Tag Archives: nationalism

Religious Tensions and Political Socialization

Political socialization, the process by which we acquire political attitudes and behaviors and transmit political values and norms from one generation to the next, is central to the stability of political systems around the world. But in Britain, increasing tensions between radical Muslims promoting Sharia law and far right British nationalists highlight concerns over the breakdown of the process of political socialization in that country.

What do you think? How does the increasingly globalized and multicultural society in which we live resolve tensions between competing groups over their vision of the “good society”? And how might the tensions noted in the video be addressed and overcome?

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The International Relations of Hummus…Seriously

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

The World's Largest Hummus, Lebanon

There’s a war brewing…a war over hummus. That creamy delicacy of chickpeas, tahini, olive oil and lemon juice is at the heart of a dispute between Israel and Lebanon, both seeking to assert their claim over the dish.

Actually, there are two issues at stake. The first is simply a matter of international rivalry. For the past several years, both Israel and Lebanon have been seeking to outdo the other to claim their place in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest hummus. The most recent effort, made by 300 chefs in Lebanon on Saturday, resulted in a batch of hummus that weight ten tons (22,046 pounds). In perspective, that’s about ten automobiles worth of hummus. (Video of the effort is available at the Telegraph’s website.)  

Saturday’s effort by Lebanon took the record back from Israel, which had made a four ton batch of hummus in October, an effort which had taken the back from Lebanon, which had taken it from Israel, ad infinitum. On the surface, this is simply a matter of international pride and rivalry. And the peaceful expression of the rivalry through cooking (or sport) is preferable to its expression through armed military conflict, as was the case in 2006 when Israel invaded Lebanon in an effort to seek out Hezbollah militants firing rockets into Israel.

But there’s another element as well. The origins of hummus are disputed. Today, the dish is widely consumed around the world. Although the earliest verified reference to the dish dates to the eighteenth century, many assert it’s one of the world’s oldest foods. There are references to similar dishes in the Middle East dating back at least to the twelfth century. Records of chickpeas and sesame (the main ingredient in tahini) cultivation can be found dating to at least 2500 BC, and olive oil is discussed in the Bible.

The origins of the dish, though, are disputed. In 2008, the government of Lebanon petitioned the European Union to classify hummus as a uniquely Lebanese food, granting it protected geographical status. Dishes like feta (Greek cheese) and Champagne (sparkling French wine) receive this protection. Other foods including Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Melton Mowbray pork pies, and Asiago cheese, are also protected. The mark is intended to offer a form of intellectual property protection for the label, promoting the product by giving consumers specific information regarding the origin of the product while simultaneously providing a mechanism to facilitate rural development.

According to the Lebanese government, humus is a uniquely Lebanese dish and the name should therefore be protected.  Like with feta cheese, which can only be called feta if produced in Greece and which must otherwise be called “Greek-style cheese” or something similar, the Lebanese government is asserting its claim that only Lebanese hummus is really hummus. At stake is a $1 billion international market for the product.

But there are also questions of nationalism and of national pride. The Lebanese claim that Israel is “stealing” their country’s national dish…along with several other national dishes, including falafel, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj. The success of Israeli-manufactured hummus in European Union markets likely led to the assertion of Lebanon’s claim. But the specific manifestation of the claim, particularly in the context of the longstanding military tensions between the two countries, takes on a much deeper and more powerful meaning.

Think about that next time you have that hummus.

The Politics of Nationalism and Identity

A fascinating discussion on the politics of citizenship in Africa is taking place on the SSRC’s African Arguments blog. As described by Sebastian Kohn,

Millions of people in Africa are stateless. Some because their births were never recorded, others because they belong to the ‘wrong’ ethnic group. Civil conflicts in Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo and numerous other countries have been fuelled if not created by pernicious citizenship policies that sever the link between certain parts of the population and the state. The politics of statelessness and citizenship discrimination in Africa are complex and potentially explosive.

While certainly important in the context of the struggle for political power and resources, this debate is certainly not unique to the African continent. The French government is currently in the midst of a three-month series of meetings to “reaffirm the values of national identity and pride in being French.” The discussions were prompted by the rise of the far-right French nationalists, who objected to the increasing multiculturalism of French society.

Citizenship (and national identity more generally) has long been a contested political concept. Identity politics can be used in a progressive, inclusive sense. But far more often identity politics are used to exclude certain members of the polity from participating in the body politic. In the context of post-colonial Africa, this is particularly problematic because the borders of state [glossary] and nation [glossary] bear little historical connection to the actual on the ground identities of the people. The creation of artificial states as a result of colonialism has been a problem recognized since the early days of African independence. Indeed, many of Africa’s most celebrated leaders—Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, to name but a few—rose to prominence preaching a message of inclusion. For them, the only solution to the divisions created by colonialism was to establish a new, Pan-African political identity, essentially transcending the political divisions of statehood to create a unified African community.

This vision never materialized. Instead, the politics of identity came to be characterized by exclusion and hierarchy, frequently motivating political violence: Hutus vs. Tutsis in Rwanda, Yoruba vs. Igbo in Nigeria, Xhosas vs. Zulus in South Africa, Shona vs. Ndebele in Zimbabwe, and so on. But rethinking the nature of citizenship and constructing a politics of inclusiveness may represent an important step towards national reconciliation and development. The Truth and Reconcilliation Commission in South Africa sought to address the injustices of apartheid by brining the violence of the apartheid system to public light. Similarly, efforts at national reconciliation following the Rwandan genocide centered on overcoming the divisive politics of ethnicity that characterized the genocide.

Contributing to the discussion on the African Arguments blog, Bronwen Manby offers a powerful conclusion, describing citizenship as “the most important right of all.”  Manby writing,

“Give us our identity cards and we hand over our Kalashnikovs”, said the leader of the rebel forces in Côte d’Ivoire. Those who have never been deprived of official papers may find it hard to imagine the powerlessness that results: powerlessness that can and does lead people to take up arms. Even in the poorest countries, a passport or identity card does not just provide the right to travel, but forms the basis of the right to almost everything else.

Statehood for South Ossetia?

If you’ve never heard of South Ossetia before this week, you’re probably not alone.  The region was an Autonomous Oblast (think county, but with a bit more independence) within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic until 1990, when the Soviet Union broke up.  Georgia claimed ownership of South Ossetia, but the region declared its independence from Georgia in the early 1990s.  Since then, it’s had its own separatist government which hoped to negotiate independence from Georgia.  Despite two popular referenda which approved independence, the government of Georgia refused to grant independence, and no other country has recognized South Ossetia’s claim.

Why all this fuss over independence, autonomy, recognition, and statehood?  The state has long been the central unit of analysis (and has frequently been viewed as the most important actor) in political science.  The Nation-State—where the boundaries of a physical territory and government correspond to the boundaries of a group of people with a common national identity—has traditionally been the ideal-form of state.  But nation-states have also been exceedingly rare, as the boundaries of nations and states rarely correspond.  In the modern world, perhaps only a few states are truly nation-states: Japan, Portugal, and Iceland. 

Far more often, the boundaries of nation and state do not correspond.  Thus we get stateless nations (the Kurds, the Palestinians) and multinational states (Belgium, the United Kingdom, China).

But the nation-state continues to be viewed as the highest form of political order.  As a result, there is the constant threat that multinational states will tear themselves apart, as separate nations each seek to secure statehood.  The Basques in Spain have been seeking independence for decades.  Belgium always seems on the verge of disintegration, as the Flemish and the Wallonians contest the meaning of Belgian.  The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe removed the lid from simmering demands for autonomy.  Witness the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 or the violent demise of Yugoslavia into at least seven separate states (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, and the disputed Kosovo) in the early 1990s.

The breakup of the Soviet Union afforded many opportunities for similar demands to be placed on the new states.  South Ossetia represents one example of these tensions, intensified because of competing U.S. and Russian interests in the future of Georgia, which are at the heart of the fighting that broke out this week.

Nationalism and the Olympics

A story on NPR this morning got me thinking about nationalism.  Morning Edition aired an interview with Miles Hoffman about the use of national anthems at the Olympics.  The first national anthem was the use of “God Save the King” by the British (Americans would better know the tune as “My Country Tis of Thee”) in 1745.  The story also included clips from the Chinese, French, Australian, and German anthems (all of which are available for a quick listen on the NPR site).

Because nationalism has had such a dramatic impact on the modern world, we often forget that the idea of “nation” is a relatively recent construct.  We usually credit France with the first use of the idea of nationhood—the French Republic’s creed of “liberty, equality, fraternity” provided a common sense of identity that Napoleon used to encourage citizens to support and join the French army.

Sociologist Anthony Smith argues that nations generally share a number of common characteristics that differentiate them from other nations.  These may include a fixed homeland (current or historical), a shared sense of history and struggle, a common set of beliefs—especially religious beliefs—a common language, and a common set of customs.  Benedict Anderson argues that this common identity provides the basis for a shared sense of community among members of a nation—a concept he calls the “imagined community”.

So, as you watch the Olympic Games on television over next couple of weeks, think about the reason you root for the national athletes of your home country.  It provides a peaceful way to feel pride in the accomplishments of your national athletes and may just help to illustrate Anderson’s idea of imagined communities.