(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 14 January 2015.)
The three jihadists shot dead after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo were all born in Paris of recent immigrant parents, two from Algeria and one from Senegal. These men, and many others like them, exemplify the syndrome of the “acculturated native who rebels.”
This is a person who hails from a politically subordinate culture, lives in a politically dominant culture where he may have been born, finds his ancestral roots incompatible with this society and so takes political action against it.
There are many examples in history. The most famous is Moses, who grew up at Pharaoh’s court then realised he belonged with the Israelites, the oppressed slaves, not the hegemonic Egyptians.
Nativists, nationalists and Western-born jihadists all share the common paradigmatic Moses syndrome, which has been observed in the aftermath of great imperial expansions, especially those of the Arabs and the Europeans. The native accepts the religion and culture of the hegemonic foreigners, only to rediscover his native identity and rebel.
Hong Kong’s problems are hardly on the same scale, but the resumption of making rural lands available for development – such as in Tsoi Yuen Village and in the northeast New Territories – have triggered a nascent nativist movement.
The local nativist’s religion is a romanticised form of country life, tied to conservation causes, inequities in society, and what not. But the central issue is obviously about the seizure of land. And land is arguably one of the most crucial issues facing Hong Kong today, with housing in the SAR currently its least affordable so far this century – based on the proportion of household income required to make monthly mortgage repayments.
Historically, nativist revolts have often originated as protest against rural land seizure. Nationalist revolutions were a reaction provoked by European imperial expansion.
Some nativists are hybrids. They are said to suffer colonisation of the mind. Although they have assimilated at least some of the beliefs and values of the conquerors, they come to feel they don’t belong. They want to go home, but face the problem of what home there is to go to.
Their native polity may have been destroyed by imperial powers or turned into a puppet state. Or it may have been turned into a nation state based on hegemonic Western concepts.
When there is no political home to go to, the acculturated native has to create it, or rather recreate it, by turning to the past. Sunni jihadists find it in the Caliphate, nationalists find it in their glorious ancient nations, countless nativists find it in some cross between an idealized past and a paradisiacal future.
They also have to mobilize their people and rouse them to political action. This action has played out differently in the past.
Arab conquerors, for example, spread out from Arabia and settled all over the Middle East to become a very small minority in their conquered lands. They assimilated the conquered natives into Arabic society through two processes: conversion to Islam and domestic slavery.
Converts did not have to pay taxes, which was an incentive for conquered peasants to leave the land and move to the garrison cities.
Slaves also adopted Islam and eventually were set free, becoming full members of Muslim society in principle. Although they were still treated with contempt, but the number of Arabs was so few that they had to use non-Arab Muslims as administrators and soldiers.
This is what was so amazing about the Islamic world of the Arabs. Because the Muslim polity was a community of believers, anyone could convert to Islam and its avenue to upward social mobility, unlike Christianity where conversion was usually a dead end.
When non-Arab converts were badly treated, they usually concluded something was wrong with the Arabs and the ruling dynasty, not Islam and the Islamic polity. They were, therefore, not tempted to walk out of the empire, but automatically thought of it as their own.
The Europeans also recruited natives as administrators and soldiers, but they sent their own people to take the top positions. So Westernized natives did not automatically come to think of the empire as their own.
The European concept of nation did promote fellowship, but it was problematic because it made a virtue of the ethnic origins that divide us. Large numbers of people were defined out of their native communities by their Western education, but were not formally or informally accepted as members of the community to which their education assigned them.
The acculturated native who rebels assumes three forms. The nativist revolts against imperial conquests, especially when land is seized. The nationalist reacts against European imperial conquests that spread economic modernity without sharing political inclusiveness. Nativism was probably more common than nationalist movements in the wake of the colonial expansion, just much less effective.
And the Western-born jihadist? His role is difficult to place. It displays strong elements of a nativist response to what it alleges to be hegemonic globalization (also of Western origin).
If this is correct, then like earlier nativist movements it is unlikely to be effective. Time will tell.