Does Nationalism Leave Room for Minorities?

All over the world, we see separations between the cultural and religious norms of the subnational minorities within a country and the generally accepted cultural/religious norms which we might argue constitute national sentiment (of course, this is an overly simplified account of national sentiment, but it gets us some way there). All we need to do is look across the pond to America, where the xenophobic rhetoric and policy wishes of Donald Trump, stemming from a desire to ‘Make America great again’, to find empirical evidence of Nationalism failing to accommodate for subnational pluralism. The question remains, however; does it always have to?

In university, I have been studying different attitudes towards the relationship between subnational pluralism and nationalism itself, in an attempt to draw out an answer to the following: does nationalism require the suppression of subnational pluralism? While prima facie inspection may endorse the conclusion that nationalism does require the suppression of subnational pluralism, I shall argue that Bhikhu Parekh’s interpretation of the concept of national identity may be used to successfully reconcile the two concepts harmoniously.

The Argument Against Nationalism’s Accommodation

A common argument in favour of nationalism follows the general position that each “ethnonational community is valuable in and of itself” (Miscevic, 2014, Ch.3.2). Communities in which members share strongly compatible preferences, ideas, ways of life, languages and values provide moral and cultural foundations from which the strongest societal bonds might form. Furthermore, this environment is the only one from which a strong sense of societal obligation might arise. Therefore, the fundamental benefit of nationalism is the cultural and linguistic homogeneity of members, leading to maximally compatible ways of living within the nation.

It follows, then, that an interruption in such homogeneity (in the form of subnational pluralism) would undermine the manifest advantages of nationalism; hence the conclusion that nationalism necessitates the suppression of diversity (at least in order to remain practicable). For this reason, nationalist proponents arguing on the grounds just discussed would likely conclude that the suppression of subnational pluralism is necessary. This line of reasoning may be taken further, however. Given the benefits of nationalism (themselves highly contested), it would make sense that the subnational groups convene geographically over time within the larger nation, in order to benefit themselves on a smaller scale from the advantages of homogeneity. For example, the members of the Islamic community in Britain (especially those members who cannot speak English well) may find it beneficial to live within close proximity of each other in order to create a form of subnational moral and cultural web; it might be argued that this is happening in Britain today. This effect wouldn’t just be seen within the Islamic community. It would make sense that Africans, Indians or even Americans would convene over time into subnational, regional groups. The degree to which this might happen would depend chiefly on the level of homogeneity between national and subnational groups. Therefore, it is unlikely that one might find a distinct American community in Britain.

In reference to the conflicts of the twentieth century, Miscevic explains, “one can safely assume that culturally plural states divided into isolated and closed sub-communities glued together merely by arrangements of modus vivendi are inherently unstable” (2014, Ch.3.4). Clearly, this form of severely non-homogeneous social structuring is untenable. Therefore, it is not just that subnational pluralism undermines the beneficial nature of nationalism, but that it offers a significantly more volatile, historically unstable national structure. It is for these reasons that nationalists might argue that the reconciliation of nationalism and the existence of subnational peoples is non-feasible.

The Argument for Nationalism’s Accommodation

On the other hand, contrary to this common understanding of nationalism, Bhikhu Parekh offers an altogether more liberal understanding of the nature of national identity. Parekh believed that national identity “is articulated differently in different areas of life, each of which reflects, refracts, reacts upon and transforms it, and is therefore internally differentiated” (Parekh, 1995, p.267). Her understanding of national identity was more malleable, based on the notion that national identity amends itself in response to its environment. For Parekh, national identity could adapt and change. For example, as Jamaican immigrants settled in the United Kingdom, bringing with them their own cultural traditions, dialects and so forth, they form a subnational group. Rather than the nationalist sentiment of the time suppressing their values and ideas in order to protect itself, the national sentiment moulds, in order to accommodate for the new influences on national identity. We need only look at the English language to see this process in action. There are entire regional vernaculars saturated with previously Jamaican slang phrases, illustrating the transition from subgroup to national group. This, in turn, provides the space for new subgroups to form, and hence the evolutionary circle of national identity which explains Parekh’s claim that the nationalist sentiment is about adaptation and development over time. Given this interpretation of what nationalism means, it is possible to explain the harmonisation of dominant national identities with minority, subnational cultural groups.

 

Which one of these explanatory vehicles makes the most sense to you? Do you fundamentally agree/disagree with anything said or quoted above? Let me know down below in the comments!

 

Bibliography

Miscevic, N. (2014). Nationalism. In: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Parekh, B. (1995). The concept of national identity. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 21(2).

 

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