RESURGENT TIDES OF NA­TION­AL­ISM

It works as a de­fault ide­o­log­i­cal tem­plate in many na­tion­states be­cause it’s per­ceived to be the com­mon ba­sis at which di­verse iden­ti­ties can con­verge

New Straits Times - - Opinion -

IN re­cent months, the rise of na­tion­al­ism had been as­so­ci­ated with the re­turn of xeno­pho­bia, anti-im­mi­gra­tion, pop­ulism and far-right ne­o­fas­cist con­ser­vatism.

Na­tion­al­ism has been much ma­ligned and made the scape­goat for Brexit, for the rise of Don­ald Trump, for Pu­tin­ism and China’s in­tran­si­gence on is­sues like Tai­wan.

Putin’s ex­pan­sion to­wards the East has been con­strued in cer­tain me­dia cir­cles as a re­vival of Eurasian­ism, a pol­icy ad­vo­cated by Rus­sian thinkers from Prince Niko­lay Tru­bet­skoy and Lev Gu­milev, to Alexan­der Du­gin.

Putin’s al­lu­sion in a 2012 speech to Gu­milev’s pas­sion­arnost (the Rus­sian equiv­a­lent of Ibn Khal­dun’s asabiyya) was taken to hint at a re­vival of Eurasian­ism.

When Trump as­sumed of­fice as the pres­i­dent of the United States, China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping warned the US not to for­sake the lat­ter’s “One China” pol­icy. Con­comi­tant with this is the cyn­i­cism to­wards democ­racy, and the greater call for re­straint of pop­u­lar sen­ti­ments through the rule of law.

Democ­racy, long since pro­moted as a means of mass em­pow­er­ment, is now pe­jo­ra­tively viewed as the back­door to pop­ulism. Stark ex­am­ples in­clude how ref­er­en­dums — democ­racy pushed to its fur­thest fron­tiers — pro­duced Brexit in the United King­dom and sep­a­ratism in Crimea (blamed on so-called “Eurasian­ism”).

Democ­racy, it is now al­leged, gives rise to the tyranny of the ma­jor­ity, or in more fash­ion­able par­lance, to “il­lib­eral democ­racy”.

This present and per­va­sive vil­i­fi­ca­tion of na­tion­al­ism sits rather un­easily with post-colo­nial so­ci­eties, whose na­tion­build­ing project is very much a work-in-progress.

Faced with the chal­lenge of man­ag­ing di­verse com­mu­ni­ties and groups, for decades, na­tion­al­ism had func­tioned as a ral­ly­ing point thought to be able to tran­scend these dif­fer­ences.

The na­tion is dif­fer­ent from and tran­scends eth­nic, re­li­gious and cul­tural bound­aries. Con­se­quently, it is the space in which all com­mu­ni­ties could con­verge and share val­ues.

Na­tion­al­ism func­tions as a de­fault ide­o­log­i­cal tem­plate, even if un­spo­ken, in many na­tion-states be­cause it is per­ceived to be the com­mon ba­sis at which di­verse iden­ti­ties could con­verge.

Na­tion­al­ism out­side Europe emerged as an an­ti­dote to sec­tar­i­an­ism and parochial­ism in so­ci­eties di­vided by race, eth­nic­ity and re­li­gion, while of­fer­ing a com­mon voice against a colonis­ing power.

Thus, a dis­tinc­tion is com­monly made be­tween eth­nic na­tion­al­ism and civic na­tion­al­ism.

Whereas eth­nic na­tion­al­ism is based on a sin­gle eth­nic group, civic na­tion­al­ism re­lies on the con­struc­tion of a civic iden­tity.

In the Mus­lim world, na­tion­al­ism played a key role in the short­lived merger of Egypt and Syria to form the United Arab Re­pub­lic (UAR) in the late 1950s.

It was also un­der the na­tion­al­ist spirit that Arab states dur­ing the so-called oil cri­sis in the 1970s was able, in re­sponse to US as­sis­tance to­wards Is­rael, to launch oil em­bargo with dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on the US econ­omy, com­pelling the US to re­align its poli­cies to­wards the Gulf states, par­tic­u­larly Saudi Ara­bia.

In pre-in­de­pen­dence Malaya, the left-lean­ing in­tel­lec­tual politi­cian Burhanud­din Helmy’s na­tion­al­ist thought cen­sured the French in­tel­lec­tual Ernest Re­nan’s nar­row con­cep­tion of “na­tion”, and em­braced in­stead Otto Bauer’s wider con­cep­tion of na­tion as “a com­mu­nity of con­duct aris­ing from a com­mu­nity of destiny”.

Burhanud­din dis­so­ci­ated Malay na­tion­al­ism from Malay eth­nic­ity, and made the case for di­verse eth­nic and hered­i­tary com­mu­ni­ties to be part of the Malay “na­tion”.

He then for­mu­lated it in the vein of Ma­hatma Gandhi (via Sukarno), “I am a na­tion­al­ist, but my na­tion­al­ism is hu­man­ity”.

In China, the Chi­nese state takes a dis­tinc­tive at­ti­tude to­wards race and eth­nic­ity, which em­i­nent China scholar Martin Jac­ques de­scribes as “non-ne­go­tiable”.

This is the be­lief in the su­pe­ri­or­ity of the Han Chi­nese, con­ceived of as a sin­gle race with even dis­tinct bi­o­log­i­cal ori­gins from the rest of hu­man­ity.

The non-Han Chi­nese are even seen as dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties al­to­gether.

In Turkey, the Ke­mal­ist legacy to cre­ate a new civic com­mu­nity based on Turk­ish iden­tity back­fired when the con­sti­tu­tion’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of all cit­i­zens as Turks pro­voked dis­con­tent among its mi­nori­ties, such as the Kurds, who re­fused to be im­posed the Turk­ish eth­nic iden­tity.

The pro­posed new con­sti­tu­tion, as the de­bate un­folds, seeks to ad­dress, among oth­ers, this very prob­lem, which the rul­ing AKP (Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party) had ini­ti­ated with its “Kur­dish open­ing” much ear­lier.

Per­haps the bit­ter­est story of na­tion­al­ist rise is the Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ism in South­east Asia, par­tic­u­larly Myan­mar, with its an­tipa­thy to the Ro­hingya.

The Myan­mar sce­nario is il­lus­tra­tive of the dangers of state mo­nop­oly on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of eth­nic­ity. Un­der the law, only “recog­nised” eth­nic groups can qual­ify as cit­i­zens.

The Ro­hingya are not recog­nised as such, but in­stead, are seen as “Ben­galis”, and are sub­ject to nu­mer­ous dis­crim­i­na­tions.

Thus, a dis­tinc­tion is com­monly made be­tween eth­nic na­tion­al­ism and civic na­tion­al­ism. Whereas eth­nic na­tion­al­ism is based on a sin­gle eth­nic group, civic na­tion­al­ism re­lies on the con­struc­tion of a civic iden­tity. ahm­hazri@iais.org.my The writer is a re­search fel­low at IAIS Malaysia, with in­ter­ests in law (es­pe­cially con­sti­tu­tional law and the­ory), ju­rispru­dence and con­tem­po­rary Is­lamic thought and civil­i­sa­tion

EPA PIC

Democ­racy, long since pro­moted as a means of mass em­pow­er­ment, is now pe­jo­ra­tively viewed as the back­door to pop­ulism. Stark ex­am­ples in­clude how ref­er­en­dums pro­duced Brexit in the United King­dom.

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