Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA
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David Selbourne: The challenge of Islam

The author was asked by John Kerry to write a briefing paper on the Islamist threat. He explains here what he told the US secretary of state and why he feels progressives have allowed themselves to be silenced by frightened self-censorship and the stifling of debate. Read Mona Siddiqui’s response to the piece, The Arabisation of Islam, here.

The In Anemas gas plant, Algeria, seen from the air. It was attacked by Islamists in January 2013.

 

A beheading in Woolwich, a suicide bomb in Beijing, a blown-up marathon in Boston, a shooting in the head of a young Pakistani girl seeking education, a destroyed shopping mall in Nairobi – and so it continues, in the name of Islam, from south London to Timbuktu. It is time to take stock, especially on the left, since these things are part of the world’s daily round.

Leave aside the parrot-cry of “Islamophobia” for a moment. I will return to it. Leave aside, too, the pretences that it is all beyond comprehension. “Progressives” might ask instead: what do Kabul, Karachi, Kashmir, Kunming and a Kansas airport have in common? Is it that they all begin with “K”? Yes. But all of them have been sites of recent Islamist or, in the case of Kansas, of wannabe-Islamist, attacks; at Wichita Airport planned by a Muslim convert ready to blow himself up, and others, “in support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”. “We cannot stop lone wolves,” a British counterterrorism expert told us after Woolwich. Are they “lone”? Of course not.

A gas facility in southern Algeria, a hospital in Yemen, an Egyptian police convoy in the Sinai – it’s complex all right – a New Year’s party in the southern Philippines, a railway station in the Caucasus, a bus terminal in Nigeria’s capital, and on and on, have all been hit by jihadis, with hostages taken, suicide belts detonated, cars and trucks exploded, and bodies blown to bits. And Flight MH370? Perhaps. In other places – in Red Square and Times Square, in Jakarta and New Delhi, in Amman and who-knows-where in Britain – attacks have been thwarted. But in 2013 some 18 countries got it in the neck (so to speak) from Islam’s holy warriors.

There are battlefields and battlefields in this conflict. Some are theatres of actual or potential civil war, most often when Sunnis and Shias are at each other’s throats on behalf, respectively, of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other battlefields are in failed or failing Muslim states, others again where the “infidel” has unwisely intruded upon and assaulted Muslim lands. At the same time, weapons and warriors are in constant movement in Islam’s cause across dis­solving national boundaries, many of them of western colonialism’s creation. And in India, with its 175 million Muslims, their mujahedin will be in action soon enough if Hindu nationalists come to power this month.

Jihadist groups, from Pakistan to the Philippines, also fight each other. But for the most part they are consolidating and expanding – often as affiliates of al-Qaeda – in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Maghreb, in Somalia and Kenya, in Iraq and Syria, in Gaza, in Bangladesh and in south-east Asia. There are separatist or secessionist Islamic insurgencies, too, from Russia’s Caucasus to north-west China, in southern Thailand, in Burma, in northern Nigeria and in divided Kashmir.

Warriors for Islam, believing that they are under “infidel” threat, today range an increasingly frontier-less world. That’s “globalisation” too. A car-bombing in New York – which failed – was planned by a Pakistani-American trained in a tribal area of northern Waziristan. Many would-be warriors from western countries learned their skills from Taliban instructors, going on to fight in Iraq as they now fight in Syria. There, ubiquitous “Bearers of the Sword” and “Defenders of the Faith” from Britain and France, Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Indonesia and Kazakhstan, and even Uighurs from Chinese Xinjiang, are to be found armed to the teeth in the battle against Assad while being trained for future combat in their countries of origin.

In the Islamist merry-go-round, jihadis from Libya – after the country’s collapse – went on to Syria, Tunisian holy warriors crossed into Mali, Egyptian and Canadian Muslim fighters were among the attackers on the refinery in Algeria, and Somalis from Minnesota have returned home to join al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda affiliate that carried out the Kenyan mall attack. Ugandan Islamists are in eastern Congo, and a Malaysian army captain was linked to two of the 9/11 hijackers. Beat this? No.

It is not “Islamophobia” that registers these facts. Instead, there is an objective historical need, and duty, to record radical Islam’s many-sided and determined advance upon the “infidel” world. Most still do not know what manner of force – the millions of peaceful Muslims notwithstanding – has struck it. And, with its own arms and ethics, it will continue to do so, perhaps till kingdom come.

Here US and western defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq – what else were they? – weigh heavily in the scale of things. In Afghanistan, despite the loss of many thousands of lives and at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, with huge waste and corruption by military contractors and with reliance on unsavoury local satraps, the Taliban remain active throughout the land. Even the US-trained Afghan army is riddled with their supporters. Yet American illusion has seen victory in the coming retreat, and in defeat a “mission accomplished”, in David Cameron’s absurd judgement.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan, set to recover from yet another western incursion into its land, has entered a long-term security pact with Iran. Similarly in Iraq, years of death and destruction and billions in reconstruction grants mostly lost to local and US corruption have left no stable government nor a reliable western ally. Instead, there is an intensifying Shia-Sunni civil war, with thousands of dead in 2013, while al-Qaeda insurgents have reconquered areas in western Iraq previously “captured” – another illusion – by US marines.

The complexities (and double-games) of the Islamic world are a labyrinth for the “infidel”. It is a labyrinth that western reason, such as it now is, has never mastered, and that it cannot master now with hellfire missiles and unmanned drones.

After all, the political wing of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood calls itself the “Freedom and Justice” party – well, yes and no, and it certainly offers little freedom or justice to women. Again, some of the Gulf monarchies, Saudi Arabia included, pose as western allies and host US air and naval bases but give covert support to selected jihadist groups. And what does the western illus­ionist make of the fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, and are said to have had covert financial and logistical support from Saudi diplomats and intelligence officials?

The labyrinth of nuclear-armed Pakistan is denser. Struggling with its own jihadist insurgency in the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, it is attempting peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, yet there is growing Islamist radicalism in the ranks of the Pakistani army itself. The Pakistani intelligence agencies also play their own games – and are accused of sheltering some of the Afghan Taliban – while Pakistan’s parliament condemned the US raid that killed Osama Bin Laden. In this labyrinth, there are other elements that will for ever be beyond US and western mastery now; the influence of China – the main source of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons – is growing in the region.

There is little in all this for “progressives” to cheer. Yet the left continues covertly to celebrate US foreign policy blunders and defeats, while the naive see jihadists as a minority of “fanatics”. It is not so simple. To add to the confusion, President Obama’s stances, however well intentioned, have made their own contribution to the Islamic renaissance. Or as he expressed it in a speech in Cairo in June 2009, America and Islam “share common principles . . . of justice and progress, tolerance” – tolerance? – “and the dignity of all human beings”.

 

Everyday terror: the bomb-making factory set up by 7/7 bombers in a council flat bedroom in Leeds. Photo: July 7 Inquests/PA

 

The west and the US, frightened by their defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, have lost their way in Assad’s Syria. Here the Muslim labyrinth is particularly dense. For Syria is an Iranian client state, backed by Russia and even North Korea, which is trying to fight off al-Qaeda-linked holy warriors from every corner of the Muslim (and non-Muslim) world, while a political alliance opposed to Bashar al-Assad tries to make its voice heard amid the carnage.

All the while, less-than-notable “world statesmen” have dithered over what aid to give to the anti-Assad forces, and wavered over whether to launch a military strike against Syria’s ruler. Between them, they have surrendered influence (as in Egypt) to Russia, able by skilful manoeuvre simultaneously to support Assad while moving to relieve him of his chemical weapons. As the Syrian civil war deepens, with over 150,000 dead and more than two million refugees, there have even been incoherent western attempts to treat secretly both with Assad over security co-operation and with the jihadist gangs, as heads roll in radical Islamic style and peace talks fail.

Wearied or sickened by all this? Yes. But it is the fate of the impotent western powers that is being determined by it. For the “jihad” is advancing in Syria to the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, while the muez­zin’s call to an increasingly ardent faith grows more insistent throughout the Islamic world.

In Shia Iran, memories of the historic Persian empire are quickening as Tehran’s foes flail around in the face of its ayatollahs’ ambitions and wiles. Above all, Iran has got the west on the ropes with its nuclear programme. The interim “freeze” to its uranium enrichment activities was not what it seemed; on Iranian TV on 21 February Behrouz Kamalvandi, of the national Atomic Energy Organisation, declared that the country’s nuclear commitments were “temporary and non-obligatory”. Iran still has a stockpile of enriched uranium, and still has tens of thousands of centrifuges, with nuclear research continuing, including on new advanced centrifuges. A “freeze” on further enrichment up to weapons grade, and a “downgrading” of some of its existing stockpile to less potent levels, were more tokens than substance. It left Iran usefully on the cusp of producing a nuclear weapon within a very short time, if (or when) it chooses, while it can continue to develop and test ballistic missiles.

It was also, yet again, a “deal” obtained from western weakness, not strength. After all, the alternative was an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, some now buried too deep for aerial assault, and a new war to be lost after those in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In Iran, the “deal” was rightly hailed by the regime as “a victory over the west”. Or as Iran’s “moderate” president, Hassan Rowhani put it on Twitter on 14 January, “the world powers surrendered to the Iranian nation’s will”. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s “supreme leader”, did not hide the Iranian position. “I am in favour of showing a champion’s leniency,” he declared of the western willingness to compromise with Iran as the Pax Americana wanes in the world.

Nothing could have been lamer than US Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion during the negotiations that the Iranians had a “choice”: to treat with the world, or to “leave themselves more isolated”. Instead, the US was once more acting in fear and in the impotent name of “outreach” to a foe. But Iran will never be the “strategic partner”of the US as some wishful thinkers hope.

With more than 500 executions, including for “waging war on God”, since the “moderate” Rowhani came to office – more per capita, one might say, than any other country – with its new pact with Afghanistan, its joint naval manoeuvres with Pakistan, its growing influence in Iraq, its behind-the-scenes accords with Russia, its improving relations with Islamising Turkey (and even with Jordan and Morocco), its dominance over Damascus, its ambitions to rule the Gulf and with two warships despatched in January to the Atlantic, Iran’s present course is clear. Moreover, the true secret of the nuclear “deal” was that Iran does not yet need a nuclear weapon, but it did urgently need sanctions relief. With its Revolutionary Guard shipping arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza, it will move on to nuclear weapons in its own good time.

As for Israel, its mere existence, threatened by both Shia and Sunni jihadists, is ready-made to serve radical Islam’s cause. Neither Israel’s belligerence on the one hand nor its seeming desire for a political settlement on the other can abate the proclaimed intent of Hamas, which is funded not only by Iran but also by Turkey and others, to “eliminate” it. Such intransigence is matched by insensate Israeli colonisation, giving further aid to the jihadis’ cause. At the same time, the truth of the Jews’ multi-millennial association – long pre-dating the existence of Islam – with Jerusalem and the “land of Israel” is flatly denied, with Palestinian militants laying claim to the same land as “our land by right”.

Nothing, it seems, can halt the will among some for the extinction of Israel, while Iran’s Khamenei could describe it in November 2013 as the “rabid dog” of the region.

A “Jewish state” is also seen by the holy warrior (and others) as by definition “racist”; with some reason in the case of Jewish zealots. Yet some of us take the notion of a theocratic “Muslim state” governed by Islamic sharia – there are many such states – in our stride. With Israeli security and Palestinian aspiration seemingly irreconcilable, this conflict appears beyond resolution, whether by John Kerry or by any other representative of America’s fading imperium.

After the publication in the US in 2005 of my book The Losing Battle With Islam, Kerry rang me to discuss the arguments in it. When he became secretary of state I told him (with some presumption) that the non-Muslim world is too unaware of what is afoot, hobbled by its wishful thinking and lack of knowledge, and whistling in the dark. In a position paper I wrote for him, I set out a list of the failures that the west, and especially the US, has on its hands. Among them are the failure to recognise the ambition of radical Islam; the failure to condemn the silence of most Muslims at the crimes committed in their names; the failure to respond adequately to the persecution of Christians in many Muslim lands; the failure to grasp the nature of the non-military skills that are being deployed against the non-Muslim world – skills of manoeuvre, skills in deceiving the gullible, skills in making temporary truces in order to gain time (as in Iran); and, perhaps above all, the failure to realise the scale and speed of Islam’s advance.

“If things continue like this,” I told friend Kerry, “the history of our age may one day be written under a caliphate’s supervision.” I added brashly: “Get your aides to read the Quran. Keep political correctors at bay,” and “stop looking for the emergence of Jeffersonian democracies in Muslim lands”. “It has gotten me thinking,” he replied; and after further exchanges, “I agree with a great deal of what you’ve said.”

But in the rising swirl of events, the secretary of state can no more control the incoming tide than could Canute. In perpetual motion, Kerry is disabled by the chaos of indecision and interference in Obama’s White House. He is handicapped by having to make near-simultaneous moves on dozens of Muslim chessboards against generally more cunning opponents.

In the chaos, and like others in the US administration, Kerry called for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step down and thus helped open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood before complaining that it had “stolen” the Egyptian election (by ballot-rigging and intimidation). Naivety, masquerading as diplomacy, also led him to compliment Pakistan for its help in tracking down al-Qaeda’s leader. Yet Bin Laden had been protected for years by Pakistan’s own security apparatus. Kerry even “pleaded” with the Iranians to sign up to a nuclear deal.

The word “plead” tells us all we need to know about America’s failing powers. But Kerry has also been buffeted to and fro by vacillation in the White House, excluded from its inner councils – an alternative state department of the mediocre whom Obama prefers to have around him – and has been briefed against to the US press.

His is an unenviable position, despite appearances. For the US to be without a coherent foreign policy strategy in the face of the complexities of the Islamic world’s advance is no surprise. But for it to be quite so disabled points to an unusual degree of confusion in high places.

In August 2013 a White House spokesman declared that al-Qaeda was “severely diminished”. A mere two months later, the director of the FBI announced that “the threat posed by al-Qaeda has become hydra-headed”. Which? And as the Pax Americana recedes into the past, there is always an ostrich – in this case, Obama’s lightweight national security adviser, Susan Rice – to tell the American public that “US leadership”, as it grows frailer and as cuts to its military bite deeper, will “continue to be unrivalled”, and that the US “will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world”. Really?

But at the heart of US weakness is Obama himself. In foreign fields, his strategies – in so far as they can be identified – have been dithering, improvised and uncertain. He deserves a measure of sympathy: today’s Islam is the most redoubtable adversary to the American imperium it has ever faced, the challenge of the Comintern included.

In many of its theatres, the complexities, skills and deceits of the Muslim world would have bewildered a Machiavelli. In others, American wishful thinking can reach comic levels. When Bin Laden was killed in May 2011 al-Qaeda, declared Obama, was now a “shadow of its former self”, near “decapacitated”. In May 2012, similar illusions told him that the Taliban’s momentum had been “broken”; in November last year, that Iran’s “most likely paths to a bomb” had been “cut off” or (in faux-macho style) “rolled back”. And so on.

It is the wishful thinking of a man who is a non-belligerent at heart. In normal times this is a virtue. But these are not normal times: the US is playing a decreasingly significant role in the world’s conflicts, even as Islamist ambition and reach – despite the internecine hatreds in Muslim ranks – break new bounds.

This ambition grows more confident by the day, taking reverses in its stride. In the face of Obama’s risk-aversion (or idleness), Islamists make no bones about their aspiration for “mastership of the world”, as Mohamed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, put it in December 2011. Muslim (and not merely Islamist) disdain for “the west” is also growing; in July 2012, the speaker of the Iranian parliament des­cribed it as a “dark spot in the present era”.

Such confidence, or arrogance, is easily understood. For these are times in which conversions to Islam in western countries are accelerating. Today, one-quarter of humanity is Muslim. It is a proportion that is rising steadily, making possible a Muslim majority in Russia, for example, by the century’s end. To the marginalised and lost in free societies, Islam increasingly offers an identity, an ethic, and a home. In the eyes of the Muslim Brotherhood, America “does not champion moral and human values” and “cannot lead humanity”. Agree or not, it is clear that “freedom ’n’ liberty”, especially in the form of the “free market” with its crazed impulse to endless “growth”, will turn out one day to have been no match for the faith. Tony Blair’s anxious speech to Bloomberg the other day suggests that the big corporate interests that he represents are beginning to be aware of it.

To the aid of Islam has also come the betrayal by much of today’s left of its notionally humane principles, as Christians are assaulted and murdered (shades of what was done to the Jews in the 1930s) and their churches desecrated and destroyed from Egypt to the Central African Republic, from Iran to Indonesia, and from Pakistan to Nigeria. Islam can kill its own apostates, too; in many Muslim countries denies reciprocity to other faiths in rights of worship; and seeks to prevent reasoned discussion about its beliefs by attempted resort to blasphemy laws.

So where is the old left’s centuries-long espousal of free speech and free thought? Where is the spirit of Tom Paine? The answer is simple. It has been curbed by frightened self-censorship and by the stifling of debate, in a betrayal of the principles for which “progressives” were once prepared to go to the stake. And just as some Jews are too quick to call anti-Zionists “anti-Semites”,
so some leftists are too quick to tar critics of Islam as “Islamophobes”.

To add to such falsehoods come the illusionists of every stripe, with their unknowing, simplistic or false descriptions of Islam as a “religion of peace”. Even today’s Pope – as the Christian faithful were being harried, persecuted or put to the sword in Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and beyond – told the world in November 2013 that “authentic Islam and the proper reading of the Quran are opposed to every form of violence”. But read the text yourself, and you will see that jihadists can find plenty justification for the acts they commit, even if most Muslims are pacific.

Karl Marx was wiser than the Pope. In March 1854, he wrote that for “Islamism” – the word was already in use – “the Infidel is the enemy” and that the Quran “treats all foreigners as foes”.

The present renaissance of Islam, additionally provoked, as ever, by western aggressions against its lands, is an old story of swift movement and conquest, as in the 7th century. Is something like it stirring again? Perhaps; you decide. In 50 years’ time the world will know for sure.

David Selbourne is a political philosopher and commentator. “The Losing Battle With Islam” is published by Prometheus Books

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

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After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

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The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater