22 March 2010

Nationalism only re-shuffles differences

In Afghanistan, nationalism is touted by many people, especially liberals, as an antidote to the ethnic tension that has divided this country in recent centuries. The “we” or in-group is enlarged, so rather than Tajiks, Pashtuns, Baluchs, Hazaras and Uzbeks divided against each other, advocates of nationalism would have them all unite as an “imagined community” of Afghanistan. Nationalists argue that progress would be achieved by reducing ethnic differences within a single nation in favor of a larger “we.”

Yet nationalism is typically just ethnocentrism writ large. The new “we,” in this case Afghans, would still need to be defined against what they are not—neither Pakistani, nor Iranian, nor Indian—and this is problematic. For example, ethnic Pashtuns live on both sides of the Durand Line, the disputed border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and an identity based on discrete political nationalities must be at the expense of Pashtun cultural similarities. Similarly, a distinct Afghan national identity would require a suppression of the similarities between Farsi-speaking Tajiks or Shia-practicing Hazaras with neighboring Iran, in which the Farsi language and the Shia school of Islam are dominant. Nationalism, rather than bridging cultural differences, only reshuffles the dividing lines.

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