Thu, Jan 26, 2006 - Page 9 News List

What is national identity?

A number of countries are using citizenship tests to promote more inclusive societies, but the devil is in the detail

By Edward Rothstein  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Where does Father Christmas come from? How old do you have to be to buy a lottery ticket? If your adult son declares he's a homosexual, what do you do? If a film or a book insults your religious feelings, what is your reaction? Why are aboriginal peoples seeking self-government? Who has the power to declare war?

Answering such questions appropriately may not define you as a citizen of the world, even in this era of supposed globalization, but it would help get you citizenship in Britain (the first two questions), Germany (the second two), Canada (the next) or the US (the last).

Perhaps never before in human history has so much energy been devoted to trying to establish citizenship tests to define national identity. Judging from the debates raging and the confused choices made, there is as little agreement within each country as there is between them.

In the US, discussions about creating a new citizenship test have been going on for a decade. About US$3.5 million has been spent since 2001 when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) promised a redesign. In 2004, a report from the National Research Council recommended more bureaucratic consultation, leading to concerns that the process was going to become an extended series of debates. A non-profit concern, the American Institutes for Research, was then asked to make a more practical "feasibility study." On Tuesday, the Citizenship and Immigration Service (the successor to the INS) will announce recommendations about how much the tests should be modified or whether they should be changed at all.

Britain, meanwhile, introduced a new citizenship test in November and is beginning formal induction ceremonies like those in the US. Last week, the Guardian reported that the Netherlands was beginning a pilot program in which tests about Dutch language and culture would be administered to prospective immigrants in their native countries. The government also planned to require all immigrants who stay in the Netherlands more than three years to take citizenship classes. And, earlier this month, the Baden-Wuerttemberg region of Germany instituted questions to be asked only of Muslims from particular countries -- questions dealing with women's rights, religious freedom and domestic life.

One reason for the flurry of activity has been just what the German questions so bluntly address: the phenomenon of Muslim immigrants and citizens in Europe who not only are segregated from a nation's culture but also hostile to it. In 2004, for example, a poll found that 21 percent of Muslims in Germany believed the Koran and the German Constitution were incompatible. Hence these attempts to establish a shared identity based on particular beliefs and facts.

But which ones? Even where the notion of identity would seem to be fairly secure, notions of citizenship can be slight. In Britain, the Home Office minister said the new procedures were meant to "help new citizens to gain a greater appreciation of the civic and political dimensions of British citizenship." But while the 45-minute test includes questions about the structure of the British government and emphasizes Britain's religious identity ("What is the Church of England and who is its head?"), the main emphasis is on the test's title: "Life in the UK."

Judging from news reports and sample questions, the test treats British culture not as a product of centuries of evolution and political struggle with stunning achievements (and failures) -- in fact, there is almost no history on the test at all -- but as a set of practical behaviors along with correct attitudes toward women and ethnic minorities.

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