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Religious Nationalism and Human Rights

By David Little, United States Institute of Peace

Religious nationalism is a fact of contemporary international life. Whether the issue is building, restructuring or maintaining a nation, the process is, all over the world, deeply infused with religion. How else are we to understand Northern Ireland, Israel, Lebanon, the Sudan, Sri Lanka, or Iran? Or, more immediately, how else are we to understand former Eastern European satellites like Poland or Bulgaria, or the so-called "Soviet Nationalities," such as the Ukraine, Lithuania, or Azerbaijan and Armenia? Nor, for that matter, are the developed countries altogether exempt from the effects of religious nationalism. The influence of the Moral Majority and related movements on American public life during the 1980s left no doubt about that.

The notions of "nation" and "nationalism," as we use them today, are relatively recent, and so is the passion for achieving "national self-determination." Up through the Middle Ages, it was not customary in Europe to draw sharp political boundaries between different "peoples," each of whom shared a distinctive language and culture. In fact, our "modern world" came into being as one people strove to define themselves over against others by securing and centralizing the means of government and armed defense on their own behalf. So occurred the modern preoccupation with building the "nation-state." A people or nation did not achieve self-fulfillment until it ran its own state.

We need not belabor the familiar story about the spread and influence of these ideas worldwide during the nineteenth century by means of imperialism and colonialism. Contemporary examples of nationalist ferocity are frequently a reaction, directly or indirectly, to expanionist adventures and arrangements that were themselves inspired by nationalistic competition among Western powers. Any doubt of that is quickly dispelled by recalling how the present map of Africa, the Middle East or South Asia was drawn.

On the other hand, the connection between religion and nationalism needs a comment or two. First, as Woodrow Wilson, "the father of self-determination," stressed over and again, there is a strong analogy between religious commitment and patriotism, or devotion to the national cause. One's "nation" is the symbol of a rich cultural and linguistic heritage. It involves questions of ultimate meaning and legitimacy; the sort of thing that gives final purpose and direction to life. There are all sorts of ceremonial and ritualistic celebrations associated with national life. Above all, a nation is supposed to be something one will die for, if need be. It is certainly something that inspires self-denial on behalf of the greater group. ("Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask only what you can do for your country.")

In other words, the virtues of nationalistic devotion have a religious flavor to them. It is no doubt for that reason that the much-discussed idea of "civil religion" seems so natural. If contemporary nation-states are conceived of in quasi-religious terms, it is hardly surprising that national cults would proliferate and flourish to the degree they have.

The second link between nationalism and religion has to do with the impulse of the modern nation to monopolize "the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (Max Weber). As we mentioned before, the point of nationalism is to achieve statehood in the sense of political and legal control. That is the whole meaning of "national self-determination."

It is this matter of establishing the legitimate use of force that religions are also characteristically concerned about. For example, in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, "Yahweh," "Allah," and "God" are all described, among other things, as supreme political and legal rulers. As "mighty warriors," "just kings," or "righteous judges," they are believed to exercise their authority so as to control and punish all unjust and unlawful use of force, along with other forms of unrighteousness and disobedience.

Even in the New Testament, with its emphasis upon nonviolence and martyrdom, the objective is to restrain and ultimately to subdue violence. Moreover, Paul's approval of the use of the sword by authorized governments in Romans 13 reaffirms the legitimacy of certain forms of earthly coercion. And it must not be forgotten that the message of the New Testament assumes the rightfulness of God's threat to punish transgressors in the hereafter by means at least analogous to physical force.

Although Buddhism also exhibits a strong preference for nonviolence and monastic withdrawal from everyday life, there exists simultaneously a dominant emphasis on the cakkavatti, or universal king, as righteous ruler and embodiment of justice. Moreover, there is in the tradition provisional allowance for the use of force by Buddhist kings on their way to establishing dominance.

In other words, religion is typically concerned to set the ultimate standards for the use of force and the conduct of political and legal affairs. This is a subject of deep sacred significance. It lies at the heart of religious belief and practice.

It is, therefore, not hard to understand why religion would come to play the important role it does in the process of building a nation-state. Religion and nationalism share a common concern for establishing the basis of political legitimacy.

We must hasten to add, of course, that to indicate why religion and nationalism sometimes go together is not to suggest that they always must go together. Traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are complicated affairs, with all sorts of different themes and counterthemes. Some of the themes--for example: the emphasis on benevolence and inclusiveness, on peaceful, rather than violent, persuasion--distinctly cut against the violent parochialism and ethnocentrism so often associated with nationalism.

Still, we cannot ignore the reasons for a possible affinity between religion and nationalism. We cannot ignore that possibility, particularly at present, when there is so much evidence all around us.

The Current Shape of Religious Nationalism: Three Examples

Let us look, briefly, at three examples of religious nationalism: Bulgaria, Iran, and Sri Lanka, selected because of their religious, political and geographical diversity.


Bulgaria is an especially interesting case, because it is so current and because it represents one form of "post-Communist nationalism" that appears to be emerging in Eastern Europe, and possibly in parts of the Soviet Union. With the recent removal of Todor Zhivkov, and his 35-year-old authoritarian Communist regime, Bulgaria has experienced an outburst of religious nationalism. Under Zhivkov, the policy toward the Turkish Muslim minority (about 10% of the population) was enforced assimilation. Turkish names had to be Bulgarized; the Turkish language might not be spoken in public, and the practice of Islam was severely restricted. When the reformers came into power a few months ago, they immediately extended the rights of cultural and religious freedom to the Turks.

However, this policy of religious liberty provoked a strenuous reaction on behalf of the majority. Large demonstrations have recently taken place exhibiting signs like, "Bulgaria for Bulgarians," and "Never again a Bulgaria under a Turkish yoke." Protestors have called for the protection of "Bulgaria's heritage as one nation with one official language and religion guaranteed by the state constitution"--namely, Bulgarian Orthodoxy (Washington Post, 1-9-90).


In the early stages of the new Islamic Republic in Iran, it is true that rather than exemplifying religious nationalism, the attitudes of the Ayotollah Khomeini and his associates appeared, as a matter of fact, to be anti-nationalistic. Early on, he led a systematic campaign against what were called "national tendencies." These were identified with the Shah's attempt to manipulate nationalist sentiment as a way of gaining loyalty. They were also seen as the product of Western ideas, which were regarded as little more than an instrument to break up the unity of Islam.

Iran was renamed "the Republic of Islam," and there was even talk of calling the Persian Gulf the Islamic Gulf so as to diminish the importance of national identity in favor of the universal inclusiveness of Islam. Rather than purge the language of "foreign" influence, as nationalist reformers typically do, Khomeini introduced and emphasized Arabic terms and cultural references.

But Khomeini's Islamic universalism did not prevail against the irresistable forces of nationalism, and he eventually relented. For one thing, Iranians were not terribly receptive to the message. For another, the new government, shortly after taking power, found it expedient to invoke nationalistic propaganda against uncooperative ethnic minorities, like the Kurds and Arabs. Finally, and most important, Iraq's invasion of Iran, together with widespread Arab support for the invasion, intensified Iranian nationalism.

The end result is a deep interconnection of religion and Iranian national identity. This means that discrimination and persecution against religious minorities--most notably against the Baha'is--is typically undertaken on grounds of national security. It also means that very little provision is made for the legal protection of deviant views of any sort. The recent human rights reports issued by Amnesty International and the US State Department make grim reading in this regard.

Sri Lanka

One of the anomalies of the Sri Lankan case is the spectacle of certain Buddhist monks, standing as they do in the tradition of universal benevolence and nonviolence, preaching intolerance, ethnic antagonism, and fomenting violent conflict in the name of Sinhalese nationalism. These monks do not, of course, represent the entire Sinhalese Buddhist community. Nevertheless, they do exist, and they play a significant part in the destructive drama currently being enacted on the "smiling island."

The terms of the conflict raging in Sri Lanka--the ethnic and religious animosity between Sinhalese majority and the Tamil Hindu, and, to some degree, Muslim minorities; the international complications produced by the intervention of the Indian military; the record of extensive human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government against the minorities--are, I should suppose, well-known to members of this audience. Moreover, this case will, I believe, be taken up by Mark Juergensmeyer, someone who knows a good deal more about it than I do.

For my purposes, suffice it to emphasize here the degree to which the conflict appears, at bottom, to be the product of the government's taking sides, and favoring the majority cause over against the minorities. Rather than enforcing the neutrality of the agencies of law and order, civil service, police, and welfare agencies, the government seems to understand itself as called upon, fundamentally, to embody and promote Sinhalese nationalism, "with its potent mix," in the words of one author, "of race, religion, and language" (Tambiah, Sri Lanka, 76).

A Human Rights Approach to Religious Nationalism

It is unlikely, to say the least, that there are any handy solutions to the bloody conflicts, or to the promise of such conflicts, that are generated by religious nationalism.

Nevertheless, there is, in my view, one approach that deserves to be considered as a way of reconceptualizing certain basic issues. It thereby suggests a way of modifying the excesses of religious nationalism in accord with the basic objectives of the US Institute of Peace. This approach has a special appeal for having stood the test of extensive international and intercultural reflection and discussion, and, as a result, is a way of thinking that has already been introduced into the consciousness of peoples around the world.

I speak of the ideas underlying the provisions that are enshrined in the international human rights documents concerning freedom of religion and conscience, most particularly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Resolution on the Elimination of Intolerance Based on Religion or Belief (adopted in November 1981).

For our purposes the central issue is identified in part of Article 2 of the Resolution on Intolerance: [1] "No one shall be subject to discrimination by any State...on grounds of religion or other beliefs....[2][T]he expression 'intolerance and discrimination based on religion and belief' means any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on religion or belief and having as its purpose or as its effect nullification or impairment of the recognition, enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms on an equal basis."

The assumption here is radical: It introduces considerable distance between religion and the state, if it does not dissociate them altogether. Accordingly, the grounds on the basis of which a government legitimates its monopoly of force are sharply distinguished from religious belief of any kind. That means, as Article 2 makes clear, that participation in public or political life may not be subject to any religious test whatsoever. If it can be demonstrated that religious affiliation or outlook creates civil advantages or disadvantages, such outcomes must be considered to be violations of "internationally recognized human rights." Furthermore, physical force, or the other enforcement mechanisms of the state, may not be used so as to accord special advantages to one religious group over another.

The human rights documents undercut many of the assumptions of religious nationalism. They do that by positing an explicitly nonreligious basis for political authority and the exercise of force. Because, as the Preamble to the Declaration against Intolerance puts it, "disregard and infringement of...the right to freedom of...conscience [and] religion...have brought...wars and great suffering to [human]kind...," the proper solution is, simply, to desanctify the civil order. It is to differentiate as much as possible, between religious authority and civil authority, between religious communal identity and political communal identity.

The idea is that such a system would create a new common, inclusive basis for peace and mutual respect among competing communities. Under such a conception, each party would of course lose the hope of ultimate political control over the other. But surrendering such a hope would in itself be the foundation for peace. Each party would thereby gain an opportunity for fair and equal participation in a religiously unbiased political system.

The idea that lies behind these provisions, as it emerged painfully from Western experience, is that there is a fundamental distinction between the "inner forum" and the "outer forum," between the "conscience," or the center of deep personal commitment and conviction, on the one hand, and the civil government, on the other.

The law of the spirit is not the same as the law of the sword. That means that if one comes to authentic religious or other basic beliefs, those beliefs may be won only by continuing inner struggle. That struggle must finally be resolved by personal judgment, arrived at in consultation with whatever people one may choose of one's own volition to associate with. Deep, inward, conscientious beliefs cannot be produced by external compulsion, certainly not by civil coercion. Compelled belief is no belief at all.

On the other hand, it is perfectly intelligible to speak of being deterred or restrained from doing overt harm or violence to others by means of "outward" or physical force. Controlling acts of that kind is, as the human rights documents suggest, where the state comes in. The state is in business to protect, rather than impede, the free exercise of conscience, by effectively guaranteeing equal rights and privileges to all, regardless of "race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property or other status," in the words of Article 2 of the Universal Declaration. By definition, there may be no preferential treatment for one form of religious identity over another, just as there may not be discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, property, and so on.

The notion here is revolutionary. It entails that political or governmental authority properly rests upon what human beings hold in common, not upon what distinguishes them or makes them different. Not all human beings hold the same religious beliefs, just as they do not possess the same amount of property. They are not all born in the same ethnic tradition, nor do they have the same race or sex. In contrast, they all do commonly experience the pain and distress of enforced confinement, of severe physical suffering, of being deprived of property, sustenance, limb or life.

Accordingly, the state ought to operate in the name of protecting people from violations of those common human aversions. It ought to protect all people equally against being arbitrarily imprisoned, killed, injured, robbed, victimized. Insofar as the state provides equal protection of that sort, it frees its citizens to relish their differences, so long, of course, as those differences are expressed in a way that respects what it is human beings hold in common.


It is true that the human rights approach proposes a "secular" or "neutral" reference point for organizing and legitimating the modern nation-state. That approach rests on the belief that differentiating as much as possible between religion and the state--between the law of the spirit and the law of the sword--is an important step toward civil peace.

In some respects, of course, such a reference point is at best an ideal. In the real world, only approximations are possible. Still, the unmistakable assumption of the human rights approach is that trying to approximate the ideal is a meaningful exercise and well worth the effort.

The three cases of religious nationalism we considered give us some reason, I believe, to support that assumption. The spectacle of the governments of Bulgaria, Iran, or Sri Lanka abandoning, or being encouraged to abandon, all semblance of neutrality, of openly siding with one religious and ethnic group over against others, is surely cause for the greatest apprehension.

But if, in face of contemporary evidence, there are good reasons to endorse the desanctification of the state, that need not be taken as necessarily irreligious or anti-religious in spirit. There are clear resources within the Christian and Buddhist traditions in favor of that objective. And if the conclusions of my colleagues and I in a recent book are right, there are similar resources in the Islamic tradition.

There is no reason to think that the human rights approach means abandoning religious commitment and belief. But it does, no doubt, require rigorously reexamining religious traditions in the light of our current experience with religious nationalism.

The views expressed in this essay are the author's alone and are not to be taken as necessarily representing the outlook of the United States Institute of Peace.

[This paper was published by Gerard F. Powers, Drew Christiansen, SJ, and Robert Hennemeyer (eds.), Peacemaking: Moral and Policy Challenges for a New World (Washington, DC: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1994), pp. 84-95.]

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