The New World in the Old: An Alternative History of the Religious State

The United States serves as the archetype of all New World countries, founded as it was on self-conscious ideas instead of the principle of inheritance that to this day undergirds so many European nations.

The United States serves as the archetype of all New World countries, founded as it was on self-conscious ideas instead of the principle of inheritance that to this day undergirds so many European nations. For even when many of these latter overthrew, or at least curtailed the power of ruling dynasties, they continued to be defined by heredity, with the genealogy of the monarch replaced by that of a people’s immemorial link with the land.

Created out of the displacement, migration and mobility of its future citizens, America was defined by its constitution, which guaranteed that tradition and territory could never be naturalised as a basis for nationality there. Indeed there is a long tradition of territory being imagined in the US as virgin soil in which religious, ethnic and other communities could be implanted. Only ‘native peoples’ represent the principle of inheritance, which has thus been rendered as marginal in the United States as it remains central in European forms of blood-and-soil nationalism.

While America’s republic was the product of European political ideals, from the social contract theories of the seventeenth century to the Enlightenment’s political utopias, its founding fathers never thought that it could be replicated in the Old World. They saw Europe in particular as being too settled in its historical traditions, animosities and inequalities to embark upon a revolutionary path to freedom, which would emerge stillborn from the violence necessary to destroy the old regime. Such a project to constitute a new nation on virgin territory, therefore, could only be accomplished in the US by an unsettled, mobile and disparate population that was initially confined to ex-Europeans. This meant that the American political imagination, with its focus on novelty, artifice and ideas, remained part of the Enlightenment, while its European counterpart came to be linked to romanticism.

Racial Nationalism

The two forms of nationality represented by Europe and America have taken root in other parts of the world, where they have also been transformed in various ways. While romantic nationalism seems to predominate internationally, its Enlightenment form is also present. This ‘American type’ appears most frequently in the guise of the revolutionary or ideological state, including the Marxist kind, which is explicitly founded on new ideas rather than old attachments. More intimate and interesting than these have been the apparently ‘minor’ histories by which American principles of nationality ‘returned’ to the Old World, against the intentions of its founding fathers. It was not these men, then, who universalised the democratic project, but those like the ex-slaves who went on to found Liberia as a black version of the United States.

Founded in 1816 by a group of white men, the American Colonization Society sought to encourage the departure of freed slaves for Africa, not only because they believed that racial discrimination in the US kept even free blacks there from becoming equal citizens, but also in order to rid America of what they though was a troublesome population that compromised its definition as a white nation. The creation of Liberia in 1847 represented the first attempt to export and replicate the American republic in the Old World, though assuredly not in Europe but a part of Africa seen to be as lacking in the hierarchies of ancient civilisations as North America itself. Liberia was founded for a nation without a territory, one that, like a soul without a body, required grounding in a state if it was not to wither away. And yet it was precisely these displaced peoples that were held to constitute nations, not those who already lived in their future homelands, and who were destined to become the subjects of colonisation and improvement just like ‘native peoples’ in America.

With its explicit invocation of a Christian identity, and the resonance of biblical themes having to do with the Children of Israel’s return to the Holy Land, the narrative of Liberian nationalism is also important because it emphasises the religious dimension of New World citizenship. This would become crucial to the most famous of such states in the Old World, Pakistan, founded exactly a century after Liberia, and Israel, created by the UN a year later on a legal precedent set by Pakistan. Like Muslim and Jewish nationalism many decades later, the Back to Africa movement displaced other visions of freedom that did not require the founding of a sovereign state. These visions included setting aside autonomous regions for blacks in the United States, a project that was considered by figures as eminent as Thomas Jefferson, and survive today in the politics of the Nation of Islam. The debate between blacks who had left for Liberia and those who remained in the United States is striking in its similarity to the discussions that continue to occur between Jews and Muslims divided by the new countries that have been established in their names.

The Religious State

This admixture of utopian republicanism and settler colonialism is the common characteristic that Israel and Pakistan share with their American and Liberian ancestors, one that is most evident in the Zionist slogan of a ‘land without a people for a people without a land,’ as well as in the new state’s legitimisation by the language of improvement, famously signalled in claims to have made the desert bloom. Pakistan, of course, didn’t rely upon such themes, though its founders, too, conceived of their national territory in highly rationalistic and non-romantic ways. These homelands were also meant to represent and protect not only their own citizens but also co-religionists who lived as minorities elsewhere, thus doing more to separate the nation from its state. For despite the profuse use of the word homeland in both countries, as well as the glorification of their territorial and even cultural integrity, no homelands can be more attenuated than these, based as they are on a national will the greater part of whose history lies outside their borders. Indeed the majority of South Asia’s Muslims and Europe’s Jews have remained outside the homelands created in their name.

It is instructive to recall in this respect that Liberia’s colonists were similarly concerned with the fate of both free and enslaved blacks in the United States, not with their own African neighbours, who were seen as belonging to other nations and could only become citizens by a process of “naturalization” that involved accepting Christianity and an American style of living. Just as race in the US defined citizenship in such a way as to exclude black and other Christians, so, too, religion in Liberia appears to have worked to exclude those who might otherwise be thought as belonging to the same race, illustrating how it is that both these categories are related to each other by their anti-autochthonous nature. Religion also became a criterion of national belonging in Liberia long after it had lost such pre-eminence in Europe, and it would thus come to Israel and Pakistan from beyond the horizon of European politics.

Both established in the name of minorities and as a result of vast migrations, these religious states have had to reject the principle of territorially based community that gives meaning to majority nations. The Jewish State and Islamic Republic represent a profound distrust of romantic nationalism and an attempt to create new forms of political belonging. Unlike the confessional states of post-Reformation Europe or its post-war Christian Democracies, religion in both the Islamic Republic and Jewish State does not merely serve to qualify the national life of its citizens. Instead it defines nationality outside the state, with all the world’s Jews, and all the subcontinent’s Muslims capable of becoming its citizens on the strength of an idea alone. And it is this that makes them into exemplary New World nations.

Faisal Devji is the author of Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea, The Impossible Indian: Gandhi and the Temptations of Violence, and Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity.


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