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Published for The Neotrope Enterprise.  Publisher: Bengt Rooke. May. 2010. No. 65.

Democracy or Ethnocracy?

Roles of Religious Communities and Ethnic markers,
a European perspective.

Jan Hjärpe

Demos and Ethnos

In the Swedish Constitution of 1975, it is stated that all official power, all power executed by the State and its institutions, is a mandate from the people (a mandate expressed in general and free elections). We find similar statements in other constitutions too, and in a way this is seen as an expression of the very idea of democracy. It sounds very clear and distinctly formulated.

But there is a problem here: the very word “people”. As in many other European languages, the word “people” (Swedish “folk”) is used for a whole range of very different concepts. In the political debate the use of the word has a tendency to slide between these various and sometimes contradictory meanings. This is a fact with relevance for an analysis of recent events and developments in Europe, but of interest from a comparative perspective for South East Asia and other regions too.

To distinguish between the two main (or most important) concepts or meanings, we can use two Greek loanwords, likewise in use in many European languages, especially in compound words, namely demos and ethnos.

When we use the word “people”, the population of a country, in the sense of demos, we include all human beings there, all, regardless of origin or descent, ancestry, language, religion, race, colour, norms and opinions, social status or belonging. If all, the whole demos, of a country, a state, have equal part, in the same degree, as citizens and as equals in political rights and duties and in the political processes of elections and so on, and in that way give legitimacy to political power, we call this democracy.

But “people” in the sense of ethnos is something else. It has to do with “ethnicity”, This means that we with “people” signify a group, a community, an entity consisting of individuals regarded as having one or several markers in common. Those “markers” are then seen as essential for the “identity” of the individual. The choice of markers is rather arbitrary or incidental. The markers, explicitly mentioned and adduced or quite simply implied or taken for granted, differ. One marker often used is the language; those having the same mother tongue constitute a “people” (ethnos). Another marker is the descent: the idea to be of the same tribe or having a common ancestry, the same “blood”. Still another marker may be a common cultural or religious tradition or community belonging, still another might be race, colour. Even norms and values, knowledge of the “nations” literary and cultural heritage can be used as a sign of belonging in this respect.

The connection made in European historiography and very much so in the political debate just now in Europe, between ethnicity and nation, has to do with the era of romanticism of the 18th and 19th centuries, with the idea of “the people” being a common organic entity, having a common “soul” and character which finds its expression in its folk music, folklore, oral literature and customs; the idea of a special spirituality, a distinct folk character. These typical traits in national romanticism got its political expressions in the nationalistic movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, with disastrous consequences, including ethnic cleansing. The idea behind such political actions and movements has been that a people (ethnos) and a specific geographical area were connected to each other and should constitute a political and administrational entity, i.e. an autonomous state, one people, one country, one state. Recently we have seen this concept expressed in the conflicts in the Balkans. The events there, in the 1990ies and onwards, constituted an interesting example in this respect as the “ethnic marker”, the definition of ethnicity, was in a remarkable degree connected with formal religious belonging; Croats as Catholics, Serbs as Orthodox, and Bosniaks as Muslims. “Religion” was thus seen as a cultural tradition, not necessarily connected with any actual personal religious belief, but functioning ass an ethnic marker.

If in the political debate there is a demand for the possession of specific ethnic markers for political rights, citizenship, the right to vote etc., we cannot call it democracy, but a more adequate term is ethnocracy. This phenomenon is rather common today in Europe, not only in the jargon of the so called populist parties, but also in the discussions within the more conventional political parties and in the general debate. In reality there is hardly any state (in Europe or elsewhere) being one hundred per cent democratic. There is always a mixture, also in recognized democracies there are traits and practices which are ethnocratic, sometimes in a high degree, sometimes less.

We can see some examples: In Estonia and Latvia the constitutional rights are connected to the language. If you are not of Estonian or Latvian descent, having the respective language as your mother tongue, you must succeed in a language test to obtain the political rights for a full citizen. This means a considerable disadvantage especially for those in these two countries who are of Russian ethnicity. In this respect these two countries are more to be regarded as ethnocracies than democracies.

In Germany citizenship is easier to obtain for an immigrant being of German “blood” (for instance belonging to the so called “Volga Germans”). Religious belonging as a national marker we find in a considerable degree in the idea of Pakistan, and in the Hindutva idea of the Shen Siva and its propaganda in India. And the combination of religious belonging and descent we have for instance in a high degree in the state of Israel, thus being more of an ethnocracy than a democracy. The case of Israel is interesting in that respect that the religious tradition is seen and is functioning as a “national history”, an ethnic and national marker (the state defined as Jewish) while religious belief is regarded as a private matter. In defining the affiliation the decent is regarded al relevant: Jew is automatically the one who has a Jewish mother.

In Europe, Denmark has recently become something of a symbol of ethnocracy. Ethnocratic ideas and propaganda from the rather influential populist Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) have left traces in recent legislation to prevent “un-Danish” behaviour, habits and norms. The propaganda has targeted especially Islam and Muslims. Sometimes it passes into the utterly ridiculous, as when the party in the Danish parliament wanted to pass a special law that made it compulsory for official institutions (hospitals, senior citizen’s homes etc.) to serve Danish pork at least at 30 per cent of the meals…

This is not without parallels in the debate in other countries, as recently in France (the “Burqa debate”), and we can find similar traits promoted by other populist parties in Europe, as in Belgium, the Netherlands, in England and elsewhere. The demand for assimilation can concentrate on very different things, depending on what marker is regarded as essential. The demands taken up in the debate in each of the countries give a hint as to how the “national myth” is constructed, how the “soul of the nation” – in the romantic sense – is defined. They are in that way very revealing.

Individual or collective rights?
Strength of the state

The distinction democracy/ethnocracy is not entirely unproblematic, however. Totally equal rights for everyone, individually, would imply that collective rights should not be legitimate. We might concede that such rights can be a necessity just in order to protect and help minorities, minorities in a less favourable situation. But the ongoing “ethnocratic” tendency is to demand privileges to “protect” the majority.

As to the question of religious communities and their legal status there are considerable differences between the states in Europe, from regulations by the state and its legislation – France – to the traditional British attitude with a minimum of interference by the state; the legal conditions in Austria has even some traits reminding of the old Ottoman millet system.

Collective minority rights; are collective rights in conflict with the idea of individual rights? It might be so, especially in a system where religious – or triballeaders have a certain jurisdiction over the members of a community. But this problematic is related to the strength and actual function of the state. If the leaders of a minority community have jurisdiction, actual power over the individuals, that is a compulsion, an infringement of the rights of the individual who would have preferred to be under the jurisdiction of the state – if it is functioning in a way that he finds relevant and trustworthy. Is the communal belonging a must or the individual’s free choice? Simultaneously, if the state is weak or dysfunctional, the individual might be in need of the support given by the structure and institutions of the special ethnic, tribal and/or religious community to which he belongs. But can then the special constitutional rights given to that community strengthen the power (i.e. the structure of compulsion) of the leaders?

Thus, the role of tribal and religious communities and leaders differ considerably depending on the strength of the state. Is the state is strong enough and its institutions functioning in a way that the citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation, have confidence in and can trust? If the state is weak and dysfunctional, it means that the role and importance of other social structures increases.

An interesting example in the Swedish debate was the reaction to a doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Law of Uppsala University. The thesis discussed the possibilities to apply Islamic inheritance rules in Swedish courts in special cases in regard to immigrants and refugees residing in Sweden. Even to discuss such a possibility was regarded by some participants in the debate as outrageous: the legislation of the state and nothing else must be applied equally to all, regardless of religious belonging. The temperature in the debate was rather heated which must seem strange for anyone with knowledge of how personal law is functioning in India or in Singapore and in most countries in Asia and Africa…

The “minaret referendum”

Now, we can as an illustration and as part of an analysis of these phenomena in Europe, take a look at the rather curious “minaret referendum” in Switzerland on November 29, 2009. What did it express, and how can it be explained?

The referendum concerned a change in the Federal Swiss Constitution: a prohibition to build new minarets should be added to the Constitution. It can be mentioned that this was nothing new in the history of Switzerland. The Swiss Constitution of 1874 had several articles against Catholicism, a ban of the Jesuit Order, a prohibition to create (or re-establish) monasteries and a rule that new bishoprics should have a special permission by the government. These articles were removed only as late as in 1973 and 2001 (the article about bishoprics). The “minaret prohibition” article is now included in the very same paragraph of the Federal Swiss Constitution, Catholicism substituted by Islam as a “constitutional threat”.

What is to be learned by the Swiss example? We can really find some issues of general interest there:
1. The participation in the referendum was (compared with other occasions) rather high, 53.4 per cent. The number of yes votes constituted 57.5 per cent.
Remarkable is that there are only four minarets in the whole country. They cannot possibly be of any nuisance, something “constitutionally wrong”. They are not used for the adhân, the call for prayer. So the real problem must be somewhere else, the “minaret prohibition” having a symbolic function, a symbol for anxieties and feelings in need of a simple and easily recognizable expression. This was very clear from the various traits in the propaganda before (and after) the referendum.
2. The result of the referendum differed from what was predicted in the opinion surveys which preceded it. It also differed from, and went very much against, the recommendations made by most important political and religious leaders and organisations, a fact which is important to notice. The referendum thus showed the discrepancy between political and religious elites or leaderships and popular opinion, “people in general”. This is something that we can see in other European countries too, that is in democracies. There is a vacuum, a space for populist parties and leaders, reflecting a feeling among many of being without political influence and ignored by the political elite.
3. The role of new media was very clear in this case. The anti-Islamic propaganda is a part of the “instant communications” on the Web, spread in people’s interaction all over the Globe. Certain themes and arguments, from different sources and circles, are picked up and reused and become part of the local debate very quickly.
This means that the traditional local leadership has less influence than previously. Populist movements scoop arguments and myths from different sources from a global and continuously ongoing “instant communication”.
4. The themes in the Swiss debate were thus determined by how this “instant communication” defined the very problematic. Some (but not all) of the themes had their main source in certain circles in the American so called “Bible Belt”, where a conflict with Islam and the Muslim world is regarded (and propagated) as part of the fulfilment of certain Biblical prophecies and as a sign of the second coming of Christ and the “final battle” of Armageddon. Islamophobic themes from these “Armageddonists” and other sect circles in the so called Christian Right in the USA came into the Swiss debate sometimes with, most times without these “theological” connections. Those ideas and themes were promoted by the so called “Mouvement Suisse contre l’Islam”. The “religious” anti-Islamic themes were significant for the party called Eidgenössisch-Demokratische Union/Union Démocratique Fédérale.

Islamophobic themes (but without these direct religious-apologetic connections mentioned) were forwarded by the large populist party, Schweizerische Volkspartei/Union Démocratique du Centre. Most people probably did not know of their origin.

The Islamophobic themes. Their function

The main themes were:
a) The fear of Islamic Sharia, the idea that Muslims in Switzerland intended to establish “Sharia laws” as interpreted and implemented by the Taliban in Afghanistan and Waziristan and similar extremist groups.
b) The theme of the suppressed Muslim woman (a trait especially in the propaganda of the EDU/UDF).
c) A third, rather curious item was the “revenge theme”: As Christian groups and minorities are harassed or discriminated against in countries in the Muslim world, one ought to discriminated against Muslims in Switzerland (Denmark, Sweden etc.). – [A strange reasoning: In what way could the conditions for Christians become better by that?]
d) The theme of suppression of women was combined with the theme of Muslims as dangerous, Islam connected with violence. In a poster very much spread during the campaign a number of minarets, more numerous than the four existing in Switzerland and of a very different look: they were depicted in a way giving mental associations to missiles, and beside them a menacing-looking very tall women covered with a black niqâb. A part of that theme is constituted by the idea of a “demographic aggression”: Muslims have many children, so they “will take over” within so and so many decades… (I have met this theme already in discussions in Serbia 1990, and in the Belgian debate in 2009, and I have heard it elsewhere too.) Birth-rate statistics are used as a “proof”. It is then taken for granted that all these children will become believers impossible to integrate and dangerous extremists… In earlier times, in the first part of the previous century, similar arguments were used in Northern Europe as to Catholicism.

This theme of the “dangerous Muslims” is often formulated as “all Muslims are not terrorists, but all terrorist are Muslims”. This is a phrase often repeated, curiously enough, although it is totally false. Here no statistics are used in the Islamophobic propaganda, as statistics show that facts are different. We have now for instance the official statistics of terrorist attempts (bombings and similar acts) in Europe during the year 2008. The number registered was 515. Not one single of them was performed by a Muslim. The largest number of such acts was done by Basque separatists, and by Corsican separatists.
5. These themes were combined with secular ones, the already existing negative attitude towards immigrants in general, coupled to the unemployment in the country: “Immigrants take our jobs”.
6. In the propaganda for a minaret prohibition the nationalistic romanticism theme was very evident. One example is a video, spread by the EDU/UDF on the Web. It showed a peaceful Swiss idyllic valley, green meadows with cows and the tooting of an alpine horn. And suddenly comes a loud voice, disturbing the idyll: the Call to Prayer in Arabic, enforced by loudspeakers, drenching the sound of the horn. The message was so obvious: “This is not our people (= ethnos).” The alpine horn expresses the “soul” of Swiss ethnicity – and nationality, but the adhân is foreign to it…

It is not without interest to compare the themes in the European Islamophobia with the themes in the propaganda of the Shen Siva and its Maharashtra nationalist leader Bal Thackeray, not without influence on the BJP and its Hindutva policy.

There are also many similarities in the Islamophobic themes mentioned and the themes in the European Anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish tradition which had its most disastrous consequences during the Nazi era and its ultimate form in the Holocaust. There we have, in a similar way, the idea of “our people” (=ethnos) and “the other” as a threat, something not belonging to the ethnic community, foreign and harmful for the purity of the Ethnos (“Volksfremde”), combined with the idea of a huge conspiracy intended to take power.

A common trait is also the use of texts, quotations form “their scriptures” used as “proof” of foreign and dangerous ideas and intentions. Those quotations (real or fabricated) are spread regardless of how they are seen or interpreted by the believers themselves, or regarded as normative or not. The belonging to a special group of human beings is seen as a determinant factor, and attributed to this group are special characteristics or beliefs as markers of belonging (“identity”).

What function has the Islamophobic ideas (as had the Anti-Semitic ones) in the minds of people?

When a person or a group is taking a position, a political standpoint, a choice of behaviour, we can distinguish in that process three categories of reasons:
1. We can look for the driving forces behind it, mostly to be found in social and economic circumstances and changes. These causes behind the individual’s choice of behaviour are he/she seldom fully aware of, and has difficulties to see them clearly and to formulate and express them.
2. Instead his/her situation is interpreted, understood, within the frames of his/her “cognitive universe”, in the categories and with help of the ideas existing in the mental environment, its historiography, ideological themes, symbols and prejudices. By help of these the individual reacts and finds a standpoint and a behaviour which looks relevant, plausible, reasonable and even self evident. These are the legitimising reasons, the way in which the individual can regard his/her actions as right.
3. But these are not necessarily the same reasons given in the debate with others. In that situation the choice of behaviour is defended with apologetic reasons, arguments which one thinks can be accepted by the opponent.

The task of the scholar

The action to make by the scholar, in order to contribute to diminish a conflict and to counteract communalistic prejudices, is then to try to analyse and explain the driving forces behind them, and to make the participants to see them and to detect the false interpretations which legitimizes communal tensions and violence: to reveal the misinterpretations of the reality. This means to detect what markers that are regarded as important and why so, and to confront this with the fact that each individual has many “belongings”, many “identities”, and in the peace building process to stress those belongings/identities which are not used as markers describing the communities in conflict, that is to not accept the description of the conflict given by the parties involved in it. It is important instead to stress other markers (eventually professional belonging, citizenship, the belonging to a common humanity etc.) Citizenship can be stressed in that way, but here comes the necessary condition that citizenship really functions as a benefit for all, for the whole demos, regardless of other community belongings.

Where communal conflicts are prevalent, we can see that the state and its institutions are dysfunctional. The task must then be to strengthen the state and work for creating conditions where the individual has confidence and can trust the state and its institutions, and see their ability to work for the benefit and security of all, the whole demos.

Conclusion: As a scholarly duty we can see the analyses of driving forces behind conflicts, their social and economic causes, the analyses of misinterpretations of the reality and their causes, introducing the explanation of these causes into the general debate, and participating in the establishment of institutions relevant and beneficial for all, and thus worthy of confidence.

© 2010 Jan Hjärpe

Jan Hjärpe