« Sacralizing Exclusion » – R.S. Appleby

« Sacralizing Exclusion: The Rise of Ultra-Nationalism and Right-Wing Populism »

By: Robert Scott Appleby

Table of contents – Table de matières – Indice – Inhaltsverzeichnis – 指數
English: Minorities – – Italiano: Minoranze
François: Minorités – – Português: Minoridades
Deutsch: Minderheiten – – Español: Minorías – – 中國人: 並通過

Populisms of various stripes typically reject the reigning political consensus—the “establishment,” which is perceived to be corrupt, that is, prone to channeling the wealth of the nation to the ruling class and their supporters in the business community. Aggravating this transgression, according to the populists, is the tendency of the neo-liberals to deal with the fact of pluralism by favoring racial, ethnic and religious minorities, at the expense of the native-born “sons of the soil,” to use the term prevalent in the religiously inflected discourse of Indian religious nationalists (including supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi).  Accordingly, populists oppose the welfare state, especially to the degree that it appears to privilege “outsiders” and “aliens,” rather than to offer a safety net and economic protection (e.g., pro-nationalist trade policies) to (supposedly) racially or religiously “pure” citizens of the nation-state.

The populist rejection of politics-as-usual can lead to a direct challenge or even rejection of time-honored legal and democratic principles, such as the rule of law and constitutionally granted rights and privileges guaranteed to all citizens. The unfortunate irony of modern populist movements is that they gain influence precisely within the democratic systems whose values, principles and procedures they may seek to undermine. (From the 1990s, right-wing populist parties became established in the legislatures of various democracies including Canada, Norway, France, Israel, Poland, Russia, Romania and Chile, and entered coalition governments in Switzerland, Austria, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Italy.) Thus, for example, in May 2016 the democratic republic of the Philippines elected as its president a provincial mayor named Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to rid the country of crime and drugs, and then proceeded to do so by allowing the extra-judicial killing of more than 7,000 Filipinos in his first seven months in office. [1]

President Duterte threatened to impose martial law, if necessary, in his drive against drug users and dealers. “No one can stop me,” he said. “My country transcends everything else, even the limitations.” This claim of a higher calling that could warrant trampling democracy, the New York Times noted, is vintage populism.[2]  So, too, is Duterte’s boast that “I am testing the élite in this country.”[3] Also reflective of his radical populism, Duterte seems to be declaring independence from his country’s traditional ally, the United States, in favor of authoritarian regimes that previous governments have viewed warily. During a state visit to Beijing in October 2016, he announced a “separation” from the United States. “America has lost now,” he told a group of Chinese businessmen. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow. And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia.”[4]

The new nationalism also roiled Europe in 2016. By year’s end, stunningly, the viability of the European Union lay in doubt.  The European Union—the world’s largest trans-nationalist (some might even say, “post-nationalist”) economic bloc—has been marked by open borders and relatively open trade across borders.  The referendum conducted in the United Kingdom on June 23 saw the once improbable victory of Brexit, the political coalition and movement committed to the U.K.’s departure from the E.U. The victory was widely attributed to an anti-immigrant (and particularly anti-Muslim) backlash fueled by the economic stagnation of the British working class. 

Later in the year, in December, Italy’s electorate delivered a similar verdict by voting against constitutional reform opposed by the leading populist party in the country. Italy is Europe’s third largest economy in the precarious Eurozone, but with an unemployment rate (around 12 percent) that includes a youth unemployment rate close to 40 percent. Its banks have remained saddled with bad loans, and pervasive political corruption has over a long period weakened the leading Socialist and Christian Democrat parties. Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, whose sexual exploits and intermingling of politics and business foreshadowed the election of Donald Trump, was finally forced to resign in 2011 during the economic downturn. The Italian populist party that has arisen in the wake of these multiple fiascoes combines left- and-right-wing elements. On the one hand, its leader, the former political comedian Beppe Grillo, developed a reputation as a crusader against Italy’s political corruption and promoted “direct democracy” to advance a “five-star” agenda: public water, sustainable transportation, sustainable development, universal access to the internet and environmentalism. On the other hand, Grillo and associates are virulently opposed to open borders and to the Euro. Grillo has denounced the government for opening Italy to a flood of asylum seekers from north Africa, many of whom are economic migrants and do not qualify for economic assistance from the European Union.[5]

The Trump phenomenon—the rise to the pinnacle of American political power of a morally questionable billionaire with no previous experience in political office at any level; little firm or nuanced knowledge of geopolitical affairs beyond what is necessary for gaming the tax system and international business ethics, such as they are; and, a flair for flaunting every political convention honed by “elites” of both major American political parties—speaks perhaps more loudly and unambiguously to the depth and breadth of the ultranationalist/populist trend reaching across the globe. Trump’s improbable and staggering rise is clearly fueled, first and foremost, by an almost irrational anger on the part of white, working class Americans left behind by a changing economy. As in Europe the target includes “global elites” and the economic and social policies underlying their favored brand of neoliberal globalization, driven supposedly by a feminist and internationalist agenda.[6]

[6] Ibid.

Almost immediately upon taking office as President of the United States in January 2017, Trump issued a number of executive orders intended to upend or demolish established governmental policies and procedures.  The most controversial and far-reaching of these, signed on January 27, suspended the State Department’s Refugee Assistance Program and visa entry from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia and Libya—all Muslim-majority nations. Denouncing the Program as “detrimental to the interests of the United States,” the Trump administration vowed to put in place a process of “extreme vetting” before the suspension is lifted. The so-called “Muslim ban,” coupled with Trump’s pledge to prioritize refugee assistance for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, seemed to violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on instituting a “religious test,” and it was quickly challenged by a federal judge in Seattle, whose ruling to temporarily halt the ban was upheld on February 5 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth District.

Coming so suddenly and sweepingly, the executive order sent shock waves around the world and called into question the very founding ideas of American democracy. “This is radical anti-Americanism—not simply illiberalism or anti-cosmopolitanism—because America is not only a nation but also an idea, cleanly if not tightly defined,” wrote Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. “Pluralism is not a secondary or a decorative aspect of that idea.” As James Madison wrote in Federalist, No. 51, the guarantee of religious liberty lies in having many kinds of faiths, and the guarantee of civil liberty lies in having many kinds of people—in establishing a ‘multiplicity of interests’ to go along with a ‘multiplicity of sects.’ Only such a plurality of self-interested parties with different views and goals, Gopnik explains, can ensure that a check is placed upon a tyrannical government that would try to diminish or squelch minorities. The rise of Trump, he and others believe, signals the emergence of an alternative view of America, namely, that is “not an idea but an ethnicity, that of the white Christian men who have dominated it, granting a grudging or probationary acceptance to women, or blacks or immigrants.”[7]

For the readers of Concilium, the relationship between resurgent political populism and right-wing nationalism, on the one hand, and religious nationalism, on the other, is worth reviewing, as the link between the two is an often ferocious resistance to pluralism, religious, ethnic and racial. 

The two are also linked by a sacralization of the nation. During the course of the 350-year history of the Westphalian doctrine of national sovereignty, devotion to the nation has not infrequently risen to the level of a “pseudo-religion,” a symbol system and set of practices which, according to Paul Tillich, engages adherents in the dynamics of faith but delivers an object of devotion that, being created, falls short of genuine transcendence, or “ultimacy.” “Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things,” Tillich writes, “above all about those which condition his very existence…If [a situation or concern] claims ultimacy, it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim…it demands that all other concerns… be sacrificed.”[8]  The promoters of ultra-nationalism, although they hold up a merely mundane reality—the nation-state—as the object of ultimate concern, demand that all other concerns, including human life itself, be sacrificed on its “patriotic” altar.

[8] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), 1-2.

Religious nationalists of our day exceed the limits of mundane ultra-nationalism in two ways. First, they explicitly present the nation as sacred or as partaking of the sacred. Second, the overt sacralization of the nation is practiced and believed by religious nationalists such as the Gush Emunim (“Bloc of the Faithful”) in Israel or the Hindutva (Hindu-ness”) movement in India as a vital step toward realizing the fulfillment of the religion itself—Judaism, in the former example, Hinduism, in the latter. (Indeed, the members of the multi-layered Hindutva movement seek to reify the historically sprawling and disparate practices of the Indus valley region and beyond, precisely as a “religion”—called Hinduism—in order to lend plausibility to their portrayal of polyglot, religious plural India as a “Hindu nation.”) This dual move—sacralizing the nation, and glorifying it as the cornerstone or summit of “orthodox” religion—lends a transcendent or metaphysical depth to exclusionary social norms and discriminatory politics that mere irredentism or “politics as usual” could  not provide. The nation is absolute because it partakes of the sacred; the sacred is bound up in the destiny of the nation.  In his study of Hindus and Muslims in late twentieth century Indian, Peter van der Veer writes:

In the construction of the Muslim “other” by Hindu nationalist movements, Muslims are always referred to as a dangerous “foreign element”, as not truly Indian… Control over sacred centers [of the nation] and ritual sites is not only crucial to the power of religious elites but is a source of continuous struggle between religious movements… The problem [facing secular political leaders] is the state’s diminishing capability to arbitrate conflicts…in a society characterized by a plurality of cultures.”[9]

[9] Peter van der Veer, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), 10-12.

One can readily see how the definition of the nation as co-terminus with the history and prerogatives of a particular ethno-religious and racial subset of the population is abetted by the construction of that subset as the originally “chosen people.” The politics of exclusion fed by radical populism and right-wing nationalism becomes ever more powerful, then, when minorities are depicted as displacing the rightful heirs of the sacred trust and are thereby easily demonized, not merely as “aliens,” “foreigners” and “outsiders,” but as “impure” and somehow less than fully human—and, therefore, presented as justifiable targets of violence and other forms of coercion. 

Duterte’s brutal presidency to date has cast the drug addict and drug dealer, not the ethnic or religious other, as the object of lethal violence. Despite President Trump’s campaign threats to police Muslim neighborhoods and forcibly deport immigrants en masse, neither the United States nor Europe has yet seen officially sanctioned policies of violence against religious, ethnic or racial minorities. It is sobering, however, to observe that nationalist parties bolstered by religion in, inter alia, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have colluded not infrequently in discriminatory violence against “outsiders.” That pernicious strain of extremist nationalism and ethno-centrism, it now seems clear, has received new life and destructive momentum, not only in countries historically lacking a robust identification of civic and religious pluralism with national identity, but also in the very heart of liberal democracy, where the values of inclusiveness and toleration once reigned.


R. Scott Appleby is Professor of History and the Marilyn Keough Dean of the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame, the co-editor of The Fundamentalism Project (University of Chicago Press) and the author of, among other titles, Strong Religion (Chicago) and The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation (Rowman and Littlefield).

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