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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why Nationalism is Nothing but a Modern Religion

(First published on NewsYaps)

On a recent train journey, I happened to meet a fellow-traveller who was currently serving in the army as an odd-jobs man (he wasn’t very clear about what he did, but he wasn’t a combatant). Amongst other things, we discussed his experience of being posted at Siachen. As expected, his stay there was less than comfortable. The2003 ceasefire meant that there was peace but the ridiculously inhospitable terrain meant just living there is an ordeal. Of course, Saichen is an odd battlefield where climatic conditions kill more people than actual fighting. And all this over land that is nothing but a desert.
   
This got me thinking. The fact that nationalism, both Indian and Pakistani, drives men to such incredible lengths for so little is amazing. That these soldiers are ready to lay down their lives for a piece of land that is economically (and in every other way) worthless, is remarkable. And what’s more incredible is the banal acceptance of it all in popular discourse. Common Indians and Pakistanis, as well as the leaders on both sides see nothing grossly distorted in this incident. Such is the power of nationalism.

The only other comparable phenomenon which can drive humans to such lengths, if you think about it, is religion. Of course, that statement is somewhat tautological given that nationalism is nothing but a latter-day religion.

Unlike what proponents of New Atheism  such as Dawkins would have you believe, religion has a core role to fulfil in society as well as the personal lives of people. Most importantly it helps to answer (or at least give the illusion of answering) questions which explain (clich├ęd as it may sound) the meaning of life, as well as provide a reasoning (often false) as to why luck and chance play such a big, and often detrimental, role in our lives. To quote from Anderson’s seminal work on nationalism, Imagined Communities:

“The extraordinary survival over thousands of years of Buddhism, Christianity or Islam in dozens of different social formations attests to their imaginative response to the overwhelming burden of human suffering—disease, mutilation, grief, age, death....At the same time, in different ways, religious thought also responds to the obscure imitations of immortality, generally by transforming fatality into continuity (karma, original sin etc).”

However, the Enlightenment and the onset of the Age of Reason delegitimised traditional religion across a number of geographies, especially Europe. The questions that religion sought to answer, though, still remained. Into this vacuum steps nationalism, which gives man’s mortality a continuity and purpose, this time not in service of a god, dharma or other such explicitly “religious” concepts, but “for the nation”.

At this stage, it would be good to define religion. This is how Emile Durkheim, founder of sociology, defines it:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e., things set apart and forbidden--beliefs and practices which unite people into one single moral community

Note that nowhere in this definition is there the presence of a god, which might seem counter-intuitive. God, though, is very much incidental to the concept of a religion and is just one of many “sacred” things that Durkheim talks about. While God is very much present in religions such as Christianity, it’s not so in, say, Buddhism, where concepts such as Dharma/Dhamma, amongst others, fulfil the role of the “sacred”.

One of the most common sacred objects in religions are totems or symbols. Think of the position of the cross in Christianity, the number 786 in South Asian Islam or the letter “Om”  in Hinduism. Correspondingly, nationalism also has its totems, the best example being the national flag. In the Indian context, so sacred was the flag that, till some years back, ordinary people such as you or I couldn’t even fly it, which parallels the sacredness of, say, Sanskrit, which couldn’t be used by the lower castes. Taking this analogy forward, the government acts as a sort of priestly class which would be trusted with the flag, just as Brahmins could be with Sanskrit or the Vedas.

The role of saints and prophets is played by national heroes. If you’ve ever been to Rajghat, Gandhi’s samaadhi, the air of religiosity is difficult to miss and the place is not unlike a shrine or a mazaar. The memory of these heroes is sacred to the point of sparking aggression. Just like the violence by Muslims over cartoon depictions of the Prophet, Shiv Sainiks have a penchant for embarking on destructive rampages whenever their national hero, Shivaji is so much a slighted. The official history of a country functions like the mythos of a religion, helping reinforce its heroes and carefully mark out its “enemies” as well as values. And just as in religious myth, the history of a country is very often “imagined” and often bears little relation with reality. Shivaji, to continue with the earlier example, is examined as an Indian patriot when he most certainly had no idea what a modern concept like patriotism meant. The fact that traders in Surat hated Shivaji for his raids into Gujarat and constantly petitioned Mughal Delhi for protection from him is naturally glossed over in any modern imagining of Shivaji as a pan-Indian hero. Similarly, Pakistan has named its missiles after Afghan king Mahmud of Ghazni, deliberately choosing to forget that the man made his fortune by mostly plundering what is current-day Pakistan. Similarly, William the Conqueror is largely depicted as an English hero, but the fact that he’s a “Conqueror” precisely because he conquered England is often glossed over.

The part of God, in nationalism, is played by the physical land itself which becomes charged with sacredness. Earlier states were rather cavalier about land—Russia, for example, sold Alaska to the US in 1867. Think whether any modern state would be able to sell its land outright now. On the contrary, there are cases where nations have sacrificed hugely in terms of men and money to maintain almost (economically) useless tracts of land. Think of the Falklands War or, of course, our original example, the Siachen Conflict.

Thus, religion more than satisfies Durkheim’s definition of possessing “sacred things”. Now for the “community” that the definition speaks of. Religions like Islam and Christianity have well-defined communities such as the Ummah , Christendom, the Catholic community etc. These communities think of themselves as supreme and medieval writers will talk of the “civilised world” and “Christendom” in the same breath and fire-breathing mullahs will often be found delivering “Ummah FTW!” khutbahs. Given the “natural” supremacy of this community, your identity as a member of the Ummah or Christendom is above all else. To take an Indian example, in his famous poem Jawaab-e-Shikwaa, Iqbal asks sarcastically: “Yun to sayyad bhi ho mirza bhi ho afghaan bhi ho/ tum sabhi kuch ho batao to musalman bhi ho?” (you are a Sayyid, Mirza, Afghan, you are everything but a Muslim), marking “Muslim” out to be the only “true” identity.

In the same vein, a person’s national identity is supposed to supersede all other. You are a Frenchman before all else and, as the burqa ban shows, France has a right to abrogate any other identity of yours. A couple of days back on CNN-IBN, Omar Abdullah cynically defended his government’s role in the Kishtwar riots by pointing out that two Muslims had died as opposed to one Hindu. Rajdeep Sardesai, peremptorily dismissed such logic by pointing out that, “at the end of the day, let us remember, 3 Indians have died.” Mirroring Iqbal’s couplet, which delegitimised “spurious” identities such as “Afghan” or “Mirza” and held up the one true identity, “Muslim”, Sardesai, in turn, pooh-poohed identities such as “Muslim” or “Hindu” and ascribed the one true identity of “Indian” to the victims of Kishtwar.

And just like “sacred objects” and “community”, nationalism mirrors traditional religion in having a common system of beliefs and practices which revolve around the sacred (thus completing the definition of being a religion). The Christmas veneration of Jesus/God, for example, parallels the adulation that the Constitution and Army receive on India’s Republic Day.

Of these, the most amazing is the ritual of sacrifice. To protect the sacred objects that lie at the centre of a nation, every nation must have a military which is willing to lay down its lives. Logically, laying down your life is absurd. There is nothing material that could compensate for your own life. Religions get around this problem by postulating that life on earth is but a small part of total existence and promise a comfortable “afterlife” in exchange for the petty inconvenience of martyrdom—a bargain if there ever was one. Nations do something similar. While they, obviously, do not assure an afterlife, they do guarantee eternity to anyone who lays down their life. Note this popular couplet by Jagdamba Prasad Mishra which promises eternal life to martyrs by enshrining their memory into the collective consciousness of the nation:

Shaheedon ke chitaaon par lagenge har baras mele,
 Watan par mar mitne walo ka bas yahi ab baaqi nishaan hoga

(Literally, “The corpses of martyrs will be the venue for fairs every year; for those who die for the nation, this will be their only legacy”)

Note also that words like “martyr” in English and shaheed in Hindi (both words literally mean “witness”) have been transplanted from Christianity and Islam, respectively, further showing how nationalism has directly borrowed the concept from religion.

And in this ability to generate willing martyrs to defend the community, lies a part of the answer to why both traditional religion as well as nationalism exist. This belief was directed towards one thing and had one aim: society and its maintenance. That is why religion has existed for thousands of years. If it was just a cognitive error or a useless illusion, it would have been eliminated by natural selection over evolutionary time. But the fact that it has existed for all of our recorded history shows  how strong it can be. And the fact that, when challenged with changing circumstances, it can evolve into “modern” forms like nationalism tells us that we're not getting rid of it anytime soon.

11 comments:

ghatak said...

Really well put down! The concepts of Religion, nationalism, states, caste and many other such divisions are simply created on the basis of differing thoughts and belief systems. And there is nothing wrong really in the way they were meant to be.They are often born as tools for organization and administration which make civilization possible. The trouble arises when the purpose of these "tools" is misunderstood and irrationality prevails

Hades said...

Thanks for reading, Manojit :)

Pratik said...

What an amazing piece! Sharing this, if you don't mind.

Really liked the way you used popular Indian examples. Never thought of comparing the flag etc to Sanskrit. Great stuff.

Hades said...

Thanks, Pratik. :)

Vikram said...

Your thesis is quite interesting but I would recommend Benedict Anderson's highly influential 'Imagined Communities' for a deeper understanding of nationalism and its differences with religion. Nationalism is a much more grass roots identity than religion.

There are a few obvious differences between the two. The first is that a national identity is constantly evolving, think of how Americans thought of themselves even 50 years ago (There were Supreme Court judgments defining them as white, European etc) to how many think of themselves today (multicultural, multireligious). The Civil Rights movement greatly altered the American nation. Second, a national identity can be acquired. Anyone can become a citizen of most countries and be considered a national of that country for all practical purposes. Third, a nation is usually directly associated with a state or a government bound by constitutions, which are proclaimed to be based on 'national' values and struggles, but are actually quite universal nature. Think of the fundamental similarities between the Constitutions of European countries, Canada, Brazil and India.

Hades said...

Thanks for the comment, Vikram.

I have gone through Anderson and it’s his thesis that nationalism stepped into a vacuum left by the end of absolute religion that I bring up. As you point out however he didn’t explicitly conflate the two.

//The first is that a national identity is constantly evolving, think of how Americans thought of themselves even 50 years ago (There were Supreme Court judgments defining them as white, European etc) to how many think of themselves today (multicultural, multireligious). The Civil Rights movement greatly altered the American nation.//

I would argue that religious identity evolves as well. Think of Catholics in the 15th century (completed insulated, bigoted and intolerant) versus the current Pope. Or even compare them with the Anglican Church or Protestants. America might have had its Civil Rights Movement but Christianity had its Reformation. At the end of the day, neither is static.

//Second, a national identity can be acquired.//

Same with a confessional religion. In fact, conversion to Islam will take you literally all of 10 seconds (you need to recite the shahaadaa) and you’ll be as Muslim as anyone out there. :)

//Third, a nation is usually directly associated with a state or a government bound by constitutions, which are proclaimed to be based on 'national' values and struggles, but are actually quite universal nature. Think of the fundamental similarities between the Constitutions of European countries, Canada, Brazil and India.//

I would argue that Islam, Christianity and Judaism also have a lot in common. However, I feel this point does not directly apply. Explicitly religious states can also have commonalities. But that’s not the point. I speak of the ideology (Islam, French nationalism etc) which might or might not be associated with a state. For many years, German nationalism existed independent of a state as does Kurdish nationalism in Turkey today.

Vikram said...

"I have gone through Anderson and it’s his thesis that nationalism stepped into a vacuum left by the end of absolute religion that I bring up."

Sorry about that Hades, I should have read the article more carefully, totally missed the Anderson reference. I saw that you had not referred language and print media in your analysis of nationalism, hence the misguided comment.

Regarding Catholicism and America, one might argue that Catholicism has 'reformed' only after it has been made de facto irrelevant by other factors, one of which is nationalism. In contrast, the concept of America changed post WW-2 and during the Cold War, when nationalist sentiments were quite high. There has to be a major difference in a societal consciousness that reforms only after its influence has diminished greatly, versus one that reformed, and indeed is still reforming in its heyday.

One can indeed change religions, but one can belong to both the German and American nations at the same time, carry two passports etc. Most religions explicitly forbid apostasy and blasphemy, while nations place no restriction on anyone leaving them.

Regarding my last point, I agree that religions have commonalities too. But nationalism is fundamentally a political identity. It many have 'sacred' symbols/mythology in the popular imagination, but it is associated above all with the notion of equal, horizontal membership in a political arrangement. The other in the nation is not a cultural or social other, it is a political other.

This explains the tussle between India and Pakistan over Siachen, the point is not so much the value of the land, but the balance of political power. Note that Pakistan abandoned its claim to the Trans-Karakoram tract, once it accepted that it is not China's political equal. This set the tone for the rest of the Sino-Pak relationship and freed China from any trouble Pakistan could foment inside its borders. India wants it do the same for Siachen.

Hades said...

Hey Vikram,

Sorry for the late reply.

//Regarding Catholicism and America, one might argue that Catholicism has 'reformed' only after it has been made de facto irrelevant by other factors, one of which is nationalism. In contrast, the concept of America changed post WW-2 and during the Cold War, when nationalist sentiments were quite high. There has to be a major difference in a societal consciousness that reforms only after its influence has diminished greatly, versus one that reformed, and indeed is still reforming in its heyday.//

1)I don’t really think the exact reasons for reform are that important, other than the fact that both religion and nationalism are changing entities.
2) I would, however, even disagree with your etymology. Christianity went through a major change during the reformation (started in 1517) which preceded the rise of nation-states.


//One can indeed change religions, but one can belong to both the German and American nations at the same time, carry two passports etc. Most religions explicitly forbid apostasy and blasphemy, while nations place no restriction on anyone leaving them.//

I think we’re confusing nationalism (an ideology) with citizenship (a legal concept). The two are not necessarily the same. To take an example to illustrate the difference, quite a few Kashmiris and Nagas etc are Indian nationals but are not necessarily Indian Nationalists. Same with Baluchis in Pakistan.

I’m comparing the former with religion.

Now to take nationalism, it does indeed resemble a confessional religion in its demand of loyalty. One can’t be a German nationalist and an American nationalist at the same time mirroring religion in its monogamy.


//Regarding my last point, I agree that religions have commonalities too. But nationalism is fundamentally a political identity. It many have 'sacred' symbols/mythology in the popular imagination, but it is associated above all with the notion of equal, horizontal membership in a political arrangement. The other in the nation is not a cultural or social other, it is a political other. //

That it is a “political” identity is truism. It is defined as such. But strip away the names and it does come out to rather similar to religion (or so I think).

The equal, horizontal membership you speak of, I could point to similar arrangements in religions like Islam where equality within the religion is fiercely enforced. Equality and sacredness are not necessarily mutually exclusive.


//This explains the tussle between India and Pakistan over Siachen, the point is not so much the value of the land, but the balance of political power. Note that Pakistan abandoned its claim to the Trans-Karakoram tract, once it accepted that it is not China's political equal. This set the tone for the rest of the Sino-Pak relationship and freed China from any trouble Pakistan could foment inside its borders. India wants it do the same for Siachen.//

I admit that the abandonment of the Trans-Karakoram tract is an interesting exception and maybe nationalism is underdeveloped in South Asia. But then even in religion, sacredness is not a watertight thing, I would argue.

But I don’t see how, say, the Falklands war can be explained using political power. Or for that matter Siachin. How did you think the “balance of power” change with these two situations?

Hades said...

Etymology=chronology :$

Vikram said...

"both religion and nationalism are changing entities"

Yes, I agree. But the mechanics and reasons for change are quite important IMO. In the Abrahamic religions, the Torah, Bible and Quran are the ultimate source of authority. They are non-amendable. This is not so with Constitutions, they can change quite rapidly. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, 'every generation is a new nation'.

When religions face major change, a new religion appears almost surely. This was true of Shia Islam and Protestant Christianity. Perhaps Buddhism and Jainism can be thought of in this manner as well. This is not really true of nations. The Civil War and Civil Rights movement did not lead to new nations (in the non-Jeffersonian sense). The two Germany's actually reunited as one nation reversing a previous change.

"I think we’re confusing nationalism (an ideology) with citizenship"

I dont think so. I did not mention citizenship, I agree that you can be a citizen of multiple countries, but still belong to a single nation. But you can also be part of multiple nations. I see this all the time with immigrants in the US, they simultaneously inhabit two nations. They are genuinely affected by what happens in the US and their home countries.

I am not sure that nations demand any loyalty. In fact, the whole idea of a nationality in most places is that one is born into it. Schindler was technically not 'loyal' to the German nation during the Nazi times, but he is a German national hero (they recently released a stamp in his name).

"The equal, horizontal membership you speak of, I could point to similar arrangements in religions like Islam where equality within the religion is fiercely enforced."

I agree. Perhaps this was the reason Islam was able to create such a widespread multi-ethnic state during the Abbasid era. I think that the example of Islam is an exception here, it is one religion that does come very close to defining a nation state.

Regarding Siachen and the Trans-Karakoram tract. The transfer of land between China and Pakistan is not an exception at all, India has already done so with Bangladesh (and plans to do more in future). China has also done so with many other countries. There are many other examples as well.

But you wont see China and India, and India and Pakistan doing any such agreements. This is because these countries are in political conflicts. Just like religion can be used for political goals, so can 'nationalism'.

India and Pakistan are competing for political supremacy in South Asia. From the Indian perspective, if India withdraws from Siachen, it will allow the Pakistani establishment to use the resources that are tied down in Siachen in other locations. Specifically, money and manpower will become available to train 'non-state actors' to carry out more attacks deeper in Indian territory. If India gets the Pakistani leadership to accept its hegemony in Siachen, it will send a message to the Pak army, that even a minor victory against India is not possible and they have to scale back their goals.

I am not entirely about Pakistan's perspective now. The country is in a very geopolitically compromised position. I guess the main issue is water, for which it is extremely vulnerable to India. India wants Pakistan to be like Bangladesh or Nepal, but Pakistan is very resistant to this idea.

Vikram said...

Just one more data point against the territory as sacred claim, "After Partition, the cremation spot went to Pakistan but on January 17, 1961, this martyr's land was received when India gave 12 villages near the Sulemanki Headworks (Fazilka) to Pakistan."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hussainiwala#The_National_Martyrs_Memorial