against all comers was rooted in the belief that the British people, 
uniquely free, chosen by providence as custodians of true religion, were manly, 
bluff, uniquely courageous.  

With Catholic emancipation, the fading sense of protestant uniqueness and the 
disappearance of the imminent invasion threat after 1815, this aspect of 
Britishness retreated deep into the psyche; the imperial identity took on a 
more central role. The symbol of the British lion embodied a benign power which 
could nevertheless show its claws when necessary.   

This sense of imperial destiny was disrupted by industrialism. The factory 
system led to unprecedented upheavals and the development of a new, potentially 
radical, sensibility. A national division of labour evolved, suggesting that 
other forms of consciousness than those derived from the reflected glory of 
empire might become a major influence on people's sense of who they were. The 
growth of trade unions against the ravages of industrialism appeared, for a 
moment, to dominate the formation of popular identity.  

New fears of invasion and the war against fascism lent a progressive inflection 
to old struggles, and confirmed the left in its faith in the progressive 
instincts of the people. A joint celebration of both British and working-class 
identity was tangibly expressed in the setting up of the welfare state: there 
appeared to be a lasting settlement between capital and labour. It seemed a 
harmonious, and characteristically British, compromise.  

But nothing stands still. The forces of globalisation were already in motion, 
dissolving the remnants of empire, dispersing a national division of labour 
across the world. This effaced, with remarkable speed, a working class 
identity, which had been taken as a historical given. This has been a major 
contributor to the present crisis of Britishness: while the Scots, Welsh and 
Irish could retreat into consoling redefinitions of themselves against the 
English, the English had nowhere to run.  

Into the vacuum pour older structures of feeling. Racism, promoted with zeal by 
the ruling class in the high imperial moment, filtered through society, 
finding, like the anti-Catholic prejudices of an earlier era, a last resting 
place among the most dispossessed.  

Old ghosts rise up from the shallow graves of forgetting. It is not a question 
of precise historical parallels, as the BNP has understood: it is about our 
suggestibility, as we rummage in the rag-bag of the British psyche to link who 
we are with who we have been. Today's fear and resentment have been transferred 
on to thoroughly contemporary figures.  

The violent changes associated with globalism have torn millions of people up 
by the roots: refugees and migrants, set in movement across the world, are 
easily portrayed as besieging these islands. Indeed, they are said to pose a 
double threat: not only has our imperial power lost control over uncivilised 
people, but those very people are now among the millions ready to risk their 
lives to reach our fabled shores of wealth and tolerance.  

When this "invasion" of the world's poor coincides with the alleged power of an 
overweening Europe, a direct link is made between our defunct imperial power 
and our lone struggle against the devious, covetous Europeans. "New" 
antagonisms metamorphose out of ancient ones. Indeed, they offer a familiar 
affirmation of who we are - a visceral recognition that we are indeed on ground 
known to us, to which there can be only one response: the xenophobic anger 
kindled by popular newspapers. The dramatis personae have changed, but the 
scenario remains the same. "They" are jealous of our way of life; "they" want 
to take from us what is ours.  

The BNP's rhetoric makes this explicit. "What the Spanish, French and Germans 
tried to do and failed, Islam succeeded, and did so without firing a shot. 
There are now places in Britain where the Queen's writ no longer runs but 
Sharia rules." They speak of "the Islamification of British society" and of 
"boatloads of migrants". They declare "an unarmed Armada is nevertheless an 
invasion force". A rhetoric of appeasement is drawn upon: purveyors of 
political correctness, including the police, "bend over backwards" and wear 
"kid gloves" in responding to Islamic aggression.  

"Progressives" who believe that industrial society still determines our 
identity are mistaken. Perhaps we are at last seeing the real meaning of 
"modernisation", to which the eager New Labour erasers of memory remain so 
committed. No wonder they are so agitated by the BNP, which, they fear, may 
have a more popularly plausible story than theirs of who the British really 

· Jeremy Seabrook's latest book is A World Growing Old  


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