Historians Trace an Unholy Alliance; Religion as the Root Of Nationalist Feeling

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.

As several essayists show in the 1995 collection ”The Invention of Tradition,” edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge University Press), many of the great national traditions we tend to think of as originating in the mists of the distant past — like the clan tartans of the Scottish highlanders — were 19th-century inventions, meant to generate national pride.

But Peter 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.

One of the most recent contributions to this trend is ”Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism” (Oxford University Press, 2003), by Anthony W. Marx, a professor of political science at Columbia University, who was recently named president of Amherst College. Mr. Marx insists that the birth of nationalism dates to a time when religious intolerance ravaged Europe. He begins his book in 1492, the year that King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who united Castille and Aragon to form the new kingdom of Spain, ousted the Moors from Southern Spain and decided to expel the Jews from their territory. The Spanish Inquisition, Mr. Marx writes, was a central mechanism in consolidating power and conferring legitimacy on the new Spanish state.

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.

”If we fail to look at our own history, we run the risk of being too self-congratulatory and too dismissive of others,” Mr. Marx said. ”When we see Shiites demonstrating in Iraq, we tend to reject or denigrate, forgetting that we went through similar processes.”

Both Mr. Marx and Ms. Colley focus on the Protestant Reformation, insisting that the religious conflicts it unleashed played an important role in the creation of Europe’s principal nation-states. Leaders used religion to consolidate their own power, turning themselves into both political and religious leaders. Before full-blown nationalism, religious passion was the one popular emotion that could bring masses of people into the streets, and Europe’s rulers understood that it could be used to make or break a state.

”A number of European monarchs start appealing to the people to carry out the Protestant Reformation,” Ms. Colley said. ”You can see it very graphically in England in the 16th century, where they get rid of holy images in the church and replace them with the royal coat of arms. So you don’t worship images of the saints, you worship the monarch as the head of the church. A lot of countries — Britain, Sweden, Holland — see themselves as the new Israel, the holy nation. The American colonies inherit this tradition as the City on the Hill.”

European rulers also exploited fear of outside interference, demonizing the Roman Catholic Church to rally people around the throne.

In Britain, Mr. Marx writes, the crown’s defiance of the Church of Rome strengthened the power of the state and helped to sharpen the definition of what it meant to be English. Queen Elizabeth I finally yielded to pressures to have Mary Queen of Scots, her Catholic rival, executed, and made attendance at Anglican religious services mandatory. John Foxe, a Protestant author of the Elizabethan era, wrote that the Queen had come to represent ”the link and identity between the Protestant and national causes.”

Mr. Marx quotes the British historian Lewis Namier, who once wrote that ”religion is a 16th-century word for nationalism.”

Catherine de Medici, Queen Regent of France, similarly exploited religious passion. After trying to mediate between the Catholics and the Huguenots, she manipulated anti-Huguenot feeling and in 1572 helped plot the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which more than 15,000 Protestants were slaughtered in and around Paris.

”Nationalism thus began to emerge by piggybacking on the passion of religious conflicts,” Mr. Marx writes.

Still, many scholars are skeptical.

”If the point is that state building enlisted religion, then that makes good sense, but I am not sure we are talking about nationalism,” said Eugen Weber, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California at Los Angeles and an expert on French nationalism.

Modernists like Mr. Weber and others insist that the early modern states were fundamentally different, multilingual, multiethnic entities in which the sense of nation had not yet been firmly established. ”The kings of Spain governed over modern Belgium and Austria, as well as parts of what are now France, Italy, Slovenia and Croatia,” said David A. Bell, a historian who argues that the French Revolution was the critical event in establishing French nationalism.

Before that, he pointed out, the royal families of Europe married across national lines, and no one worried much over whether a German sat on the throne of England, Italians ran France, or Spaniards governed Austria.

”With the French Revolution, rulers do not simply require obedience, but homogeneity,” Mr. Bell said. ”They are concerned that people read the same books, identify with the same history, see themselves as having something innate in common and as part of a national project. It’s not that national feeling didn’t exist before, but nationalism, as I see it, implies a program to make people the same.”

While the kings of France cared little that most of their subjects spoke various languages, post-revolutionary leaders began to insist on standardized language and education. This happened not just in France, but in reactionary Austro-Hungary, where in the 1780’s, the Hapsburgs made German the official language of administration. The increased complexity of modern administration — with the need for a vast bureaucracy of literate bureaucrats — made Latin impractical and the use of vernacular German essential, suddenly sharpening the Magyar, Romanian, Czech and Italian subjects’ sense of themselves as discriminated minorities with their own national identities.

The increased identification of nationality with language in the late 18th and 19th centuries has led many scholars to see the print revolution and widespread literacy as crucial factors in the formation of nationalism. ”From the start, the nation was conceived in language, not in blood,” Benedict Anderson wrote in 1983 in his classic book ”Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism.”

Mr. Marx reverses this formulation, insisting that nationalism is soaked in blood. ”Terrible to say, less blood proved less binding, for nothing is as powerful a basis of mass passion and cohesion than killings,” he said. While Mr. Marx grants the importance of both literacy and industrialization in the creation of full-blown, 19th-century nationalism, he insists that the period of religious strife in 16th- and 17th-century Europe forms an important precedent. ”You can think of it as a kind of proto-nationalism,” he said.

Ms. Colley, meanwhile, dismisses the idea that nationalism can come about only with literacy and a nation of voting citizens. ”I think you have to look at religion as a crucial part of identity in many preliterate societies,” she said. ”Most of the people who starting resisting the British Raj in India could not read or write, but they felt passionately Indian. The Russians who put up a fierce resistance to Napoleon’s invasion were often illiterate but had a strong sense of holy mother Russia and the land as scripture.”

Ms. Colley said she was not surprised that there was reluctance to accept the religious roots of nationalism. ”Americans are in denial about their own nationalism,” added Ms. Colley, who is British but has taught for many years in the United States. ”They say, ‘We don’t do nationalism, we are a multiethnic country, we have patriotism.’ But the U.S. still sees itself as the City on a Hill, fighting against ‘the axis of evil.’ Americans have a very theologically rooted sense of nation.”

– May 31, 2003

Published at The New Yorker


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