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Nationhood and multiculturalism

Cultural belonging and national identity.

July 2014

The desire to control, safeguard, and keep separate one's own culture (the tribal drive) motivates all the separatist conflicts around the globe. The future of multiculturalism may be shaky.
According to current "western" (European/American) social philosophers and historians, a watchword for the modern global cultural trend is "multiculturalism". This reflects a wish that the world's many ethnic traditions may be learning to live together in harmony, not just among countries, but within countries, cities, and neighborhoods. This seems a worthwhile hope, given the long history of ethnic and cultural violence that have erupted in wars on a staggering scale. In Europe, the formation of the European Union, now with 28 member countries (and six more in various stages of application), has been seen as a step in the direction of increased internationalism and cultural integration, and consequent reduced national chauvinism and mutual suspicions and fear. Indeed, the EU must be credited with having kept the peace among its member states during the 62 years of its existence, an unprecedented period of peace in Europe as far back as historical records exist. For this the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize on its 60th anniversary in 2012.

Yet, cultural integration with the aim of multicultural harmony is not everywhere seen as the panacea that some hope for. In many – if not most – parts of the world, cultural divisions and enmity, with resistance toward integration, seem as vigorous as ever. In fact cultural conflict among neighboring peoples is certainly the primary cause of armed conflict – and perhaps the prime cause of misery – in the world today. The factors that have always tended toward cohesion within a culture, as well as toward separation from other cultures, place hurdles in the way of any future reintegration of cultures. I say re-integration, because there is good evidence that at an earlier stage of the history of modern humans the lines that have survived to the present may have derived from a rather small band of Africans. Our cultural diversity and isolation may largely have developed during the last 200 thousand years.

Cultural unity is a strong force that promotes social cohesion in the group or nation, but resists dilution by foreign elements that deviate from the group's norm by such factors as ethnicity, culture, religion, or language. To preserve this unity, laws in all societies (including religions, political parties, fraternal societies, etc.) distinguish between those who are bona fide members of the group and those who are not. The individual's feeling of belonging in a group depends on a feeling of identity with that group, and this is weakened and threatened when the group's identity is diluted or when competing cultural groups enter the same territory.

The human need for belonging to an identifiable group is undoubtedly natural and ancient; it is seen in tribalism, and a good example is the state of the native populations of North America before the European invasion. The American Indians lived separated in tribes that felt a strong sense of tribal identity and defended their territories against neighboring tribes, all of which were potential and often actual enemies. The development of the "nation" – a geographically distinct group, much larger than the tribe, whose members share a common descent, speak a common language, practice similar customs, respect similar traditions, and hold similar beliefs, had not yet occurred among the North American natives when they were overrun by European conquerors, but occurred in Europe, where nations were outgrowths of earlier tribal units, probably initially by coalescence of related tribes.

The history of Europe (as of the political world everywhere) is one of search for national ethnic identity that has resulted in the 50-odd separate countries recognized today in that compact continent. In just the past twenty-five years in Europe, nineteen nations have been involved in splitting or unification of territory, so that there has been an increase of at least thirteen nations in Europe during the past quarter century. Yugoslavs found themselves unable to live together as one nation, and broke up in a series of bloody wars into seven ethnically based nations; the ethnic break-up of the USSR similarly resulted in eight nations in Europe and a further five in Asia; and Czechoslovakia divided along ethnic lines to become two nations. The reunification of Germany differs from the other cases in that it made one larger nation out of two, but it was also based on the desire for ethnic unification. None of these realignments were the result of the historically typical desire to increase national power; on the contrary, each (with the exception of Germany) resulted in smaller and less powerful states. But they were all motivated by local popular desires to unify their ethnic group by separating from other groups. The motive is invariably what we might clumsily call anti-multiculturalism, which, it could be argued, may be the historical leitmotif of modern Europe.

There is no indication that this pattern of segregation into ethnic groups is abating in Europe. This summer's fighting in Ukraine, where Russia has occupied and incorporated Crimea and is looking for more, is pitched by Russia as a matter of ethnic unification, in tune with the temper of the times (though the common perception that the leader of the world's largest country simply hungers for more land, more people, and more power may be just as plausible). Meanwhile, separatist movements exist in nearly every country in Europe (as elsewhere), each proposing to carve their nation into yet smaller parcels based on ethnicity or culture.

It is odd and ironic that the trend of modern Europe, while separatist on one hand, may at the same time be argued as one of growing unity, with the development of the European Union and its emphasis on cross-cultural blending and cross-border access. But the EU is still just an effort – many have called it a clumsy effort. The feature most characteristic of the present EU may be cross-cultural stress and nationalistic resistance: stress from the policy of free movement which has brought large numbers of poorer easterners into the more affluent western nations, and resistance throughout Europe to the loss of national control over their own affairs. On both scores, the direct conflict with the local desire for a nation-state identity and control is evident – EU's current conflict with the United Kingdom over the limits of Brussels' power vs. national control is a prominent case in point. The EU government in Brussels has proceeded quickly with extending its power at the expense of the national states, and it remains to be seen whether a serviceable balance between international cooperation and national identity can be struck. It may need to be achieved sooner rather than later, as movements to secede from EU are growing in a number of member nations.

The recent evident growth of ultranationalism and xenophobia in Europe seems to be a direct consequence of EU's efforts to prevent just that development by forcing the various member nationalities to accept the mixing of other cultures into their own. The fear of loss of cultural solidarity and identity has led directly to xenophobia and political separatism. The fundamental EU principle of unimpeded movement of people within EU has led to the rapid growth of minority cultures in all the western EU countries, with sizeable "foreign" neighborhoods and inevitable cultural clashes. The people of many European countries have not been well prepared to accept such growth of strange and often unwelcome cultures, religions, and languages in their communities, or for the redefinition of their culture that this entails. Many have felt a loss of cultural identity as the identity of their culture has changed, and the fear of "contamination" of the local culture is in the air in many European nations.

The conflict between the claim of ethnic groups to a right of independence and self-determination on the one hand and the ideals of free movement and equal rights in the multicultural society on the other presents the western liberal democracies with a dilemma, both in their foreign relations and in their immigration policies. The most prominent example is perhaps the Israel-Palestinian conflict, where Israel is established as a "Jewish state," and the other side is equally labeled as Arab and assumed to be Muslim. Genuinely equal treatment of minorities is hardly possible in states whose very definition includes an ethnicity or religion. Similarly, many nations in the Middle East are overtly labeled by the religious belief that citizens are expected to hold, e.g., "The Islamic Kingdom of [ etc. ]" Such a proposed nation as "ISIL" (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) is based on uncompromising fundamentalist Islam with a "convert or die" message to its conquered peoples. (Converting from Islam is criminalized in several Islamic societies - in some cases punishable by death.) Such inability to countenance the equal rights of neighbors to hold – and to change – their own views is, of course, incompatible with achievement of democracy, not to mention multiculturalism, but such intolerance may reflect the immediate road ahead in much of the Muslim world. It seems likely that the cultural violence, illiberality, and terror that today color the Middle East also color the western view of Muslims and of Islam as a whole, and makes western peoples more wary of welcoming Islamic culture into their societies.

The point of this note is to call to mind that while multiculturalism may succeed, it has high hurdles to overcome: the psychological need of individuals to belong and to identify with their culture, and their resistance to that which threatens this identification. The rising trend around the world of the idea of ethnically based nationhood is a challenge to the multicultural dreams of the EU leadership. Successful multicultural integration must depend on either a break-down and amalgamation of cultural differences and allegiances, or construction of cross-cutting allegiances within the multicultural society.

© 2014 H. Paul Lillebo

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