This forum draws together scholars of religion, nationalism, and secularism with research expertise in North America, the Middle East, Europe, and South Asia to explore different facets of religious nationalism: What are the social and political impacts of religiously infused narratives of the nation? How is religious difference apprehended in multi- and monocultural societies? How are majority-minority relationships envisioned, politicized, and “managed” legally and practically on the ground? What happens to religious minorities in countries where nations are imagined around a specific religious denomination, against another religious group, or through the ideal of religious neutrality or laïcité? And what role does race play in religious visions of the nation?
My own past scholarship has tackled why and how national and religious identities can become entangled, and when, why, and how the tie between them can be loosened or broken, allowing national identities to be rearticulated in secular terms. The rich scholarship developed in the wake of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, and discussions in public forums like The Immanent Frame, pushed scholars of nationalism to pay closer attention not to “religious nationalism,” “religion and nationalism,” or secularism tout court, but to the many possible entanglements between these different modalities of managing religious and nonreligious identities, institutions, and frameworks in specific national contexts.
In Canada and Western Europe, over the past two decades secularism has often been discussed in relation to the “crisis of pluralism.” The crisis in question refers to the challenges self-avowed secular societies face with the immigration of populations who are not only denominationally “Other” but also markedly more religious in their worldviews and everyday practices than members of the host society. That is certainly the case in Quebec, as I showed elsewhere. In Poland, however, the crisis of pluralism is one of absence: How can Poland, one of the most ethnically, denominationally, and religiously homogenous nation-states in the world, counter the empirical absence of a plurality of ethnic, racial, and religious groups to meet the normative goals of pluralism and multiculturalism, now enshrined as core values of modern polities? And how can liberal secular elites articulate and project an image of the nation other than Polonia semper fidelis, Poland as essentially and eternally Catholic, both at home and abroad?
My new book, Resurrecting the Jew: Nationalism, Philosemitism, and Poland’s Jewish Revival, explores that issue via an analysis of non-Jewish Poles’ fascination for all things Jewish. I show that the attempt at “resurrecting” Jewish culture in a society where only 10,000 or so Jews now live participates in a broader effort by progressive Poles to build a neutral space where Catholicism is only one among many other value systems (religious and nonreligious), and in which none is hegemonic. Philosemitism in the Polish context, then, is not anti-antisemitism. It is imbricated in a complex national project to build pluralism and secularism in a country where approximately 95 percent of the population is ethnically Polish and nominally Catholic.
But why is that project built through Jewishness?
One reason is that Jewishness is an ethnoreligious category that has traditionally been perceived by Poles as the polar opposite of the Polak-katolik, the hyphenated category that merges Polishness and Catholicism into a single term. In that context, the resurrection of Jewish culture is part of a broader attempt to counter the monopoly of the Catholic Right over the definition of Polishness and expand what it means to be Polish.
Another reason is that Western-style capitalism, socialism, and cosmopolitanism are specifically associated with Jewishness. Precisely because Jewishness carries specific significations and symbolic capital that other minorities in Poland (such as Ukrainians, Silesians, or the Vietnamese) do not possess, it is primarily through Jews and Jewishness that a modern, multicultural Poland is articulated.
Yet another reason why expansions of Polish national identity are articulated around Jews, and Jewish culture more specifically, is that Jews are both exotic and somewhat “indigenous.” Unlike Ukrainians (who are too similar to Poles) or the Vietnamese (who are too different), Jews are different enough but were “nourished from the Polish soil and grew on these lands,” as one interviewee told me. Jewishness is both “Other” and “Ours,” according to comments made spontaneously by countless interviewees. In that sense, they are the perfect “indigenous other.” This indigenization of a multicultural Poland is key because civic and secular discourses can be perceived as a remnant of Communist Party-state rhetoric and/or as an export from the European Union and neoliberal Polish elites. Progressive, “civic” nationalists must therefore work twice as hard to make their vision of the nation legitimate and authentically Polish. Public intellectuals have sought to promote this vision by reconstructing a narrative emphasizing Poland’s sixteenth-century religious tolerance and the First Republic’s multiethnic and multiconfessional state, as well as its elective monarchy, interwar liberal traditions, and to a certain extent Solidarity’s peaceful resistance and civic activism in the 1980s. But this discursive strategy has had limited success because the Right and far-Right also use some of these historical themes and their symbols, diluting their power. In that context, the large number of Jews who settled in Poland centuries ago has become a core element of a Polish civic narrative. Poland’s Jewish past also provides abundant cultural traces and a dense material heritage to seed an alternative national discourse and expand Poland’s national sensorium. In this vision, it is the multicultural Poland of the past that is represented by left-leaning memory activists, secular elites, and progressive nationalists as the “true” Poland, and not its stunted postwar version.
A final reason why progressive Poles articulate their vision of a civic and secular Poland through Jewish culture and the Polish-Jewish past is that there are few Jews in Poland today, and as such it is easier to project fantasies of the past or the future onto them than it would be with larger minority groups.
Paradoxically, then, ethnicity and religion remain the categories through which civic nationalists attempt to transcend ethnoreligious nationalism. That conundrum is at the basis of what I call in the book the “tragedy of Polish civic nationalism”: to escape ethnoreligious nationalism, civic nationalists must resort to the very categories of ethnicity and religion. Part of that tragedy is that to achieve the goals of civic nationalism, secularism, and multiculturalism, the Jew must remain Other, and Jewish culture becomes a means to an aspired-to end of national reinvention.
The Polish case clearly shows the different modalities that inform which groups are constituted as part of majorities or minorities, and which minorities matter for a given national project. Mona Oraby, in her essay for this forum, similarly shows that not all religious minorities are created equal, and that only those that can be integrated into a national narrative are considered to truly belong, with surprising consequences: while there are only a couple dozen Jews left in Egypt, in recent years Jewish cultural heritage has been protected, renovated, and promoted. Meanwhile, the Baha’i community, with several thousand members, is for all intents and purposes invisible in the eyes of the state. Oraby explains that the group’s theology is at the source of this neglect. Since the Baha’i believe in continuous revelation, and Muslims recognize Mohammed as the last and final prophet, the Baha’i cannot be integrated into Egypt’s (Muslim) national narrative. Jews and Christians, on the other hand, do not pose the same challenge, since Islam already embraces Judaism and Christianity as prior revelations brought to completion and perfection by the Prophet. Jews and Christians are represented as legitimate members of the nation because they already occupy a key narrative slot in Islamic history.
What constitutes a minority—and, to wit, a majority—and what makes a minority a “deserving” one, a “fascinating” one, or an “insignificant” or “dangerous” one, then, is based on much more complex criteria and processes than the number of members belonging to a given group. Majority/minority status is determined by cultural work and political processes; it is established in relation to religious beliefs, historical narratives, or national programs, and contingent on a given group’s symbolic capital, political power, narrative position, and other resources it can deploy.
Atalia Omer turns to the analysis of the violent political processes at play in the “minoritization” of Palestinians. She argues that the creation of Israel implied—and continues to imply—the “majoritization” of Jews in the polity, a process that could only be achieved through the twin processes of Palestinians’ de jure and de facto minoritization. These violent processes operate at both historical and legal-institutional levels: it was first articulated discursively and legally, through the founding of Israel as a Jewish state, and it is institutionally reinforced through the creation of categories that enact and reproduce inequality between Israel’s titular majority (Jews) and its (Arab) minority. That inequality, in turn, makes physical violence against persons, property, and communities possible, and even legitimate.
Daniel Monterescu and Yael Shmaryahu-Yeshurun show in another essay on the Israeli case that even processes of gentrification in mixed (Arab-Jewish) cities in Israel are part of this violent process of minoritization of Palestinians, as the latter are displaced by religious settler gentrifiers. That process of ethnoreligious gentrification is sanctioned by and sometimes led by the state.
Majority/minority status can also be determined through political coalitions. Samuel Perry provides an insightful look at Christian nationalism in the United States. Perry shows that it involves a constant play of ideological alliances that shift depending on the “enemy” the alliance is alleged to protect the Christian nation from. He shows, for example, that opposition to immigration tends to unite Black and white evangelicals, but that fear of race riots and critiques of “wokeness” tend to mobilize a perceived affinity between Latinx or Hispanic evangelicals and white Christian nationalists. When the battleground shifts to sexual politics, however, religion serves as a bridge between white Christian evangelicals and both Latinx/Hispanic and Black ethnic and racial minorities. In that case, religion may even “whiten” non-whites by integrating them into the (white) Christian nationalist family. The key here is that Christian nationalism can—and does—build multiracial coalitions, and therefore is a political force to be reckoned with.
As mentioned above, Poland’s ethnonational and confessional homogeneity does not preclude conflicts over national identity, the place of religion in society, or the imagined shape of a broader national consensus. Even in “mono-ethnic” and “mono-confessional” societies, debates about identity, politics, and religion continue to punctuate political life. On this score, Sadia Saeed productively juxtaposes the cases of Hindu nationalism in India and Muslim nationalism in Pakistan to tease out how nationalists in both societies attempt to control populations they perceive as threats.
In Muslim-majority Pakistan, Muslim nationalists created a dichotomy between believers and nonbelievers. The existence of these categories allows them to create scales of belonging and hierarchies among different social groups. As a result, the Ahmadiyya, who identify as Muslim but are not recognized as such by the Pakistani state, became targets of state repression. Even further, Saeed shows that Hindu nationalists in India—a country with a sizable Muslim population alongside other religious minorities—attempt to forge homogeneity by borrowing a page from Pakistani Muslim nationalism’s playbook. They adopted, for example, the believer/nonbeliever dichotomy, even though such categories are neither meaningful for most Hindu practitioners nor in line with India’s official secularism. Besides encouraging violence against religious minorities, this discourse and its political circulation facilitates the desecularization of the public sphere.
The status of religion and religious institutions, as well as the rights of believers and nonbelievers, then, remain crucial in both theocratic and secular states. By looking at the oft-overlooked case of Canada, Lori Beaman shows that while Christian religious affiliation may be in decline in the country, “Christian residues” are evident in Canadian institutions, the legal system, and civil society. The state’s self-understanding as secular, however, creates blind spots where traces of Christianity are interpreted merely as “cultural” or as “national patrimony” and therefore considered benign and inoffensive to nonbelievers or adherents of non-Christian religions. The same is true in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, as David Koussens shows in his essay on illiberal secularisms in Western francophone societies. Koussens analyzes how traditional models of secularism in French-speaking countries (influenced by the French case) are being reinterpreted to facilitate the defense of national identities against perceived threats posed by the arrival of Muslim immigrants and refugees. That fear, coupled with a selective interpretation of secularism and the rise of populist parties, has led to illiberal laws banning religious symbols in the public sphere, most famously the bans on veils or other forms of face-covering. Koussens argues that the fear of, and political focus on, Islam weakens “secular vigilance” of other pressing issues, such as the expansion of same-sex couples’ rights and the protection of reproductive rights from religious institutions’ and groups’ influence on legal systems.
Together, these essays give needed nuance and complexity to the ways we might think about the relationship between religious and secular articulations of and within nation-states. In view of the major war in Europe destabilizing the region and much of the world, the political expansion of Christian nationalism in the United States and the increasingly violent rhetoric of Trump and his supporters, the state-led persecutions of ethnoreligious minorities in China and Myanmar, the newfound political power of a muscular evangelical religious Right in Brazil, and too many other cases to list here, it is crucial that scholars continue to examine and understand the manifold possible articulations of politics and religion. There is still much to be done, and this work is not only productive, it is essential.