Do Race and Religion Define Nationality? Semantic Analyses

To define nationality in terms of race and religion will immediately lead to confusion.

For instance, if we define the term "Indian" (a nationality identifier) as "a person who belongs to the ancient races of the mainland of Hindustan and follows one of the ancient religions of the land, e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, etc", then we immediately land into the following problems:

1. A Japanese Buddhist will not be considered an "Indian" because though he follows an ancient religion of the land, Buddhism, he doesn't belong to one of the ancient races of India.
2. Suppose, the same definition is accepted by the Japanese, i.e. they define "Japanese" as "a person who belongs to the ancient races of the mainland of Japan and follows one of the ancient religions of the land, e.g. Shintoism", then because he doesn't follow the religion of Shintoism but follows Buddhism, he will be no longer considered "Japanese" anymore.
3. However, if he is neither Japanese nor Indian, then what is he?

But, let's define "Indian" as "a person who is a citizen of India", then the confusion disappears.

Yet, it doesn't mean that "Indian" loses its meaning as an ethnic identifier. For instance, in the term "Indian American", the ethnic identity (Indian) is retained within the national identity (American)1. Similarly so with "African-American" and "Chinese American".

As such, it is important to distinguish between political nationality and ethnic identity. They both can go together, but must not be confused with each other. However, a political nation that serves the interests of a particular ethnic group will soon fall to unrest and tyranny. Similarly, a political nation that serves the interests of a particular religious group will also fall to unrest and tyranny.

The ethnic distinguisher should only be functional. For instance, though we may speak of, say, "Indian Americans" in the form of Ethnic-Identity+Political-Nationality, we don't speak of "Indian Indians" and "American Americans" in the same form. However, we can still speak of "Indian Tamils" (or "Tamil Indians") or "Sri Lankan Tamils" or "Pakistani Punjabis" or "Indian Punjabis". Of course, terminology identifying Americans who accept Indian citizenship or Germans who accept Indian citizenship hasn't developed much. It is not yet popular to speak of "German Indians", for instance, as Germans who have accepted Indian citizenship. The phenomena may not be large enough to warrant the development of such a terminology, perhaps.

But, with regard to religious identity, given either the political identity or the ethnic identity, it is not impossible to talk of say "Indian Christians" or "Thai Hindus" or "Tibetan Buddhists", and similarly of "Indian Christians in America" and "Gujarati Jains in Dubai". However, where race and religion are made defining components of nationhood, no meaningful talk can become possible. The result is chaos and unrest. Consistency demands that these identifiers be kept separate and not made definitive of something altogether different from any of them.


1 "American Indian" refers to the native Americans.


Ernst Renan (1823-92), What is a Nation?
Forgetting, I would even go so far as to say historical error, is a crucial factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for [the principle of] nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings to light deeds of violence which took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been altogether beneficial.

Yet the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common; and also that they have forgotten many things. No French citizen knows whether he is a Burgundian, an Alan, a Taifale, or a Visigoth, yet every French citizen has to have forgotten the massacre of Saint Bartholomew,' or the massacres that took place in the Midi in the thirteenth century. There are not ten families in France that can supply proof of their Frankish origin, and any such proof would anyway be essentially flawed, as a consequence of countless unknown alliances which are liable to disrupt any genealogical system.

But what is a nation? Why is Holland a nation, when Hanover, or the Grand Duchy of Parma, are not? How is it that France continues to be a nation, when the principle which created it has disappeared? How is it that Switzerland, which has three languages, two religions, and three or four races, is a nation, when Tuscany, which is so homogeneous, is not one? Why is Austria a state and not a nation? In what ways does the principle of nationality differ from that of races?

Ethnographic considerations have therefore played no part in the constitution of modern nations. France is [at once] Celtic, Iberic, and Germanic. Germany is Germanic, Celtic and Slav. Italy is the country where the ethnographic argument is most confounded. Gauls, Etruscans, Pelasgians, and Greeks, not to mention many other elements, intersect in an indecipherable mixture. The British isles, considered as a whole, present a mixture of Celtic and Germanic blood, the proportions of which are singularly difficult to define.

The truth is that there is no pure race and that to make politics depend upon ethnographic analysis is to surrender it to a chimera. The noblest countries, England, France, and Italy, are those where the blood is the most mixed. Is Germany an exception in this respect? Is it a purely Germanic country? This is a complete illusion.

What we have just said of race applies to language too. Language invites people to unite, but it does not force them to do so. The United States and England, Latin America and Spain, speak the same languages yet do not form single nations. Conversely, Switzerland, so well made, since site was made with the consent of her different parts, numbers three or four languages. There is something in man which is superior to language, namely, the will. The will of Switzerland to be united, in spite of the diversity of her dialects, is a fact of far greater importance than a similitude often obtained by various vexatious measures.

Religion cannot supply an adequate basis for the constitution of a modern nationality either. Originally, religion had to do with the very existence of the social group, which was itself an extension of the family. Religion and the rites were family rites. The religion of Athens was the cult of Athens itself, of its mythical founders, of its laws and its customs; it implied no theological dogma. This religion was, in the strongest sense of the term, a state religion. One was not an Athenian if one refused to practise it. This religion was, fundamentally, the cult of the Acropolis personified. To swear on the altar of Aglauros" was to swear that one would die for the patrie. This religion was the equivalent of what the act of drawing lots [for military service], or the cult of the flag, is for us. Refusing to take part in such a cult would be the equivalent, in our modern societies, of refusing military service. It would be like declaring that one was not Athenian. From another angle, it is clear that such a cult had do meaning for someone who was not from Athens; there was also no attempt made to proselytize foreigners and to force them to accept it; the slaves of Athens did not practise it. Things were much the same in a number of small medieval republics. One was not considered a good Venetian if one did not swear by Saint Mark; nor a good Amalfitan if one did not set Saint Andrew higher than all the other saints in paradise.

A nation is a spiritual principle, the outcome of the profound complications of history; it is a spiritual family not a group determined by the shape of the earth. We have now seen what things are not adequate for the creation of such a spiritual principle, namely, race, language, material interest, religious affinities, geography, and military necessity. What more then is required? .....
A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present-day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion. Of all cults, that of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more - these are the essential conditions for being a people. One loves in proportion to the sacrifices to which one has consented, and in proportion to the ills that one has suffered. One loves the house that one has built and that one has handed down. The Spartan song -'We are what you were; we, will be what you are" - is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every patrie.

A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation's existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual's existence is a perpetual affirmation of life. That, I know full well, is less metaphysical than divine right and less brutal than so-called historical right.