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Nationalism, Communalism, and the USA

by Edward Hasbrouck

There is a trend away from support for "ethnic nationalism" (in the movement and the mainstream), as is evident from Andy Mager's editor's notes about Chechnya in the March 1995 Nonviolent Activist.

I'm deeply skeptical of all nationalism. But, unfortunately, for most peoples and nations the alternative to national self-determination is likely to be (as it is for the Chechens) colonial status as subjects of an empire. Notwithstanding my anarchism, I find the choice painful but clear.

It was important for American progressives to support the de-colonization process in Africa in the '50s and '60s, despite their criticisms of the governments that emerged. Today, it is equally important for us to support the de-colonization process which is underway across Asia (in ex-Soviet Central Asia, the "autonomous" but subject republics within Russia, Kashmir, East Turkestan, Tibet, Kurdistan, etc.). Until five years ago this region was, and in many respects it remains, the world's largest region of overt colonialism and foreign rule.

Why are the terms "imperialism" and "de-colonization" so rarely applied to current events in the Russian Empire? It is all too easy to allow the absence of oceanic separation between Russia and its colonies to obscure the similarities between its Eurasian continental empire and the overseas European colonial empires in Africa and Asia. Parts of "Russian" Asia, for example, are farther from Moscow than New Delhi or Nairobi are from London.

Most European states (sovereign governments) are ethnically determined, and indeed ethnic nationalism was a major force in uniting principalities into nation-states. Is there any reason to be more suspicious of "ethnic" nationalism in non-European regions? In Europe, even many relatively small nations (peoples with distinct territories and identities) have their own states, whereas most post-colonial states include all or parts of many nations, their boundaries typically having been drawn by colonists concerned only with dividing and conquering local nations.

To the extent that we have any suggestions (other than by America's bad examples) to offer to those who are now going through the processes of de-colonization and national self-determination and self-discovery, the lessons of both Asia and Africa would seem to be that many of the post-independence problems of former colonies stem from the failure of their colonial masters to allow them to define themselves and draw their borders in accordance with pre-existing boundaries of ethnicity and nationalism.

We have, I think, much more to learn than to teach about communalism. Even the word "communalism", which my dictionary defines as "devotion to the interests of one's own group rather than to those of society as a whole," is scarcely known here, and thus frequently misunderstood.

Many of the present communal problems in the U.S. arise from the delusion that the U.S. is a nation-state. The consequence is an inability of many Americans to imagine a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious, or multi-national state, or to distinguish between nationalism, patriotism, ethnic identity and loyalty to the state.

Countries with more conspicuously diverse traditions (India and the USSR being the two best examples) have never been able to evade such issues, and communalism in those countries has been the subject of extensive research, analysis, writing, organizing and practical experimentation.

Rather than trying to "show people how to get along with each other" (as if Americans could!) we would be better off asking what Soviet and Indian activists, scholars, and ordinary people can teach us about how we Americans might get along with one another.

How did Nehru, for example, manage to integrate theory and practice as an outspoken opponent of communalism but also the leader of a nationalist movement? How did he unite the newly-independent and thus deeply nationalist post-colonial states in the Non-Aligned Movement, a collective voice that transcended nationalism? How did Gandhi, or Ambedkar (the untouchable and anti-casteism activist who wrote ethnic affirmative action into India's constitution) address these issues? What is happening on these issues in India and around the world today?

Even in multi-national states, recognition of ethnic nationalism has been an important step toward bringing government definitions in line with people's understanding of their identity. Among the more successful measures to reduce communal tensions in India was a wholesale redrawing of the state boundaries along linguistic (which largely equated with ethnic) lines.

A common argument against "secessionist" (a/k/a anti-colonial) movements is that independence or greater autonomy for one region will lead to more demands for similar autonomy by others, and/or that it will threaten the unity of the colonial power. But no colonized people should sacrifice its self-determination to the integrity of an empire.

If Chechen independence is said to threaten Russian "national unity," what is probably meant is that it may cause Yakuts and other non-Russians to question whether they too would be better off running their own affairs rather than having their orders come from, and the profits of their land and labor go to, a foreign capitol 4,000 miles away in Europe. A good question.

Many of Russia's present problems, and in particular the national crisis of confidence and the rise of Russian (Orthodox Christian) fascism, are a response to the loss of the Russian Empire. But so was the British crisis of confidence of the 1960s and 70s and the emergence of the National Front a response to Britain's loss of its empire. Would anyone seriously have argued against Indian or East African independence because it might contribute to a loss of national stability and the growth of communalism and (white Christian) ethnic bigotry in England? It did, but that's nothing we should blame on India or its national movement.

The question to ask is whether Chechen independence will bring greater democracy to Chechnya. I don't know what sort of independent Chechen government will emerge. But I think that even a dictatorial local government is likely to be more responsive to popular pressure than even the most well-meaning foreign overseer. Few subjects of post-colonial dictators and juntas, and few popular movements in undemocratic post-colonial states, have as their goal -- even as an intermediate goal -- the restoration of their former (or any other) foreign colonial administrators.

The new wave of skepticism toward nationalism and self-determination comes at a time when most of the world's colonized population and land area, including several of the nations closest to independence and international recognition, are Islamic in ethnic and national identity.

Throughout interior Asia, people identify themselves as colonized. Even secular Muslims draw on Islam as an element of national culture, and are empowered by their identification through Islam with the outstanding anti-colonial successes of the last 15 years, both Islamically-identified: the Iranian Revolution against the Shah's U.S.-front regime and the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation.

American progressives need to look closely at whether we are applying a different standard to Muslims and Islam than we would to Christians and Christianity. In many countries where overt political organizing and secular political discourse are suppressed by the national and/or colonial authorities, politics is channelled into religious forms, whether Christian, Buddhist, or Islamic.

In fanatically anti-communist Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, for example, some of the most progressive, democratic and egalitarian political organizing is being carried out by grassroots Islamic groups. Most Americans are unfamiliar with contemporary Islamic thought (or with the long tradition of Islamic reformism -- which means not just the reform of Islam but of society -- and Islamic social action). They might be surprised to learn what Islam means to such thinkers as Asghar Ali Engineer (who writes explicitly of Islam as a liberation theology) or to most of the world's Muslims.

Some readers may accuse me of being "soft on Islam," or blind to its dangers. I think I'm more aware of these issues, not because I'm more pro-Muslim than most, but because -- as an atheist -- I'm less pro-Christian, and thus better able to compare Islam and Christianity.

Should we be any more reluctant to approach our local mosque for support, or to seek advice from local Islamic organizations, when organizing around events or issues in the Islamic world, than to consult or work with church groups on issues of concern to Christian countries? Should we be any more skeptical of the presence of Islamic clerics amongst the leaders of the national movement in Kashmir than of the presence of Christian clergy in the governments of Nicaragua or Haiti?

Most of the world's billion Muslims ascribe the reluctance of the world to aid Bosnia, or to recognize Chechnya -- or Kashmir, or East Turkestan (this last being the world's largest remaining colony, in both population and land area) to religious prejudice. Are we really as opposed to ethnic nationalism as we think, or are we merely expressing our anti-Islamic bias?

[Edward Hasbrouck has travelled widely in Islamic Asia. He wrote about Kashmir in The Nonviolent Activist, Jan.-Feb. 1995.]

[Originally published in 1995 in The Nonviolent Activist, the journal of the War Resisters League. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily those of the WRL.]


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