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If nationalism is defined as an ideology that claims statehood and territorial sovereignty in the name of popular identity, ethnic nationalism is the subset thereof that defines popular identity through a myth of common ancestry. Whether this myth has a basis in fact is largely immaterial, as long as a sense of kinship among the population is manifested and maintained through common culture and tradition.
Ethnic nationalism depends on the sense of kinship or shared ancestry among a population. A shared, distinctive language is the most common marker of ethno-nationalist identity, but other cultural attributes such as religion can serve equally well, as illustrated by the rival ethnic nationalisms of Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Catholic Croats (all of whom speak what was once known as Serbo-Croatian) and by the division between Unionist Protestants and Irish Nationalist Catholics (who all speak an Irish-inflected English) in Northern Ireland.
Some of the deep sociobiological antecedents of ethnic nationalism can be recognized in the kinship-based cooperation patterns that humans have in common with a variety of other vertebrates. A shared commitment to guarding a particular territory (as a food source, breeding site, and/or shelter from predators) is one of the characteristic manifestations of such group solidarity. Among all known human societies, analogous behavior patterns have been refined, reinforced, and expanded by the deployment of a vast array of symbolic markers and cultural expressions of group identity. Among even the smallest hunter-gatherer communities, shared rituals, customs, and modes of communication have been used both to reinforce the social significance of kinship ties and to extend feelings of kinship beyond the relatively narrow group of people who unquestionably share a common ancestral lineage. These cultural mechanisms provide for the adoption of outsiders into the sacred circle of kinship and the casting out of those seen as violating social norms.
Starting some ten thousand years ago, as the agricultural revolution transformed societies in the Middle East and elsewhere, the size and number of organized communities began to grow exponentially, as did the importance of maintaining long-term control over bounded territories. The difficulty of maintaining social cohesion increased commensurately, for it was in the course of this socioeconomic, demographic, and cultural transformation that the phenomenon Benedict Anderson has described as “imagined communities” (1991) first emerged. That is to say, communities grew beyond the critical threshold of roughly 150 individuals—the maximum size of a social group all of whose members are likely to develop mutual personal bonds of affection and solidarity. Communal identity now had to be cultivated and maintained by means other than face-to-face contact. Moreover, it had to be kept alive in the face of ever-widening socioeconomic inequalities.
The linked institutions of religion and law, reinforced by a generous measure of brutality, were central to the establishment of social and political authority over imagined communities. To the extent that it was divine sanction of political authority that emerged as the dominant legitimizing framework for ancient states, rulers might not have been overly preoccupied with the ethnic identity of their subjects. But contact and conflict between states and societies brought ethnic commonalities and differences to the forefront of people’s consciousness. Close encounters on caravan routes and battlefields made members of different communities much more conscious of the cultural characteristics that set them apart from one another. By the same token, the conquest and consolidation of territorially and demographically extensive empires forced regimes to confront the significance of sociocultural solidarity and conflict among their subjects for the cohesion of their polities.
In large states like Egypt and the successive Mesopotamian empires, political authority, social hierarchy, and collective solidarity were maintained by religious and legal systems that enshrined the monarch as either a god or a descendant of the gods. The philosophically more subtle Confucian tradition in China extolled the virtuous monarch as enjoying the “mandate of heaven.” Yet while these theological frameworks of legitimization were suggestive of claims to universal dominion, the ethnocultural particularisms in which they were rooted became crucial to the political elites in these states the moment their rule was challenged by alien others. The conquest of Egypt by the Semitic Hyksos invaders and the establishment of their rule there as the fifteenth and sixteenth dynasties (1674–1552 BCE) would seem to belie the significance of ethnicity to political legitimacy in that society. Yet their overthrow by their Egyptian vassals in the sixteenth century BCE was portrayed by rebel leaders as a victory for indigenous Egyptians over ethnically alien, and hence illegitimate, overlords. Similar themes were associated millennia later with the overthrow of the Mongols’ Yuan dynasty (1279–1368 CE) by the founders of the native Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) in China.
Conversely, the Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian empires’ conquests of the bulk of the Fertile Crescent over the course of the ninth to sixth centuries BCE forced them to wrestle with the challenge of consolidating and maintaining their political authority over a diverse array of ethnic groups. One of their standard responses to rebellion by vassal states was the wholesale deportation of tens of thousands of indigenous inhabitants to the far corners of the empire, and the repopulation of the vacated lands by ethnically alien settlers. Such aggressive ethno-demographic engineering reflected the imperial regimes’ acute awareness of the potent interconnection among ethnic solidarity, territorial attachment, and aspirations to political independence.
The most well-known objects of ancient ethnic cleansing are the Jews, and it is among the Jews that one of the most clear-cut cases of ethnic nationalism in the ancient world emerged. It may have been during the Babylonian exile (sixth century BCE) that the distinctive Jewish ethno-theological synthesis crystallized, with its concept of a chosen people bound by a covenant with God to observe his commandments and accept the rule of his law in exchange for living as free people within a clearly bounded territory (“from Dan to Beersheba”). This conception of nationhood, which blended the idea of kinship with the notion of covenant (a synthesis of ethnic and civic elements, as it were), motivated the reestablishment of a self-governing Jewish community in the ancestral homeland and the eventual reemergence of a short-lived autonomous kingdom of Judah in the second and first centuries BCE. As conveyed through the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Jewish paradigm was to play a major role in the shaping of modern European—and hence global—nationalism.
Modern Ethnic Nationalism
The ancient world presents us with a variety of scenarios, ranging from societies in which ethnic self-awareness was weakly developed and played little active political role to those in which it was central to the legitimization of political authority and territorial sovereignty. Wherever economic decline and geopolitical instability undermined the very possibility of creating or maintaining centralized state power (e.g., early medieval Europe), ethnic nationalism could by definition have little or no occasion to manifest itself. Conversely, the rise of the highly centralized modern state, the growth of geographically integrated economies, and the literary standardization of vernacular languages all begged the following questions. What is the basis of legitimate political power? How should the state define itself in relation to the ethnic and cultural identity of the masses? These issues took center stage in parts of Europe and then spread elsewhere in the context of Western imperial expansion. The steady push toward political democratization in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries reinforced the growing belief that the collective identity of the populace was critical to legitimizing the very existence and authority of the state as well as the delineation of its boundaries.
In countries where strong preexisting states allowed for the further consolidation of centralized political authority, national identity tended to assume a civic form—that is, it was defined largely in terms of a common set of political values and loyalties, alongside shared territorial attachments and historical memories. Britain and France are the classic models of this variant of nationalism. But even in these cases, national consciousness was closely associated with particular forms of ethno-cultural and linguistic identity that were actively promoted by state authorities in a concerted attempt to assimilate, suppress, or marginalize lingering regionalist traditions (e.g., Scottish highlander society and Irish Gaelic speakers in the United Kingdom, Breton identity and the langue d’oc tradition in France) that were seen as potential obstacles to the unity of the nation-state. In territorially contiguous, multiethnic empires that were late to centralize their administrations (e.g., the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg monarchy), efforts to strengthen state authority in the eighteenth through twentieth centuries only served to provoke strong autonomist or secessionist backlashes from alienated ethnic groups (e.g., Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Czechs and Hungarians in the Habsburg lands). In the course of the nineteenth century, Central and Eastern Europe emerged as the locus classicus (to paraphrase Rogers Brubaker) of modern ethnic nationalism.
If imperial regimes served as the incubators of modern ethnic nationalism, it was the sudden collapse of these empires that led to the growing twentieth- century dominance of the ethnic nation-state as a globally standard framework for the exercise of political authority. The end of World War I was the most violent and dramatic of these watersheds, with the Habsburg, Romanov, and Ottoman empires all falling victim to internal disintegration and/ or foreign conquest. National self-determination, championed rhetorically by Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin alike, became the watchword of the new international order. Even British and French overseas imperial expansion now had to be cloaked in the rhetoric of self-determination doctrine, as in the League of Nations mandates that awarded control over much of the formerly Ottoman Middle East to those two powers on the premise that they would be responsible for leading the colonized peoples of these regions toward eventual independence. In the newly sovereign or newly expanded and reconfigured states of Central and Eastern Europe, policies and institutions were shaped by the struggle to fit divergent forms and conceptions of ethnic identity into unidimensional packages called nation-states. Processes that had taken centuries to unfold in the paradigmatic cases of Britain and France were expected to take place virtually overnight in countries like Poland, the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, and Romania, as they would be later in the postcolonial polities of Africa and Asia. In many cases, the large and diverse ethnic minorities that dwelled within the borders of the new states were pressured to assimilate, leave, or quietly accept second-class status on the margins of the new, ethno-national political orders. The turmoil and repression that ensued came at a heavy price to democratic institutions and political stability.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, the Eastern European nation-states that emerged from post-1945 Soviet domination owed their capacity for democratization and political stability not only to freedom from Communism but also to the brutal legacy of coercive border changes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide—policies (whether internally initiated or externally imposed by German or Soviet occupiers) that had radically diminished the scale of ethno-cultural diversity in many of these countries. Tellingly, it was precisely the most ethnically diverse Eastern European state—Yugoslavia—that failed to manage the transition from Communism to democracy in a peaceful fashion. In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the facade of ethnofederalism had served the Leninist regime as a propagandist tool employed in the maintenance of centralized, one-party rule. The demise of Communism led to the victory by default of ethnic nationalism as the operative legitimizing ideology in the newly independent republics. Ethnic warfare duly broke out between or within former Soviet republics such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, Moldova, and Georgia.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, ethnic nationalism remains a powerful and often destructive force not only along the borderlands of the former Soviet Union, but throughout much of the world. In some of the Asian and African states whose post-1945 independence was claimed in the name of nationalism (e.g., Sri Lanka, Rwanda), the unifying emotions of the anticolonial struggle and its memory are proving an inadequate foundation for the construction of cohesive national identities capable of transcending deep internal ethno-cultural divisions. It has been observed that the greater the pressure toward global economic and cultural homogenization, the stronger the backlash from groups seeking political sovereignty as a bulwark for the protection of their ethno-cultural heritage or as protection against the repressive policies of dominant ethnicities. While some manifestations of this tendency can be dismissed as “the narcissism of minor difference” (Ignatieff 1993, 21–22), no society basing its political institutions on the principle of popular sovereignty can ignore the fundamental dilemma of how to define and lend cohesive form to its citizenry’s identity without sowing discord among the ethno-cultural groups constituting its population.
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