The politics of national identity:

Religion in nation-building and nation-changing

posted by Peggy Levitt

Image via Flickr user Quinn DombrowskiThe articles by Rogers Brubaker, Genevieve Zubrzycki, and Muhacit Bilici are all about the religious and secular self, and the religious and secular other, and about the relationship between the secular and the religious in processes of nation building, national rebranding, or nation repositioning. They are also about how nations and religious communities are constructed transnationally and about how that intersects with nation-building and nation-changing processes.

We know that religion looms large in definitions of and representations of the nation. But Rogers Brubaker argues there is another place that religion is at work: through what he calls “assertively secular understandings and discourses of nationhood.” Religion, particularly Christianity, is not just the target of secularism but is also embedded in assertively secular understandings and discourses of nationhood. That means there is a religious dimension of secularism as a self-conscious, political stance, and also a religious dimension of secularity when it is used to characterize the national culture or way of life.

To make this point, Brubaker looks at the ways in which secularism is asserted in countries across Northern and Western Europe, particularly the Netherlands. It used to be that secularism was aimed at an oppressive Christian national church in these contexts. Now it is directed at the Muslim other. This is not a new stance for the Left but it is something new for the Right. It is in their assertive secularism that Brubaker particularly sees religion.

So what explains these shifts? It is not just a matter of demographic changes, but also about changes in discourse. People who were labeled ethnically or racially before are now labeled according to their religion. Part of this is a natural outgrowth of the immigrant rights movements, which embrace identity labels as a way to gain recognition and voice.

But that is not all. According to Brubaker, these shifts have been driven “more by a growing civilizational preoccupation with Islam than by local claims-making by European Muslims. There is a preoccupation with protecting western and liberal democracies from Islam, but the values being protected are not religious. They are about democracy, individual rights, personal freedom and autonomy.” Because the West is defined not by religion but by its secularity, the religiosity of immigrant populations becomes even especially problematic.

When the “other” is defined in religious terms, the response is likely to be religious as well. Worries about Islam are responded to with Christian tools and lenses. If they are Muslim, then we must be Judeo-Christian. And some countries might be getting more openly religious (or allowing groups to be more assertive), which complicates things as well.

Christianity, then, becomes a political tool in this region for three reasons: the distinctive secularization of Northern and Western Europe; the culturalization of both religion and citizenship; and the increasing salience of the comparative civilizational frame in which Christianity is juxtaposed against Islam.

This shift toward a secularist and ostensibly liberal stance on the populist Right, Brubaker concludes, is partial and fragmentary. But it might portend big changes ahead. Are we entering a world in which nations and their citizens embrace civilizational identities—one in which nation is defined less by language and more by what distinguishes the broader civilization to which the nation is seen as belonging from other civilizations?

Genevieve Zubrzycki is interested in the process of becoming secular—on the aesthetic, bodily, social, material, and political practices through which secularism is enacted. And as she correctly points out, and as I think Brubaker would agree, “becoming secular” is not about the total absence of religion from national life; it is about how the religious and secular are connected and how they enable and thwart each other—an ever-evolving process that takes place in all spheres of social life. Secularity is never fully achieved, she writes, but is always infiltrated by ghosts.

In the French Canadian case, the nation was religious, and when Quebecois wanted their independence, they rejected Catholicism “as either an atavistic residue of the past surviving at the margins of society, or as imported from outside by recent waves of immigrants.” Secularism is now considered a sacred national Canadian value, so therefore religion must be regulated—although no one quite knows what those regulations might be.

In Poland, the communist regime forced people to secularize, which many Poles experienced as against the nation since Polishness and Catholicism had been bed-fellows since the early nineteenth century. Therefore, participating in religion was a political act. When Poland regained its independence in 1989, Catholicism re-entered the public sphere, despite support for a truly secular Poland. But here again, the religious and the secular are intertwined: Religion and religious traditions are being used to build secularity by either strengthening minority religious communities, as a way to undercut the Catholic religious hegemony (Poland), or through the “patrimonalization” of religious traditions (Quebec). This occurs when religion is placed at the cultural heart of the nation, because religious symbols, objects, and traditions become re-sacralized as national symbols, objects, and practices.

Muhacit Bilici’s paper is about Muslims in the United States. His argument is that they are protected by the state, but not of the nation. To become part of the nation, they must extricate themselves from the indistinguishable mass of global Islam and become individual Muslims: They have to reinvent themselves as legible, loyal, and ordinary American citizens. Bilici’s paper is about this process. He writes that Muslims would rely on strictly American identity tools such as military uniforms, presence on national Olympic teams, or carrying the Constitution as the ultimate weapon of self-defense and cultural legitimacy. These enable individuals to reassemble themselves into individual Americans who just happen to be Muslim.

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So how do these three analyses fit together and what do they tell us about religion and nationalism?

They are all about how ghosts or religious traces stay within the secular: How Catholicism stays present in Quebec and Christianity stays present in the Netherlands. But what more can we say about these ghosts? When are they bright and frightening, and when are they barely visible? What difference does it make when they are majority or minority? In Zubryzycki’s case, Jews are desirable and undesirable. For some, they are— along with secularists and communists—not fit for national belonging and, for others, they are a part of history that must be rescued because their perceived cosmopolitanism promotes a civic and secular version of the polity. So what would we gain by theorizing the different registers, valences, or traces of the religious in the secular—their visibility, invisibility, their size, the comfort or discomfort they invoke?

They are also for me, to varying degrees, about how nations and citizens are constituted transnationally. When we look at the world through a transnational optic, we do not take the unit or scale of analysis as given but always ask what spaces and scales are needed in the analysis. As I read these papers, the people and the nations they live in are connected to larger processes and communities. There are religious global citizens here, and this is part of what the fuss is all about. The “others” who are feared and referenced are both in and outside the nation. That is what I think Brubaker means when he says we may be shifting to a comparative civilizational frame: That global Judeo-Christians are worried about people who identify as global Muslims. That is what Bilici says people have to give up to be considered American. That is what Zubrzycki notes at the menorah lighting by the chief rabbi at the Polish presidential palace. This is a performance for the nation and for Jews around the world. That is not to say that religious resources are not being used to build and rebuild nations, but I wonder what it means for our discussions about religion and nationalism. What are the scales and sites that need to be included to truly understand this relationship?

Brubaker, Zubrzycki, and Bilici also made me think about intersectionality. Perhaps this is where the ghosts become present. When Brubaker talks about the shift from the ethnic or racial other to their current-day religious counterpart, the racial and the ethnic do not disappear entirely. There are ghosts of that marking and othering and then there are also its contemporary counterparts, which combine in various ways with the religious. That is, the person of immigrant origin who is now called a Muslim still has the traces or ghosts of the immigrant in his Muslimness. Moreover, even if the nation shifts labels, I doubt that individuals entirely do. A woman will still be a woman, an Indonesian, a person of color, an immigrant, and a Muslim. This is key for who gets to belong and who is excluded—for who gets to be a citizen and on what terms. So how do we square this intersectionality at the level of the individual with the intersectionality at the level of the nation, both in its historical traces and its contemporary form?

Finally, who is talking and who is listening? Who is defining the religious, the secular, the nation, and for whom? In each of these cases, it seems there are multiple national audiences, a segmented public if you were, as well as sometimes international audiences.  When we track the discursive landscape, don’t we need to make that distinction? Does the same evidence serve to elucidate both? I would like to know more about the evidence in all of these articles. How do we know what we know?

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