What is a nation? That question is at the heart of the issue and dilemma of the USA’s foreign policy blunders and fiascos from the 1990s to the present, including those of the Bush, and especially Obama administrations. A general understanding of the answer can offer us the insight necessary to work our way through the wilderness of intercultural and religious toleration issues that are tearing apart the fabric of Western Civilization.
Why did the invasion of Iraq fail? Why, despite our military victory, were we unable to build a stable regime there? Why is there the instability in places like Afghanistan? Why did the Arab Spring not lead to the sort of hope that the US and Europe expected?
It all comes down to the definition of a nation. It also comes down to blindness, the blindness of the West in our dominance of the world power frame. But it also comes down to the inability of the Muslim world to understand the difference between their concept and ours, and to interpret us through their frame, as we interpret them through ours.
Okay, have I delayed enough? Time to get on with the definition? Are you sure? Half of you are going to start tuning out, mentally, when I start dumping the definitions. It isn’t complex, but it is probably different than you are used to. Read carefully, not to see what you expect, but to see what is actually being said.
First, let us start out with what is the same in the definition of a nation, from the perspectives of both the West and the Muslim world. A nation is a group which enjoys connubium (right of marriage) and constitutes in the minds of its members a natural grouping of men. Both have or seek a political entity of their own.
Now, let’s discuss the differences. Western nations are territorial and not coterminus with a religion — they might share their religion with other nations or include more than one sect, or both. Church and state are separate institutions. No matter how closely one may have been involved in the other at any one time, to the Western mind, the two are distinct functions of human life and action.
Muslim nations, in contrast, are a group of people belonging to the same church. No Muslim nation has ever existed with church and state separate.
Up to this point I have used the term Western vs. Muslim. I am now going to change Muslim to Levantine. Because the Muslims are part of the Levantine culture. Because in the Middle East not everyone is Muslim. There are Christians and other offshoot religions there, but they are all part of the same culture, with the same definition of nation.
This also allows me to go back further in time, and ground this concept further back historically. I hope to erase several misconceptions we have about the Arab world and the rise of Islam.
Back in the sixth century, before the Muslims advanced out of the Arabian Peninsula, there were two great powers in the Levantine World: The Byzantine Empire centered in Constantinople and the Persians. But these were the political powers, not the nations. Within the Byzantine Empire there were the nations of the Orthodox Christians, as well as the heretical nations of the Nestorian Christians and the Monophysites. But though all are seen as Christian to us today, to each other they were separate nations ruling themselves under their own laws, with the Byzantines merely the political overstate for each as a substate within the empire.
Thus, when the Arabs poured out of the desert under the banner of Islam, the Nestorians and Monophysites put up no resistance. It wasn’t their state that was being attacked. They shifted from being substates of one territorial sovereign to substates of another. They weren’t citizens in feeling, law or fact of the state being attacked. Nor did the Muslims slaughter or force conversions of people from those states. They took over the machinery of the states that they found and became the territorial sovereign over the substates already there, and forced the previous territorial sovereign nations into substate status.
Another piece of the puzzle to understand is that the Islamic world is not of one nation either. They split into sects, the major divisions of which are the Shiite and Sunni, which have been battling each other for political supremacy for centuries.
And that is why, until the end of the 20th century, there were actually a lot of Christians throughout the Middle East (usually 14% or higher in any region), existing as one of these substates. A large minority of Palestinians used to be Christians, as did Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis. We hear today of the murder of Christians in Syrian by ISIS. They used to exist side-by-side, until something changed, and the Muslims no longer tolerate them.
So what changed?
I would hypothesize that the change was the West, and our imposing of our definitions onto the Middle eEst.
Up until our rise to supremacy over the Muslim world — after World War I with the fall of the Ottoman Empire — we had only one real experience with this concept of nation as a substate within territorial sovereignty. That was the Jews, and our success in handling that was mixed at best. We have the allowing of Jews, their expulsion and readmittance, as a trend through many Western nations. The problem came in whether they were special or not, whether they were allowed to govern their own internal affairs or not, and how that governance was at odds with the rest of the society around them.
Historians have talked about jealousy of the Jews, of them as convenient scapegoats, of banishing them as a convenient way for indebted rules to abrogate their debts. What they haven’t noticed is the problems of ghettos in the Western idea of nationhood. The Jewish ghettos were not originally or always a construction of the world outside them. They were just as often a construction of the Jews themselves, from the Levantine world that they came from. It was when the walls of the ghettos came down, and the Jews integrated the rest of their lives into the Western world around them, that the differences and pogroms tended to subside through most of Europe. They normalized themselves into a Western concept of nationality. The lingering distrust is a remnant of the historical recognition of their chosen separation from the rest of the West.
So when we came to rule over the Middle East, and the Muslim world, we tended to establish territorial Western nations, not realizing all the substate nations that existed between them, or that we created polities that divided these nations amongst territorial states. And we gave one nation power over another within the same state, favoring different factions.
But they also learned from us. Part of what I think we are seeing now is their keeping the concept of a nation as sharing one religion, and merging it with our concept of a nation as being territorial. This is leading to the extermination, by the ruling territorial nation, of the other nations within their boundaries. This leads to ISIS, as well and the elimination of Palestinian and Egyptian Christians, to the dissolution of the state of Iraq, which was already a hodgepodge of Levantine nations.
If we had recognized the function of religion as a nation in the Middle East, we wouldn’t have made the same mistakes in Iraq, or continue to perpetuate them in how we handle ISIS.
And we wouldn’t be making the mistakes with the refugees that are coming from those regions into Europe and the United States. Their religion isn’t a threat to us. Their nationality is. It creates the ghettos and the no-go zones where police are not allowed to patrol. They are establishing their concept of nationhood within our borders.
We can withstand, even accept and accommodate, the Muslim religion. What we cannot accommodate is the invasion of an alien nation, of alien nations, within our boundaries. As long as they associate their nationhood with their religion, they do not assimilate and become part of us. These refugees may be fleeing from war and persecution in their homelands, but they haven’t changed their perspective of nationhood. As long as they hold it they are a fifth column within our nation. No matter how much pity or sympathy we have for their suffering, we need to understand the perspective they come from, their sense of nationhood, and not create a fifth column within our own borders.
Unless we understand this critical cultural difference, we will let our own sympathy and pity lead us to commit our own cultural and national suicide.
(Note: Some statements and definitions in the above post are barely-paraphrased passages from The Might of the West by Lawrence R. Brown, , 1963, Joseph J. Binn, publisher, Washington.)