Political identity and ethno-nationalism: A vexed question

Photo: Wikimedia/Geographicus Rare Antique Maps.

Modern nation states and their ideological underpinnings are a challenge to the question of identity and has ironically taken the question of identity to new heights.

To reconcile subjective with the objective, local with global, traditional identity with modern day mutations is a task presupposing highest standards of scholarship. In an ontological context, a lot has been written on this issue, but unfortunately most of those writings fail to incorporate the basic premises of this debate.

The current scholarships have mostly failed in defining the idea of “identity” anything beyond how the western notion of “identity” has been put forth. Irony indeed!

The western idea as laid down in eighteenth century by German philosopher Johann Heberder was based on the premise that there are no universal values, either moral or aesthetic and only various cultural entities (or linguistic identities) which he called ‘volks’ existed.

Herder’s argument implied that no moral or aesthetic judgement was universally valid or objectively true (he even went on to criticise Kant on his philosophy of universal reason). He asserted, what many Middle Eastern, Indian and Pakistani “scholars” too have taken to reiterating, that only “shared language, tradition, customs, history- ties people together as a volk.”

The same idea was later carried forward by the likes of Johann Gottlieb Fichte and he modified it to what let to later day advocacy of colonialism that some volks might actually be superior to others.

Most of these western social philosophers considered this identity “an inevitable stage in the universal ideological development,” regardless of the context or the inclinations on the ground.

Identity was made subservient to something which was purely arising out of need and hence was heterogenous even among those grouped together according to these determinants of a modern day, western inspired “Nation”.

No nation actually existed, no identity existed in totality. People living in a single “Nation” had different languages, different cultures and at times were at a constant conflict of such ‘identities’ with each other.

The German idea of “identity” was a failure. Many scholars widely known as proponents of this novel identity, like Hans Kohn and George Orwell, did warn the world of the effects of nationalism. One of the criticisms the ideology faces is the distortion of moral judgement that it inflict upon its believers.

Orwell (1953) explained, “Because of nationalism we tend to divide the world into an “us” and “them”; terms like “freedom fighter” and “terrorist” become secondary to our own national sympathies; and a form of moral relativism prevails”.

Similarly, White (2005), in his writing, mentioned that there are significant “moral dangers of nationalism,” and like many scholars he also stated that “nationality and national differences are not really differences that should have any significance”.

However, there had been another idea of identity that had existed long before this one. The idea of belonging to a value judgement which rose beyond the level of nation. From 600 C.E and beyond this idea had flourished all through the middle world. While the culture, the customs, the languages the way of life had differed throughout the Muslim empire extending from Africa to Spain to Indian subcontinent to Persia, there was a supra-linguistic, supra-cartographic and supra-need-based coherence in this “identity” which stemmed from the idea/emotion/feeling of belonging to a universal judgement, a transcendental value.

Yes, the Islamic culture kept on changing like a flux, absorbing some and effusing other over 1400 years but the sense of belonging was a constant coherent feature which circumscribed and ran over all the dynamicity, at times even acting as a catalyst to it, but containing it within itself.

This identity, largely defined by a ‘sense of belonging’ and not merely driven by imposition of ‘my cultural identity’ over ‘your cultural identity’ so that we desperately present ourselves as a nation, needs to be studied by the liberal intellectual culture so as to have some credibility and originality of thought rather than mere parroting and reiterating what West taught them.

Ethno-Nationalism as such is ignorance on part of the masses and stupidity on part of the intellectuals.

It is nothing but one of many post-“enlightenment” illusions that has been fuelled to keep middle world simmering so that it can be conveniently tapped by the West. The origins of ethno-nationalism in Middle word and East and how it was and is still being used to colonise people can be found in a works of Tamim Ansari and Mariyam Jameela. Tamim goes on, very intricately, into the inception of Nationalism in Pre-World War 1 Germany and how it was based on divisive and profit driven philosophies of John Locke and ilk and Mariyam Jameela explains why and how western political theorists realised that it had a strong potential to be used as a fodder to some unsettled tribes in the Muslim empire so as to bring it down, beneath the exploitive domination of West.

Hence, the West’s encouragement of ethno-nationalism especially towards the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century was to dismantle Ottoman empire and carve out strategically convenient nation states that first helped in its colonisation project and loot of resources and then managed to keep the pot boiling even after apparent decolonisation of these lands.

Irony is how even the most erudite fall to the trap and swear by it, how they try to resist foreign impositions through its delusional perimeters and how they claim unity through imaginary cartographic lines and intangibles of ethno-linguistics.

It is sad how most of them made themselves gullible to intellectual treacheries of west and unlike them Christian socialists like Michel Aflak actually understood and proposed a special meaning to the transcendental ideal that would define the Arab nationalism. Albeit within the narrow perimeters of a common culture, but that would be expected from a Baathist intellectual like Aflak.

What unites humans can’t be subhuman profit driven mandates of drunkards likes Sykes and Picot, but something above humankind, something supra-human which has a power to hold different ethnicities together.

Ethno-nationalist identity is always relative and hence always divisive. It can never become absolute and it only helps blunt the other more encompassing identities.

Rights of man can’t be guaranteed through a relative phenomena or they too end up becoming relative.

However, it doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be aware of distinct ethnic/cultural background and be respectful of it. It doesn’t have to be political necessarily.

To end, I will quote from Allama Iqbal’s lectures, he believed that the individual cultures have to be identified, respected and accommodated and the force which shall do this its aim “is to furnish a model for final combination of humanity by drawing its inherents from a variety of mutually repellant races, and then transforming this atomic aggregate into a people possessing self-conscious of their own”.


The write up was product of conversation between three friends: A philosopher-engineer, a doctor and a journalist.

Khawar Khan Achakzai is a published author, a medical Doctor by profession, and student of history. 


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