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Author Jerry Muller Talks About Political Consequences of Ethnic Nationalism


A recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, "Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism," has provoked an outpouring of commentary. Jerry Muller, professor of history at The Catholic University of America, writes that Americans generally belittle the role of ethnic nationalism in politics, partly because of their own experience living in a country of immigrants where “ethnic identities are attenuated by cultural assimilation and intermarriage." However, Professor Muller argues that the narrative of 20th century European history reveals that nationalism twice led to war – in 1914 and again in 1939. By last year there were only two European states – Switzerland and Belgium – without what he calls a “single overwhelmingly dominant nationality.” Since the end of the Cold War, ethno-nationalism has continued to reshape borders – in the former Yugoslavia, the former Czechoslovakia, the former Soviet Union, as well as the two Germanies (East and West). According to Professor Muller, one finds a similar tension in a number of predominantly Muslim countries – such as Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – as well as in the Jewish state of Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

Jerry Muller suggests there are two major ways of thinking about “national identity.” Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s Press Conference USA and with VOA Eurasian Division broadcaster Jela De Franceschi, Professor Muller says one is that “people who live within a country’s borders” are part of the “nation” regardless of their ethnic, racial, or religious origins. The United States, especially over the past 40 years, conforms to this model, he suggests. But the other way of conceptualizing “national identity” is bound up with a “shared heritage,” which is based on a common language, a common faith, and a common ethnic ancestry.


Former empires – such as the Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman empires – were composed of numerous ethic groups. And as they dissolved during the First World War period, Jerry Muller says, minorities in these lands became “especially vulnerable” – Hungarians in Romania, the former Czechoslovakia, and Serbia; ethnic Germans in the new Soviet Union; Greeks and Armenians in the new Turkish state; and Jews and Roma (Gypsies) everywhere. In the late 20th century and early 2st century, Professor Muller argues, ethnic minorities discovered that “not to have a homeland, a place to retreat,” could be “dangerous” if they came under political pressure in countries where they were minority populations – for example, in the Balkans and in the former Soviet Union. And, he says it can result in situations where political leaders try to “mobilize the ethnic majority against the ethnic minority,” which can in turn set the stage for “more violence conflict.”

Jerry Muller suggests that identification along ethnic lines serves several “psychological functions.” Ethnic commonality in situations of multi-ethnicity, for example, can create a “degree of trust” among members of the same ethnic group. In most traditional societies, he notes, people are primarily “bound by blood” in the sense of family, clan, or tribal attachments. In contrast, in modern states that are “capable of creating some degree of the rule of law,” people are not so dependent on their blood relations, so “those older forms of attachment” tend to fade, especially as people become more urbanized. But Professor Muller says it still leaves people with a desire for some larger group they want to view themselves as a part of, and that often leads to the rise of “ethno-nationalist feelings.” In some cases, these groups have “their own histories” and nurture their grievances against other ethnic groups. But, he says, one way to get beyond the “ethnocentric perspective” is to see the mutual gains from “trade” in its widest sense, for example, the benefits of membership in the European Union.

However, in some cases Jerry Muller says, “partition along ethnic lines” may offer what he calls a “more lasting solution." Partition often works best, he argues, with “some movement of the population” so as to avoid having “smaller and smaller islands within some larger ethnic totality.” Regarding Kosovo, Professor Muller suggests that a partition of areas where Serbs form a “substantial minority” combined with a “movement of people as refugees” might create a “more desirable long-term solution.” He thinks that in recent decades, the “triumph of the idea that each nation should have its own state” may have “set the stage for greater cosmopolitanism.”

In the case of some multi-ethnic states in Africa, Jerry Muller observes, one solution may be to provide a “considerable degree of federalism,” where there is a sharing of power and resources on the local level. But that situation can also lead to “ethnic tension” on a day-to-day level, which is not uncommon, he says, in “post-colonial” Africa. A dramatic example leading to violent confrontation, Professor Muller suggests, was the attempted separation in the 1970’s of the Ibos from a multiethnic and multilingual Nigeria.

Regarding the past 50-60 years of ethnic nationalism in the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian case provides a “classic example" where there are two very different ethnic groups with a history of “mutual aggrievement,” Jerry Muller says, and there partition may offer the “best solution.” With a “confessional system along religious and ethnic lines,” Lebanon demonstrates the destabilizing effect of changes in demography where Christians no longer command a numerical majority, he says, but political representation under the constitution has not kept pace. The war in Iraq, for example, has led to a “massive creation of refugees” in both Sunni and Shi’a areas, and Professor Muller says it is not yet clear whether those people will be able to return to their own neighborhoods. He says the Kurdish areas of Iraq seem to be moving toward a greater degree of autonomy and “possible independence.” Jerry Muller notes that North Africans have experienced resistance when trying to move into contemporary Europe in search of greater economic opportunity. He suggests that some immigrant groups “assimilate into European polities much better than others” because of their educational level and professional skills. But it also has to do with how willing and eager the host societies are to accommodate newcomers.

Although ethnic nationalism is diminishing in some regions of the world, partly as the result of economic development and of advances in international communications, Jerry Muller says he thinks ethnic nationalism will be “with us for as far as the eye can see.” He also thinks Americans and some Western Europeans tend to underrate the “ongoing significance” of ethnic nationalism. Furthermore, some Americans have an “idealized view of ethno-nationalist sentiment,” forgetting about earlier periods of exclusion from political participation of African-Americans, of Asian Americans, especially the Chinese, and of Native Americans.

To listen to the full program click here.

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