28 February 2010

ETA Leader Arrested In France According to Spanish Officials

Ibon Gogeascoechea, suspected leader of the Basque nationalist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA), as well as two other high level officials, were arrested in a rented cottage in Normandy today. The Spanish interior ministry told reporters that the cottage was rented using false identity papers.

Gogeascoechea was wanted on charges stemming from a 1997 plot to blow up the Guggenheim Bilbao museum at its opening. He is accused of planting 12 explosive devices. The plot was discovered before the bombs exploded.

ETA (translated "Basque Homeland and Freedom") was founded in 1959 with the goal of creating an independent Basque state in parts of northern Spain and southern France. The group is considered to be a terrorist organization and is held responsible for the death of 825 people in recent years.

ETA declared a permanent ceasefire in 2006 following the Madrid train bombing, but returned to violence within only a few months.

Roughly 30 ETA members have been arrested in the past year.

According to a New York Times report, experts "say the arrests of several of the groups military leaders in the past year by the Spanish and French police have put the group under pressure. Those analysts say they believe that the group has also been weakened by an internal struggle between hard-liners who want to continue the campaign of violence and those who want a political solution."

It is anybody's guess whether the most recent arrests will play a significant role in further defining this internal struggle.

SNP Support Slumps

With a UK general election set to take place within the next year, the latest poll numbers do not look good for the Scottish National Party. Scotland on Sunday reports that SNP support is down 17% behind Labour for the national election and 5% behind for the Holyrood election—a 30% drop since this time last year. The party's support is down four per cent since January 1st.

Even worse, Alex Salmond, SNP party leader, "now has a negative popularity rating, with the 36 per cent of Scots who believe he is doing a good job outnumbered by the 38 per cent who say he is doing badly."

Party leaders are doing their best to put a positive spin on the results. SNP Westminster leader Angus Robertson MP, for example, argues that the numbers are climbing after hitting a low last week.

The next few months certainly promise to be interesting. While it still seems that Tory party leader David Cameron is set to be the next prime minister, his party saw a decline in support over the past two weeks with new numbers suggesting that Britain may face a hung parliament.

Whatever the result, Britons are less than bullish on their future prospects. The most recent polls show that 64% are convinced that things will not improve, regardless of the ultimate result.

15 February 2010

American History and Identity

The New York Times Magazine published a fascinating article concerning efforts by school board members in Texas to integrate conservative values into the school curriculum. Among other things, the activists hope to include intelligent design and history/social studies content that celebrates the rise of the religious right—pushing students to learn about the accomplishments of Pat Robertson (founder of the Christian Coalition), his protégé, Ralph Reed, Newt Gingrich, William F. Buckley Jr., and Billy Graham, as well as about organizations such as the National Rifle Association, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority, and the "Contract with America" that ushered in a Republican congress in 1994.

One of the leaders of the effort to promote this agenda in the schools, Don McLeroy, proudly states that he is a "Christian fundamentalist" and "a young-earth creationist who believes that the earth was created in six days, as the book of Genesis has it, less than 10,000 years ago."

All of this is now fairly old hat in the United States, one of the only countries in the world where a substantial percentage of the population believes in creationism and feels that evolution is a lie.

What is interesting, especially from the perspective of nationalism studies, is the reading of American history that McLeroy and his supporters put forward.

"For McLeroy, separation of church and state is a myth perpetuated by secular liberals," notes the article. His narrative holds that the Founding Fathers were anxious to create a Christian republic. "Many of us recognize that Judeo-Christian principles were the basis of our country and that many of our founding documents had a basis in Scripture. As we try to promote a better understanding of the Constitution, federalism, the separation of the branches of government, the basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, I think it will become evident to students that the founders had a religious motivation," he says.

Of course, many prominent eighteenth century Americans were influenced by religious ideas—those of Deism. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, and others, all steeped in Enlightenment thought, were Deists. This religion does have some overlap with Judeo-Christian thought, as it does with all major world religions, in the sense that there is a god (the "divine watchmaker"), we should all adhere to a common system of morality that forbids murder, theft, and other crimes which might lead to the breakdown of society, and there is life after death because our ideas live on long after our bodies are gone.

As noted elsewhere on this blog, national identity is defined by an ongoing dialogue about the nature of national membership. Put another way, McLeroy and his supporters are actively engaged in a process whereby Americans debate and discuss who they think they are. That many liberals respond in horror to the Texan's claims is simply part of the process. Ultimately, the give and take, no matter how heated, reaffirms collective membership in the community, however that membership is imagined.

At the same time, McLeroy is involved in a process of attempting to create traditions in much the same way that nineteenth century nationalists endeavored to construct festivals and/or common cultural markers that would prompt people to imagine a common identity. Just as education was essential to the nineteenth century nationalization of the masses, so too education is vital to efforts by those who want their version of the nation to attain dominance. It is no accident that Ralph Reed once noted that he would far prefer to control school boards than the White House.

Yet there is something else at play here as well: a xenophobic nativist ideology that substitutes a racial litmus test for true Americanism with a religious one. Advocates of immigration restriction in the 1920s looked to the 1790 census in seeking to establish national origins quotas favorable to persons of English descent in order to limit recent immigration which came largely from southern and eastern Europe. Activists focused their attention on the American Revolution, defining "American" in terms of who was or was not present in the country at the time of the Revolution (obviously ignoring people of African descent). Undeniably, religion played a role too, because the undesirable "races" tended to be Catholic and Jewish, while the "real Americans" of 1790 were overwhelmingly Protestant. Nevertheless, which races were present at the nation's founding was the primary focus of the restrictionists.

This new brand of nativist ideology put forward by McLeroy is simply the latest incarnation of a long-term tendency to look to the era of the American Revolution when defining what is or is not really American. Whereas American nativists in the early twentieth century looked to the period of the Revolution to define which races were most American, in the early twenty-first century we see American nativists evoking the Revolutionary era to claim that Christianity defines American identity.

11 February 2010

BNP's First Non-white Member?

The Guardian reports:

"Rajinder Singh is flicking through the Pakistani channels on his Sky box from his sofa in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Dressed in a crimson turban, he sits a metre from the ­enormous screen, translating the odd phrase for my benefit. He's trying to show me why he's determined to join the British National Party – the only party he considers "brave" enough to "break out of the burkha called ­political correctness".

Last year, the Equality and ­Human Rights Commission forced the BNP to change its constitution on the grounds that restricting membership to ­"indigenous Caucasians" broke the Race Relations Act. A new constitution is expected to be agreed at a party meeting this Sunday, and if it's amended both Singh and the BNP think he would be ideal as the party's first non-white ­recruit. Communications and campaigns ­officer Martin Wingfield has personally endorsed him on his blog, calling for the party to "adapt and survive and give the brave and loyal Rajinder Singh the honour of becoming the first ethnic minority member".

Singh is a 78-year-old Sikh, a retired primary school teacher and a father of two, who left India for the UK in 1967. He says he's been loyal to the BNP since he first heard BNP leader Nick Griffin on television in late 2001. "He used the word 'Islam'. And I thought, 'He's brave, he has conviction,'" Singh says. "I thought, 'It's amazing what you've said: I've always been thinking that, since my childhood.'" He wrote Griffin letters of support and eventually provided him with a character reference at his 2005 trial for inciting racial hatred. Singh has voted for the BNP in every local and general election since discovering them. 'I couldn't keep away.'

It feels strange to hear these words from a man in a turban, but Singh ­admits he's only wearing it for my ­benefit. He's not a religious man and is clean shaven, but he wore a turban the first time he ever had "media exposure" – on BNPTV, the party's online ­channel – and has decided to do so whenever speaking to the media because "the message carries more weight" coming from a turban-wearing Sikh.

His "message" is simple and ­depressingly familiar: he fears that Britain is becoming an Islamic republic, and Islam is dangerous. "Most of them behave very nicely, but suddenly when they get together in the mosque and ­listen to the preaching, they acquire a collective identity that is formidable. It's the collective being that frightens me." [Continues...]

10 February 2010

Sri Lanka Faces Another Vote

The new Sri Lankan government dismissed the parliament today in preparation for new elections. President Mahinda Rajapakse is anxious to have a fully loyal parliament, especially after arresting and planning to court-martial Sarath Fonseka, the opposition candidate in recent presidential elections.

The poll should take place on April 8, the new session of parliament starting on April 22.

One wonders whether this approach is truly calculated to repair divisions after the long struggle with the Tamil minority, a conflict that continues to divide Sri Lankan society. Surely it makes sense to start trying to bridge divisions, not to make them still deeper.

Conservative Party Head Attacks SNP

The Scotsman reports that David Cameron, head of Britain's Conservative Party, made extensive comments about the Scottish National Party (SNP) and its leader, Alex Salmond, in "several newspaper interviews today."

Cameron argued the SNP's "dreams of an independent Scotland will remain dreams." He added that Salmond lives in "a perpetual episode of Braveheart."

Why is Cameron going after the SNP so aggressively? Most likely he is concerned by claims that a Tory administration at Westminster would speed-up Scottish independence, a fear that might turn away some voters. The run-up to the next general election is truly hotting up.

05 February 2010

Agreement Reached in Northern Ireland


A Deal In Northern Ireland?

This from the Guardian:

DUP leader Peter Robinson said he had won the full backing of his party in the Stormont assembly for the deal.

Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen, his Irish counterpart, were flying to Belfast early this morning to set the seal on an historic deal between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists to share full power.

London last night hailed the agreement, which will see policing and criminal justice powers devolved to Northern ­Ireland, as the final piece in the jigsaw after a search for peace lasting nearly 20 years.

The two prime ministers, who held three days of intensive talks at ­Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, with the parties last month, will jointly chair a plenary session this morning to formalise the deal.

The breakthrough came late last night when Peter Robinson, the DUP leader who has been involved in 10 days of talks with Sinn Féin, declared he had the full backing of his party in the Stormont assembly.

Robinson had faced the threats of ­resignations – and defections to the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice party – from a core of members who balked at ­giving Sinn Féin a say over policing. Up to 14 members of the DUP's 36-strong assembly team were said to be opposed to a deal.

In a two-hour meeting with his party at Stormont last night, Robinson persuaded the doubters that he had secured assurances in two key areas. First, the parades commission, seen by many Unionists as biased against Orange parades, would be reformed. Second, that Sinn Féin would not be able to dictate to the new justice minister. David Ford, the leader of the non-sectarian Alliance party, is expected to hold the post for an interim period to reassure Unionists.

Emerging from the meeting at ­Stormont, as the clock in the Great Hall approached midnight, Robinson said: "We have a basis upon which we can go forward and recommend it [the deal] to our party, to the other parties in Northern Ireland and to the community. An essential ­element of the Democratic Unionist party's manifesto is the requirement for community confidence, we believe this can be the basis for gaining that confidence."

Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, said: "I believe that the assembly and political institutions can now proceed on the basis of equality, fairness and partnership. They also have to deliver for all citizens, that is the collective responsibility of all the political parties."

Shaun Woodward, the Northern Ireland secretary, hailed the deal as the final part in the jigsaw of the peace process. Power-sharing between the DUP and Sinn Féin, launched in May 2007 in the final weeks of Tony Blair's premiership, had been unstable because the two sides were unable to agree on the final stage of devolution – handing powers on policing and criminal justice to the executive.

Sinn Féin insisted that handing over the powers was an essential part of the St Andrew's agreement of 2006 which paved the way for the May 2007 deal. The DUP insisted that such a major step could only be taken when Unionists had full confidence in the institutions.

The deal last night marks one of the most significant milestones in the Northern Ireland peace process. This dates back to April 1993 when John Hume, the former leader of the SDLP, took what was then the mammoth step of inviting Adams to his house in Derry for talks.

This sparked an intense process – involving London, Dublin and eventually the Ulster Unionist party – leading to the Good Friday agreement of 1998. But this was not stabilised – the former UUP leader served intermittently as first minister – until the deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP in 2007.

British government sources praised the DUP and Sinn Féin. "Peter Robinson has shown the most extraordinary leadership," one source said. The DUP leader only assumed the post of first minister this week after standing down last month after the disclosure of damaging details about his wife's financial affairs.

The source added: "Sinn Féin have been very patient."