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Islam, Christianity, and the formation of the Nation State

 
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Amilam



Joined: 09 Jul 2006
Posts: 922

PostPosted: Thu Oct 05, 2006 10:55 am    Post subject: Islam, Christianity, and the formation of the Nation State Reply with quote

I think I should frame this paper. First, it’s written by my fiancé Ann for her World Religions course. She’s Singaporean and of Chinese descent. She is a practicing Roman Catholic (Christianity is exceedingly rare in Singapore). She is duel majoring in English Literature and Linguistics. She is a native speaker in both Chinese and English. Little know fact that almost all Singaporeans speak at least two languages: the language of their ethnicity and English.

Just a few facts on the Singaporean racial / religious make up. After Chinese Traditionalism, Islam is tied with Christianity for the second largest religion in Singapore (approximately 15% I believe) and Singapore is just miles away from Malaysia, an Islamic nation. There were racial riots in 1964 between Chinese and Malays. The issue is still a touchy one and at times there is discernable racial tension, but since that date racial and religious tolerance has prevailed and Malays are well integrated into the Singaporean culture.

Ann doesn’t have strong political feelings, but she votes PAP, which is the overwhelmingly dominate political party in Singapore which is a fairly conservative party (however, it is not a party directly aligned with Conservatism).

I thought it might be interesting to get some outside perspective on the question of religion and state. The rough draft she sent me wasn’t formally annotated yet, but I could post that sometime this weekend if people are interested. Again, Ann’s not particularly political (this paper is outside of her expertise) so I don’t imagine she’ll be visiting this forum, but if you have any constructive feedback or see any grammar or stylistic mistakes please let me know and I'll pass it along.


The Religion of Nation in Nineteenth Century Europe and Post-colonial Egypt

In considering the relation between nation and religion, one must also take into account the extensive linkages between the two as institutions and socio-cultural realities. With the emergence of the modern secular state in the French Revolution of 1789, as well as the unification of modern Italy in 1860, the goal of nationalism was to curb the church’s influence in order to create the nation-state. Such competition for political power within the institution of the state finds a counterpoint in a psychological continuity between the two—often religious feeling was made to serve the nation in the form of secular zeal for the cause of liberty. Thus the result of creating the modern nation in Europe was not dechristianization, but a rigorous secularization of the state. In contrast, the wave of postcolonial nationalism that swept the third world in the twentieth century spurred the search for an authentic cultural identity as an alternative to Western modes of thought. This gave rise to a reformation in Islam that fed back into the formation of the nation. Egypt, in particular, played host to thinkers such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, and Hasan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brothers), who forged a interrelation between Islamic principles and social organization. In this way, religious identity becomes the basis of nationalism in an international struggle against colonial powers. What this comparison of the nation-state in Christianity and Islam demonstrates is the great extent to which the relation between nation and religion is shaped by the brand of nationalism present, though the two entities are both means of identity-formation that allow each to inform the other.

When the French Revolution overthrew the old hierarchies of monarchy and clergy, it put into action a nationalistic philosophy that made France a secular entity as distinguished from its Catholic past. By tracing the period’s zeitgeist back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Andrew Heywood points out how nations at the time were regarded as “essentially political entities” that “emphasize(d) civic loyalties and political allegiances rather than cultural identity (109).” As the “‘father’ of modern nationalism” (109), Rousseau pioneered an indissoluble link between the nation and a political ideology of liberalism, which Heywood describes as “the vision of a people or nation governing itself…inextricably linked to the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity” (109). What Rousseau and the French Revolution have achieved is a political nation where final authority rests with people’s will as manifested in the institution of the state. This in turn situates Christianity firmly within the church as a social institution competing with the nation-state for political power. As Rene Remond notes, “The nation replaced the church as overall society and no longer needed to refer to a higher authority” (119). In other words, the “secular reality” (119) of the nation was to be endowed with supreme political and social authority, thus placing it in opposition to the Catholic church as a form of social organization.

Though such political nationalism gave rise to an attack on institutionalized Christianity, the psychological and socio-cultural continuities between religious feeling and nationalistic fervour were fully exploited by the leaders of revolutionary France. With the aim of generating legitimacy and support for the new nation, nationalism was made a secular religion. In this context, Arno J. Mayer quotes from Carl Becker’s The Heavenly City of the Eighteen-Century Philosophers: “the philosophes “substituted the love of humanity for the love of God…[and] the self-perfectability of man for vicarious atonement” (145). Instead of a vision of divine salvation, the teleology of national progress became the proper end for people’s hopes and strivings. To achieve this displacement, churches were shut down and sacred foci were foisted onto new “temples”. Nigel Aston writes, “they (churches) were transformed into ‘Temples of Reason’ and given over to celebrations or quasi-worship of a non-Christian kind, part of a series of festivals inaugurated in inculcate the populace in republican values by entertainment and spectacle as much as by edification” (213). That the new nation’s leaders had to cater to religious feeling in France points to the very basic need for religion in people’s lives. For the new nationalism to survive, it had to be conterminous with the same historical narrative of French identity that was anchored by Catholicism. Rene Remond notes in this respect, “The nation became a religion in its turn, a secular religion; it changed into an absolute and the feeling of sacredness which was deserting religion was transferred to the nation” (119-20). Hence while political nationalism competed with the church for institutional power, its own reliance on the popular will of the people meant that the nation had to accommodate the enduring socio-cultural reality of religion.

As the dynamic of nationalism gathered force in nineteenth century Europe, the philosophy of nationhood became detached from its psychological and social moorings in the people. To quote Peter Jones, “the new nationalism of central Europe. . .was distinctly illiberal (104)”. The nationalistic campaign for a conservative Italy headed by a constitutional monarch made religion and the Catholic pope simply another competing sovereign. Led by the powerful northern state of Piedmont, the unification of Italy was primarily a militaristic affair, with the Pope’s army participating in a war for the jurisdiction of the Papal States. The victory of the Piedmontese army in the Pope’s dominions, apart from the area immediately around Rome, made Victor Emanuel (originally King of Piedmont) constitutional monarch of a united Italy in 1860. According to Derek Beales and Eugenio F. Biagini, the pope of the time, Pius IX, was “bitterly hostile to the new state, which… had repeatedly expressed the intention of depriving him of whatever temporal power he had managed to retain” (153). By allowing civil marriage, and granting non-Catholics access to military academies and public offices, the new Italian state seemed to “spell the death knell of church influence on civil society” (153). This move towards secularisation differs crucially from the earlier political nationalism of revolutionary France, in that the church was regarded almost as an enemy state to be battled with on the war front. Once again it is the form of nationalism that shapes the relation between nation and religion. With Italy’s unification in particular, conservative nationalism gave rise to a nation presided over by a constitutional monarch, thus leaving no room for religion as a rival in temporal power.

Similarly the role of Islam in the Middle-East received its impetus from the movement of postcolonial nationalism that permeated the region in the early twentieth century. Yet what this resulted in was not a dissociation of religion and nation. Instead Islam became a means through which an authentic identity could be articulated in opposition to Western colonialism. Marcel A. Boisard notes in this respect, “Religious zeal, patriotic fervour, nationalistic feelings and a pan-Islamic aspiration blended together in this need to be distinguished from the “other”, which at first was the colonialist West and later the industrialized world—capitalist or Marxist” (209). This intertwining of nationalism and religion is rooted in a history of colonization, where the Arab peoples were subjected, as Boisnard describes, to “the twin dominating forces of Christian Europe and Muslim Turkey. (208)” Under the Ottoman Empire’s religious and political leadership, which failed repeatedly to incorporate progressive Western notions such as intellectual freedom and scientific learning, Islam “withdrew into a strict orthodoxy” (207), characterised by “a formalistic piety leaning toward bigotry and an unnatural mysticism (that) maintained superstition” (207). In response to this, several thinkers took up the task of reformulating and revitalizing Islam’s relation to the creation of society and nation. Among these Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) was by far the most important. Dubbed by Reza Aslan and others as the “Awakener of the East” (229) from its colonial stupor, “his greatest contribution to Islamic political thought was his insistence that Islam, detached from its purely religious associations, could be used as a socio-political ideology to unite the whole of the Muslim world in solidarity against imperialism” (229). Though his vision of Pan-Islamism was later subsumed under the cause of nationalism, al-Afghani’s work shows how a revitalization of Islam emerged hand in hand with postcolonial sentiment. A political uprising against colonial Europe was also a religious revolt against the spiritual leadership of the Ottomans.

This formation of the postcolonial nation through religious reformation in Islam was given a concrete institutional existence in the Society of the Muslim Brothers. Founded in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna, it quickly became the main voice of the nationalist movement in Egypt. According to Reza Aslan, al-Banna, like al-Afghani, believed “that the decline of Muslim civilization was the result not only of foreign influence, but of a lack of dedication on the part of Egyptians to the original principles of Islam preached by Muhammad in Medina. (235)”. Creating the Islamic nation meant returning to its foundational principles, and it required “a distinctly Islamic government—one that could properly address society’s ills” (237). To achieve this goal, the Muslim Brothers had to translate such nationalistic and religious views into social activism. Richard P. Mitchell describes how the society supported “nationalist demonstrators, who daily filled the streets” and who were “demanding arms, training and the creation of ‘liberation battalions’ to fight the enemy”(89). On university campuses, the Muslim Brothers initiated the organisation of battalions, while they themselves, as Mitchell elaborates, began to associate with a faction in the Egyptian military known as the “Free Officers” (89). With the Muslim Brothers guaranteeing support from the populance, the Free Officer Corps launched a coup d’etat against Egypt’s puppet government and the British colonial presence on July 23, 1952, and “unilaterally declared the country free of colonial control (237)”, according to Aslan. As such, postcolonial nationalism in Egypt gave rise to a reformation in Islam, that in turn generated nationalistic activism through the Society of the Muslim Brothers. This highlights again how it is the interests of a particular nationalism that situates religion in relation to itself.

However, as much as postcolonial nationalism differs in emphasis from political nationalism, both variants were present in the newly independent nation of Egypt. Just as the revolutionary government in France felt threatened by Catholicism as a social institution, Colonel Nasser, who masterminded the coup and was now the new government’s leader, was intimidated by the Muslim Brothers as a rival political force. At first Nasser sought to capitalise on the Brothers’ popularity. Reza Aslan notes in this regard how he “reciprocated their support by humbly going on pilgrimage to al-Banna’s tomb and even went so far as to invite the Muslim Brothers to join the new parliament” (237). The society refused “for fear of sullying al-Banna’s apolitical principles” (237). Later the political struggle came to a head when Nasser’s nationalist but “authoritarian rule began to clash with the egalitarian values preached by the Muslim Brothers” (238). Richard P. Mitchell documents how the creation of the Liberation Rally followed soon after all other political parties and groups were disbanded in January 1953. As “a government-supported ‘people’s movement’ to implement the slogan of ‘unity’ in the nation” (110), it represented an attempt to displace the Muslim Brothers as “ ‘civil protector’ of the regime” (110). In 1954, the chance to do so occurred when an attempt was made on Nasser’s life in Alexandria. The Muslim Brothers were accused of a conspiracy on the leader’s life. Members were arrested and their leaders were tortured and killed. What this demonstrates is that despite the extensive support that Islamic revitalization lent to nationalism in postcolonial Egypt, the rivalry between nation-state and religion persists wherever religious organizations are an institutional threat.

In conclusion, the relationship between nation and religion is one that relies extensively on the particular brand of nationalism present, and the contextualisation of religion in its terms. With the French Revolution and the creation of Italy as a unitary state, political nationalism had as its goal the secular entity of the nation-state. This in turn leads to a tussle for political influence between church and state, where Christianity was identified as an institution that stood in the way of the supremacy of the people’s will in the nation. Similarly postcolonial nationalism defined the power relations that situated Islam as a mode of authentic identity in the face of western colonialism. Yet what the eradication of the Muslim Brothers under the regime of Colonel Nasser illuminates is how nationalism implicates religion simultaneously in both intra-state and inter-state politics. For wherever a power relation exists, an articulation of identity is present, and religion as form of conscientious witness may speak for or against the nation, depending on which nationalism is present.
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Amilam



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PostPosted: Thu Oct 05, 2006 11:37 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Ooops. I posted this topic on a far right wingnut forum so I made a mistake in the framing. Ann has a screen name on this forum: cuddiepiers (a big golden star to anyone who can recognise the lit reference).
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Marik



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PostPosted: Thu Oct 05, 2006 10:21 pm    Post subject: it is why i always play the Turks in Medieval: Total War Reply with quote

I'm going to mention as an aside -- and hope it can get fit into the essay -- that the pursuit of science shouldn't be established as an inherently 'western' thing. Once upon a time, especially around the middle ages, the major exploits and advances in science and technology were the providence of the middle eastern world. The Ottomans and the Savafids and all of those middle eastern folk? They were leaving the Frankish world in the dust, and had more civil liberties, comparitively.
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Darqcyde



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PostPosted: Thu Oct 05, 2006 11:56 pm    Post subject: Re: it is why i always play the Turks in Medieval: Total War Reply with quote

Marik wrote:
I'm going to mention as an aside -- and hope it can get fit into the essay -- that the pursuit of science shouldn't be established as an inherently 'western' thing. Once upon a time, especially around the middle ages, the major exploits and advances in science and technology were the providence of the middle eastern world. The Ottomans and the Savafids and all of those middle eastern folk? They were leaving the Frankish world in the dust, and had more civil liberties, comparitively.


Was it the Arabs or the Persians that gave us the idea of 0?
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Varst Kolcimb



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PostPosted: Fri Oct 06, 2006 12:05 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Almost positive that was the Arabs.

edit: nm, just read this instead. The History of Zero.
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Amilam



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PostPosted: Fri Oct 06, 2006 2:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yeah I got a concern about this on the other forum as well. I believe the point Ann was trying to make that the role of science in the Western state changed dramatically post Enlightenment and French Revolution. For the first time in the modern Political state, science attempted to replace religion. So while science is by no means an inherently Western value, I think the argument can be made that the role it plays in the political state and how it affects the expression of religion is characteristic of the modern West.

I’m glad this got pointed out. I’ll talk to Ann about trying to make the central point more distinct.
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Darqcyde



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PostPosted: Fri Oct 06, 2006 4:13 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Amilam wrote:
Yeah I got a concern about this on the other forum as well. I believe the point Ann was trying to make that the role of science in the Western state changed dramatically post Enlightenment and French Revolution. For the first time in the modern Political state, science attempted to replace religion. So while science is by no means an inherently Western value, I think the argument can be made that the role it plays in the political state and how it affects the expression of religion is characteristic of the modern West.

I’m glad this got pointed out. I’ll talk to Ann about trying to make the central point more distinct.


When my wife is writing papers she often tells me that she is trying to say this idea or express that opinion. I usually tell her don't just try to say it, just say it. I think one of the worst things you can do is write a paper and have a reader say "I think I see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure if I/you fully understand this writing."
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