Author Jerry Muller Talks About Political Consequences Of Ethnic Nat

Judith Latham

Voice of America
July 28 2008

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.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was at its
peak and controlled much of southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and
North Africa. The ethnic and religious makeup of the Ottoman Empire
was diverse and intermingled 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.