Poised as I am, halfway between the two cultures, it was a little strange watching British reactions to events in America last week. It was a little strange even being in Britain last week. On Tuesday after hijacked planes had hit targets in Washington, where my family live, and New York, where most of my friends live, I was standing in Bond Street, dialling and redialling their numbers on my mobile telephone, unable to get through.
Cut off from America, I was nevertheless surrounded by goodwill. A saleswoman, hearing an American accent, asked quietly if I’d managed to talk to my parents. A Pakistani taxi driver, teary-eyed, offered his condolences. An American friend told me he had received a sympathy card from his downstairs neighbours, whom he barely knows. The political response was no less immediate: Tony Blair spoke of standing “shoulder to shoulder” with America, and Iain Duncan Smith echoed him.
The initial goodwill did not last. Within about 36 hours, I began to detect the beginnings of a second reaction, less widespread, but very distinct. In The Guardian, Seumas Milne wrote of the “unabashed national egotism and arrogance that drives anti-Americanism among swaths of the world’s population”. While hastily declaring that his organisation did not support terrorism, a member of the British Green Party told the Today programme that it was possible to understand the “logic” behind the attacks. As if to prove that the Right is no less immune to such sentiments than the Left, Andrew Alexander, the veteran Daily Mail columnist, after explaining that he means in no way to justify terrorism (reminiscent of those who say “I-am-no-racist-but . . .”) then went on to denounce the “self-sought imperial role” of the United States, which he said had rightly “made it enemies of every sort across the globe”.
There are a few of these enemies in Britain too, but they enjoy a disproportionate amount of media space. The BBC edition of Question Time on Thursday night featured one of the most sustained attacks on America that anyone has seen on British television in a long time. The former US ambassador to Britain, Phil Lader, seemed near tears as he was asked questions about the “millions and millions of people around the world despising the American nation”. This to a man who, as an adviser to Morgan Stanley, the World Trade Centre-based bank, had just lost many colleagues in the disaster. The hostile audience was (in the words of one of the many who complained to the BBC about the programme) full of “anti-American fanatics”, among them a large number of ordinary, apparently well-educated non-fundamentalist British Muslims.
In fact, these are the first few skirmishes in the ideological battle which is still to come. Others have pointed out that when Mr Blair announced that Britain would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the Americans, he might not have realised the full financial and military implications of what he was promising. But it is equally true that he might not have understood the scope of the imminent war of cultures in which he will have no choice but to play a very large role.
This isn’t the death of the Diana, Princess of Wales, a public occasion on which fine words impress everybody for a few days, and then don’t much matter in the weeks that follow, The United States is now going to launch an international war against international terrorism. Like the Cold War, it is a war that may last for months, years, or even generations: no one should be so naive as to think that the mere elimination of Osama bin Laden, if that even proves possible, will prevent his sons and grandsons from trying to emulate his success. Like the Cold War, it will involve more than one battle: Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, has already spoken of fighting not just the terrorists but the governments which hide them. Like the Cold War, it will also require the United States to ask its allies for men, weapons, and intelligence skills. Britain, because of its history and geography, may be asked to contribute a great deal, to sacrifice both its soldiers and the peace of its citizens, who may well be the next victims of terrorist attack. Just as there was opposition to British participation in the Cold War, so too will there be opposition to British participation in the war against terrorism. It isn’t hard to see where it will come from. Of course I realise that the anti-globalisation movement and Islamic fundamentalism have completely different origins and different goals, not to mention different kinds of supporters. Nevertheless, the anti-globalist critique of American cultural imperialism, international capitalism, and the hypocrisy of bourgeois democracy does sound, at times, startlingly like what comes out of the mouths of bin Laden and his ilk. When Mr Blair attempts to rally the British people for action against Afghanistan or Iraq, expect the anti-globalists, along with their friends in the press and on the Labour backbenches, to demonstrate in the way that they do at anti-world-trade gatherings – violently.
Equally, I am well aware that the Muslim community in Britain has been virtually united in its heartfelt denunciations of the terrorist attacks in America. Nevertheless, if Britain is to sustain a war against a part of the Islamic world, it is hard to imagine all of them remaining staunch supporters of that war indefinitely. This newspaper, along with several others, received a disturbing letter this week from a librarian at an English school, who saw a group of mostly Pakistani children cheering, punching the air, and mocking the American national anthem, upon hearing the news of the terror. Such incidents may now be unusual but if the war against terrorism takes the form of open fighting with Islamic nations, they may become more numerous and more sustained. There will be others who join them, including the Right-wing British isolationists, such as Mr Alexander, less frequently described but no less entrenched than their American counterparts, who will be bitterly opposed to any sort of British overseas involvement in what they see as a purely American quarrel.
It might not seem the case at the moment, but the anti-globalist Left, the isolationist Right, and the anti-American British Muslims have powerful voices in the British media, and more support in the higher reaches of the political establishment than one might initially imagine. Just because sympathy for America is widespread, that doesn’t mean that all anti-Americanism has disappeared for good. If Mr Blair really believes, as I do, that the events of September 11 represented not just an attack on the United States, but an assault on the values of Western civilisation, then he must begin to argue the case for America, for global capitalism, and for Western values, starting today.