Daniel Hannan is a writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Our first “Brexit” was an altogether nastier affair. In 1570, the Pope proclaimed “Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England and the servant of crime” to be a heretic, and released her subjects from their loyalty to her. England was on its own, facing a hostile Europe.
Europe had more immediate problems, though. In 1571, threatened by Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean, Catholic states formed the Holy League. England, of course, did not join them. Indeed, to unfeigned horror across Continental Europe, Elizabeth opened negotiations with the various Muslim rulers who, as she saw it, were enemies of her enemies. The Turkish Sultan responded enthusiastically to her overtures, sending back “sincere greetings and abundant salutations, rose-tinted”, and offering England trading concessions (“capitluations” as they were known) that lasted until 1923.
The Moroccans entered into a lively alliance with the English, joining to attack Spanish shipping. Even the Shah of Persia wrote fondly to the Queen stressing, in particular, the dislike of religious iconography that Protestants of that era shared with Muslims.
Contemporary English literature portrayed Islam with a warmth unthinkable in the rest of Europe. The King of Morocco in “The Merchant of Venice” and, even more, Othello, were essentially sympathetic characters. On the continent, by contrast, Moors were played as cartoon baddies.
I mentioned some of these things at a meeting yesterday of a wonderful and under-reported organisation called Muslims for Britain. We go back a long way together, I argued. Disraeli liked to say that Britain was as much an Asian as a European country. The British Army of 1918 looked much more like the Britain of 2018 than like the population of these islands at that time.
Muslims for Britain came into existence during the 2016 referendum to turn out the Leave vote among Brits from Islamic backgrounds. Unlike most of the referendum campaign groups, it has stayed in business, aiming to provide a voice for patriotic Muslims who dislike Labour’s patronising tone, and who are interested in the free-market tradition within Islam. (I wrote about that tradition, the tradition of Ibn Khaldun, on ConHome a couple of years ago.) It is run by three outstanding Brits of Pakistani heritage, Iftikhar Awan, Aftab Chughtai and Atifa Shah. Its fourth founder, Saqib Bhatti, is now the Conservative MP for Meriden.
There are two groups of people for whom the very existence of Muslims for Britain is an affront – two groups which think of themselves as bitter rivals but which, in reality, share the same outlook.
One is made up of blood-and-soil nationalists who cannot accept that there is such a thing as a British Muslim. This group is tiny: a handful of angry young men trolling the internet from their bedrooms. The second group is much larger and louder, and is made up of people who think of themselves as progressives. For them, the important thing about British Muslims is not that they are Muslims but that, in most cases, they are brown-skinned. They are therefore in an approved victim group and have no business loving their country. Their patriotism is presumed to be a form of false consciousness, a delusion bred by white patriarchal power structures.
As I say, the two groups regard themselves as enemies. But their essential world-view is the same. Both believe that we are defined by birth, caste, race and physiognomy. The identitarian Right and the woke Left are not opponents at all. The true opponents of both are classical liberals, who elevate the individual over the collective and insist that we are defined, not by how we look, but by what we do.
Nor for a hard thing that needs saying. Liberalism, which has been the dominant ideology in the Anglosphere for some three centuries, does not come naturally. Human beings are tribal creatures, evolved in kin-groups. The idea of collective merit and collective punishment lies deep in our genes. The morality of the Old Testament, in which whole peoples are raised or razed, comes much more naturally to us than modern individualist ethics.
In its contemporary form, tribal thinking is manifested in the notion of shared retributive justice. Person A did something bad to Person B, possibly before any of us was born. So now Person C, who happens to look a bit like Person A, owes something to Person D, who looks a little like Person B.
When you say it like that, of course, it sounds downright superstitious. But, when you strip away all the mumbo-jumbo about intersectionalism and privilege and critical theory, that is what you’re saying. If the doctrine doesn’t bear too much analysis, it is precisely because it appeals more to our tribal DNA than to our rational minds. Hence the tendency to shout down critics: “You don’t get to express an opinion on this, white man!” Again, to see how absurd that defence mechanism is, ask yourself whether there are topics on which black people should be barred from expressing an opinion.
The woke Left has inverted what used to be a liberal anti-racist ideal. It has gone from arguing that we should be treated the same to arguinhg that we should be treated differently. That rarely ends well.
A common response to identity politics is to harrumph about “political correctness gone mad”. But that response is inadequate. We are facing a determined challenge to the Enlightenment, based as it is on the primacy of reason and the defence of personal autonomy. The academics and theorists behind identity politics often call themselves post-modernists – meaning that they believe truth is dependent on power-structures rather than on some intrinsic standard – yet their creed would be more aptly described as pre-modernism. It is a reversion to the old tribal idea: this people good, that people bad. It fundamentally challenges the notion that we are all individuals, responsible for our own behaviour. As the Quran puts it: “No bearer of burdens shall bear the burden of another” (53:38).
Defending that ideal, and the open society that it sustains, is the common task of all of us, wherever our grandparents were born. Lose it and we lose the essence of modern civilization.