Religious Nationalism and Transnationalism in a Global World
Mark Juergensmeyer University of California, Santa Barbara Science, Culture and Integral Yoga on Sat 10 Jan 2009 09:56 AM PST Permanent Link
Ethnicity and religion to the rescue of nationalism
In the contemporary political climate, therefore, religious and ethnic nationalism provides a solution to the problem of secular politics and global control in a multicultural world. As secular ties have begun to unravel in the post-Soviet and post-colonial era, local leaders have searched for new anchors to ground their social identities and political loyalties. Many have turned to ethnicity and religion. What is ideologically significant about these ethno-religious movements is their creativity. Although many of the framers of the new nationalisms have reached back in history for ancient images and concepts that will give them credibility, theirs are not simply efforts to resuscitate old ideas from the past. These are contemporary ideologies that meet present-day social and political needs.
In the modern context this is a revolutionary notion—that indigenous culture can provide the basis for new political institutions, including resuscitated forms of the nation-state. Movements that support ethno-religious nationalism are, therefore, often confrontational and sometimes violent. They reject the intervention of outsiders and their ideologies and, at the risk of being intolerant, pander to their indigenous cultural bases and enforce traditional social boundaries. It is no surprise, then, that they get into trouble with each other and with defenders of the secular state. Yet even such conflicts with secular modernity serve a purpose for the movements: it helps define who they are as a people and who they are not. They are not, for instance, secularists.
Since secularism is often targeted as the enemy, that enemy is most easily symbolized by things American. America has taken the brunt of religious and ethnic terrorist attacks in recent years, in part because it so aptly symbolizes the transnational secularism that the religious and ethnic nationalists loathe, and in part because America does indeed promote transnational and secular values. For instance, America has a vested economic and political interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This often puts the United States in the position of being a defender of secular governments. Moreover, the United States supports a globalized economy and a modern culture. In a world where villagers in remote corners of the world increasingly have access to MTV, Hollywood movies, and the internet, the images and values that have been projected globally have often been American.
So it is understandable that America would be disdained. What is perplexing to many Americans is why their country would be so severely hated, even caricatured. The demonization of America by many ethno-religious groups fits into a process of delegitimizing secular authority that involves the appropriation of traditional religious images, especially the notion of cosmic war. In such scenarios, competing ethnic and religious groups become foes and scapegoats, and the secular state becomes religion's enemy. Such satanization is aimed at reducing the power of one's opponents and discrediting them. By humiliating them--by making them subhuman--ethno-religious groups assert the superiority of their own moral power.
The future of religious and ethnic politics in a global world
Emerging movements of ethnic and religious politics are therefore ambivalent about globalization. To the extent that they are nationalistic they often oppose the global reach of world government, at least in its secular form. But the more visionary of these movements also at times have their own transnational dimensions, and some dream of world domination shaped in their own ideological images. For this reason one can project at least three different futures for religious and ethnic nationalism in a global world: one where religious and ethnic politics ignore globalization, another where they rail against it, and yet another where they envision their own transnational futures.
Non-globalization: new ethic and religious states
The goal of some ethnic and religious activists is the revival of a nation-state that avoids the effects of globalization. Right-wing movements in Europe and the United States that reject regional and international alliances usually imagine that their nations could return to a self-sufficient economic and political order that would not rely on global networks and transnational associations.
Where new religious states have emerged, they have tended to be isolationist. In Iran, for instance, the ideology of Islamic nationalism that emerged during and after the 1979 revolution, and that was propounded by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his political theoretician, Ali Shari'ati, was intensely parochial. It was not until some twenty years later that new movements of moderate Islamic politics encouraged its leaders to move out of their self-imposed international isolation (Wright 2000). The religious politics of Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban was even more strongly isolationist. Led by members of the Pathan ethnic community who were former students of Islamic schools, the religious revolutionaries of the Taliban established a self-contained autocratic state with strict adherence to traditional Islamic codes of behavior (Marsden 1998). Yet religious politics need not be isolationist.