Democracy Lab

The Problem with Patriotism

The dispute over islands in the East China Sea is stirring up nationalist passions in the region. That doesn't bode well for the future of democracy.

The situation in East Asia is tense. Japan and China, two of the most powerful countries in the world, are locked in a bitter dispute over eight tiny, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The volatility of the issue -- compounded by the fact that the waters around the islands are rich in natural resources -- is such that it’s hard to know what will happen next. But there’s one prediction that I would already dare to make. I don’t think that this lingering feud bodes well for the fate of liberal democracy in the region.

The two sides can’t even agree over what the islands are called: They’re known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese, as the Senkakus to the Japanese. The argument over who has ultimate control over them has now boiled over, sending tens of thousands of angry Chinese into the streets in more than 85 cities. Some of those protestors have turned into rioters, attacking Japanese visitors or setting Japanese-operated businesses on fire. The government in Beijing recently dispatched six surveillance ships into Japanese-claimed waters around the islands, prompting fears about a possible clash between the two antagonists. One Chinese newspaper even called for launching nuclear missiles at Japan if it doesn’t concede sovereignty.

The rising tensions have led some to wonder about the possibility of war between the two countries. But even if it doesn’t come to that, the consequences are potentially devastating. Trade between the two countries is now worth some $345 billion a year. Some Japanese factories in China have already cut back on production due to the political instability. Chinese demonstrators have been calling for a boycott of Japanese goods. Anything that slows down the flow of goods and services between the two countries is a bad idea at a time when both are struggling to keep their economies chugging along.

This is not the first dispute over the islands, and in the past Beijing and Tokyo have always managed to pull back from the brink. But this time, matters are complicated by the delicate political situation on both sides of the East China Sea. In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda is struggling to break through political gridlock in order to realize his reform agenda, and he can’t afford to be outflanked by the conservative opposition. That’s why he recently instructed the government to purchase three of the islands from their private owners. (The alternative was to cede the ground to the right-wing mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who had threatened to purchase the islands in the name of the city, thus scoring points among nationalists.) Noda’s move, which was actually an attempt to defuse the situation, nonetheless poured fuel on the fire of anti-Japan sentiment in China.

The People’s Republic, meanwhile, has problems of its own. The economy is slowing. Discontent over blatant corruption and widening inequality continues. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is preparing for its biggest political transition in more than a decade -- a transition has already been complicated by the scandal surrounding toppled Politburo member Bo Xilai and the recent mysterious disappearance of president-to-be Xi Jinping. There are plenty of rumors swirling around about the growing influence of hard-line nationalists in the military and elsewhere who are eager to impose their own agenda as a new generation of leaders prepares to assume power. If you’re a candidate for one of the top posts, this is not a good time to look like you’re kowtowing to the Japanese.

So why do I think that this won’t help democracy? It’s simple. Unchecked nationalism has a way of rolling over liberal aspirations. That’s because the intense emotions of identity politics have a way of stifling the tolerance that is one of the most fundamental of democratic principles.

The government in Beijing knows this very well. The Communist Party has a long history of stifling the democratic aspirations of its own people with appeals to “patriotism.” Posing as the guardian of Chinese national pride is the most obvious way for the CCP to bolster its own legitimacy. This tactic was recently on vivid display in Hong Kong, the former British colony that joined the People’s Republic in 1997 while retaining its distinct identity and political culture (which includes semi-free elections, independent courts, and a rambunctious press).

Over the years, the people of Hong Kong have fought to preserve some of the things that make the place special -- including a raucous culture of street demonstrations. Just this past summer, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement succeeded in thwarting government plans to introduce a program of Beijing-sponsored “patriotic education” (meaning, specifically, a view of history that glorifies the achievements of the CCP and glosses over the mind-boggling crimes committed in its name). Hong Kong’s democrats rightfully congratulated themselves on a proud assertion of self-determination (though their victory didn’t translate into comparable success in the legislative elections that followed soon thereafter -- and which, after all, aren't really democratic).

All the stranger, then, that some of the very same activists who figured prominently in the movement against patriotic education have now emerged as leaders in the Action Committee for Defending the Diaoyu Islands, a homegrown group committed to defending Chinese sovereignty over the disputed islands. On August 15, a ship carrying several Hong Kong activists landed on the islands, where they unfurled the flags of both the People’s Republic of China (capital: Beijing) and the Republic of China (capital: Taipei). The group included Tsang Kin-Shing, a leading member of Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats party who’s better known in the territory by his nickname “The Bull.” Officers of the Japanese Coast Guard spent hours trying to persuade the protestors to leave, but finally arrested and deported them. Upon their return to Hong Kong, the activists were hailed as heroes. (The Bull, third from left, is shown with his colleagues in the photo above, protesting in front of the Japanese Consulate in Hong Kong earlier this week.)

It’s impossible to understand this apparent contradiction without some insight into the roots of Chinese nationalism. For Chinese patriots, resentment of Japan’s past aggression against their country is a touchstone of the cause. Anger over Japan’s perceived inability to acknowledge the scale of the destruction and humiliation it inflicted on the Chinese before and during World War II remains intense. That Tokyo insists on maintaining its claims to the islands merely pours salt into this open wound.

This is why The Bull and his colleagues don’t see any contradiction between their pushback against Beijing at home and their embrace of Beijing’s agenda in their fight for the islands. They stress that they’re asserting the right of “the Chinese people” to sovereignty over the islands, not the claims of the communist government on the mainland (which is why they made a point of holding up the Taiwanese flag as well). Beijing, they say, has been too timid in asserting China’s rights to the islands, so they’ve been compelled to step into the breach. The activists don’t see this as undermining their push for democracy; just the opposite. The crowds of protestors on the streets of the mainland “are organizing today against Japan,” The Bull told me via email. “In the future, they will organize and revolt against the [Chinese Communist] Party.” Perhaps.

For some in Hong Kong, though, the tension is not so easily explained away. Hong Kong bloggers worry that the activists’ antics will undermine support for the democratic parties in the territory and help the “patriotic” (i.e., pro-Beijing) forces. Referring to the flag of the communist mainland, another blogger writing in the same forum cited above notes wryly: “Burning 5-star flag in Hong Kong Island, raising 5-star flag in Diaoyu Islands. Serious split personality disorder!” Some commentators point out that the pro-Beijing chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun Ying, has given his support to the pro-Diaoyu activists. So will Beijing use the Diaoyu issue to drive a wedge into Hong Kong’s already fractious democrats? And what does that mean for the future of dissidents on the mainland?

Patriotism is not inherently bad. And, in fact, many patriotic movements throughout history have gone hand in hand with the development of democratic institutions. But precisely because national feeling conjures up such intense and polarizing emotions, it can be a powerful weapon in the wrong hands. And there’s certainly an argument to be made that allowing for genuinely democratic expression of nationalist sentiment is usually better than artificially suppressing it.

There’s ample evidence that Beijing has been trying to control and channel the anti-Japanese demonstrations to its own ends, a dangerous balancing act that could easily slide out of control. (Beijing has just reinforced that point by announcing a ban on further demonstrations, which might calm things down a bit, at least superficially.) In Japan, meanwhile, the islands dispute threatens to push the country’s politics rightwards, thus polarizing Japan’s relations with its neighbors (all of whom have their own territorial disputes with Tokyo).

One bright spot: The (democratically elected) government in Taiwan, which also claims sovereignty over the Diaoyus yet boasts relatively warm relations with both the mainland and the Japanese, has offered itself as a mediator in the island dispute. That’s an initiative worth pursuing. It just might work. And, if it does, it will have the added benefit of demonstrating to the region that democracies are actually pretty good at finding solutions to problems just like this.

PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/GettyImages

Democracy Lab

The Salafi Moment

As the death of a U.S. ambassador in Libya demonstrates, the ultraconservative Salafi movement is pushing to the forefront in the politics of the Middle East. The West should be careful how it reacts.

By now you've probably heard. Just a few hours after an angry mob of ultraconservative Muslims stormed the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed during a protest in the city of Benghazi. Both riots were provoked by the news that an anti-Muslim group in the United States has released a film that insults the Prophet Mohammed. In Egypt, the protestors hauled down the U.S. flag and replaced it with the same black banner sometimes used by Al Qaeda. Shades of Iran, 1979. Scary stuff.

Both attacks are utterly outrageous. But perhaps the United States shouldn't have been caught completely off guard. The rioters in both cases come from the region's burgeoning Salafi movement, and the Salafis have been in the headlines a lot lately. In Libya, over the past few months, they've been challenging the recently elected government by demolishing ancient Sufi shrines, which they deem to be insufficiently Islamic. In Tunisia, they've been attacking businesses that sell alcohol and instigating nasty social media campaigns about the country's female competitors in the Olympics. In Syria's civil war, there are increasing reports that the opposition's wealthy Gulf financiers have been channeling cash to Salafi groups, whose strict interpretation of Islam is considered close to the puritanical Wahhabism of the Saudis and others. Lately Salafi groups have been gaining fresh prominence in parts of the Islamic world -- from Mali to Lebanon, from Kashmir to Russia's North Caucasus.

Some -- like journalist Robin Wright, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed on the subject -- say that this means we should be really, really worried. Painting a picture of a new "Salafi crescent" ranging from the Persian Gulf to North Africa, she worries that this bodes ill for newly won freedoms after the revolutions of 2011. Calling the rise of the new Salafi groups "one of the most underappreciated and disturbing byproducts of the Arab revolts," Wright says that they're now "moving into the political space once occupied by jihadi militants, who are now less in vogue." "[S]ome Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others," she writes. "The Salafis are most averse to minority and women's rights." 

Others, like Egyptian journalist Mustafa Salama, dismiss this as hysteria. "The reality of the movement is that it is fragmented, not uniform, within Salafis there are various ideologies and discourses," Salama writes. "Furthermore being a Salafi does not boil down to a set of specific political preferences." The only thing that unites them, he argues, is their interest in returning to the beliefs and practices of the original Islamic community founded by the Prophet Mohammed -- a desire that, in itself, is shared by quite a few mainstream Muslims. (The Arabic word salaf, meaning "predecessors" or "ancestors," refers to the original companions of the Prophet.) This doesn't mean that they're necessarily opposed to freedom and democracy. During the revolution in Egypt, he says, some Salafis were "protecting Churches in Sinai and elsewhere from vandalism and theft" at considerable risk to themselves, though the fact wasn't reported in the Western media.

If the first death of a U.S. ambassador in two decades is any indication, it's probably time that the world starts paying attention to this debate. I think there are several points worth mentioning.

First of all, however we define them, these new "populist puritans" (as Wright aptly refers to them) are enjoying an extraordinary boom. Though solid numbers are hard to come by, they're routinely described as the fastest-growing movement in modern-day Islam. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's Salafis barely figured in the political landscape during the Mubarak years -- then stormed onto the scene to capture a quarter of the vote in the country's first democratic election last year. Their share of the vote could well increase, given that the new Brotherhood-led government is likely to have problems making good on the ambitious promises it's made to Egyptian voters over the past year. Their rapid rise in Tunisia is especially startling, given that country's relatively relaxed atmosphere toward religion.

Indeed, if the history of revolutions shows us anything, it's that transformative social upheavals of the kind we've seen in the Arab Spring don't necessarily favor the moderates. On the day that the Shah left Iran in 1979, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the radical forces around Ayatollah Khomeini, who followed his innovative theory of clerical rule, would end up running the country. Secular socialists, communists, liberal democrats, democratic nationalists, moderate Islamists, and even other rival Shiite clerics were all vying for power. But Khomeini ultimately triumphed because he offered forceful, uncorrupted leadership with a simple message -- "Islamic government" -- that cut through the mayhem with the authority of faith. Lenin understood the same political dynamic: Hence his ruthlessly straightforward slogan "Bread, Peace, Land," which was perfectly calculated to appeal to Russians wearied by anarchy, war, and social injustice.

The Salafi notion of returning to the purity of 7th-century Islam can have the same kind of draw for some Muslims exasperated by everyday corruption and abusive rule. Syria offers a good example. If you're going up against Bashar al-Assad's helicopter gunships armed with an antique rifle and a few rusty bullets, you'll probably prefer to go into battle with a simple slogan on your lips. "Power sharing for all ethnic groups in a liberal parliamentary democracy" might not cut it -- especially if you happen to be a Sunni who's seen your relatives cut down by Assad's murderous militias. This isn't to say that the opposition is now dominated by Salafis; far from it. But it's safe to assume that the longer the war goes on, the more pronounced the extremes will become.

At the same time, the Sunni Salafis are a major factor in the growing global polarization of the Islamic community between Shiites and Sunnis. (The French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy argues that the intra-Muslim rivalry between the two groups has now become even more important than the presumed confrontation between Islam and the West.) The fact that many Salafis in various parts of the world get their financing from similarly conservative elements in Saudi Arabia doesn't help. Perversely enough, Iranian propaganda is already trying to portray the West as backers of Salafi extremism in order to destabilize Tehran and its allies. We'll be seeing a lot more of this sort of thing in the future, I'm afraid.

In short, no one should count on the Salafis to go away any time soon. So how should the outside world deal with them -- especially if they're going to go around storming foreign embassies?

I think the answer is two-pronged. First, don't generalize. Not all Salafis should be treated as beyond the pale. Salafis who are willing to stand by the rules of democracy and acknowledge the rights of religious and cultural minorities should be encouraged to participate in the system. With time, voters in the new democracies of the region will discriminate between the demagogues and the people who can actually deliver a better society.

Second, don't allow radicals to dictate the rules for everyone else. This is why the outcome of the current political conflicts in Tunisia and Libya are extremely important for the region as a whole. In both countries, voters have now had the opportunity to declare their political preferences in free elections, and they have delivered pretty clear messages. Libyans voted overwhelmingly for secular politicians, while Tunisians chose a mix of moderate Islamists and secularists. But the Salafis in both places don't seem content to leave it at that, and are trying to foment instability by instigating a culture war.

What's encouraging is that we're beginning to see some pushback from ordinary Libyans and Tunisians who don't want to submit to the logic of radicalization -- not to mention scholars at the Arab world's most prestigious university, also in Cairo. Don't be fooled by the rabble-rousers. The story in the Middle East is still more interesting than the stereotypes.

KHALED DESOUKI/Getty Images