Civilizations and Identity Crisis

21 march 2014

What People Argue About in Russia and Beyond

Vitaly Naumkin, Ph.D. in History, is a Professor and Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He is also head of the Department of Regional Problems at Moscow State University, President of the Center for Strategic and Political Research, and Editor-in-Chief of the Vostok-ORIENS magazine published by the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Resume: One would think that proponents of the Eurasian choice would seek to build bridges between Russia and the Islamic world, but they often manifest biased attitudes towards the Muslim civilization as such.

In the light of developments in the contemporary world, the subject of “civilizations” is becoming ever more popular and interesting both for authors – researchers and commentators – and readers. The issues of cultural/civilizational identity, the nature of relationships between values ??of different regional/cultural clusters, and vectors of nation states’ evolution amid an increasing hyper-globalization are becoming increasingly relevant and require a fundamental theoretical rethinking.


Russia is increasingly positioning itself as a state of a special civilization. This trend has become particularly manifest during the last few years of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Within the framework of this project, Russia is seen as a civilization based on spirituality, adherence to traditional norms and values, among which the responsibility of the individual to society and the state (along with his rights), and religious ideals (as opposed to the aggressive secularism of Europe). Yet there is rivalry between the followers of different concepts and models of Russia’s civilizational identity. Even though they are diverse and many, there is a long-standing traditional confrontation in the Russian intellectual community – between the adherents of pochvennichestvo (professing a “return to native resources”, also known as Slavophiles in the past) and zapadnichestvo (“pro-Western-ism”). In a way, the “conservatism-liberalism” dichotomy can be viewed as a reflection of the above.

We are witnessing how polemics over an identity choice sometimes become very acute, taking center stage on TV talk shows and in newspaper and magazine articles. Some proponents of neo-pochvennichestvo, who usually position themselves as representatives of “patriotic nationalism” (for all the individual and group differences between them), while criticizing government policies, demand that Russia be put in civilizational opposition to the West, with some of them even calling to put up an iron curtain again. For example, the always conceptually thinking General Leonid Ivashov has proposed a Euro-Asian Civilizational Alliance (a modern analogue of the Slavophile project), to be based on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, “as a counterbalance and an alternative to the West and the transnational community.” There are also supporters of a neo-imperial project who criticize the Kremlin for its “orientation towards the West” and “European choice.”

Liberals from among neo-Westernizers also criticize the authorities, but the source of their discontent is different. Lilia Shevtsova, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, believes that the philosophy of Russian identity under Putin is only a “model of ruling.” She says this model “implies opposition to Western influence both within Russian society and in the former Soviet Union” and that it is used to substantiate Russia’s claim to “the role of defender of traditional moral values ??from Western decadence and degradation.”

One can draw a parallel in this respect between Russia and the Islamic world, which is also building its development models amid bitter confrontation between advocates of conflicting concepts. Likewise, it is the thesis of moral degradation of the West that underlies the rejection of Western cultural expansion by protagonists of Islamic national and religious identity.

Does the unending dispute between advocates of different development models in Russia indicate that the identity conflict has not resolved to this day, or that it is an inherent feature of its civilizational two-facedness (“Eurasianness”)? It is not accidental that in the debates about the main threats to Russian statehood some often speak of a “network war” against Russia by “the Jihadi International,” while others point to a threat from “the global West.”

Meanwhile, all societies face the identity choice in one way or another. By way of example, let me cite the concept of Eurabia which appeared in Western Europe not long ago. It reflected Europeans’ fears in the face of a possible civilizational transformation of Europe under the pressure of non-assimilable migrant waves from the Arab East and the Muslim world. Parallel to this, there emerged the term Londonistan, which reflected the widespread view (including in Russia) that the British capital had become a center of activities of clandestine jihadist groups of all stripes. There was also the theory of “Arab-Islamic conspiracy” aimed to undermine Europe, which, as Ali Allawi (until recently an Iraqi minister and now an American professor) said, is no less absurd than the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.


Russia has not been hit by the virus of Islamophobia because this multinational and multireligious country has for centuries served as an impressive example of coexistence, mutual cultural enrichment and respect of many ethnic and religious groups, first of all Christians and Muslims, in one social organism. However, the heated conflict between the West and the Islamic world, the waves of Islamic extremism which have hit Russian regions as well, and the massive and uncontrolled migration have worsened the relations between these groups. One would think that proponents of the Eurasian choice would seek to build bridges between Russia and the Islamic world (indeed, it would be strange to form a “civilizational” union with huge China), but they often manifest biased attitudes towards the Muslim civilization as such. In this respect, they side with nationalists who are negative about anyone “alien.”

But even within this discourse, proponents of neo-pochvennichestvo blame all the ills of the world on the West, primarily the United States. Asked by the Voice of Russia radio company about the activities of Islamic terrorists in Syria, the head of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies and an expert in ancient Near East, Andrei Vassoyevich, said that “radical Islamist groups are controlled by the United States.” Overwhelmed with noble intentions to expose fundamentalists, the St. Petersburg professor not only attributed the creation of al-Qaeda to the U.S. (which is not absolutely groundless), but also did much honor to the British intelligence by giving it credit for the creation of Wahhabism in the 18th century (while we naively believed it was Shaykh Mohammed bin Abd Al-Wahhab).

Incidentally, as follows from Russian foreign-policy archives, Russian diplomats reacted with sympathy to the Saudi-Wahhabi expansion in Arabia in the 1920s – not because of sympathy for Wahhabism of course, but because they viewed the puritan movement of the Bedouin tribes of Najd as a force independent from the colonialists. The tribes sought to unite Arabia and create a single and independent Arab state (contrary to Britain’s “Divide and Rule” project). In a letter to Russian envoy to Hejaz Karim Khakimov, Soviet People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Georgy Chicherin wrote: “Our interests in the Arab issue are the unification of Arab lands into a single and unified state.” He wrote in this regard about the possibility of a Turkish-Wahhabi rapprochement (How relevant this is today!) and its transformation into “some Muslim movement targeted against Western imperialism.” Initially, it was not ruled out that Ibn Saud might prove to be an “English protege,” yet Moscow believed, not without reason, that Ibn Saud’s rival, Hussain bin Ali, the Sharif of Mecca, might be one. Later, after Wahhabis seized Mecca and Medina, Chicherin wrote to the Soviet ambassador in Tehran: “One of the means of pressure on Ibn Saud is the British-led campaign in Muslim countries against Wahhabis for the destructions they have allegedly caused in Mecca and Medina. Seeking to isolate Ibn Saud, British agents use fanaticism of Muslim masses against Wahhabis in order to weaken Ibn Saud and force him to come to terms with Hejaz and accept the British proposals.”

The Saudi kingdom, which was first officially recognized by the Soviet Union, not Britain, was not at all a nation state but a state built on a religious/tribal basis. Another rare example of such a state is Pakistan, created in 1947, where even the official language (one of the two, along with English) is not Bengali or Punjabi, spoken by the largest indigenous ethnic groups, but Urdu, the language of Muslim immigrants from India. As for Saudi Arabia, it has throughout the years of its existence been building a national identity based on a strange-sounding marker, “Saudi,” after the ruling clan.

Incidentally, in the 1920s, during the active Soviet nation-building in Central Asia, local leaders not only reacted favorably to the emergence of Salafi preacher al-Shami al-Tarabulsi (“Syrian from Tripoli”) but also helped him to campaign against local Sufis. It is also believed that the authorities invited him from abroad with a view to using him in their own interests, as local “traditional” Sufi sheikhs were the main rival for the authorities in the battle for the minds of local Muslims, while Salafism, or Wahhabism, posed no real threat. In the 1930s, a Russian-turned-Muslim, nicknamed al-Kyzyljari, actively preached fundamentalism in Uzbekistan. Some contemporary Uzbek imams even claim that the head of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia after World War II, Mufti Ziauddin Babakhanov, facilitated the spread of Wahhabism and issued fatwas condemning some folk customs incorporated by local Islam.

Over time, the situation changed dramatically. Wahhabism, relying on huge financial resources gained through oil sales, launched an aggressive expansion beyond the kingdom, which caused a negative reaction among the majority of Muslims. The past 15 years have been marked by a bitter conflict between the West and the Islamic world. Some analysts see civilizational roots in it, while others, political ones.

Civilizationally, Russia is linked with the Islamic world not only because there are more than 15 million Muslims in it (or over 20 million, if we count immigrants), but also due to its attitude to religion and its role in society. Terrorists and extremists who use Islam as a cover and who usurp the right to interpret Muslim law cause great damage to harmonious coexistence of religious communities in Russia. Perhaps, the Muslim clergy could do more to fight the extremist virus. But there are also other factors that damage interreligious harmony, such as Islamophobia and attempts to portray Islam as a religion of intolerance and aggression. One of the lessons of the Ukrainian crisis is that the extremist threat to our societies does not necessarily come from Muslim communities. “Non-Islamic jihadists” may destabilize the situation in the same way as radical Islamists. Another lesson is that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, weakened by dissenters, has failed to curb the wave of violence that swept the country which is religiously and ethnically close to Russia. Indicatively, the number of people in Kiev who wanted to see the Gifts of the Magi, delivered from a Greek monastery on Mount Athos, was much smaller than the number of Muscovites who had previously had to wait for nine hours in line in the street to see the shrine. The present acute social and political crisis in Ukraine was brought about by a deep identification rupture, and the need to choose between Europe and Russia only served as a trigger.


One can agree that the role of religion in society and the state and people’s attitude to this role is the divide between the civilizations of the West and the Islamic world. It must be borne in mind, however, that, first, the Western civilization also includes countries with a high level of religiosity, although with a secular state system, for example, the United States. And second, the Islamic world, too, witnessed tides of atheistic thought (especially in the 1920s and largely under the influence of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and communist parties created in the East). There emerged political regimes built on secular principles (Turkey under Ataturk and his followers, and Tunisia under Habib Bourguiba). Ismail Mazhar (1891-1962) of Egypt founded a publishing house, Dar al-Usul, in Cairo to propagate atheism. He published translations of Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species, hated by Islamists, and the no-less-hated book by Bertrand Russell Why I Am Not a Christian. Another active advocate of atheism, Ismail Adham (1911-1940), who received an education at Moscow State University, established an association for these purposes, first in Turkey and then in Egypt. He drowned himself in the Mediterranean Sea, leaving a suicide note in which he asked that his body be not buried in a Muslim cemetery but cremated.

In the late 1920s and the 1930s, gravitation towards Islam increased again, while atheistic and secular propaganda began to lose popularity. Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Hussein Haykal (1889-1956), a graduate from the Sorbonne University in Paris and the author of a three-volume study on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, won fame in 1935 when he published the now-classic work The Life of Muhammad. Mahmud al-Aqqad (1889-1964), who first praised English romantic poets, made an even sharper turn towards Islam in the same period. One of his followers was, perhaps, the most famous preacher of radical Islam, Seyid Qutb (1906-1966), who, like his teacher, began his career as a poet and literary critic and who was executed in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser. His works (along with works by Abu al-Ala al-Maududi of Pakistan) are still a source of inspiration for many jihadists of today.

In the works of contemporary Islamic thinkers there is a polemical discourse similar to Russian disputes between Westernizers and pochvenniki. Mahmud Haidar, commenting on a book by Taha Abd ar-Rahman about the spirit of “Islamic modernity” (ruh al-hadatha al-islamiyya), draws a distinction between two categories of Islamic authors. The first one is “avant-gardists” who replace traditional Islamic concepts with modern Western ones: shura with democracy, ummah with state, usury with profit, etc. The second category is their antipodes – “traditionalists” who reject Western concepts in favor of traditional Islamic ones: not secularism (ilmaniyya) but knowledge of the world (al-‘ilm bi-d-dunia – Arabic term having a common root with the term secularism but derived from the Prophet Muhammad’s saying, “You know more about your world” – Antum a‘lamu bi-umur dunyakum), not religious war (al-harb ad-diniyya) but discovery (the Arabic term fath which is used in relation to medieval Arab-Muslim conquests).

Debates continue unabated about whether or not Islamic doctrines are compatible with democratic values. The issue of Islam and democracy is actively discussed at many conferences, symposiums and meetings of religious leaders, experts and politicians. Some of them argue that raising the issue of compatibility of values of the Islamic civilization and democratic principles is wrong per se, because the Islamic civilization is democratic in nature and does not need to borrow any values ??from other systems. Others accuse Islamic societies of authoritarianism, human rights abuses and lack of freedom. There are also advocates of the concept of convergence.

Let me, in this regard, cite an example concerning the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Renowned Lebanese diplomat and Christian Charles Malik participated in its drafting from the Arab world (during the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990 he was the “ideological mentor” of the Lebanese Forces – the right-wing Christian militia). It was only later that the Islamic world became opposed to some provisions of the Declaration, in particular, Article 18, under which “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and “freedom to change his religion or belief.” This provision runs counter to the basic provisions of the Sharia law. Therefore, the Organization of the Islamic Conference (now known as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation) adopted the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam at its August 1990 summit in Cairo, in which the main contradictions with the Sharia law, above all those in Article 18, were eliminated.

But how incompatible are the concepts of human rights in the Sharia law and in most countries of the world? Can we talk today of the absolute universality of any concept in this sphere at all? And can we assume that in the foreseeable future a modernization process in Islam may lift the ban on a Muslim’s conversion to another religion?


The success of a modernization project will depend largely on how relations between different cultures and civilizations develop in the future. Jan N. Pieterse singles out three globalizational/cultural paradigms, or prospects for the development of these relations: cultural differentialism, or lasting difference; cultural convergence, or growing sameness; and cultural hybridization, or ongoing mixing. The key factor here is the attitude towards cultural/civilizational differences: Will globalization level them out through absorption or homogenization (convergence)? Will they, on the contrary, strengthen and become perpetuated (differentialism underlying Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” theory)? Or will they undergo mixing (hybridization)? It should be noted that the discourse based on the hybridization concept, known since the 19th century, was developed in the West in literature devoted to the phenomenon of migration. This discourse is an antidote to “essentialism,” “boundary fetishism” and “cultural differentialism of racial and nationalist doctrines,” the key notions of which are ethnicity and identity. Hybridization can, in a sense, be interpreted as a potential loss of both. The fetishization of intercultural boundaries is opposed by the thesis of their inevitable erosion. Mixing and syncretism are key notions in the concept of hybridization. Its proponents analyze processes such as “creolization,” “miscegenation” and “orientalization” of Western society. In this context, the Muslim East serves as a hybridization agent.

There have been many examples of hybridization in the history of the Islamic world. Here is one example, largely forgotten today. Ottoman Muslim sultans did not mind when Europeans called their capital by its old name – Constantinople, while they themselves referred to it by different names, including High Porte. Arabs more often called the city al-Istana (“place of power” in Persian). After the creation of the Republic of Turkey and following the adoption of a postal service law on March 28, 1930, the Turkish government asked other countries to call the capital Istanbul. I think that by preserving the old name Ottoman sultans wanted to project onto themselves the greatness of the imperial Byzantine capital and to pose as heirs to its culture. The dual identity was intended to promote the country’s image. Indicatively, the word ‘istana’ in the Malay and Indonesian languages ??has acquired the meaning ‘palace.’ It is used in the names of the official residences of Malaysian sultans, the Indonesian president, and the president and the prime minister of Singapore. The symbolic chain of names has stretched from Byzantium to the new capital of Kazakhstan, Astana.

To some extent, this approach is similar to the new interpretation by some prominent Russian historians of relations between Russian principalities and the Golden Horde, who emphasize their civilizational and cultural interaction, rather than hostility. And can we speak in this context of a civilizational rapprochement between, for example, Arabs and Jews, the vehicles of two Abrahamic religions that are very close to each other in spirit?


The rapprochement scenario is obviously ruled out by the unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict and the continuous Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. As Palestinians lose faith in the possibility of creating their own state, they increasingly often invoke the idea of a single democratic Arab-Israeli state. And yet they understand that there is no alternative to the concept of two separate states and all talk about a single state will never lead anywhere.

At the same time, this concept is supported by the growing number of Israel’s critics in the West, including in the Jewish community in the United States. In fact, Western criticism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, who compared Zionism with fascism, was quick, yet mild. Shortly after that Obama forced Benjamin Netanyahu to apologize for the attack on the Turkish flotilla heading to Gaza, which left nine Turks dead.

I have noted an article by Joseph Levine, a professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, published by The New York Times, where he wrote: “My view is that one really ought to question Israel’s right to exist and that doing so does not manifest anti-Semitism.” He further added that this would be true if “Israel’s right to exist” meant existing “… as a Jewish state.” According to Levine, the Jews should be allowed to live in their ancestral homeland but this would not grant them the right to a Jewish state. In the 18th-19th centuries, when the Jews were fighting for their emancipation and the ghetto walls were torn down, any denial of their right to be loyal citizens within the Jewish state in which they resided was considered anti-Semitism. Levine cautions against replacing the term “a people” in a civic sense with the same term in an ethnic sense (which reminds one of the ongoing discussions about the “Russian nation” in our country). Levine notes that “a people” in the ethnic sense should have a common language, history and attachment to a common territory, which makes this term barely applicable to the Jews. “A people” in the civic sense means common citizenship and common residence within relatively defined geographic borders. About 20 percent of people living in Israel are non-Jews, and a vast majority of the Jewish people does not reside in Israel. In the civic sense, one should be speaking about an Israeli state, not a Jewish one.

I will avoid citing all of Levine’s arguments on this matter as they are quite uncommon for Western discourse and cause irritation in Israel. I will only mention his conclusion that the exclusion of non-Jewish citizens (mainly Palestinians) from full political participation in the state under whose sovereignty they fall violates the democratic principle of equality for all of its citizens. Levin speaks of “an unavoidable conflict between being a Jewish state and a democratic state.” He emphasizes that during the recent outrage in Israel over a proposed exclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties from the governing coalition nobody took notice of the fact that no Arab political party has ever been invited to join the government.

Let me say that people who make such remarks are usually labeled “self-hating Jews,” i.e. Jews who hate themselves. These include, among others, such well-known personalities as George Soros, Woody Allen, Uri Avnery, Sandy Berger and others, who criticize Israel for certain aspects of its policy. This is a manifestation of the crisis of identity and “siege mentality” which is characteristic of the Israeli establishment and which has been noted by many experts.

One cannot but agree with researchers who speak of typological closeness in the positions of Palestinian Arabs living in Israel and Israeli Mizrahim – the Jews from the Middle East and North Africa. Both consider themselves “victims of Ashkenazi Zionism” and discrimination that turn them – although in different ways – into misfits. Dr. Atalia Omer observers that, while Palestinian Arabs build their protest on the paradigm of human rights, the Mizrahim’s argument brings systemic inequality inherent in the Israeli state to their exclusivist and ethno-republican interpretation of ‘nation.’


The crisis of identity is closely linked to historical memory. It may be strong in one nation and weak in another. The latter would not refer only to “new nations” as there may be striking differences between nations with a long history as well. For example, people in the Middle and Near East have such a strong historical memory that it has an immense impact on their mentality, on their relationships with other people and on their life in general. We may as well mention “genealogical memory,” which can be short or long, depending on the ethnic identity. Suffice it to ask an average Russian or Arab young man how many generations of his ancestors he knows. The Arab one will certainly know more. Certain historical facts become sacral for some nations (Holocaust for the Jews, genocide for the Armenians). The memory of losses in wars is particularly bitter. The memory of defeat in several wars against Israel is unbearable for Arabs and makes them feel inferior. It would take a sense of dignity and even supremacy in some other respects to wipe out this feeling.

Religion gives not only consolation but also hope, and combined with the idea of chosenness gives the sense of dignity and supremacy. As prominent Lebanese intellectual Amin Maalouf writes: “Islam is a place of refuge for identity as well as dignity.” Since Arab communities constantly fell behind other countries in their development (with the exception of several occasions), their armies suffered one defeat after another, their territories were occupied, and people humiliated, and “the religion which they have given the world became the last refuge of their self-respect.” No doubt all these circumstances were among the factors that brought about the Arab Spring and violence. The Middle East gangrene is spreading far beyond the region right in front of our eyes, going northward as well.

Let me once again turn to Maalouf, who mentions “cultural dignity,” which underlies any ethnic group’s efforts to preserve its language and culture (although he notes that religion is exclusive but the language is not). The author introduces the term “global communitarianism” as one of the most harmful consequences of globalization, when “the rise in religious affiliations at the same time as the globalization of communications encouraged the regrouping of people into ‘global tribes’.” This is particularly manifest in the Muslim world where “an unprecedented wave of communitarian particularism, which found its most bloody outlet in the conflict between Sunnis and Shi’ites” (and, I would add, between different trends within Sunniism), comes along with “internationalism.” The latter means that “an Algerian goes willingly to fight and die in Afghanistan, a Tunisian in Bosnia, an Egyptian in Pakistan, a Jordanian in Chechnya or an Indonesian in Somalia.” But I would disagree with the author that this always happens voluntarily.

Modern information flows facilitate the transmission of historical memory, beyond an ethnic group as well, thus directly affecting politics and occasionally causing fierce political collisions. It is not accidental that researchers in different fields more and more often refer to the ‘theory of six degrees of separation,’ which holds that any two persons in the world are no more than six steps away from each other in a chain of acquaintances, and which, although quite naïve, looks like a prediction that came true.

Memory can spread over long-past events especially if the ethnic groups involved still exist and maintain certain relationships with other actors. Suffice it to mention the Battle of Kulikovo for Russians and Tartars, the Battle of Kosovo Field for Serbs, etc. All this is directly related to ‘self-image’ of ethnic groups. Russian scholars more often use the term ‘the image of the other,’ which has actually become a cliché, while the ‘self-image’ concept as a rule remains outside of scientific discourse and is taken for granted.

I cannot but agree with Lamont D. King who noted that a nation is a kind of ethnic group. Yet while “an ethnic group is ‘other-defined,’ a nation must be self-defined.” There is no avoiding for people who are associated with a certain ethnic group by other people, to break this association, even if they wish so, but they can give up their national identity. Moreover, a nation differs from a generic ethnic group by claiming to control the state. Historical memory is instrumental here as well, and its function is to support national solidarity and cohesion.


Elements of historical memory are almost always mythologized. To understand this phenomenon, it would be useful to turn to the symbolic politics theory with the “myth-symbol” complex lying at its core. According to Murray Edelman, a myth is “a belief held in common by a large group of people that gives events and actions a particular meaning.” Therefore, it is irrelevant whether an event serving as a myth actually occurred or was simply imagined. A symbol is “an emotionally charged shorthand reference to a myth.” Stuart Kaufman, one of the authors using the theory of symbolic politics and actively contributing to its use in studying concrete ethnic conflicts, including in the post-Soviet region, writes that the “myth-symbol” complex is “the web of myths and related symbols.”

The “myth-symbol complex” is examined in one of Anthony Smith’s works, and the role of symbols is explained by Zdzislaw Mach. In other words, people make a political choice not so much calculatingly as emotionally in response to the proposed symbols.

According to Donald Horowitz, ethnic violence stems directly from emotions, such as the fear of group extinction, while Crawford Young focuses on the important role of stereotypes (myths) and symbols in sustaining identity and driving group mobilization. So the paradigm of ethnic conflicts proposed by Young and Horowitz as part of the symbolic politics theory looks as follows: the fear that a group may be destroyed (or its identity may be destroyed) generates hostility and subsequently leads to mass violence. According to Young, hostility and threats strengthen group solidarity and prompt people to consider events in ethnic terms.

The notion of identity is central to this theoretical discourse and is actually a factor in world politics (it is no accidental that this notion has become a subject of special research within the framework of international relations since the 1990s). And again, the paradigm of religious conflicts can also be studied as part of symbolic politics. In fact, the fear of sociopolitical groups to lose their Islamic civilizational and cultural identity and, consequently, positions which underpin their legitimacy can also cause hostility and violence. Suffice it to recall the strong reaction among Muslims to the publication of Prophet Muhammad cartoons in a Danish newspaper.

The “myth-symbol” complex can be used to overcome identity weaknesses and mobilization policy problems by inciting aggression through all sorts of engineered historical or historical-religious myths. These myths, in turn, are based on the interpretation of politics in ethnic terms. Likewise, the use of symbols to mythologize events that occurred in the first centuries of Islam can lead one to consider events, including contemporary ones, in religious terms. It is not that some events did not happen or they occurred in a way different from how we see them today, but that they are given a symbolic meaning which instigates political action. Ethnicity and religion are so closely intertwined that ethnic mobilization may as well appeal to religious motivations and vice versa. Saddam Hussein called the war against Iran “my Battle of Qadisiyya,” drawing an analogy with the battle in the year 636 in which Arabs defeated the Persians, who were subsequently converted to Islam. Ethnic and religious motives are combined here even though the Iranian-Iraqi war in the 20th century was waged by people of the same faith. However, the “myth-symbol” of Qadisiyya did not work and failed to win over Iranian Arabs.

Henry Tudor believes that a myth in its modern sense is a collective project of a social group, while Tirza Hechter of Bar Ilan University in Israel says that although the Holocaust was “a tragic historical event,” it had a constructive purpose as a means of “the declared universal legitimization for the establishment of the State of Israel.” Charles Liebman notes that the Holocaust myth (not in the sense that it did not happen but that it was “the most tragic and traumatic event in the history of the Jews”) points to a collective effort to find meaning for the death of six million Jews. This collective project provided a powerful tool for national mobilization. It’s noteworthy that Israeli scholars have no taboos in discussing the symbolic role of the Holocaust. The collective project of genocide in the Ottoman Empire – equally traumatic and tragic – performs a similar function for the Armenians.


The identity crisis analyzed above is closely connected with the loosened system of nation states. In the past few decades, several such states have disintegrated (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Sudan) and new ones emerged in their place in different parts of the world. The Arab Spring phenomenon made some experts and politicians speak about a crisis of the post-colonial configuration in the Middle East or the end of the Sykes-Picot system created after World War I.

Historians can say how freely and hastily the French and British colonizers drew borders between Arab provinces conquered from the Ottoman Empire. At some international conferences whole sections were themed on the end of the Sykes-Picot system (the authoritative Istanbul forum in 2013 was one of them). At the same forum but a year earlier one of the Turkish authors claimed that the Arab Spring had been caused by the fact that Arab countries had been created from fragments of the Ottoman Empire and never had their own national statehood. Oddly as it was, he ignored the fact that, for example, Egyptian statehood was several thousand years old, excluding periods of foreign domination. These remarks reflect the ongoing neo-Ottoman discourse, now popular in Turkey, which, in turn, signifies that the idea of post-imperial national statehood is not yet deep-rooted in the minds of Turks. I think Ankara’s policy with regard to the Syrian crisis stems to some extent from the fact that a part of the Turkish political elite tends to view Syria as a “fragment” or at least as a component of “strategic depth” (according to Ahmet Davutoglu).

French analyst and ex-Ambassador Jean-Pierre Filiu believes that the system of post-colonial borders and state entities they define has outlived itself. This view is quite common in the Middle East as well. Moreover, Iranian researchers Seyed Abdulali Ghava and Mohammad Gheisari say that the very concept of nation state, like the ideology of nationalism, was brought to the Middle East from the West.


The relationship between nation and state is not the purpose of this article, but speaking of the crisis of nation states we will nevertheless touch upon it briefly. When defining the term ‘state,’ Jack Plano and Roy Olten emphasize the factor of territory. They define a state as a “legal concept describing a social group that occupies a certain territory and is organized within common political institutions and effective government.” A nation is a “social group sharing a common ideology, common institutions, customs and the feeling of homogeneity.” However, this and similar views stand in contrast to Robert Lowe’s definition of a state as a universal feature of human culture. But his interpretation is not shared by the majority of researchers, just as the concept of ethnic groups as cultural units was replaced by the understanding of ethnicity as a form of social organization.

In the words of Ian Peters, who was mentioned above, only the period from 1840 to 1960 was an era of nations and “the dark side of nation building has been the marginalization, expulsion, expropriation, oppression of foreigners, as in politics of national cleansing. Turkey (Armenians and others), Germany (Jews), Uganda (Indians), Nigeria (Ghanaians), Bulgaria (ethnic Turks), India (Muslims) are familiar cases in point…., but they are only the tip of the iceberg.” In the past few decades, however, the fervor of nation states has somewhat subsided, giving way to globalization, regionalism and the era of ethnicity. The role of constituencies becomes generally recognized, “national” identities are seen as mixed ones, and preservation of cultural diversity is now a universally acknowledged imperative.

Nevertheless, the attitude towards immigrants has become one of the watersheds between the advocates of different models of development proposed to Russia, and this is where the pochvenniki and Westernizers often join their efforts in an attempt to restrict the influx of “aliens,” even though the latter are our former Soviet-era compatriots who actually come here to work. Any restriction on the movement of people means resistance to globalization and the three flows of global circulation (capital and goods, information, and people), of which only the first two cannot be stopped (economic and cultural protectionism is generally futile). But there is some controversy about these two flows, as well.

It would be appropriate to mention Dani Rodrik’s “trilemma” of irreconcilability between hyper-globalization, democracy and national self-determination as the first notion is global in essence, the second one is characteristic of states, and the last one is national by definition.

In as far back as the 18th century, Ernest Renan defined nation as “an everyday plebiscite.” The French philosopher obviously meant that a nation could be united and cohesive only inasmuch as the people constituting it put their faith in this. In absence of such faith, heterogeneity increases and the factors of conflict intensify, which can lead to violence.


Given the rise of violence emanating from the Arab Spring convulsions associated with inter- and intra-religious and interstate relations, and identity and the fate of nation states, I would like to note that one can find numerous examples of exasperation outside of the Arab and Muslim world as well. American researcher Christopher Hitchens writes, not without acrimony, that he cannot deny the Dalai Lama “some charm and presence,” but the same can be said of the British Queen, which however does not rule out the very criticism of hereditary monarchy. Likewise, “the first foreign visitors to Tibet were downright appalled at the feudal domination, and hideous punishments, that kept the population in permanent serfdom to a parasitic monastic elite.” Hitchens also notes that there are many killers and sadists among the advocates of seemingly peaceful religions like Hinduism and Buddhism. Such facts are widely known. He recalls that the beautiful Island of Ceylon was badly destroyed by violence and repressions sparked by a long armed conflict between Buddhists and Hindus. Even the decision of the Sinhalese Buddhists to change of the island’s name to Sri Lanka (which means “sacred island” in Singhalese) antagonized the Hindu Tamil minority that prefers to call it in their own way – Ilam. At the same time, discrimination against the Tamils cannot justify their suicide bombings, carried out mainly by women, as a means of revenge for insults.

In Burma, which has changed its name to Myanmar, the Muslim minority of Rohingya (who number no more than 800,000 people) are subjected to severe persecution, despite nascent democratization. As a result, the authorities and the Buddhist community (especially Arakans who live side by side with the Muslims) face strong criticism across the Islamic world and even calls for jihad issued by some radical groups. In Africa, Muslims are brutally murdered by adherents of some Christian sects.

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All of the abovementioned lends even more relevancy to the calls for respecting civilizational identity and national sovereignty of independent states, some of which are living through a crisis of statehood triggered by the challenges of hyper-globalization and the need to make an identity choice. The inter-civilizational dialogue is undoubtedly an important tool for preventing the hostility of ethnic and confessional groups, nations and states, caused by this crisis in the era of hyper-globalization, from developing into bloody wars.

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