May 31, 2003


Historians Trace an Unholy Alliance: Religion and Nationalism (ALEXANDER STILLE, 5/31/03, NY Times)
When Shiite Muslims in Iraq took to the streets to protest the presence of American troops as well as Saddam Hussein, was the world witnessing the birth of nationalism? When President Bush used the term crusade to describe the war on terrorism, was he inadvertently revealing religious roots in American patriotism? In short, is religious sentiment, long considered the prime enemy of nationalism, actually one of its founding elements?

This iconoclastic theory has been gaining ground among historians. Until recently, there was a growing scholarly consensus that nationalism was a distinctly modern phenomenon, a product of post-Enlightenment culture. Public celebrations of the Fatherland, the creation of national anthems and devotion to the flag all occurred in the wake of the French and American Revolutions. [...]

[P]eter Sahlins, a historian at the University of California at Berkeley, who is working on a book on the nature of citizenship in early modern France, says the idea that religious intolerance is the "original sin" of nationalism is getting more and more attention. "I think it's a healthy corrective to the modernist consensus," he said.

Mr. Sahlins notes that prevailing theories of nationalism have a way of following the mood of the times. When Serbs, Croats and Muslims were killing one another in the Balkans, many commentators originally pointed to the eternal and atavistic origins of ethnic violence, not recognizing that the different groups had lived in relative harmony under the Ottoman Empire and even under Tito.

"Now the context in which we see nationalism has completely changed," he said. Faced with the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, the West is more open to looking at the role of religion in the formation of nationalism. [...]

Linda Colley, a historian at the London School of Economics and the author of the 1992 book "Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837" (Yale University Press), agrees that religion is central to nationalism.

According to Ms. Colley and Mr. Marx, nationalism begins with an act of demonizing a religious "other" and creating a sense of community by defining an "us" and a "them." Recognizing this, they argue, may help Westerners better understand, for example, the contemporary phenomena of Islamic fundamentalism and Arab nationalism

Suddenly the incomprehensibility of yesterday's patriotism is nationalism essay becomes clearer. Note the oddity here of defining Islamicism/pan-Arabism as "nationalism". What nation?

Religious fundamentalism [or any universalist ideology, from liberalism (in the classic sense) to Marxism] may be problematic, but it is a far different problem than nationalism. It is the peculiar power of ideology that it can unite people across national borders--so, for instance, al Qaeda can see the "struggle" of a Mohammed Farah Aidid in Somalia and of a Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia and of an Abu Sayyaf in the Phillipines as its own, despite obvious national differences.

If you want to criticize religion, that's a reasonably good hook to hang your case on. But nationalism, particularly in its most virulent form, would appear to be a quite different beast, one based on a kind of tribalism, an identification of a given ethnicity as superior to others within and without the nation. Indeed, if we look for the likely wellspring of nationalism we could do worse than seek it in scientific materialism. If Darwin is right and even minor differences in genetic makeup render us significantly different than one another and therefore competitors for survival, then such ethnic hatreds are natural. But even if Darwinism overstates or misstates the case, so long as we accept it as true it can form the the perfect basis of ethnic hostility.

Unfortunately, the idea that the main alternative to religious belief is likewise responsible for violence between peoples hardly advances the Left's cause, so it would appear a sytstematic attempt is being made to simply redefine nationalism in a variety of dubious ways in order to escape its implications. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2003 9:05 AM
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