Religion and Nation-Building in Modernity
Authored by Matthew Elder, Ho Can Hao, and Felix Wadsworth
Our entry focuses on the role religion has played and continues to play in nation-building. In many nations, religion has been incredibly important in fostering a sense of national identity. In many areas, we can observe that religion has managed to survive as an integral part in nationalism even in the face of a growing overall secular culture. Where Malaysia’s unity came about through Islamisation, Northern Ireland’s religious divide providing an uncertain future, and Quebec’s transition from a heavily religious to incredibly secularised nation, we look at how these three cases contrast in their history and the evolution of national identity in modernity.
Malaysia is a particularly interesting case in the research of nation-building. As a multi-ethnic country, Malaysia has been deeply divided along ethnic line despite relentless effort from the state on integrating minorities into Malay majority (60.3% according to 2010 census); such process of nation-building is often considered as being based on the concept of “Malay Nationalism”. Though the concept is supposed to be based on Malay culture, the case study seeks to analyse how Islam has been playing an increasingly important role in the process, even to the extent that Islamization has been deeply entwined with nation-building.
Islam was first introduced to Southeast Asia in 12th century and eventually become the most widely practiced religion in this region. For Malay Peninsula in particular, there was a powerful and influential kingdom, Malacca Sultanate, embracing and spreading Islam in 15th century. Since then, most Malays became Muslim and Islam consequently profoundly influenced their culture, which remained unchanged during the colonial governance of Portuguese, Dutch, and British despite the dissolution of Malacca Sultanate in 16th century. The most important legacy of British governance for Malay Peninsula between the late 19th century and mid-20th century is that of demographic change; in order to exploit natural resources for British economic interest, Chinese and Indian labours were recruited to this area in large scales. Facing these labours with completely different language, custom, culture, and religion, Islam turned out to be a crucial ethnic identifier.
After gaining independence from the British in 1957, the most critical problem confronting the state is that of nation-building, which is even more problematic than other post-colonial states considering the deeply-divided nature of different ethnic groups in Malaya (and Malaysia after 1963). As Malays considered themselves as “son of the soil”, they believed that nation-building should naturally be predicated upon Malay culture. In this process, religion was not that relevant in Malaysia’s political arena as language assimilation and integration of separated education systems are much more important from state’s viewpoint. Since the dominant party of ruling coalition, United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), is a secular nationalist party, Islamization was not in their agenda at first; their core principles remained unchanged even until now, i.e. protection of Malay interests and national modernization.
The programme of Islamization initiated by UMNO from 1980s onwards is considered as a response to accommodate Islamic Revivalism in Malay society, which is increasingly influential especially after Iranian Revolution in 1979. There were widespread scepticism among the youth towards secularization and westernization; some Islamic organisations (e.g. Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) or the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia) even chastised Malaysia’s modernization as “Un-Islamic”. Such transformation within Malay society gave rise to UMNO’s political opponent, Pan-Malaysian Islamic party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, commonly known as PAS); its aim to establish an Islamist State was rather appealing in a certain section of Malay society. It was especially shocking for UMNO after PAS’s winning control over Kelantan’s state in 1990’s general election. From then on, in order to win over Malay’s vote, UMNO fall into a trap for competing with PAS over which party is more Islamic.
During this “Islamization Race”, Malaysia’s national culture witnesses a silent yet significant transformation, in which the emphasis of “Malayness” has been shifted from Malay culture to Islam: 1) in private sphere, “un-Islamic” behaviours of Muslim are more strictly controlled. For examples, Muslim couples who show intimacy in public place could be arrested by Department of Islamic Development; Muslim females are not encouraged to show up in public without wearing headscarves though it was rather common before 1980s. More significantly, some “un-Islamic” Malay tradition, e.g. sprinkling ‘beras kunyit’ (yellow rice) and burning ‘kemenyan’ (incense) are also discouraged by the authority; 2) in institutional level, Islamic organisations, e.g. mosques, Islamic bank, religious schools, are largely expanded during this period. The typical example of this development is the establishment of International Islamic University of Islam and more international students were sent to Middle East for studying Islam.
As far as the rhetoric of national-building is concerned, Islam has also occupied the centre role. Since 2003, the latest edition of Malaysia history textbooks witnesses the dramatic increase in the proportion of Islamic history yet the pre-Islamic Malaya history and the contribution of other ethnicities towards the nation is largely ignored. Under such narrative, Malaysia’s history can be traced back to the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam, and Malacca Sultanate is its great civilizational extension and the root of Malaysia. In other words, Malaysia is no longer a post-colonial multi-ethnic “imagined community” shaped by British government; it is instead a part of the wider Muslim world.
Despite the heightened position of Islam, communalism and the tension between different ethnic groups remains the most important framework for analysing Malaysia’s nation-building. Nevertheless, under the multi-ethnic context of Malaysia, such foregoing Islamization project have made religious identity (Islam) deeply entwined with ethnicity (Malay) and eventually transformed the nature of ongoing nation-building (Malay Nationalism).
II. Religious ‘warfare’ in nineteenth century Ireland
Writing in 1848, the Presbyterian missionary in Birr, King’s County (now: Offally) recorded a convert from Catholicism on her deathbed imploring her daughter:
‘Go, my dear daughter, with your husband and children to some place of worship where the pure word of God is preached […]. If I had the hope of meeting you at the right hand of my Saviour, I would die happy’1
This created considerable anxiety with her Roman Catholic daughter, who hoped that her mother would receive the last rites.2 In the end, the question was whether or not the two would be separated by death, of whether ‘[her daughter will] go to heaven with [her] mother, or to hell and never see her anymore’.3 This episode happened during the ‘Protestant crusade’ of the early to mid-nineteenth century, when there was an unprecedented campaign by evangelical Protestant missionaries to achieve a large number of conversions to Protestantism among the Catholic population.4
II. Contemporary Northern Ireland: ‘break with the past’ or continuation?
‘I dislike the use of the term because it suggests the conflict is about religion, when it’s about politics. I prefer the term ‘tribalism’ (…) [. R]eligion is used to keep people in tribes’5
The term in question is ‘sectarianism’, or more precisely, sectarianism in the context of Northern Ireland. Research on Northern Irish, and in a sense Irish, sectarianism, past and present, has indeed continued to grapple with the question of how much ‘religion’ there was, and is, behind the continued division into ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’. Overall, there is extensive academic research maintaining an ‘ethnic’ interpretation of the conflict. In this view, the recurrent upheavals in the north of the island, down to the ‘Troubles’, were – in a sense – a reiteration of the confrontation between Protestant ‘settlers’ and Catholic ‘natives’.6 Both sociological studies and historical studies of Northern Ireland, as well as research on more broadly ‘Irish’ history, have further underpinned the idea of religion as a ‘marker’. Sectarian conflicts in Ireland did not necessarily arise from theological difference, but were the result of challenges to, or the reassertion of, the power dynamics between two competing communities.7
III. Religion: reappraisal and limitations
Although this offers a concise and comprehensive explanation, there are reasons to be cautious in dismissing ‘religion’ as unimportant. On the one hand, given the resilience of ‘sectarian’ definitions of group boundaries despite increasing secularisation,8 one might be tempted into a ‘presentist’ interpretation, disregarding the possibility that spirituality may well have had some significance in the past. In line with a resurgent interest and reappraisal of Irish religious history, historians have begun to question traditional assumptions of the ‘fixed’ nature of Irish religious identities.9 At the same time, there has been a wider ‘revival’ of religious history in a British and Irish context, which has begun to appreciate religion as not just a proxy, but a legitimate object of study in its own right.10
A reversion to a more ‘generous’ appreciation of religion obviously has its limits; the problem remains that ‘religion’ continues to be an elusive concept.11 More precisely, religious beliefs and practice, when integrated into a wider study of inter-communal relations, can add more detail to our understanding of how boundaries were constructed, but do not necessarily challenge the ‘ethnic’ interpretation of identities, sometimes even reproducing them in a different form.12
The spiritual experience only goes so far in transcending the material world. Thus, as Marcus Tanner has argued, conversions from Catholicism to Protestantism, even with genuine attempts on the part of proselytisers, remained rare, since ‘to join the Church of Ireland meant more than abandoning transubstantiation. It implied joining the world of the magistrate, the landlord and the big house’.13
IV: A last appeal: the worldly and the supernatural
A greater focus on religion can therefore not be expected to readily offer an explanation of how the fault-lines within Northern Irish society developed because it is, as a concept, necessarily wound up with ‘material’ elements. This is necessarily so if we look at the ‘visible’ and ‘invisible’ elements of spirituality: religion can be manifest in organised worship, in practices, in communal society, in writing, etc. It, however, can also occupy a sphere that is vastly more difficult to observe: the individual spiritual journey, clandestine worship in opposition to communal pressure or orthodoxy, and, most elusive of all, the experience of the supernatural.14
It might therefore be important to firstly achieve some degree of separation between what is essentially ‘material’, and that which is not. This means reinterpreting the label of ‘religion’ as not inherently ‘transcendent’ or ‘worldly’.
1 James Carlile, Fruit gathered from among Roman Catholics in Ireland (London, 1848), p.22.
2 Ibid., p.23.
3 Ibid., p.28.
4 Over the years, several works have been written on the subject, but Desmond Bowen’s seminal work on Protestant proselytism during the Famine remains highly important [see: Desmond Bowen, Souperism: myth or reality. A study in Souperism (Cork, 1970)].
5 Quote by David Ervine, terrorist-turned-politician representing the loyalist paramilitaries during the negotiations that led to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement of 1998 [quoted in: John D. Brewer and Gareth I. Higgins, Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, 1600-1998: the mote and the beam (Basingstoke, 1998), p.211].
6 A standard reference elaborating this idea of a continuous quasi-ethnic conflict is: A.T.Q. Stewart, The narrow ground: aspects of Ulster, 1609-1969 (London, 1977).
7 John D. Brewer and Gareth I. Higgins, for instance, have argued the case that sectarianism in Northern Ireland functions as a justification of social exclusion and traditional group boundaries [see: Brewer and Higgins, Anti-Catholicism in Northern Ireland, ch.4, ch.5]. Marianne Elliott and Frank Wright further explored the theme of continuities in Ulster’s sectarian history, the former with more focus on the role of culture in transferring group identities across generations, and the latter with greater emphasis on recurring patterns in politics [see: Frank Wright, Two lands on one soil: Ulster politics before Home Rule (Dublin, 1996); Marianne Elliott, The Catholics of Ulster: a history (London, 2000).
8 Ami Sedghi, ‘Census 2011: Northern Ireland’, The Guardian, 11 December 2012, Tuesday, accessed 25 February 2015, Wednesday, http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/dec/11/2011-census-northern-ireland-religion-identity.
9 S.J. Connolly, ‘The moving statue and the turtle dove: approaches to the history of Irish religion’, Irish Economic and Social History 31 (Dublin, 2004), pp.1-22, p.6-7.
10 An example would be Stewart J. Brown’s extensive work on the history of established religion in early nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland [see: Stewart J. Brown, The national churches of England, Ireland and Scotland, 1801-1846 (Oxford, 2001)]. Andrew Holmes’ study of the Ulster Presbyterian community, which he argues was crucially defined through its religious character, is particularly interesting in the Northern Irish context [see: Andrew R. Holmes, The shaping of Ulster Presbyterian belief and practice, 1770-1840 (Oxford, 2006)].
11 In the Irish case, S.J. Connolly has argued that the study of religious practices sometimes almost forces accepting spiritual experiences as an externality [see: Connolly, ‘The moving statue and the turtle dove’].
12 David Hempton and Myrtle Hill argue in their study of evangelical religion in Ulster that attempts to convert Roman Catholics, seemingly paradoxically, only widened the cultural gulf between the two communities [see: David Hempton and Myrtle Hill, Evangelical Protestantism in Ulster society, 1740-1890 (London, 1992), p.60-61].
13 Marcus Tanner, Ireland’s holy wars: the struggle for a nation’s soul, 1500-2000 (New Haven, 2001), p.210-211.
14 These themes are explored in greater detail in Lewis Rambo’s book on religious conversions [see: Lewis R, Rambo, Understanding religious conversion (New Haven, 1993)]. For a collection of essays on various approaches to religion, especially in the case of conversions, see: Lewis R. Rambo and Charles E. Farhadian (eds.), The Oxford handbook of religious conversion (New York, 2014).
Quebec is overwhelmingly Catholic, a legacy from colonial times where Catholicism was a requirement in order to settle in New France. As education in Canada is under the purview of the provinces, the Church was responsible for education in Quebec. This led to the continuance of a Catholic upbringing for the Quebecois, allowing the Church to remain a fixture in the public sphere for hundreds of years. Additionally, the education system of the Church was entitled to public funds. Under the conservative party of the Union Nationale, this trend continued into the 1950’s. The leader of the Union Nationale, Maurice Duplessis, argued that the culture of the Catholic Quebecois was to uphold their traditional values and society against an anglophone, Protestant Canada. Nationalism in Quebec at the time was heavily influenced by this clericalism. Rather than developing Montreal in the post-war period, Duplessis focused on his rural, agricultural base. Duplessis usually had the backing of the Catholic church in his initiatives, giving him much political credit in a culture that still viewed the clergy as an authority. Clericalism greatly affected the direction of Quebec politics, allowing the clergy to consolidate its power even into the 1950’s. If anything, Duplessis’ regime in the post-war period was actively working against the typical post-war modernisation seen in many post-colonial states.
II. Quiet Revolution
The Quiet Revolution marked the beginning of the evolution of the Quebecois into one of the most secularized nations in modernity. After the death of Maurice Duplessis, the conservative and clerical-focused regime was ushered out and replaced by a new regime focused on liberalism. Quebecois values shifted towards a support of trade unions and industrialisation. The politics became less about the acquiescing to the demands of the rural clergy and focused on urbanisation as a way to modernise Quebec. Montreal became the business centre of Quebec and a liberal stronghold. Public services, most importantly health care and education, were brought under the control of the provincial government, largely marking the end of Church control and influence. At this time, the development of Quebec had much in common with the welfare state that it had previously missed out on in the post-war period. Having taken control of their province, self-determination in the form of the sovereignty movement became an increasingly visible topic of debate in the politics of Quebec. The 1976 provincial elections saw the rise of the Parti Quebecois, a political party focused on attaining sovereignty for Quebec.
While the Liberal Party had seen incredible support at the federal level in Quebec politics, the 1990’s saw the rise of the Bloc Quebecois. The BQ, while not a federal version of the PQ, was the federal political party that focused on advocating for Francophones as well as the issue of sovereignty. By removing the church’s control and influence in favour of the welfare state, the role of religion became much less important in both the social and political realm as well. This was reflected in the BQ, whose platform is social democratic in nature. The secularisation started with the Quiet Revolution reverberated throughout the nation, with the modern Quebecois transforming into one of the most secularised nations in modernity. While many Quebecois identify as Catholic, the traditional values of the Church have not been kept, exemplified by indicators such as half of all parents being unmarried and a very small portion of the population attending weekly religious services. Where before the Quebecois were nation that exemplified the power of clericalism, it is now a nation very much so defined by its secularisation and social democracy. Therein lies the paradox of the Quebecois – a nation that identifies as Catholic, yet is deeply irreligious.