Thursday, September 06, 2007

Religion and Nationalism

Last night I attended a fascinating talk on Religion and Nationalism at St Barnabus’ Church in Southfields, London. Dr Eric Kaufmann, a reader in Politics and Sociology at Birkbeck, University of London, took us on a swift tour of this complex subject, covering a range of conflicts from the medieval crusades to the Iraq war.

The big question, of course, was how far are so-called ‘religious’ wars in fact nationalistic, political campaigns and whether such wars are in any way more violent that ‘secular’ conflict? Inevitably, perhaps, the conclusion on both counts was that the distinction is far from clear cut. During question time after Dr Kaufmann’s talk for instance, there was serious, well-informed debate about whether Northern Ireland was really a Protestant –v- Catholic fight or whether those labels actually provided no useful indication whatsoever of actual religious adherence and depth of religious feeling, saying much more about place of birth, heritage and political affiliation.

Distinctions between religion and nationalism are hard to pinpoint, often because they are so personal – and irrational. This point was beautifully – or perhaps I should say horrifically – illustrated by the friend with whom I attended the lecture. She told the audience how her Croatian au pair, at the height of the Balkan war, recalled hiding in the cellar with her family while a mob outside called for the blood of her father, a Serb. “I listened to her story and, in my naivety,” said my friend, “asked why she and her family go back to Serbia to escape?” She replied: “Well, my family haven’t lived in Serbia for 400 years.”

Earlier, I had spotted a news story in the Times of India about a Hindu religious leader in South Africa who had caused a storm in his community by suggesting that Hindus who convert to Christianity and reject their religion will “lose their right to be Indian.” It seems a bizarre mix of religion and nationalism, yet not one that should really surprise us.

Even second and third generation immigrants in this country identify strongly with their original ‘homeland,’ while at the same time feeling British. They also understandably wish to practise the religion of their familial place of birth. I wonder whether my personal identity as a British Christian owes more to my upbringing within the native Methodist tradition, my subsequent connection with the Church of England and the worship, liturgy, art, music and heritage of Christianity in this country, or to the first century Palestinian New Testament?

It is probably the former, because were I to convert to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism or Islam – even Judaism - I would of course still be British, but can’t help feeling that in converting I would lose some vital connection with my own land which it would be difficult to replace. Such hypothetical feelings are part of complex web of emotion and experience that it is not easy to explain, although I am clearly not alone in feeling it.

White Britons living in areas where there is a higher density of Muslims in the population are much more likely to identify themselves as Christian, said Dr Kaufmann, irrespective of whether or not they actually attend church or practice their faith. In theory, I guess that means that the potentially lethal blend of religion and nationalism becomes far more potent when the ‘home’ faith is in some way perceived to be under threat.

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