Religious Nationalism Research Paper

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According to a widely held view, ‘nationalism’ is an aspect of the process of secularization, which limits the role of religious ideas and institutions in public life. Religious nationalism is therefore considered inimical to the ‘secular state,’ which is uninvolved with or neutral in religious matters. Empirical evidence however, reveals, that the relationship is complex and context sensitive. This research paper examines this complexity with special reference to South Asia where the two kinds of nationalism have long been in conflict and where both secular and religious states exist. Comparative perspectives from the West and the Middle East help frame the argument.

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1. European Origins Of Nationalism And Its Diffusion

Although emphases differ, definitions of nationalism generally converge on the idea of a people’s identification of themselves as a ‘nation’ that already is, or is expected to become, an autonomous state with its own territory. Moreover, the individual’s emotional identification with the nation, and loyalty to the state, are of crucial importance. They find expression in the ideology of nationalism, which is a blueprint for the capture and use of political power for furthering common interests.

It has been argued that without nationalism there would be no nations or nation-states—that nationalism ‘invents nations where they do not exist’ (Gellner 1964, p. 169) and holds them together where they do. It is recalled that in Western Europe, the eighteenth century marked not only ‘the dawn of the age of nationalism,’ but also ‘the dusk of religious modes of thought’ (Anderson 1983). Ironically, secular nationalism everywhere, since the French Revolution, has displayed the characteristics of a religion both structurally (doctrine, myth, ritual, etc., are present) and functionally (an overarching moral order is provided). This is illustrated by the growth of ‘civil religion’ in America (Bellah 1970), transforming a historically developed national political system into a moral order.

In the articulation of nationalism, particular dimensions of collective identity (geographical, historical, cultural, or ethnic), or particular combinations of them, are highlighted. These emphases are variable not only from place to place, but also over time in the same place. One of the identity makers everywhere is religion, but religious nationalism is considered an anomaly, and not seen to be the most suitable cultural setting for a modern secular state in which individual identity is clothed in citizenship rights that override religious and ethnic distinctions.

One of the key questions about nationalism concerns its beginnings. Some scholars have argued for a Western European origin, whereas others maintain that England was the first modern nation ever. Still others consider North America to be its true place of efflorescence: the notion of the nation was implicit in that of ‘the people’ in the Declaration of Independence and is central to the American Constitution of 1789. Its inspiration is said to have been a unique combination of secularization, industrialization, capitalism, print technology, etc., that ‘created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation’ (Anderson 1983, p. 49).

The Western origins and secular character of nationalism have been questioned. Kohn (1955) argued for Hebrew and Greek origins of the concept 2000 years ago, but affirmed that, as a fully fledged ideology, it came into play in England in the seventeenth century. Hastings has written that the Bible presented ‘in Israel itself a developed model of what it means to be a nation—a unity of people, language, religion, territory, and government’ (Hastings 1997, p. 18). For him the nation and its ideology are ‘characteristically Christian things’ (Hastings 1997, p. 186).

One of the many strands of Hastings’ argument is that since Christianity did not have a sacred language, the availability of the Bible for translation and the activities of the local clergy in different parts of Europe resulted in the fostering of a ‘sense of shared local, provincial, or national identity’ (Hastings 1997, p. 192). He maintains that nations and nationalism outside the Christian world bear witness to the ‘imitation of the Christian world,’ although the mimesis may be regarded as westernization (Hastings 1997, p. 186). According to Hastings, while ‘Christianity has of its nature been a shaper of nations, even of nationalism; Islam has not, being on the contrary quite profoundly anti-national’ (Hastings 1997, p. 187). Orthodoxy notwithstanding, Muslims have embraced nationalism in many places in the twentieth century, e.g., in Turkey, where it appeared as a secular ideology in the 1920s, and in India, where religious nationalism became the basis for the partition of the subcontinent.

2. Secular And Religious Nationalism In South Asia

2.1 India, Pakistan And Bangaladesh

For 100 years, beginning in the middle of the eighteenth century, British colonial territories in the Indian subcontinent expanded steadily through conquest and annexation. An image of Indians as a congeries of religious communities, castes, and tribes was assiduously cultivated. District gazetteers, compendiums of tribes and castes, and census reports recorded the divisions among the people. Such divisiveness was welcome from the colonial point of view as it helped strengthen the hold of the alien ruling power.

Ironically, however, British rule itself helped regenerate an Indian national consciousness, a prototype of which had been discernible in the heyday of the Mughal empire (seventeenth century). Establishment of law and order under the aegis of a centralized authority structure, in place of the chaotic conditions that characterized the disintegration of that empire in the first half of the eighteenth century, was one such major factor. Also important were the introduction of railways, postal and telegraph services, education through the medium of English modeled on British schools and colleges, and newspapers in the nineteenth century. Resentment over the denigration of India’s cultural heritage as ‘an unmixed evil’ (Henry Maine’s phrase) by civil servants and Christian missionaries helped create a shared sense of common identity vis-a-vis the British. By the 1870s, ‘a feeling of nationality,’ in the words of a colonial magistrate, ‘had sprung up in India’ (see Mehrotra 1971, p. 144).

One of the main objectives of the Indian National Congress, established in 1885, was ‘the fuller development and consolidation’ of ‘sentiments of national unity’ (Mehrotra 1971, p. 413). The fact that it was attended by delegates from virtually all parts of the country, who included Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, and Christians, seemed credible evidence of (as a newspaper put it) ‘the existence of something like a nation in India’ (Mehrotra 1971, p. 419). Indeed, a year later, the highest British official in India, viceroy Dufferin, wrote of his sympathy for ‘the aspirations of a nation so similarly circumstanced as my own [the Irish]’ (Mehrotra 1971, p. 398).

The secular character of the Congress soon came under severe strain owing to the refusal of certain prominent Muslim leaders of northern India to join it. The position of the Congress was that ‘the common benefit’ of the people of India transcended the interests of any particular community, and that the two sets of interests were not necessarily in conflict. The emergence of secular nationalism had been preceded by the assertion of a sense of common nationality among Hindus, overriding significant regional and sectarian differences among them. Many of them brought residues of Hindu nationalism into the Congress strengthening Muslim fears.

Muslim separatism led to the formation of the Muslim League in 1906 with the aim of furthering the community’s interests. In the course of time the viewpoints of the Congress and the League came to be designated as ‘nationalism’ and ‘communalism,’ respectively. Whereas the former considered territorial unity the crucial element of nationalism, the latter considered it irrelevant in Indian conditions and focused on religious identity.

The foregoing antagonism eventually led to the ‘theory’ that Hindus and Muslims were two nations, irreconcilably divided by history and culture, and each legitimately aspiring to be a nation-state. British rule ended in 1947 with the partition of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan. India created for itself a secular state in which citizenship rights stand above ascribed identities. Contrary to the stated secularist views of its founder, M. A. Jinnah (died 1948), Pakistan was proclaimed an Islamic state where traditional Islamic law would have precedence over other laws, and where Sunni Muslims emerged as the privileged community.

Pakistan was a unique state as it comprised two wings separated by 1,000 miles of Indian territory. The fragility of religious nationalism became obvious within a year of its founding in the context of a lingua franca. The people of East Pakistan, who accounted for more than half of the country’s population, resisted the declaration of Urdu, the mother tongue of the urban Muslims of northern India, as the national language. Bengali was therefore accorded the status of the second language. Culture and language became rallying symbols for discontented East Pakistanis, who increasingly complained of economic exploitation and denial of political rights at the hands of a succession of ‘central’ governments that had their seat in West Pakistan and were dominated by the natives of that wing.

Eventually, Pakistan split in 1971, and a new nationstate, Bangladesh, came into existence. Bangladesh adopted a constitution that was secular in character. The original considerations that legitimized partition in 1947 survive, however, and are exploited by some political parties. Islamization of Bangaladesh’s national culture, and the constitutional redefinition of the state as one that derives its legitimacy from Allah, emphasize the obstacles that confront the secular state in South Asia.

It has been argued that the enormous cultural and religious diversities of India necessitate a pluralist ethos and the secular state, and indeed guarantee them. The Constitution (Article 25) grants every citizen the fundamental right to profess, practice, and propagate the religion of her or his choice. It also prohibits discrimination between one citizen and another on the basis of religion. All major political parties that have held power at the state or union (federal) levels uphold the concept of the secular state. One of them, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is widely considered communal in view of its following, which is virtually exclusively Hindu, and its adherence to the ideology of Hindutva ( lit. ‘Hinduness’). Originally put forward in 1923 (BJP itself is a postindependence party), Hindutva equates Indian identity with Hindu identity, and defines the latter in terms of a combination of territorial and cultural criteria (fatherland and holy land should be one). The ideology points to political domination through cultural homogenization, and is hostile to pluralism. BJP emerged as the leading partner in the coalition union government that was formed in 1998. The exigencies of coalition politics have resulted in the de-emphasizing of Hindutva but not its abandonment by BJP. The ideology is synonymous with religious nationalism and therefore a threat to the secular state.

2.2 Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan Constitution also is broadly secular in character. Although a 1972 constitutional amendment recognized ‘the foremost place’ of Buddhism as the religion of the majority, there is no state religion, nor discrimination in respect of citizenship rights between the followers of different faiths (Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity). The fact that the ethnic Sinhalese constitute 70% of the population and are Buddhists has been a source of communal strife and has imposed severe pressures on the state.

Beginning in 1953, when the call for replacing the secular state by a Buddhist one was first made, politically organized Sinhalese have carried on campaigns against the Tamils of the northern and northeastern regions of the country (mainly Hindus and Christians) for their secessionist ambitions (the Tamils in turn complain of Sinhalese domination) and against a succession of governments for not being sufficiently responsive to Sinhalese aspirations. Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, a convert from Christianity to Buddhism and more sympathetic to such aspirations than his predecessors, was nevertheless assassinated in 1959 by a Buddhist monk. Altogether the Sinhalese nationalists won many concessions during the 1960s and 1970s.

A watershed in the ethnic strife was the countrywide anti-Tamil upheaval of 1983 that had its epicenter in Colombo. It followed the killing of a dozen Sinhalese soldiers by Tamil militants. By official count several hundred Tamils were killed; the Tamils claimed that thousands died. Sinhalese militancy represented by Janatha Vimukhti Peramuna (JVP; People’s Liberation Front) was eventually brought under control in 1989–90 by President Premadasa (himself a Buddhist) through accommodation of sections of the Buddhist leadership and ruthless suppression of JVP cadres. But he, too, paid with his life for his resistance to the secessionist movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( Nation).

3. Comparative Perspectives

The conflict between religious nationalism and the secular state is vividly illustrated by the wide range of events in South Asia in the second half of the twentieth century. Religious nationalisms are present elsewhere too in confrontation with a secular state or in association with a religious state that is modern in some of its objectives (economic development, political stability) and methods (elective government).

The Iranian Revolution of 1978 established an Islamic state after overthrowing the modernist regime of the Shah. The earlier ouster of King Farooq of Egypt in 1952 had been followed by the establishment of a secular government under Gamel Nasser, which set out to suppress religious nationalist groups such as the Islamic Brotherhood. Although his successor, Anwar Sadat, made many concessions in their favor, he died at the hands of Muslim extremists. Religious fundamentalism and nationalism are a considerable combined force, but President Mubarak has so far succeeded in holding it at bay. In Turkey, too, the secular state founded by Kemal Ataturk remains intact but religious revival has made significant inroads into Turkish society and nationalism. Although the patterns vary, religious nationalism today is a force to reckon with among the Muslim nations.

Religious nationalism played a significant role in the disintegration of the former USSR and the emancipation of East European countries from totalitarian socialist regimes. It obviously is not an essentially reactionary force in all circumstances. The comparative perspective brings into question many assumptions about the western origins and secular foundations of nationalism. Religious nationalism is a mixture of diverse elements, not all of which are present everywhere. Some of them are in principle unexceptionable, such as the emphasis on the moral dimensions of political behavior. The overall record of religious nationalists, however, is marked by their opposition to pluralism, which is one of the primary conditions of humane governance, particularly in ethnically plural societies.


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