(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 14 January 2015.)


The three jihadists shot dead last week after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo were all born in Paris of recent immigrant parents, two from Algeria and one from Senegal.


In 2005, three bombs were detonated in the London Underground and a fourth on a double decker bus in Tavistock Square. Four jihadists were involved in the bombings, three who were British-born sons of recent Pakistani immigrants and the fourth a convert born in Jamaica.


In 2002, a British Muslim of Pakistani descent, who briefly attended the London School of Economics before turning to a jihadist career, was arrested and sentenced to death for his role in the 2002 kidnapping and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.


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 are incompatible with this society and so takes political action against it.


There are many examples of this syndrome in history. The most famous is Moses, who grew up at Pharaoh’s court, a high culture he was acculturated into, but then realized he belonged with the Israelites, the oppressed slaves, not the hegemonic Egyptians. His turning point came when he saw an Egyptian beat an Israelite.


The London bombers and the Paris assailants similarly came to realize they did not belong with the hegemonic British, but rather with “our mothers, children, brothers and sisters, in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Chechnya,” as one of them put it.


Nativists, Nationalists, and Western-born Jihadists as Acculturated Rebels


Moses was the paradigmatic nationalist and, like other nationalists who have agitated against the French, British and other colonial empires, he represents a syndrome observed in the aftermath of some of the 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.


The young Gandhi was British by culture, but not by identity. He was trained in law at the Inner Temple, London, and is the Indian version of Moses, who led his people out of slavery. Gandhi’s turning point came when he was thrown out of a first-class compartment on a train in South Africa as a non-White.


Horopapera was a baptized Maori working for the British missionaries in New Zealand in the 1850s. After becoming acculturated, he later rebelled, changing both his name and clothes and transforming himself into the prophet, Te Ua Haume, who tried to unite the Maori in revolt against the British. He was directly inspired by Moses. He was not a nationalist, but preached a nativist, religious millenarian message.


Nativists, nationalists, Western-born jihadists all share the common, paradigmatic Moses syndrome. They are descendants of the great imperial expansions, who migrated, literally or figuratively, to the society of imperialists, adopted their hegemonic culture and religion, and walked out again.


They are in effect “hybrids” and suffer colonization of the mind. Having assimilated and internalized 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 for them to go to.


Their native polity may have been destroyed by imperial powers or turned into a puppet state ruled by collaborators. Or it may have been turned into a new nation state based on hegemonic Western concepts, in which case the Jihadists born in the Middle East can also be thought of as acculturated (or Westernized) natives who rebel.


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, the nationalists find it in their glorious ancient nations, countless nativists find it in some cross between an idealized past and a paradisiacal future.


Whatever their vision, they have to mobilize their people and rouse them for political action, such as Moses persuading people to rise against the Pharaoh and abandon the safety and comforts of Egypt for long wanderings in the desert. They change their clothes and sometimes their names, they nativize themselves, and start preaching about the inequities of the foreign rulers and their local collaborators.


But they are still acculturated. Today’s nationalists draw on the European ideology of nationalism. Countless nativists drew on Christianity, and even the Jihadists draw on modern Western ideas on communications.


Nativist revolts invariably have rural origins. Between the time of Moses and the jihadists, nativists led revolts against Greek, Roman, Arabic and European conquerors. But their leaders were not members of native political or religious elites. They were upstarts and their followers were rural people whose lives had been turned upside down by the foreigners. They owed their organization to religion, and their religion was millenarian and messianic.


The trigger for these rural revolts is often the seizure of native lands by foreigners. The Maori Wars (1845-72) in New Zealand were fought against such a background: “These missionaries were always telling us to look for the treasures in the heavens, and while we look to heaven, our land was snapped away from under our feet.”


In modern day Hong Kong, a nascent nativist movement has also been triggered by the resumption of rural lands for development, such as in Tsoi Yuen Village and the northeast New Territories. The local nativist’s religion is a romanticized form of country life, tied to conservation causes, inequities in society, and what not.


Islamicized Natives in Arab Societies and Westernized Natives in European Societies


Historically, the European expansion provoked not only nativist revolts in the countryside, but also nationalist revolutions among the colonies. But nationalist revolutions did not happen after the Arabic expansion established the Islamic empire. Why not?


The Arab conquerors spread out from Arabia and settled all over the Middle East to become a very small minority in the conquered lands. The conquered natives were rapidly assimilated into Arabic society through two processes: conversion to Islam and domestic slavery.


First, converts did not have to pay taxes, which was an incentive for the many conquered peasants to leave the land and move to the garrison cities. They were also entitled to receive pay if they joined the military, so they also tried to do this.


Second, slaves were domestic and lived with the Arabs in their homes, bonding with them, producing children by them and adopting their religion. Eventually they were set free, and as freedmen they became in principle full members of Muslim society. Although they were still treated with contempt, 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.


In other societies you normally could not join the imperial elite by saying you were one of them. But in Muslim society, you could do this because the Muslim polity was a community of believers. Anyone could convert to Islam, even a peasant or a slave. The barrier to elite membership was incredibly low.


The mistake of the Maoris was to think that Christianity was the key to European society and its power. But the European communities were not communities of believers. They were nations. It was easy to convert to Christianity, but it was a dead end. Conversion wasn’t usually a dead end in Islam, but an avenue to upward social mobility.


A century after conquest, Muslim society was drastically changed. Non-Arab Muslims dominated the entire civilian sphere, including religious scholarship, and the Arabs were just hanging on to their supremacy in the military and political spheres.


When non-Arab converts were badly treated, they usually concluded that something was wrong with the Arabs and the ruling dynasty, not with 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 natives thus succeeded in taking over the empire by diluting the ranks of the elite. This wasn’t in the cards for Europe’s conquerors.


The Europeans also recruited natives as administrators and soldiers, but they always sent their own people to take the top positions. They disseminated secularized Western culture or modernity – not Christianity as the Maoris mistakenly concluded – which, while it continued to spread long after the European empires were broken up, it did not create a sense of fellowship.


The concept of nation propounded by the Europeans did promote fellowship, but it was exclusive from the imperial point of view because not everybody could be part of the nation. Nationalism made a virtue of the ethnic origins that divide us. It made the ethnic group coterminous with privilege.


Westernization thus did not confer membership in the conqueror’s community in either principle or practice. Instead, it created large numbers of people who 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.


In short, while the Muslims had incredibly low barriers to membership in their community, the Europeans had incredibly high ones. The only way to gain respect on nationalist premises was to establish a nation state of your own. In other words, where Islamization drew you into the imperial polity, Westernization set you against it. So acculturated natives in the European empires followed the example of Moses and walked out.


The acculturated native who rebels assumes three forms. Nativism is primarily a rural revolt against imperial conquests, especially when land is seized and the lives of the natives are turned upside down. Nationalism is a reaction to 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. I am not sure, only time will tell.




Patricia Crone, The Nativist Prophets of Early Islamic Iran: Rural Revolt and Local Zoroastrianism, Cambridge University Press, 2012


Building Blocks for a Narrative on Hong Kong’s Democratic Political Development (Part XI) 

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