By Izeth Hussain
I believe that a very plausible case can be made out to show that the major contemporary problem in the world is that of minorities, – ethnic, religious, linguistic and other minorities.
Their maltreatment at the hands of majorities- perceived or misperceived – leads to restiveness and sometimes outright violent rebellion. Sometimes, even without any maltreatment minorities can want to establish a separate state, as seems to be the case with the Scots.
Even if it is denied that the minority is the major contemporary problem, it will generally be agreed that minority problems have a salience after 1945 that they never had in earlier periods.
We must seek explanations for this fact. A pointer is provided by the fact that it was after 1945 that the minority became the major contemporary problem. This is to say that this novel salience of the minority problem corresponds with the break-up of empires and the formation of a world consisting of nation-states. Ostensibly the ideal of the nation-state as conceived in the West has come to sweep the world since 1945. In reality, what has prevailed in the greater part of the third world is the tribal-state, not the nation-state, while in the West itself a process of retribalisation has been going on.
We need to acquire a proper understanding of what the nation and the nation-state meant to the West, particularly in the period after the French Revolution of 1789. The nation was conceived to have the right to form its own state in its bounded territory, within which it alone had sovereignty. Later, these conceptions came to be formalized as the principles of self-determination and of non-interference in the internal affairs of states.
The “nation” which had the right to self-determination was really the major ethnic group within the territory that it claimed for its state. Obviously this conception of the nation-state privileges the major ethnic groups at the expense of the minor ones. It might have been expected therefore that the nation-state would be full of rivalry, tension and conflict. Instead, in the West, the nation-state showed a far higher degree of unity than under any previous state-formation. The reason for this, I believe, was the Enlightenment ideology with its principles of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” which enabled the giving of fair and equal treatment to the minorities.
The nation-state was so great a success in the West that it was unquestioningly accepted as the desired state formation by the third world countries in the era of decolonization. Antony D.Smith has pointed out in one of his books that nation-states had their origin in ethnicity: the majority ethnic group with a historic claim to its territory established its state, and also brought about a unity transcending ethnic divisions, as shown, for instance, by the cases of Britain and France. But only a few of the third world countries – such as notably Sri Lanka – could claim to establish a nation-state on the basis of an ethnic group with a legitimate claim to its territory.
Most of the African and Latin American states were established on frontiers arbitrarily drawn by imperial powers that altogether ignored the factor of ethnicity. The result was a multiplicity of ethnic groups within the state which made the task of forging a unity all the more difficult. India’s difficulty in integrating its North-East, for instance, lies in the fact that 150 ethnic groups are pullulating there.
However, I believe that the major reason for the failure to forge unity is to be found in ideology, not in the multiplicity of ethnic groups. At the time of the French Revolution in 1789 less than half the people of France spoke French. But the people in the most progressive part of France, centered on the Ile de France, managed to forge a unity among all the peoples who inhabited the territory that was claimed to be France, sometimes through brutal means but the unity forged was nevertheless strong.
France also had an excellent record in integrating immigrants, so much so that it is even claimed that France was built by immigrants even to a greater extent than was the US. It is not entirely surprising that Sakorzy’s father was a Hungarian immigrant, a member of the lesser Hungarian aristocracy, and that Sakorzy’s first wife was Spanish, a descendant of the Spanish composer Albeniz, who openly declared that there was not a drop of French blood in her veins.
I must mention a few details to bring out why the nation-state was viewed so positively. During the Napoleonic wars – which were long before France established its full unity – the French army proved to be an irresistible force which swept through Europe.
The secret was that that army did not consist of mercenaries. It was a citizen army with a high sense of unity, deriving from the ideology which held that anyone who acquired French citizenship was the equal of any other French citizen. When I first read Stendhal’s great novel The Charterhouse of Parma I was shocked by the detail that the Italian people welcomed Napoleon’s conquering army because I thought that that was a piece of inexcusable propaganda on the part of a great writer. I was not aware that the peoples of Europe did welcome the French army because it was seen as an emancipatory force.
That was why the great Hegel wrote lyrically after seeing Napoleon go by that he had just seen History riding on horseback. I am not denying the negative aspects of the French conquests, about which Hegel himself had a rude awakening a few days later when the liberating French troops ransacked his library. But, on the whole, the response of progressive forces in Europe to the French Revolution was very positive. It is best exemplified by the story – a true one – about the good citizens of Konigsberg tuning their clocks by the appearance of Kant on his evening walk- he being a man of the most regular habits. When he failed to appear one evening, those good citizens knew that something of a cataclysmic order must have taken place. They were right: Kant had just received news that the French Revolution had broken out!
So, the nation-state based on the Enlightenment ideology was seen in the West in very positive terms because it was in reality an emancipatory and unificatory force. Not so in the third world where it was a transplant that came via the Western conquerors, without roots in the national soil. In the traditional ideologies that still held sway in the third world there was not much room given for equality. It is pertinent here to recall Louis Dumont’s point that the Indian caste system is not just another system of social stratification comparable to the Western class-based ones because they valorize equality while the Indian caste system valorizes hierarchy. The point applies of course to the Sinhalese and Tamil caste systems as well.
I would go even further and declare that the Sri Lankan caste systems are even more resistant to equality than the Indian one because the factors promoting equality in India are much more powerful than they are in Sri Lanka – an idea that I cannot possibly expound within the ambit of this article. As for unity, the traditional societies of Afro-Asia and Latin America have never shown the passion for unity manifested in the West They have never been assimilationist, they have valued diversity, and have always been multicultural. The West took to multiculturalism only the other day and are already disillusioned with it, so great is their yearning for unity.
It is not surprising, given these ideological differences, that the third world countries inherited the nationalism of the West and made with it the tribal state, not the nation state. The state was conceived of as the rightful possession of the major ethnic group, which was in a super=ordinate position in relation to the subordinate minority ethnic groups in an undeclared hierarchical system. And of course there was no striving for unity except at the rhetorical level. There have been exceptions, however, such as India and Singapore where there have been authentic attempts at nation-building. But we must note that in India all the same the ideals of equality and unity are under strong challenge from the ferociously tribalist Hindutva ideology.
I must emphasize the fact that the tribal state under the guise of the nation state is not something peculiar to the third world countries. It was already there in the East European countries during the inter-war period, – that group of countries also being alien to the Enlightenment ideology.
A curious fact that requires explanation is that the tribal nationalism that was peculiar to East Europe is now taking hold in the West as well. This is curious because the West European countries seemed to be examples of impressively successful integration, manifesting the ideals of unity and equality among diverse ethnic groups.
Britain has had Scottish Prime Ministers such as Ramsay Macdonald and Harold MacMillan, and the integration seemed so successful that it has even been said that the British Empire, built by the English, was run by the Scots, as shown for instance by the fact that our tea estates were run largely by the Scots. Britain has had amongst its most impressive Prime Ministers the Welsh Lloyd George, and even a Jew in Benjamin Disraeli, at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in Britain and Europe as a whole. But Scots and Welsh nationalism took root several decades ago, though only at a cultural level.
Today, however, Scots nationalism has become a redoubtable political force and the next few years can well witness a separate Scots nation-state.
The break-up of Canada is feasible with the emergence of a Quebec nation-state, and there are separatist movements among the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Flemings in Belgium where ethnic relations are much more envenomed than is generally known, and the Italians in the industrialized North see no reason why their further enrichment should be held back by the backward South.
We must bear in mind also the break-up of the Soviet Union which saw the emergence of many states in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, all of which were based on ethnicity and nothing else.
The world seems to be going through a process of retribalisation on a global scale, calling into question the validity of the nation-state as understood in the West over the last couple of centuries. What is the explanation? I must first make a clarification about what is meant by “ideology” in present-day political discourse. Obviously an ideology cannot be powerful if it exists only at the level of ideas, something of interest only to academics and intellectuals. It has to derive its power from the extent to which it corresponds to the interests, desires and aspirations of human beings.
The Enlightenment ideology can be seen to have its origin partly in the scientific revolution that began in the seventeenth century and led people to believe that for the first time in history they were in command of their environment, in command of nature and not at its command. It came to be realized that wealth could be created, and that it was not something limited that could be gained only at the expense of others in a zero-sum game.
There was a climate of optimism in which “liberty, equality, and fraternity” seemed ideals that could be realized, and there came about a belief that progress would go on indefinitely into the future. That belief inspired even Gibbon in his great History, one of the master-texts of the Enlightenment, despite his exceptional grasp of the horrors of which human beings are capable.
The important point for the purpose of finding an explanation for the retribalisation going on in the West is that the scientific revolution led to expanding economies that made possible upward mobility for the mass of the people as never before. There was a revolution of rising expectations which could make hitherto satisfied minorities want to break away and set up their own states. So we have the French Canadians and the Scots, both of whom seemed to have been thoroughly integrated into the national fabrics of Canada and Britain, suddenly wanting to establish their own states. The indigenous Indians of Latin America were so marginalized that the rest of the world was barely conscious of their existence in the realm of politics, but suddenly they produced leaders such as Chavez and Morales.
In Sri Lanka the Muslims, who had marginalized themselves to the extent of thinking that politics was merely a mechanism to secure their business and religious interests, suddenly produced the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, an ethnic party which had as its rationale the claim that all the other SL parties were ethnic except in name. The SLMC has since made itself a troublesome force in our politics. The truth is that the wretched of the earth are arising in a process of global revolution. This revolution of rising expectations could be at least part of the explanation for the retribalisation, which doubtless has complex factors behind it.
The record since 1945 shows that the nation-state is usually seen as privileging the majority ethnic group, and therefore as something that is deep down unacceptable to minority ethnic groups. This is true not only of the tribal states of the third world, but also of the authentic nation-states of the West founded on the Enlightenment ideology, as I have shown above. There are so many minorities in the world, ethnic, religious, linguistic – the Indian Muslims alone count for more than a hundred million – that it is impossible to envisage a just and equitable new world order that is founded on the nation-state.
What is the way out? Ostensibly it is through the serious application of the supposedly sacred principle of self-determination. But, in that case, insurmountable practical difficulties will have to be faced. There are said to be just four states in the world that are ethnically homogeneous, while according to another criterion there are just twelve. This means that more than one hundred and seventy member states of the UN will have to be broken into pieces. Is that seriously imaginable? And how many new states will there be? Ethnic, religious, and linguistic minorities are so numerous that there will be hundreds of new states. In trying to be practical, we can argue that the right of self-determination should be limited only to those ethnic groups that have an authentic claim to territory that can be historically regarded as their homeland. Even so, there will have to be scores of new states.
Instead of jettisoning the sacred principle of self-determination into its rightful place in the waste-paper basket, there have been brave attempts at salvaging parts of it. First, it was argued that self-determination was meant to apply only in colonial contexts, not in the newly-independent states. There is nothing to show that those who originally propounded the idea had any such distinction in mind. But we can be sure that the leaders of the newly-independent states did not want the principle to be applied to their states: they were slavering at the prospect of having a go at the minorities who had privileged positions under the colonial masters. One such minority quickly, and happily, burgherd off to Australia shortly after Sri Lanka’s Independence.
Next, it was argued that by self-determination was meant not a right to independence but only to a measure of internal self-determination, meaning a right to a measure of devolution, which could mean a modest measure of it or something bordering on independence. Again, there is nothing to show that those who originally propounded the idea had any such thing in mind. It seems to be an afterthought, consequent to the realization in the newly-independent states that the best way of containing restive minorities was to afford them some measure of devolution, provided that they had a plausible claim to a homeland. It is beyond my comprehension that there is any such thing as a “right” to internal self-determination. What I understand by a right is that it is an absolute entitlement, something categorical with no ifs and buts about. If that is true of the right to internal self-determination, we will find a whole lot of states being arraigned at Geneva by the human rights lobby. But nothing of the sort happens. The truth is that the so-called right to internal self-determination is something that exists at an academic level.
How are we to explain the fact that there has been so much nonsense about self-determination and the supposed right to internal self-determination? It keeps the illusion going that minority problems everywhere can be solved within the framework of the nation-state. It is related to another phenomenon that passes without being noticed: a reluctance to even acknowledge minority problems for what they are. I will here merely put down a few details on this subject that merits a separate article.
I have in the past written several articles on anti-Muslim riots in Sri Lanka. In every one of those cases our media held that those riots were merely fracas between thugs with no ethnic dimension to them at all. On the occasion some weeks ago of the first anniversary of the London riots it was noticed that there had been a refusal on the part of the authorities to recognize the ethnic dimension in those riots. There has been convincing evidence to show that the rioters were disproportionately black.
The fighting in Syria has been much commented on in the international media with the focus being usually on its international dimension, with Russia, China, and Iran on one side and the West on the other. It is very rarely that one comes across an article focusing on the minority problem behind the fighting: if Assad falls the formerly privileged Alawite minority could be subjected to genocide. It could be that it is because of the underlying minority problem that the Arab spring in Syria is following a peculiar trajectory.
The unwillingness to recognize minority problems will not make them go away. The prospect is that more and more minorities will assert themselves over their rights and aspirations, so that the nation-state will come increasingly into question. There is nothing sacrosanct about the nation-state, a system of state organization that is relatively recent in history.
A pointer to the future could be provided by the EU, the evolution of which has shown a willingness to compromise the sovereignty of the state. The nation-state is not going to disappear in the foreseeable future. What is likely to happen is that the erosion of state sovereignty that has been going on for some time will go much further. The international pressures on Sri Lanka in connection with its Tamil ethnic problem should be seen in this perspective.