Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the dominant political institution has been that of the nation-state. A nation-state is a sovereign state in which citizens are of a relatively homogenous identity (nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, etc.), and which exercises influence on foreign affairs (as opposed to a state which is part of a union, such as California). Nation-states extend the concept of nationality beyond ethnic, linguistic, or religious lines, and attempt to create a single group of people, united only in the fact that they reside in the same nation-state; they share roughly similar values, live roughly in the same geographical area, and share in the same legal system. National identity is crucial to the process of individual identity creation; when asked “who we are” we often answer with the demonym of our country of residence first. A state can thus be multi-national, such as Canada or the United Kingdom, but through appropriate processes of nation-making can be still said to be nation-states. In Canada, we have cobbled together a national identity which is often on par or supersedes other ethnic, linguistic, or religious identities. One may be a Catholic Italian immigrant, the child of a Pashto Muslim, residing in the forests of British Columbia or the cities of Quebec, but can still identify as Canadian. The process is similar in the United States and United Kingdom, although there are some significant differences.
Because this national identity is no longer rooted in ethnicity, language or religion, it requires significantly more effort to create and maintain; it also faces increased strain in the ever-increasing interdependency of the twenty-first century world. Borders are fluid for travel and migration, trade is global and capital moves around the world in minutes, while the advent and popularization of the internet has allowed for a truly unprecedented forum for communications and the exchange of ideas, revolutionizing nearly all aspects of life in a short amount of time.
In the West we face populations that are growing less and less homogenous due to increased migration and the democratization of communications that the internet has allowed. There are no longer five TV stations which dominate our cultural discourse, and there are no longer two or three major ethnic groups in our countries. Bloggers, Vloggers, and independent or foreign media outlets can command the same attention as the old media giants via the internet and satellite or digital TV. People are more and more wary of their government, their media, and their other old authorities. Additionally, ideas like religion and political ideology can tie people together into a kind of nation regardless of actual borders and completely independent of the interference of the nation-state.
All of this may seem slightly esoteric, but it is central to one of the big questions of our day: the rise of international terror. Groups like ISIS have been able to captivate the attention of recruits from across the planet, regardless of geography, ethnicity, or national affiliation. The young and the disaffected know no borders. Using religious elements, symbols, and language, the skilled and savvy marketers have been able to cobble together a large group made up of diffuse individuals, giving them a single purpose and a unified ideology. To this end, ISIS has made use of the greatest transnational tool available, the internet. The unlimited freedom that that internet provides has been the perfect forum for targeting individuals who feel isolated and unhappy with their current world, and using religion they have been able to unite these isolated individuals into a cohesive group.
It should be said that while I feel ISIS perverts many of the core tenets of Islam, Islam as a religion is a fantastic method for creating group cohesion. Muslims around the world feel a deep connection to other believers, and the submission to God does not require any ethnic or linguistic similarities. Malcolm X famously declared that Islam was the solution to America’s race problem, because it overcame societal divisions based on ethnicity and promised understanding and tolerance for all. Much of the anger felt against the United States around the Islamic world stems from a foreign policy which certainly appears as a “war against Muslims”, whether those Muslims be Arab, Afghan, or even American. Islam serves as a force which unites individuals across ethnic, linguistic, political, and geographical lines: that is what so terrifies the modern West. It was not all that different when there was widespread anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States: they believed the Catholics could not be loyal to the nation-state and to the Papacy at the same time, just as now there is a body of thought which questions the duality of identity between American and Muslim, between national and transnational. Can you identify as both Muslim and American, especially when you see the many crimes perpetrated by Americans against Muslims around the world?
In the Western world, we cannot legislate against freedom of religion, which exacerbates the feeling of fear that many secular westerners feel when faced with the perceived threat of Islam. We do not seem comfortable with the faith or with its practioners, though we are unable to act because of the just constitutional guarantees for the freedom of religion in America, Canada, and elsewhere. The nation-state is powerless to stop its own authority being undermined as concepts other than enforced nationality increasingly dominate individual’s identity. The days of nationality being able to unify large groups of people are seemingly becoming relegated to the past.
Similarly beyond the control of the nation-state is the internet. The internet allows individuals from around the world to communicate, share ideas, and do business without the oft-limiting interference of the state. The recent life-sentence conviction of Mr. Ulbricht highlights the concern of nation-states over the lawlessness of the web. Silk Road was merely a market place that allowed transactions away from the ever-watchful gaze of the state, and as a consequence, its founder will spend the rest of his life behind bars: it’s really somewhat astounding. The Silk Road case demonstrates that national governments recognize that the concept of the nation-state is becoming more and more obsolete.
Today in 2015 we have means and ways of individual self-identification which goes far beyond the purview of the concept of nationality that is central to the legitimacy of the nation-state. At the same time we have an alternative forum for communications and trade which can operate effectively without the interference of the nation-state, and indeed can undermine its authority by promoting alternative views, dissenting opinions, and alternative means of identity creation. The uproar caused by ISIS and international terror, as well as by the attempt to legislate the online world, is symptomatic of the decline of the legitimacy of the nation-state, though it seems to be very rarely framed as such.
Is the concept of the nation-state still legitimate in the twenty first century? That is one of the most important conversations we can have going forward.
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