The A-Z of Believing: N is for Nationalism

When religion turns patriotic... Ed Kessler, head of the Woolf Institute, presents the latest part in a series on belief and scepticism

Tuesday 04 December 2018 11:47 GMT
Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is’
Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is’ (Shutterstock/agsandrew)

Those who say religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion is. - Mahatma Gandhi

The relationship between religion and the nation state depends as much on their relative status and power as on theological perspectives and principles. Although religious nationalism is sometimes given less attention than other forms of nationalism, we regularly hear of nation states riven with religiously motivated tension and conflict.

And this is not simply a modern phenomenon. While the Roman Empire accorded Jews legal status and granted certain concessions, such as to substitute prayer for the emperor for participation in the imperial cult, early Christianity appeared to the Romans to be an illegal association, an illicit cult. Yet, when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 379, a dramatic reversal took place and Christianity exercised civil and religious power, often to the detriment of Jews, until the 18th century Age of Enlightenment.

Until then, religious minorities defined themselves in terms of their shared laws, values, and beliefs. If and when they had to move, they would take their laws, values and beliefs with them. It was not so much territory that defined their identity, but a way of life, a role played by religion. It was common to move freely between one territory and another, alternating between languages, without significantly losing any sense of belonging to the same community. The rise of the nation-state changed this by privileging territorial identity and, normally, a single language.

At the same time as planting the seeds for nationalism, the Enlightenment challenged the intellectual assumptions of religion and the political role of the Church. Enlightenment notions about equality as well as nationhood came to the fore. Politicians wanted to create a unified state, populated by one people or ethnos. They hoped that removing legal restrictions would promote assimilation and that minorities would disappear into a nation with a single identity and a shared narrative. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

For those outside the national churches there can be a feeling of exclusion, undermining co-existence, especially when national identity is defined so tightly...

A characteristic of nationalism today is that multiple forms of identity, such as ethnic and religious, are once again coming to the fore, demonstrated by the demands of minority national groups for separate rights, such as the Scottish Nationalists in the (still) United Kingdom, or the Catalans in Spain. Of course, a common national identity does not, in theory, contradict multiple sources of identity, sometimes called a hybrid identity. There is no reason why a person cannot be Québécois and Canadian, or Scottish and British, or in terms of religion, Muslim and French, Christian and Egyptian, or Jewish and Indian.

But demands for greater religious autonomy are raising the political temperature. Witness in Europe pressure on minority groups to conform to European customs, for example on dress in France (Muslims in particular) and restrictions on religious slaughter of animals in Holland (Muslims and Jews). In Greece, the Orthodox Church is intrinsically associated with Greek identity; and Russian patriotism is bound closely with belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church. For those outside the national churches there can be a feeling of exclusion, undermining co-existence, especially when national identity is defined so tightly as to exclude “the Other”.

Beyond Europe, India – home to the world’s second-largest population, more than 1.2 billion people, 80 per cent Hindu – has not escaped this trend. Increasingly resurgent Hindu nationalism depicts Hindus as people who possess a common fatherland, blood, civilisation and holy land. Unsurprisingly, Indian Muslims and Christians feel increasingly marginalised, reinforced by Prime Minister Modi’s distinctive version of Indian history: one in which a glorious Hindu past is violated by foreigners, notably the Mughals (Muslims) and the British (Christians).

Similarly, the Middle East and the Gulf religion is viewed as constitutive of national consciousness. Zionism for example, poses many questions including how this piece of contested real estate should be described: Israel? Palestine? The Holy Land? The Promised Land? In the Arab world, must an Arab be a Muslim, or in Israel, an Israeli a Jew? Answered in the affirmative, Christians and Jews can no longer be Arabs, and Christians and Muslims, Israelis. Such a philosophy supports prejudice and discrimination, not to mention tension and conflict.

It also ignores 1,500 years of the existence of religious minorities and some of these predate Christianity and Islam. Yazidis go back to Mesopotamia. Aramaic, the language of Jesus, continues to be spoken in villages near Damascus. The entire mediaeval Jewish philosophy was developed entirely within an Arab Islamic milieu. And the name “Copt” derives from the ancient Greek word for Egyptians, demonstrating that Coptic Christianity was the continuation of the earliest Egyptian culture.

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Returning closer to home, it took European societies hundreds of years (and counting) to establish the nation state but tensions remain, demonstrated by the persistence of xenophobia and racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia. Like elsewhere, therefore, Europe still has work to do to uncover the most appropriate relationship between religion and the nation state.

Next week: O is for Occult

Listen to each episode of ‘An A-Z of Believing: from Atheism to Zealotry’ on the Woolf Institute podcast site or wherever you get your podcasts.

Written and presented by Dr Ed Kessler MBE, founder and director of the Cambridge-based Woolf Institute, this compelling guide to religious belief and scepticism is a must-read for believers and nonbelievers alike.

Founded in 1998 to explore the relationship between religion and society, the Woolf Institute uses research and education to foster understanding between people of all beliefs with the aim of reducing prejudice and intolerance.

Says Dr Kessler: “Latest surveys suggest that 85 per cent of the world’s population identify themselves as belonging to a specific religion, and in many parts of the world the most powerful actors in civil society are religious. Understanding religion and belief, the role they play and their impact on behaviour and decision-making is, therefore, vital.”

Dr Kessler, who was awarded an MBE for services to interfaith relations in 2011, is an affiliated lecturer with the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, a principal of the Cambridge Theological Federation and additionally teaches at the Cambridge Muslim College.

He says: “This A-Z of Believing aims to show how the encounter between religions has influenced and been influenced by the evolution of civilisation and culture, both for good and for ill. I hope that a better understanding of believing will lead people to realise that while each religion is separate, they are also profoundly connected.”

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