Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Veil Ban and the Academic Study of Nationalism

            Culturism, the opposite of multiculturalism, holds that traditional majority cultures have a right to define, defend, and promote themselves domestically. This article will explore culturist theory’s relationship to several academic positions on nationalism.  And it will ultimately use the example of the French ban on veils to do so.

This week France began enforcing a ban on face concealing veils. Violators must pay a fine and take a citizenship course.  The easy point to make is that, despite one woman’s claim that these laws were “racist,” they have nothing to do with race.  These laws address culture, they are culturist.  And while racism is ridiculous, if cultural diversity is real, culturism is rational. 

              Liah Greenfield and others have created a paradigm wherein nationalism starts in England as Civic Nationalism, which incorporates individual rights.  By the time nationalism spreads to Germany, we have Collective Nationalism, which tends to be authoritarian.  And in between the two we have France’s mix of both types.  And since the West exported nationalism, and many nations are built upon resentment of other nations, many are anti-Western.

            Greenfield’s approach denies the impact of thought in culture. China’s Confucian background goes further in explaining its willingness to adopt deference for leaders than it’s being supposedly created after England.  The humanistic thought of Shakespeare and the Scottish Enlightenment, as well as Jefferson’s writing, display cultural paradigms that manifest in Civic Nationalism.  The Civic Nationalism is not due to England being first.  It results from cultural thoughts.  Rather than reflecting an absence of cultural influence, Civic Nationalism is the product of a culture. 

            The term ‘nationalism’ should be supplemented by the term ‘culturism.’  Benedict Anderson and Anthony Smith debate whether nations are largely new or grow from earlier cultural precedents.  Most scholars side with Anderson concerning newness.  Whereas nations, defined as direct overlaps between state governments and cultures, may be newish, such debates rob us of the ability to include the histories of civilizations.


            Christendom has been under siege by Islam for over one thousand years.  The common argument that nationalism proper began in England in the 1600s, leaves out the fact that the Muslims took over Spain from 711 to 1492.  They overran the Byzantine Empire and nearly took Vienna.  Whereas the birth of nations may be recent, the clash of civilizations is not.  Tribalism relied upon cultural unity.  Cultural cohesion did not begin with nations.

            Nationalism as a tool of analysis and common ideology, leaving out transnational concepts, is especially dangerous.  France and England are different nations, but both represent the West.  Again their being close to Western Civic Nationalism, shows this.  Just as the term ‘umma’ unites Muslim nations, the term ‘culturism’ can include Western culturism and thereby provide a useful analytical category.  For reasons this article will spell out later, we must be able to discuss categories beyond national ones.

            Culturism, in taking culture seriously, also allows discussions of culture that the value neutral term ‘nation’ does not.  The assumption that Civic Nationalism exists free of cultural content facilitates multiculturalism.  In the multicultural model, citizens – regardless of culture – unite in agreements about liberal rules of democratic participation.  This view denies the importance of cultural diversity and strips it of any significant meaning.  It assumes that no cultures could or do disagree with liberal civic premises.

            Craig Calhoun has argued people contain subjective multiplicities.  This, for him, lessens the relevance of national culture, because, for the most part, underneath, we have many similarities.  But this argument assumes a space away from culture.  It assumes love and friendship, have the same meaning across cultures.  It posits a culture free identity behind the shallow trinkets of cultural markers.

            Culture does directly impact people. Not only do Japanese people have more familiarity with Japanese culture than, in Calhoun’s example, Norwegians, they speak a different language.  And this does not only does this seep into the individual on obvious levels. Cross culturally, social relations have a much different flavor, the assumptions are different, in these two cultures.  When we consider even more extreme cultures, this similarity via occasional overlap argument elides many important considerations.

Phillip Gleason said, “To be or to become an American a person did not have to be of any particular national linguistic, religious, or ethnic background.  All he had to do was to commit himself to the political ideology centered on the abstract ideals of liberty, equality and republicanism.” Yet Americans have long discriminated against immigration from non-European cultures precisely because they saw a specific linguistic and religious background as essential to our liberties.

This analysis will strike some as racist.  But race has very little to do with it.  The 1924 limit on Jewish and Italian immigrants, our Protestant majority’s long fear of Irish Catholics, had little to do with the biological notion of race that scholars frequently project into the past.  These laws were culturist.  Americans have traditionally believed our civic nationalism resulted from cultural traits, as much as culturally neutral universal Enlightenment based truths.

Scholars who have left large scale history and the ideological component of culture and, indeed cultural impact at all, out of the discussion, can solely see the Islamic veil ban as oppressive.  For them the Islamic veil is symbolic of nothing.  They can see no clash of civilizations.  They remain more committed to deconstructing nations than to reifying them, and so they see this effort as misaligned with the fact of nationalism being a modern fiction.

A few errors come from this neutral stance.  First nations are, as Benedict Anderson shows, “imagined.”  But this imagination is perpetuated in institutions.  It not only appears in Michael Bllig’s view of the banal nationalism of flags in banks, and commercials that assume French identity.  Going back to Cardinal Richelieu, this imagined community is in laws that promote the French language and view of history in schools.  The imagined community sprouts from the seemingly universal civic laws backing monogamy and outlawing honor killing.  Culturist laws sustain all nations.

The idea of the state as a culturally neutral enforcer of civic ideals reflects Enlightenment and multicultural assumptions.  But the Enlightenment is specific to the West and few important nations on earth would consider adopting the multicultural neutrality of those in the West.  China and Saudi Arabia’s governments are culturist.  They implement immigration and other laws to preserve and promote their traditional majority cultures.  Western nations have done the same traditionally.  As a result, the world is not getting more diverse, the West is.  The idea of the legal cultural neutrality of one’s State is a Western aberration.

As western culture is civic, the Islamic veil ban violates our values.  Without a very strange culture in our midst, the civic nationalism seems culturally neutral.  Such a move would naturally evoke huge protests. It is only with the entrance of a culture that challenges freedom of speech, individuality, and rights for women, that we understand the Western specificity of our civic culture.  And so to maintain our sense of freedom, we are forced to consider violating our own precepts. 

The ban may have some impact.  Much of our Western ontology and philosophy appear in our individual clothing choices.  To dress the part is to assume the role.  Yet, fundamentally, Islamic doctrine is inconsistent with Western values.  And so the dream of a secular French Islam requires an abandonment of basic Islamic tenets.  Creating such an Islamic - Western amalgam will prove stubbornly difficult and prone to inner conflict.  But militant forces are encouraging Islamic cultural separatism in Europe.  Without some overt engagement, the prominence of Western values will decline.

France’s Islamic veil ban provides fertile ground for scholars.  In fact, the law carefully avoids specifying that it is a ban on Islamic veils to maintain the separation of mosque and state.  From a culturist point of view, this makes sense as you do not want to relinquish such a cornerstone of the modern West.  At the same time, as other nations, our laws should recognize, defend, and promote our traditional majority cultures.  And so we see a struggle between Civic and Cultural Nationalism.  Histories of such struggles in Western lands would prove useful. Which tact better preserves Western culture needs debating.  We need to recognize the importance of cultural presuppositions make ours part of the discussion.  Feigned impartiality removes scholars from their place in the public.  We need guide the West as it confronts multiculturalism.

To have such debates we must revise some notions.  Using the words ‘culturism’ and ‘culturist’, we can make clear that we’re discussing ramifications of cultural diversity, not racial stupidity.  Craig Calhoun and others have noted that all cultures have minorities.  This does not, however, erase the fact that they also have traditional majority cultures.  Calhoun’s observation buffers us from hysterics and dreams of homogenized states. However, it should not serve to ban us from making culturist observations.  We cannot accept bans on criticizing Islam.  A free society needs to be able to discuss cultural diversity if it hopes to remain free.

Scholars’ pretense of objectivity, ironically, displays their Western orientation.  Western cultures’ basis in individualism undercuts our ability to take groups seriously.  As such our inquiries into nations ignores similarities to tribalism or conflicts between civilizations.  And, as Ernest Gellner does, the nation gets reduced to a purely modern contrivance, historical and cultural common sense get overlooked, and scholars dangerously exempt themselves from discussions of culturist laws such as France’s Islamic veil ban.   

Post a Comment