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Religion, politics and violence (part 9): nation state

The modern state is known as the nation state.

This means that the state exists in the name of the nation. When modern international law recognizes the right to self-determination, “the self ” in the said self-determination is considered to be the nation.

Benedict Anderson famously defines the nation as an imagined community whose builders naturalize, exaggerate or even invent certain purportedly shared characteristics.

The mobilization of different bunches of peasants to concoct the French identity, as Eugene Weber demonstrates in his Peasants into Frenchmen, remains a compelling example of how the nation is fabricated.

If the nation imagines itself in terms of such identities as race, ethnicity, indigeneity, religion, among others, it means that the nation state is an identity-based state. But there are always members of society who do not share the identity of the nation.

As the nation constitutes the political majority, the rest become political minorities. In Uganda, the nation imagines itself in terms of indigeneity. Those who belong to the alleged indigenous communities are the “true” Ugandans, and their citizenship is beyond question.

As for the Indians, Somalis, Dinkas and others, these can only be granted citizenship by registration. This kind of citizenship is legally revocable under certain circumstances.

Christianity, especially Protestantism, has also been important in the making of the Ugandan nation. In this case, the Muslims are not part of the nation. In another context, however, native Muslims are included in the nation by virtue of belonging to Uganda’s alleged indigenous societies.

The claim of the liberal state is that it controls identity and protects the minorities from the tyranny of the majority. The liberal state requires both the majority and the minorities to keep their identities (such as religion) to the personal realm and approach public affairs (like politics) with reason.

Of course, the boundary between religion and politics is never self-evident. Thus the state creates and demarcates this boundary by deciding that business X may belong to the domain of religion (the private domain) while business Y belongs to the sphere of reason (the public sphere).

On top of creating the private domain in which religion is supposed to remain, the state enters this domain to define and regulate religious life even if it says that it does not interfere in religion.

The state reserves the final authority to determine whether an Islamic or Hindu or customary marriage between X and Y presided over by a religious or customary authority is valid or invalid. Recently, a church in Kampala was dragged to court to defend itself for asking couples seeking marriage to present evidence of HIV status.

Secularism, therefore, does not mean that politics and religion are independent of each other, for religious life is subject to state definition and regulation.

Second, whereas religion supposedly belongs to the personal realm, public debate often reflects personal bias, including the religious biases of the nation and other hegemonic influences, local or global. If reason informs public principle, reason is a social construct, as we saw in Part 5.

The dominant forces, especially the national majority, often have a greater hand in the construction of reason. Thus when some women rights activists proposed a uniform family law for all Ugandans regardless of religious affiliation, the Muslims argued that the proposed law was rooted in Christian common sense.

The Muslim response should be seen as a critique of reason. Yet, the problem of the nation state is not about the biasness of reason. Rather, the nation state is itself the problem. Being an identity-based state, the nation state politicizes identities like religion and produces discrimination.

When religious discrimination happens in certain parts of Africa or Asia, it is blamed on the absence of secularism and liberalism. What, then, explains the persistence of shocking forms of Islamophobic and racist discrimination in Western countries?

The problem is the nation state itself. Not even liberalism can help because liberalism has no critique of the state. Liberalism only critiques certain manifestations of the state, but not the state itself. The nation state, whether liberal or non-liberal, assumes that there has to be a national majority and the minorities.

The national majority is only expected to tolerate the minorities. Liberalism and secularism claim to actualize this toleration.

This, however, does not take away the distinction between the national majority and the minorities. Regardless of the rights that they may enjoy at any particular time, the minorities remain minorities that do not belong to the nation.

Should they ever threaten the dominance of the national majority, the minorities would be dealt with accordingly. What a fragile political community!

The author is a researcher at Makerere Institute of Social Research. His latest book is: America and the Production of Islamic Truth in Uganda.


0 #1 Moody Senyonjo 2023-05-26 19:07
Ndugu Yahaya, as you progress in your research, it may interest you to know that Christianity recognizes the secular state - "render (give) unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar."

Try to incorporate this fact in your next discussion, please. Otherwise, you may be mistaken for a propagandist.
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