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Research - Politics
Written by Louay Safi   
Sep 09, 1991 at 07:00 PM
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Nationalism and the Multinational State
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We live in a world of nation-states where national cohesiveness constitutes the legitimizing ground for political unity. In such a world, multinational political units are considered to be peculiar entities whose existence is either taken as an exception to the rule or is considered to be transient and therefore destined to collapse into its national units.


A product of Europe’s historical experience, nationalism found its way to the Muslim world and gained many adherents and advocates in its ethnic (i.e., Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish) and religious (i.e., Pakistani, Iranian) forms. The nationalistic mindset has become an intrinsic part of the political thinking of many Muslim individuals and groups. As a result of the discontinuity in historical political thinking and practice effected by the European cultural and political domination of Muslim life for the last two centuries, many Muslims are unaware of the much superior political structures which existed—albeit in rudimentary, distorted, or compromised forms—before Western penetration.

In this paper, I will discuss the origin and development of the concept of nationalism, underscore its defects, and point out some of its devastating consequences, especially in regions rich in ethnic and religious minorities. I argue that nationalism is a European phenomenon invented by German intellectuals and employed by Prussia in order to bring about a united German state. I contend that a national government tends to suppress minority groups and is therefore inappropriate to societies with heterogeneous and diverse populations. I conclude by discussing, in general terms, the model of communal pluralism that flourished under the khilafah system.

 The Genesis of Nationalism

Nationalism is a relatively modem political doctrine. Writers on nationalism trace it back to Rousseau, a European philosopher who insisted that a good political community was characterized by a homogeneous population. However, nationalism as we know it today began to take shape not in France, but in Germanic Prussia. German writers interested in a united German state began to advocate nationalism as the only legitimate basis for statehood.

Among the leading German nationalists, Herder and Fichte stand out as the most articulate proponents of united Germany and as the foremost advocates of nationalism in general. Herder advanced the notion that God intended the world to be composed of diverse cultural groups, each of which would have its own unique national character. Therefore, he concluded, it was the duty of the members of the various cultural groups (or nations) to preserve their unique national heritage and to make sure that the cultural qualities of their groups remained pure. Since the preservation of the community’s national character is possible only when the nation in question is ruled by a national government, Herder theorized, the realm of the state must coincide with that of the nation. Multinational states were thus unnatural, but not because Herder feared that one nation may dominate another. Rather, they were unnatural because states containing more than one nation posed a threat to the principle of diversity. Nations that were politically united under one state risked losing their national identity and, hence, of being extinguished.[1]

Fichte, following in Herder’s footsteps, proclaimed that the German people constituted one nation and that the German nation had to be ruled by one sovereign state. In the play Patriotism and Its Opposite, published in 1807, Fichte expressed his nationalist sentiments through one of the play’s characters. “Understand me rightly,” the character says. “Separation of the Prussians from the rest of the Germans is purely artificial ... the separation of the Germans from the other European nations is based on Nature.”[2]

In the same year, Fichte delivered a series of lectures in Berlin in which he called for the unification of the German-speaking people into one independent state. Fichte was addressing his Prussian audience at a time when the German people where divided into numerous states and municipalities. “The German-speaking parts of Europe had the most diverse political arrangements, and the fact that Prussians and Bavarians, Bohemians and Silesians all spoke German was not considered a great political moment.[3]

It was natural for the Prussian proponents of nationalism to chose linguistic ties as the criteria of nationhood, for their dream was to unite all German-speaking peoples under the leadership of Prussia. Herder, and later Fichte, insisted that language was not simply a means of verbal and written communication; it was rather the repository, as it were, of a people’s national character and heritage. The way individuals think and perceive the world was determined, to a great extent, by their language.[4]

By inventing a political doctrine connecting language and political divisions, Prussian nationalists found a powerful way to get back at the Austro-Hungarian Empire and to justify Prussia’s expansion at the empire’s expense. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the largest state in Europe, its rule extending over vast territories in central and Eastern Europe. This empire was composed of many different nations, and people who spoke German as their native language represented a significant portion of its subjects. The empire itself was ruled by the House of Hapsburg, a German dynasty dating back to the twelfth century, and was the main rival to the Prussian monarchy. It was also the major obstacle confronting the ambitions of a Prussia seeking to expand beyond its borders.

The nationalist ideology advanced by Prussian political philosophers was almost completely alien to the majority of Europeans living around the turn of the nineteenth century. Of course these people were aware of their ethnic and linguistic differences, but only a tiny minority of them would go so far as to equate ethnic and linguistic divisions with political divisions. “A nation, to the French revolutionaries,” argues Kedourie, meant a number of individuals who have signified their will as to the manner of their government. A nation, on this vastly different theory (i.e., the nationalist theory), becomes a natural division of the human race, endowed by God with its own character, which its citizens must, as a duty, preserve pure and inviolable. Since God has separated the nations, they should not be amalgamated. ‘Every nationality,’ proclaims Schleiermacher, ‘is destined through its peculiar organization and its place in the world to represent a certain side of the divine image.[5]

It is often argued that the nation-state system dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia, which, in 1648, ended the Thirty Years’ War in Europe.[6] Yet on closer examination, one could see that this event did not establish a system of nation-states. Rather, it recognized the sovereignty of the state and its independence from papal authority. As Kedourie observed, modern proponents of nationalism tend to confuse the state with the nation, and hence use one to justify the other. Long after the Treaty of Westphalia was signed, Europeans continued to attach their loyalties to political and religious institutions rather than to their fellow nationals.

Up until the nineteenth century, Europe rarely had political divisions predicated on national identity. People’s resistance and acquiescence to political orders had always been in response to state institutions and to the agitation of local leaders who had inspired them to support or oppose one dynastic rule or the other. The proponents of nationalism seem to forget that nations are the outcome of long and persistent efforts by established states governed by ambitious and calculating statesmen whose skills and policies, and frequently their luck, helped them expand their hegemony and prevent foreign encroach­ment into their spheres of influence.

Furthermore, the nation-state system allegedly established by the Treaty of Westphalia appears, under close scrutiny, more of a myth than a reality. Despite numerous wars, including two world wars, not all German-speaking people have been integrated into one united German nation. Substantial Ger­man populations still live in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and France, let alone Austria, whose population is overwhelmingly of German stock. On the other hand, many states in Europe and elsewhere continue to demonstrate, even in our own time, the futility of talking in any meaningful and coherent sense of a system of nation-states. Multinational Switzerland, Turkey, and Canada could hardly be classified as nation-states.


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