Sun, Sep 16, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Nationalism provides explanation for international terrorism

By Liah Greenfeld

Sept. 11, 2001, may — at least at first — seem like an inappropriate addition to the history of nationalism, given al-Qaeda’s explicitly stated global pretensions. In fact, now that the initial shock and confusion have given way to a more sober perspective, the terrorist attacks of that awful day are increasingly seen — as they should be — as one among numerous other nationalist milestones.

From this perspective, the attacks no longer appear, as they did to so many immediately afterward, to reflect an incomprehensible, irrational, and uncivilized mentality, or a different civilization altogether — pre-modern, unenlightened, and fundamentally “traditional” (in other words, undeveloped). It is in this unflattering sense that Islam, the dominant religion of an economically backward part of the world, was said to have motivated the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And, because those who believed this (virtually everyone whose voices were heard) belatedly perceived its insulting connotation, discussing the matter has caused considerable anguish in the years since.

There are no euphemisms that can inoffensively imply that one of the great world religions is a murderous, irrational ideology, unacceptable for modern, civilized human beings. And yet two different US administrations have implied — and consistently acted upon — this assumption.

However, once we place the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, and the broader political phenomenon of international terrorism, in the context of other historical tragedies in the past century, religion becomes an unlikely explanation. It is here where the influence of nationalism becomes obvious.


Nationalism has been the major motive force in the West since the beginning of the modern period. Historians have noted its influence in Elizabethan England (which produced the spirit animating the Puritan Rebellion and migration to America), and increasingly recognize it as the motive force behind the French and the Russian Revolutions. Meanwhile, Chinese scholars are beginning to view it as the inspiration for Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) struggle against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the policies of the People’s Republic. And no historical acumen is needed to understand that nationalism was the source of Hitler’s National Socialism and, therefore, World War II.

In fact, it would be puzzling if this were not the case, given that nationalism is the cultural foundation of modernity — the framework of its social consciousness. And, precisely because nationalism shapes the way we think, its role in phenomena that do not trumpet their nationalist motivation — like al-Qaeda’s attacks in 2001 — can easily be overlooked.

As a rule, most nationalists do not call themselves nationalists. Like the rest of us, they believe that their nationalism is natural and does not have to be emphasized. However, a little self-examination should lead any thinking person to recognize that we all are nationalists — we feel, think, and react to the world as nationalism prescribes.

Nationalism is a temporal vision (and thus secular, even when using religion in its rhetoric) that divides people into sovereign communities of equal members. The equality of national membership (which, at the same time, may be exclusively defined) elevates every member’s status to that of the elite, making it dependent on the dignity of the nation as a whole.

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