Religion , Nationalism And Violence Essay

8238 words - 33 pages

Religion, Nationalism and Violence
Philip S. Gorski
Department of Sociology, Yale University
"Religious nationalism"? Until fairly recently, most social scientists and historians would have
regarded this conceptual construct as a contradiction-in-terms. Nationalism could replace
religion - could be an ersatz religion - but it could not co-exist with religion. No longer. A small
trickle of works on religious nationalism during the 1990s has given way to a veritable flood
during the last decade, not just in sociology but also in neighboring fields such as anthropology,
history, political science and even English.
This paper provides a selective survey of important trends within this quickly expanding
literature, focusing especially on three themes:
1) Historical dis/continuities between religious traditions and national identities. Scholars
once drew a sharp line between religion and nationalism, by invoking distinctions between the
religious and the secular and tradition and modernity. Today, critics have not only blurred these
distinctions but sometimes erased them altogether, by suggesting that even modern and secular
nationalisms are built on traditional and religious foundations. In particular, they have identified
Biblical notions of chosenness and covenant, with their emphasis on cultural uniqueness, political
autonomy, popular sovereignty and sacred homelands, as crystallizing, or at least prefiguring,
"modern" nationalisms.
2) Western vs. non-Western forms of religious nationalism. Revisionist accounts of Western

nationalism suggest a certain genealogy: on this account, Western nationalism: a) has its roots in
the Judeo-Christian strand of Middle Eastern monotheism; b) assumes a (putatively) secular form
in Europe sometime between the late 18th and early 19th centuries; and then c) diffuses to
non-Western countries via European colonialism. Recent work on religious nationalism suggests
that this genealogy is too simple. In Eastern Europe, for example, religious nationalism seems to
have crystallized around other tropes: martyrdom rather than chosenness, Christ rather than
Moses. Furthermore, recent work on non-Western nationalisms suggests that the Mosaic
discourse had "functional analogues." For instance, Roger Friedland has compellingly argued the
national identities of Iran, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Israel and Palestine are all "suffused with
religious narrative and myth, symbolism and ritual" (Friedland 2001: 129).
3) Religious nationalism, social integration, liberal secularism and collective violence. There
are political reasons for the increased scholarly attention to religious nationalism in recent years.
As Jonathan Fox has repeatedly demonstrated, there is a religious dimension to much collective
violence, indeed, by his reckoning, to most collective violence (riots, pogroms, civil wars, ethnic
conflicts and genocide). This has led some public commentators to argue that there is an...

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