Why does extremist nationalism, ethnicity and religion fuel violent conflict? -University Assignment

This was an essay I recently did for University in my Global Politics and Development class. We were given the choice of choosing from a bunch of questions to write about, all of them having biases to them, and I chose this one, as I could work with it and write a good essay about nationalism. Admittedly, I resent their usage of the phrase 'extremist nationalism,' but hey, you gotta use what they say at Uni; there's very little free thought. I was given a Credit for this assignment, I would've gotten a Distinction if one source wasn't used because the site is 'racist.'

Global Politics and Development Research Paper

In this essay, we will answer the question ‘Why does extremist nationalism, ethnicity and religion fuel violent conflict?’ and arguing in defence of nationalism, from the perspective that a nation is strongest when it is united towards a common goal. We will also argue for this position by using examples from all over the world. Firstly, we will define what a nation and nationalism are, then explain national unity through the collective individualist outlook which is employed in Israel. Furthermore, why unity and homogeneity are so important for a nation’s health by using the example of Malaysia as a pluralist society. Discussing the part of national identity and what Australian identity is will bolster the previous argument about unity and homogeneity, and then moving onto the loss of identity in the United States and the rise of nationalism there will explain how conflict happens. We will connect this problem to how this is due to changing demographics. Afterwards, we will discuss the group conflict theory (diversity plus proximity equals conflict) and elaborate on why violent conflict happens due to internationalism, and what shape violent conflict takes. Finally, we will conclude by restating our main points.

Before we discuss what the reasons for violent conflict as a result of extremist nationalism, ethnicity and religion are, we must first discuss the idea of a nation and subsequently what nationalism is. A nation is best defined as a body of people with a common history, heritage and descent, culture, customs and language, under the same territory, pursuing self-determination and independence (Barrington 1997). With the aid of this definition, it is apt to discuss the idea of nationalism and how it applies to contemporary times. Barrington (1997) further defines nationalism as a political process, and that it should be thought of as a creation of common and unifying features towards a nation. The aim of this nationalist process is the creation of an independent nation with territorial autonomy under the control of the State, with a homogenous population. Nationalism is a global and historical phenomenon.

A nation united with itself towards a common goal and destiny must not have political, social and economic conflict. Instead, a nation must employ a ‘collective individualist’ outlook and think that ‘united we are stronger.’ If you are just deracinated individuals, your society will not function in a healthy way because everyone is just looking out for themselves. Likewise, if a nation is solely collectivist, the individual will feel alienated, like a cog in the machine. Collective individualism is the synthesis of the two, with the belief that the individual must retain his or her personality, whilst also working for the betterment of the collective. A contemporary example of collective individualism is the Jewish state of Israel, as it faces war and terrorism daily and has been forced to adopt this outlook (Weiss 2003).

We can look towards Malaysia as an example where national unity within a pluralist society has still not succeeded, and due to the problems that ethnic relations present, contentious issues remain unresolved. The process of nation-building has been delayed, despite the cosmetic items of symbolism being agreed upon. They have a national anthem, flag and holidays, but the most important aspects of nation-building such as a national language, culture and education policy are only grudgingly accepted by portions of the population (Harun 2010).

Identity plays an important role in the process of nation-building and the formulation of national unity, national spirit and culture. Without a distinct identity, the nation has nothing to unite behind, connect to and safeguard from outside threats. National unity is important for all citizens because they can feel that their individual and collective identities are upheld, which is inextricably tied to a narrative of identity; identity is central to a sense of community, and nationalism is the political process of protecting that identity. On a worldwide scale, when a country chooses a national language, it may have to deal with the sense of disenfranchisement by those who do not fit the official language. This underscores why homogeneity and unity are crucial to a nation’s health (López 2014).

Thanks to the examples given by Malaysia, we may begin to start moving closer to home. Here we find that Australian identity is tied, not with the multicultural narrative that sprung from the 1970s and thereafter, but with early Australian history, our military legacy and the legend of the ANZACs and the ANZAC spirit; this was due largely to the national character of early Australians, our rebellions and armed conflicts. The spirit of the ANZACs include endurance, courage, ingenuity, good humour and mateship. Other quintessentially Australian characteristics include our extreme distrust of political elites since colonial times, larrikinism and social egalitarianism (Australian War Memorial). The Australian archetype is closely connected to the Anglo-European men and women of the colonial era, the subsequent settler era, and the bushman and military eras thereafter which have created various ideals and myths about Australian life (Donoghue & Tranter 2013). As is consistent with Australia’s history of immigration policy, Australian culture is “an agrarian, racially-centred, rugged and self-reliant, hard, honest-working, family and community sentimentality,” which is due to the blossoming of a new character of the Anglo-Celtic people in some of the harshest and inhospitable conditions in the world (Grant 2017). It is due to this importance of having a national identity, that for a nation in its nation-building process, as we have discussed with Malaysia, and is relevant within Australia, that without a distinct identity, national unity is not possible.

One factor that has caused the resurgence of nationalism in recent years is the impending fate that countries like the United States and Australia have in store for them. By the year 2050, it is estimated that the white American majority will drop below 50%, due to the growing numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities (D'Antonio & Whelan 2009). This is due to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, sometimes named the Hart-Celler Act, which was promised to not change the demographics of the United States, but in its aftermath, this was very much the case. The Act was passed in Congress without the say of the American public; without a citizen referendum (Ludden 2006). There is now a reaction against this impending white minority status in the form of nationalism, as the white Americans who have historically been the majority at around 90% do not want to become a minority in the country their forefathers built. This attitude is shared by groups like the Alt-Right (a racially-focussed alternative to the right-wing), the American Identity Movement (formerly Identity Evropa) and the National Policy Institute (NPI), among many others.

As countries become increasingly racially diverse and heterogenous, the likelihood for ‘us’ vs ‘them’ situations to occur increases. This is called the group conflict theory. Brief et al. (2005) write how diversity is most likely to impede how organisations function, and that competition between different groups over the same resources (material resources like territory, or symbolic resources like power) breeds hostility. Increased exposure to diversity, as is the case with employees of a company who live in racially diverse communities, which causes tension over scarce amounts of resources, can enable them to have cultural and social baggage and prejudices from past experiences. This will lead to further tension, conflict and dysfunction. This is evident after the September 11th attacks on the United States, where people who were the ‘outgroup’ (Muslims and Arabs) were labelled as enemies after the conflict. Leudar, Marsland & Nekvapil (2004) discuss these ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitudes and how they were caused by internationalism and human mobilisation around the world, as was illustrated by the speeches of former President George Bush and Osama Bin Laden in the event’s aftermath. This ‘othering’ was also used against Muslims and Arabs within the United States, as they were ‘othered’ by non-Muslim and non-Arab Americans, despite Bush’s subsequent speeches not specifying who he exactly meant with his usage of language like “...our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack...”

The foregoing argument about ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitudes also extends to the workplace, where majorities have been shamed during diversity training programs. As a result of this, men have resisted undertaking this diversity training after being labelled the problem by women, who were encouraged to voice their frustration about unequal treatment (Curtis, Dreachslin & Sinioris 2007). These methods of conducting diversity training programs may explain their failure, as 65 companies who conducted these programs have failed to achieve their intended cultural competence goals (Chavez & Weisinger 2008). What is needed in these situations, instead, is not diversity training programs which have been proven to not be reliable, but open and honest dialogue through the collective individualist and nationalist outlooks, to try and resolve the issues that present themselves due to diversity; diversity may not be a strength (Foldy, Rivard & Buckley 2009). Employing these tactics will be likely to reduce the prevalence of stereotypes and oversimplifications of differences (Wilson 2012). Mortell (2013) further stresses the importance of addressing these differences and resulting conflicts for the sake of unity and success.

As Barrington (1997) has previously pointed out, nationalism, ethnicity and religion are integral parts of a nation’s identity. As the threat of outside groups competing for resources begins to become noticeable through group conflict theory, nationalism, ethnicity and religion manifest themselves further, which may be due to cultural and social baggage (Brief et al. 2005). This is made even more apparent when violent conflict like terrorism, murder and sexual assault on a large scale become front and centre in the public’s mind. Some major examples of this are, yet again, the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States, the various Islamic terrorist attacks in Europe between 2004 to 2017 (the most notable taking place in Madrid, Manchester, Nice and Paris) and the Pakistani child sexual exploitation of approximately 1,400 British girls in Rotherham, England over a decade-and-a-half.

In conclusion, extremist nationalism, ethnicity and religion fuel violent conflict when different groups are left to compete over scarce resources, and when national unity and retaining distinct identities is not possible, as is the case in pluralist societies like Malaysia. We have discussed the nature of Australian identity, and how it was formed in large part by early Australian history, military legacy and the spirit of the ANZACs. Moreover, having a distinct identity and homogeneity both play a major role in having national unity, which can be accomplished by employing the collective individualist outlook that is evident in Israel. Without this identity, there will be disenfranchisement and exclusion. To further that point, the quest to regain national identity and demographic control in the United States is evident with nationalist groups popping up more and more in recent years. Moreover, disenfranchisement is a driving force of social unrest and disunity, and a way to counter this social unrest and disunity is through nationalism and open dialogue. Finally, nationalism can bring out ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitudes as a result of conflict, often stemming from large scale terrorism and sexual assault.

Reference list:

Australian War Memorial, ‘Dawn of the Legend: The Anzac spirit’, Australian War Memorial, date of publication unknown, viewed 13 April 2019, <https://www.awm.gov.au/visit/exhibitions/dawn/spirit>.

Barrington, LW 1997, ‘"Nation" and "Nationalism": The Misuse of Key Concepts in Political Science’, PS: Political Science and Politics, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 712-716.

Brief, AP, Umphress, EE, Dietz, J, Burrows, JW, Butz, RM & Scholten, L 2005, ‘Community Matters: Realistic Group Conflict Theory and the Impact of Diversity’, The Academy of Management Journal, vol. 48, no. 5, pp. 830-844.

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D'Antonio, P, Whelan JC 2009, Counting nurses: the power of historical census data, published by NCBI, viewed 11 April 2019, <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19744023>.

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Grant, H 2017, ‘What is Australian Culture?’, Nativist Herald, 31 July, viewed 11 April 2019, <http://nativistherald.com.au/2017/07/31/what-is-australian-culture/>.

Harun, R 2010, 'THE POLITICS OF ACCOMMODATION AND THE PROBLEM OF NATION-BUILDING IN A PLURAL SOCIETY: THE CASE OF MALAYSIA', Islam and Civilisational Renewal, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 577-594.

Leudar, I, Marsland, V & Nekvapil, J 2004, 'On membership categorization : us, them and doing violence in political discourse', Discourse and society, vol. 15, no. 2-3, pp. 243-266.

López, CC 2014, ‘Language is the Soul of the Nation: Language, Education, Identity, and National Unity in Malaysia’, Journal of Language, Identity & Education, vol. 13, no. 3, pp. 217-223.

Ludden, J 2006, ‘1965 Immigration Law Changed Face of America’, National Public Radio, 9 May, viewed 12 April 2019, <https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5391395>.

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Weiss, M 2003, ‘The postmodern state and collective individualism: a comparative look at Israeli society and western consumer culture’, The Social Science Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 269-281.

Wilson, L 2012, ‘Cultural competence: implications for childbearing practices’, Introduction to Childbirth Education, vol. 27, no. 1, p. 10.


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