How Might Ethnonationalism Replace Religion?

If you are like me, you were transfixed by Shadi Hamid‘s NPR interview this morning. He touched broadly on two issues: the compatibility of Islam and democracy, and the consequences of the declining religious support in the West for the rise of ethnonationalism.

Hamid’s discussion of this first point draws on arguments he makes at greater length and in more detail in his book Islamic Exceptionalism. I have long wanted to write a long-form review essay of this important book in a NYRB-like venue, but haven’t yet had the opportunity.

What I found more interesting this morning were Hamid’s ruminations on the second issue (start around 3:20). His basic argument is that (1) all humans want meaning, (2) religion gives us meaning, so (3) the decline of religion in the West leads to a need for some other source of meaning, and (4) ethnonationalism, white pride, and other forms of identity politics fill the void in meaning where religion once was. Hamid’s not the first to have made an argument of this type, but his is a neat articulation of it.

There are, broadly, two things that religious adherence does that might undergird Hamid’s argument—what follows is all drawn from classic literatures on the sociology of religion and religion and political economy). First, religion might provide individual psychological benefits, creating what we might term meaning-in-belief. “I am OK, and things are going to be OK, because at least I believe in the one true God.” Take that away and it is easy to see how it would be hard to confront personal hardship.

There is an alternative view, though: religion creates social structures that provide collective social benefits to those who participate. This is the model of the parish church, synagogue, the mosque, the wat, and so forth. Religion creates what we might call meaning-in-community; it is created not just through formal ceremony but also Youth Group, Quranic study sessions, temple ceremonies, etc. Political economy takes on religious participation focus on things like rotating credit associations that pop up in these religious communities, and identify costly investment in participation as necessary to sustain in-group solidarity. But my guess is that there is something more abstract and sociological that is the fundamental aspect of meaning-in-community: the understanding through communal practice that there are other people like you who face the same hardships that you do, and a space to express that.

Now return to Hamid’s point. what work would ethnonationalism have to do to fill the void left by religion? Does ethnonationalism provide meaning-in-belief? Possibly, but I am as yet unconvinced that the argument that “I am OK, and things are going to be OK, because at least I am white” can perform the same psychological work that religious belief does. How about meaning-in-community? There is a stronger argument here, but that contemporary expressions of ethnonationalism in the U.S. remain too disjointed and episodic to be convincingly doing this work. The distinctive thing about Nazi Germany was not the presence or celebration of anti-Semites, it was the organization of anti-Semites into a team. A secondary problem is that ethnonationalism in practice has an affinity for appeals to religion, so it is hard to see how one would replace the other. One way to square this circle is to understand religion as an expression of identity rather than in purely confessional or theological terms, a perspective I find useful in thinking about Jakarta politics these days.

In all, Hamid’s interview provides great food for thought about religion and identity around the world, not just for Muslims and in the Muslim world. Listen and develop your own opinions.