From Indonesia to Australia, many modern States face demands by majority religious groups to have their beliefs institutionally prioritised.
For example, in their submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission, the Melbourne Gospel Assembly stated that the Australian government is obligated to respect the Christian religion as its first and foremost responsibility.
Similar calls have been made by Islamist groups in Muslim majority countries. The poll investigating whether the Sharia (Islamic social order) should be made the official law in Muslim majority countries revealed a widespread support, with 99% in Afghanistan, 83% in Morocco, and 71% in Nigeria.
Followers of a religion may identify with their religious group. Likewise, citizens of a country may identify with their national group.
In many countries, religion plays its role in providing values that delineate nationalism. However, there are also religious movements that utterly reject nationalism and struggle instead for a religion-based state.
So what makes religious and national identities support one other? And what makes them destroy each other? My research points to 3 key factors.
Historical context shapes ideas about the relationship between religion and nation
A state must emerge from the collaboration of many groups who work together.
Indonesian history, for instance, has been constructed by many groups representing various tribes, political ideologies, and religions. Islam, as the religion of the majority in Indonesia, has strongly influenced the establishment of the Republic.
As a result, most Indonesian Muslims today believe that their Islamic faith and Indonesian nationalism are two sides of the same coin, even though Islamic social order does not formally rule the country. This belief stems from the historical consensus that established divine values as the primary foundation of the Indonesian state. Further, most Muslims perceive that the Indonesian state is the outcome of the early Muslims' struggle.
Such historical beliefs strengthen the connection between religious and national identities, meaning an individual’s self-image may be developed based on both religion and nation. This pattern might be found in many countries where religious values supported the struggle to establish the state.
Not all countries, however, show this reciprocal relationship between religious belief and national identity.
A study conducted across thirty European countries showed that nationalism influences religious values only where there is a high concentration of religion. Further, nationalist ideology only affects religious beliefs where a dominant religion exists.
What factors support religious movements to reject their nationality and demand a radical change of the existing state?
Religious fundamentalism may lead to national dis-identification
Religious fundamentalism has been proposed as a factor influencing the relationship between religious and national identities.
Religious identification and religious fundamentalism are not the same.
We define fundamentalism here as one set of cognitive schemas that filters the selection of information to provide a framework for interpretation. This set of schemas promotes beliefs that religious rules allow only one interpretation and must be prioritized over secular laws. It can also lead to bigotry and hostility toward outgroups.
Religious beliefs have been demonstrated to promote national dis-identification among people high in religious identity. People who are high in fundamentalist beliefs about their religion (i.e., belief that God has given humanity a complete, unfailing guide, which must be totally followed) may identify more with their religion but less with their nation. Such people conceive religious norms as God’s rules, while national rules are seen as political outcomes representing particular interests.
Perceived discrimination can promote dis-identification
Some European countries are facing difficulties in integrating the religious and national identities of their immigrants within their national identity.
Low political participation in a general election can be an indicator of dis-identification with the nation. Many efforts have been exerted to improve civic engagement among immigrants, for example through the mobilisation of mosques.
However, societal factors such as perceived discrimination and injustice also play a role in national dis-identification.
Group based discrimination and injustice can be a catalyst for heightening tensions, provoking anger and disappointment. Even when discrimination is not sanctioned by the state and is only promoted by a small group of political actors, the negative feelings can be attributed to the imagined concept of the nation. On a certain scale, group-based anger can be expressed in reluctance to provide political participation.
In this way, immigrants who are highly identified with their religion, and who perceive discrimination based on religion, may become dis-identified with the nation. In contrast, feelings of freedom and inclusion can create a positive association between religiosity and nationalism.
To summarise, the relationship between religious and national identities is complex. Historical contexts may fuse national and religious identities, while fundamentalist beliefs or societal tensions and group discrimination may cause them to diverge.
Exploring the difference between religion as a bridge and religion as a wall is part of the focus in my PhD.
- Susilo Wibisono
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.