The Pestilence of Rabid Nationalism


Jakob De Roover and Sarika Rao

Nationalism is the ultimate pestilence that has destroyed the flower of our European culture. Thus wrote the Austrian-Jewish author Stefan Zweig in his 1942 memoirs. Zweig sent the manuscript to the publisher the day before he and his wife committed suicide. They simply could not live with what was happening to Europe.

It would take years before the European nation-states saw that Zweig was right. After 1945, many opened their eyes to the ravages of nationalism. This should never happen again, they felt. Some of the nation-states embarked on an exciting experiment: the unification of Europe, in which they surrendered part of their sovereignty without any violence and gradually entwined their economies, even though the same nations had tried to destroy each other some years before. While the world wars had created gaping holes in Europe’s cultural consciousness, she could still dream of a world that would finally realize her ideals. All men would one day become brothers under the sway of the wings of joy, the European anthem suggested.

The national interest

Meanwhile, someting very different was happening across the Atlantic. After 1945, the Cold War began. Together with its military technology, the United States of America developed a most potent poison: rabid nationalism. Typical of this form of nationalism is its foreign policy. While critics accused the US of imperialism, they were wrong. In the era of the colonial empires, some European leaders always stood up to argue that the general interest of the Empire should override the particular interests of their own countries. Rabid nationalism, in contrast, subordinates everything to ‘the national interest’ and ‘national security’. Because of this tendency, it acquires several very harmful properties.

Even when a people initially fights for important ideals, it begins to betray these once it gets caught in the claws of rabid nationalism. After the experience of the Second World War and the crucial victory over Nazism, the US wanted to safeguard the freedom of other nations by protecting them against ‘totalitarianism’. Because of the absolute priority given to the national interest, however, this ideal soon lost its force and its credibility. More and more, it served as a mask for subordinating the entire world to the alleged interest of the American nation.

For a nation-state suffering from rabid nationalism, everything seems allowed to advance its interest. This was also the case in the US: it destabilized democratically elected governments through infiltration and violence. It organized coups and brought dictators to power. Whenever this was considered opportune, the American government provided weapons to guerrilla movements or gave support to regimes sponsoring terrorism. Its spies were often given a blank cheque. In other words, the foreign policy of rabid nationalism involves systematic violations of international law and elementary ethics.

This type of foreign politics shows similarities with another phenomenon: that of terrorism. In what sense? As our research group has been arguing, the core of terrorism lies in the fact that it transforms crime into supererogation (the realm of actions that go above and beyond the call of duty). Crimes become heroic acts. Terrorists kill but they experience their actions as expressions of an extraordinary morality that goes far beyond ordinary obligations. Basically, they equate the act of a man who saves a drowning child and dies while doing so (because he could not swim) to the acts of men who walk into a school and randomly shoot children. In their eyes, these are exemplary actions of the type that only the saints and heroes of this world are able to perform.

In other words, terrorism makes the criminal into the praiseworthy. And this is just what rabid nationalism also does. In the name of the national interest, it does not simply approve of illegal and immoral acts, but also transforms these into extraordinary moral achievements. Thus, the US kept miraculously converting its disastrous foreign policy into the generous gifting of freedom and security to a world living under threat.

Symbiosis with terrorism

Given this fundamental similarity between the two phenomena, rabid nationalism feeds terrorism in the countries upon which it lets loose its foreign policy. Among local movements and regimes, it encourages a tendency that is often already present: transforming their own misdeeds into heroic acts committed in the name of some cause or the other. In the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, these movements began to call upon Islam to justify this move. Their self-image told them that they were the representatives of the Muslim nation fighting a war against the enemies of God and the forces of evil.

Terrorism and rabid nationalism may seem to be antithetical forces, but in fact they live in symbiosis.

Just as one feeds on the other, the reverse is also the case. For instance, it was not a coincidence that – in the aftermath of 9/11 – the American president and his advisors accepted the self-image of the terrorists. They joined the latter in an alleged war, thinking that it would be a piece of cake to win it. When Bush said “you’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror,” Osama Bin Laden agreed, simply adding that the terrorists were the Western crusaders. In response to the threats of terrorism, leaders like Bush and Blair once again sold immorality as exceptional morality. They systematically lied to their own population, allegedly to protect the world order. In the meantime, we have learnt how their disastrous interventions in Iraq helped destroy that order.

And thus we come to the world of today. The ISIS terrorists also see themselves as heroes that fight valiantly and not as criminals that murder. They claim to represent the caliphate, the nation of all true Muslims which they aim to realize here on earth. They think they are extraordinary ‘radical’ fighters, capable of unseen courage and sacrifice, who seem to be mad in the eyes of ordinary people. And the West has not only embraced this story, but also shouts it from the rooftops: they are ‘radicalized Muslims’, ‘psychopaths’, ‘madmen’, ‘fanatics’ …

What we are witness to in Paris is not just the attempt of the terrorists to extend the battlefield of their so-called war, but their growing success in executing their agenda. “France is in a state of war,” the French government proclaims and public opinion confirms. In the name of the nation and her values, François Hollande plans to restrict constitutional rights for which the French people fought for centuries. In the meantime, he is proudly sending off jetfighters to bomb cities in Syria, closing the borders with other Schengen-countries, declaring a months-long state of emergency, and investing heavily into the intelligence services. Now, such measures are explicitly described as the goals of the terrorists in their handbooks and propaganda videos; they are manifestations of the symbiosis between terrorism and rabid nationalism.

The ideologues

It is difficult to miss the fact that rabid nationalism has now infected Europe. Calling upon the values of freedom and the rule of law, we are busy violating those values – all of this for ‘national security’ and ‘the national interest’. Yet, decades of experience of the US have shown that these notions are not only incoherent but also tremendously harmful: almost everything the Americans did in name of their nationalist interest has turned against them and made the world unsafer than before. How could so many of us remain blind to this, all this time? Why do our politicians and intellectuals lack the integrity to fight this massive deception?

To understand, we need to introduce another dimension of rabid nationalism: it destroys the search for knowledge about human beings and replaces it by ideology. The US did this during the Cold War. The government pumped huge amounts of money into the universities in order to produce academics ready to sell the American ideology of ‘freedom’. Thousands of academics were on the CIA’s payroll. In all kinds of disciplines, they launched projects abhorrent to any human being with a minimal moral consciousness. Psychologists, for instance, used psychiatric patients as guinea pigs in experiments that aimed to create methods for manipulating the human mind; they also helped to develop torture techniques. Until very recently, the American Psychological Association (APA) actively endorsed and contributed to such work, as a damning report recently showed. The secret services infiltrated research institutions and student associations across the globe. And dramatically: critical academics also substituted ideology for knowledge, simply preferring the ideology of ‘political correctness’.

The role of the ideologues is as clear in rabid nationalism as it is in terrorism: they must try and transform the factual world into an imaginary world. Once the universities had produced enough of them, they could spread into society. In politics, they became ‘spin doctors’; in the academic world, ‘professors’; in the media, ‘top journalists’; in the world of business, ‘advertising experts’. All of them share the same property: they are not interested in what things are really like, but in how things are seen. Politicians should be seen as ‘firm and strong leaders’ and as ‘good administrators’ by the voters; universities are companies that require ‘branding’; the media is interested only in ratings. Advertising experts are at least honest: they admit that they are willing to tell any story to sell their products.


Today, Europe is importing the symbiosis between rabid nationalism and terrorism at an accelerated pace. In France, we see how Hollande’s advisors whisper into his ear that he should come across as ‘firm’, ‘strong’, ‘efficient’, and ‘unafraid’ in the eyes of the French people. In Belgium, we are imitating in silly ways what the rest of the Western world teaches us. We have our own ‘strong’ and ‘firm’ politicians who want to go to war with ‘Muslim extremism’. In the words of our Minister of Home Affairs, they are going to ‘clean up’ entire neighbourhoods by checking each house for potential radicals and terrorists. The leader of the Flemish nationalists, the largest party in Belgium, is now demanding a kind of patriot act for the country. These politicians say that everyday life should continue and that we should not allow the terrorists to sow fear, while they take measures that do this more successfully than any terrorist could dream of.


The success of rabid nationalism becomes clear when we consider the fact that the worst cases are not even found in nationalist circles. Our own paragon is a socialist named Hans Bonte, the mayor of the commune of Vilvoorde near Brussels. He endlessly repeats the same prattling about ‘radicalization’. Without any advice from the qualified institutions, he unilaterally raises the threat level of his town to four (the highest level, comparable to a state of emergency) and shuts down the schools. He is a good student of the Americans, whose workshops trained him well in the art of parroting: he pleads for a ‘war on weapons’ in Brussels – undoubtedly as intelligent as Reagan’s ‘war on drugs’ and Bush’s ‘war on terror’, two of the great political failures of recent times. But then, as the spin doctors say: you should appear in the media as frequently as possible to get votes.

Europe is also increasingly busy creating its own collection of ideologues. University professors are always prepared to come and sell clichés about ‘radicalization’ and ‘the war against terrorism and extremism’ in television studios. What the media love perhaps most of all is to produce academics with names that suggest a Muslim origin, who should then represent a ‘moderate’ standpoint. Such ‘radicalization experts’ have sprung up like mushrooms in the past year or so.

However, by seeing ‘radicalization’ as the challenge we are facing, a most insidious danger creeps in: we are accepting the self-image of the terrorists, namely their claim that they are the radical representatives of true Islam. In this way, rabid nationalism will find its opponent in another nation: ‘the true Muslim nation of the caliphate’. This is the model that ISIS wants to impose on the world; it is also the model that European nationalists and racists will endorse in the coming years; together they will actualize it.

The flower of our culture

‘A world of terror demands strong measures’, people love to say today, ‘and what is your alternative?’ Well, what we are doing now is to add the pestilence of rabid nationalism to the poison of terrorism. We are happily feeding the symbiosis between these two that has caused so much harm to the world. The alternative for swallowing poison is clear: stop doing so; find out which poison it is and how it works; then find an antidote and take that in the right quantities.

The question that stares us Europeans in the face must be clear: Will we let rabid nationalism poison the flower of our culture, this time for good? Shall we leave to our children a Europe that is the battlefield of an alleged war between ‘the worldwide Muslim nation’ and our own ‘democratic nations’? Or will we do honour to the statesmen and -women who strove towards the unification of Europe after the ravages of nationalism, to the achievements of our ancestors, to the ideals of freedom for which they fought, to the magnificent beauty of our own culture?

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