Persecuting religious state gives it power to inspire acts in its name.

We'd almost forgotten until reading the tributes to Muhammad Ali last week that back in the 1960s he gave his allegiance to something called "The Nation of Islam". We didn't give it much thought at the time either.

I remember being heartily disappointed that he had changed his name. At school, we'd just come to love him, having been appalled at his skiting and dismayed that it had earned him a shot at the title. But he had put up and now had no need to shut up. Boxing had a fresh, cheeky new face and it was delightful.

Then he joined the "Black Muslims", as the press called them, and renounced that euphonic name Cassius Clay for the incongruous Muhammad Ali. Anybody less like my image of a Muslim I couldn't imagine. I couldn't see him on his prayer mat, forehead on the floor five time a day.

But thereafter I didn't give it another thought. Even in recent years, when we have been given murderous cause to wonder how a strict, abstemious Middle Eastern religion could possibly inspire anyone in the West, we'd forgotten about the "Nation of Islam".


Google it today and you find it breaks the cardinal rule of Islam by claiming its founder to be an incarnation of God. That's heresy and the position of heretics is worse than that of infidels under Sharia law, I think. But no matter, it is probably the "Nation" that appeals to disaffected minds rather than the Islam. I'm not talking about that particular organisation, I'm just borrowing its name to make a general point.

In the West we have forgotten that religion can be somebody's "nationality", that is to say, their most important personal identity. Westerners in the Middle Ages understood this better than we do. Religion was their primary identity and they fought over it. But now we have been living in nation states for so long that it is hard to think of nationality except as an identification with the state.

Everybody needs an identity beyond their individuality. If they don't feel part of the state that governs them, or the state is manifestly failing, they will identify with something more important to them, possibly ethnicity, possibly a religion without necessarily being doctrinal about it. That is what has occurred in Islamic countries, I think.

Arab states are manifestly failing, and have been failing ever since the collapse of the Turkish empire that ruled them for 400 years until World War I. It is 100 years ago this year since the Western Allies, with a New Zealand mounted division to the fore, made common cause with an Arab revolt and drove the Turks out of Egypt, Iraq and Palestine.

World War I was a triumph of nation states over multi-national empires everywhere except the Middle East. The day after the Allies took Jerusalem Britain and France carved the region up for their own ends, oil and the creation of a state for European Jews, another example of nationality identified by religion.

A religious heritage does not require practice or even belief to be a source of national identity for those who share it. Like any national identity, it thrives on persecution. This is what Donald Trump doesn't understand. If he banned Islamic immigration "until we figure out what is going on" he will have sent many more immigrants already in the West into the refuge of their religion before he realised what was going on, if he ever did.

Trump is a Godsend for the "Islamic State". It will want to do all it can to see him elected and massacres like that in Orlando last weekend will greatly assist him. But the fact that the perpetrator was so clearly acting on his own initiative, with a motive probably more homophobic than nationalist, indicates how weak the reach of Isis really is.

But it doesn't need to do more than inspire such crimes to cause the sort of reaction that will strengthen the Islamic identity of migrants everywhere. Donna Miles-Mojab is a young Iranian immigrant who appears in the Herald frequently. She is not religious, she is a socialist who would much prefer to be writing against free markets and inequality in New Zealand but wrote yesterday of how events are forcing her to embrace her Islamic heritage.

These crimes in America tend not to linger in the news unless they appear to be Isis-inspired, then they become "terror". Orlando, despite the number killed, has not dominated the news this week quite as much as previous acts of "terror" have done. Perhaps we are no longer as surprised by them, which could help. The more we treat them as simply the deranged crimes they are, the more quickly this nonsense might pass.