Ethnonationalism and Vulnerable Populations

Monday, November 20, 2017
Jocelyne Cesari

Professor of Religion and Politics, the University of Birmingham (UK)

Marcia Chatelain

Associate Professor of History and African American Studies, Georgetown University

Simran Jeet Singh

Henry R. Luce Fellow for Religion in International Affairs, New York University

Kim Lawton

Former Managing Editor, Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly

Jocelyne Cesari, professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham (UK); Marcia Chatelain, associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University; and Simran Jeet Singh, the Henry R. Luce fellow for religion in international affairs at New York University, discuss the rise of ethnonationalism and the social and political consequences for at-risk communities, with Kim Lawton, former managing editor of Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, moderating. This session took place at the American Academy of Religion 2017 Annual Meeting, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Program.

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy panel discussion. We’re glad to have you all here. I’m Irina Faskianos, the vice president for the national program and outreach at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And at CFR, we’re running a Religion and Foreign Policy Program which is to serve as a resource for the faith community and religious scholars, bringing together congressional leaders, lay leaders, religious scholars and representatives of faith-based organizations for issues at the intersection of religion and global affairs.

So welcome.

I encourage you all to go to our website,, to take a look at what we have there and our religion program offerings.

Today we have a panel discussion on Ethnonationalism and Vulnerable Populations, which I know has been a theme of this year’s AAR, so we’re happy to be extending that conversation.

We have a terrific panel put together for you to talk about these issues. And I’m just going to turn the conversation over to Kim Lawton who is an award-winning journalist and reporter, producer, and writer. She was the managing editor and correspondent for the PBS program Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly and is now heading an independent production company, Kim Lawton Media. So I encourage you all to go to her website to see what she’s doing now.

So with that, let me turn it over to Kim to introduce our distinguished panel.

So, Kim, over to you.

LAWTON: Thank you.

Thank you everyone for coming to this what we hope will be a really fascinating discussion. Our format today will be that the panelists and I will talk amongst ourselves for a while and let you listen in, and then we’ll invite you to be part of the conversation as well by taking questions for the last about half hour of our time together.

So let me introduce our terrific panel, starting right here. Simran Jeet Singh is the Henry R. Luce fellow for religion and international affairs at New York University’s Center for Religion and Media. He’s also a professor of religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization based in New York City. He is also on the board of Religion Newswriters Association, a religion news association, an organization for religion journalists in America. He’s the author of Covering Sikhs, a guidebook to help journalists to accurately report on the Sikh community. He’s a frequent commentator in various news outlets, television, radio, and print media, and he’s currently working on two book projects, one which examines Islamophobia at the intersection of race and religion in modern America, very timely with our conversation today, and the other that will focus on the formative moments of the Sikh tradition and its founder Guru Nanak.

Next to him we have Marcia Chatelain. Marcia is associate professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown University. During the 2017 to 2018 academic year, she’s on leave as a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow. She’s also the Eric and Wendy Schmidt fellow at the New American Foundation in Washington, D.C. She’s the author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration and a public voice on the history of African American children, race in America, and other social movements. In 2014, she organized a social media response to the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, entitled #FergusonSyllabus and that has led to similar initiatives online and has shaped curricular projects in K-12 settings, academia, and higher education. She’s a frequent public speaker and consultant and media commentator on many issues, including inclusive teaching, social movements, and food justice. She hosts a podcast, Office Hours, where she talks with millennials about what’s important to them. And last year, she was named a top influencer in higher education by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

And on the end, we have Jocelyne Cesari. Jocelyne is professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham in the UK, where she oversees the research agenda for the Edward Cadbury Center for the Public Understanding of Religion. But she’s also very well-traveled because she is also a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center, where she directs the Islam in World Politics program. And she’s also at Harvard teaching on contemporary Islam at the Divinity School and directing the interfaculty program Islam in the West. And indeed, she focuses on religion, international politics, Islam, globalization, secularism, immigration, and religious pluralism. She’s written several books, and her most recent is called Islam, Gender, and Democracy in Comparative Perspective. It was coauthored with Jose Casanova and published this year by Oxford University Press. She edited the Oxford Handbook of European Islam and coordinates the web resources on Islam in Europe.

So lots of—lots of experience and expertise on the panel.

I thought before we get into looking at specific situations here in the U.S. and globally, let’s just define some broad terms very briefly. I’d like each of you to say, when we’re talking about ethnonationalism, what does that mean and how are you thinking about that and what are the populations that are at risk within that?


SINGH: Sure. I’m assuming that many of us in the room have an understanding of nationalism. We’ve read Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities.

For me, the defining element of ethnonationalism is it’s helpful to define it in contradistinction to civic nationalism or liberal nationalism. Civic or liberal nationalism is a sense of nationalism that’s based on what we refer to as modernist values of equality, inclusion, secularism. And it has an assimilative or an integrative approach that allows people to come in from the outside.

Ethnonationalism by distinction is a model that relies on a sense of an ethnic heritage, a religious identity, a linguistic identity that creates a sort of barrier for entry. It’s more exclusive in nature. And that’s sort of the operating definition for me of ethnonationalism.


Marcia, anything to add?

CHATELAIN: The only thing I would add to that excellent definition of ethnonationalism is that embedded within the ideologies in which people are forming the types of nationalist movements that we’re going to talk about today on the panel is this idea of scarcity or this idea of loss.

And I think that the discourse of no longer having a place is also predicated on the idea of an entitlement to place. So ethnonationalism is attractive to populations that believe that something that is their rightful claim is slipping away. And I think that’s why in this particular moment we see a lot of young white men radicalized by ethnonational groups online because it’s plugging into a larger political discourse about needing to reclaim or take back the country.

LAWTON: And, Jocelyne, anything?

CESARI: Besides definition, I think ethnonationalism means different things in different contexts. I do not think that the situation in America can be defined through ethnonationalism. I think race is a key term, and it’s different from ethnonationalism. And the other topic of contention has nothing to do with ethnicity or race, but with lifestyle and class position. So I would be cautious here on using the term ethnonationalism to define the negative or reactive position of some segments of American youth or young people today.

If you turn to Europe, it’s even more complicated because indeed there have been moments where nations were built on this proximity between people sharing same language or same memory or culture. But this has never been a pure model, otherwise there is no democracy. If it’s only ethnonationalism, you cannot be a democracy. So you have this intersection with civic dimension of nationality.

But I would say that in Europe, the crisis now, was indeed a crisis about controlled diversity. Today, what is called ethnonationalism is actually a reaction against a very particular population which is the Muslims. And so is this ethnonationalism, or is it something else?

So I would be really cautious here about using the term and thinking it means the same thing in different places.

LAWTON: And I do want to—we do want to unpack that as we go on and especially looking at the situation for Muslims in some of these societies.

Before we get to Europe and some other parts of the world, let’s look here at the U.S. and talk about where we see particular points of controversy and especially what communities we feel like are vulnerable as we’re seeing resurgence rise, we’re seeing more tension to some of these movements that are very much organizing themselves around these ideas.

Simran, we might as well start with you since you’re here. What about for religious minorities in particular, where do they fit when we’re looking at some of these ideas?

SINGH: Sure. I mean, I think the place to begin is to say that one of the striking features of ethnonationalism is that it places immense pressure on minorities, the people who are seen as the outsiders, and that could be on the basis of race or religion or any other sort of identity group.

And what we’re seeing, and to answer your question about religious communities, perhaps the most targeted has become the Muslim community, and I’ll speak a little bit to that. And some of this is, you know—I’ll try not to rehash things that we are already aware of and speak to the types of impacts that they have for these communities.

So, if we think about the type of anti-Muslim rhetoric we’ve been hearing in this country for the past couple of years particularly, the impact that that has had in terms of physical violence is immense. We have seen an increased rise in hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate incidents. New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force is seeing almost a hundred percent rise in hate crimes this year, many of—most of which target religious minorities. CAIR reported about a hundred percent rise in hate crimes or hate incidents against Muslims.

The civil rights organization for which I work, the Sikh Coalition, has been so heavily burdened with reports of hate that we have dropped many of our strategic working issues so that we could just help people stay alive. So this physical violence is taking an immense toll.

And I think there is a second piece to this that’s critically important and that is the policy moves that have been made in the last year especially. Think about the Muslim ban. Think about changes to the way that we think about racial profiling of people who appear to be Muslim. This is also taking a huge psychic toll on minority communities, especially those who appear to be Muslim, whether they’re Muslim or not.

And what we’re also seeing is a misguided placement of how we think about our national security. So just as a very simple example, we spent last year $100 billion in America on our counterterrorism efforts abroad. We spent $50 million on combating domestic terrorism. And we have been seeing the numbers, and we are more likely to be killed on our soil by a white American terrorist than we are by a foreign terrorist of any kind.

And so these—the ways in which we think about violence, the way we racially code terrorism, and the way people are misunderstanding Islam it’s actually making us physically less safe as a country.

And one final point, if you don’t mind. There’s a third—there’s a third impact that I think is disproportionately felt by minorities of various types in America right now and that is the chilling and silencing effect. Because people of color, religious minorities are the ones who have to carry the burden of dealing with these issues, because they are directly targeted and for them it’s a matter of survival, when those individuals speak up, they then become targeted for retribution.

And just a very simple example that I think might resonate with those of you in this room—and, you know, this is not particular to me, this is a shared experience for a lot of people I know—but I spoke up with a political position, ended up on the professor watchlist, you know, through campus reform. And my colleagues, many of whom I respect and admire, said, hey, you know, this is not something you should be doing, this is putting your professional situation at risk. And for me, it becomes very personal then as somebody who’s trying to speak for communities are underrepresented and without voices.

And so this chilling effect, it has real consequences for people. And it keeps individuals from engaging in free speech and responding to these issues, and I think that’s an important thing for those of us in this room to know in particular.

LAWTON: Marcia, the African American experience has been also very much focused on these issues in the last couple of years, certainly even this year. Talk a little bit about how you see some of these forces, you know, having an impact. And what’s going on there?

CHATELAIN: Well, I think that if you look at, you know, the history of the nation, you know, the racialization and the oppression of, you know, people of African descent is embedded in the DNA of the founding of the nation and the flourishing of the nation. So I don’t think that you could ever separate, you know, the creation of the U.S. without, you know, a rigorous moral inventory, like they say, of just the ways in which our institutions are just so deeply wrapped around the institution of slavery, and then post slavery in the reconstruction era, the use of the U.S. Constitution and these extralegal forces like the KKK to keep people in their place.

And so I think what we’re seeing now—my students often ask me, you know, what historical period should we use as a reference point? And it depends on what happened that morning. Some mornings feels like—it feels like 1968, other days 1868, some days 1877. And that is to say that our nation has a kind of toolbox of racially motivated practices of policy orientations that it deploys at every moment when it feels like the balance is off. Right?

And so it is no surprised that after the election of a black president, you see the rise of a racist discourse that many were led to believe would, at the very least, kind of be moved out of the center frame of politics. Right? And so I think what we have is a classic case of historical backlash.

You know, I like to think about it in terms of an anecdote in the book The Warmth of Other Suns. It’s this excellent 600-page book about the African American great migration. And I think the most poignant story is one in which an African American man has left the deep South, he goes to a bar in a Northern city and he can finally be served like a man. And so he gets a glass of whiskey or scotch and he drinks it. And the bartender takes the glass and breaks it in front of him. And he needs to make it very clear that you have touched something that is now no longer of value.

And I think from my perspective as a historian, that is what the White House is at this moment. It was something that was supposed to be symbolic and of great value, and now we have a moment in which the desire to not just disrupt, but destroy and annihilate has become the basic understanding of the nation. And this is very dangerous, and I think this is what emboldens the kind of, you know, ethnonationalist element in our country. Right? Because one set of—one set of conversation in the past may have been about preserving, but it’s no longer about preserving, it’s about destroying. And we know that when that is on the agenda, it’s people of color and targeted communities that are hurt the most.

LAWTON: And, Jocelyne, let’s talk about the Muslim experience. Simran brought it up a little bit. But here in America, perhaps even during the campaign last year and post-election, what is, you know, going on there and how are these forces at play for that community here?

CESARI: The major aspect is in the discrimination of Muslims in America, it’s security, securitization in the sense that the Muslims have been put under the spotlight as a potential fifth column for international events. So it’s slightly different from, I would say, the usual historical religious discrimination that can happen.

And until now, if you look at who is targeting whom, Muslims are very vulnerable to institutional forms of discrimination. There is an ongoing discussion of the practices of police around mosques or even listening to or spying on major institutions and groups.

If you look at the position of American citizens, the picture is a little more mitigated. I know that there are statistics, but if you compare to what European Muslims have gone through, even before 9/11, the level of discrimination for the practice of Islam on a day-to-day basis is much, much higher.

So I would make this kind of differences in the sense that securitization is a big, big factor in the anti-Islamic discourse, while elsewhere it’s not only securitization, it’s other factors. If you want me to elaborate I can, or we can leave this for another round. But it makes the situation of Muslims in Europe much more critical in this respect.

LAWTON: And before we get to Europe, let me ask you about the role, all of you, whoever wants to jump in, the role of the media, social media, and some of—all of that, you know, playing into fomenting some of this stuff. How key is that here, right now?

CESARI: If I can, I mean, I would not overplay the role of media. I mean, first, I don’t know what media is anymore. Everybody is reading what is suiting its—our own vision, so I would say that we are at a time where we have very fragmented ways of getting information. So you just get reinforcing what you think is right or wrong, so they are the—the media is a reflection of this more deep-down perception of, you know, what makes me safe, who is part of us. You know, I would be a little more—I don’t think that they create the phenomenon. They may reflect it or amplify it, but they are not creating it.

LAWTON: The others of you, do you have—

CHATELAIN: You know, I think media is kind of in the similar category as the way that people misunderstand academia. When people talk to me about liberal academia, I always say sign me up for this place because I don’t work there. (Laughter.) And in similar ways, this idea of a liberal media, liberal press, I don’t see it either.

When I see the amount of discriminatory phrasing, framing, questioning that goes unchecked—I mean, one thing I love about your Twitter feed is the number of times you have to explain to people. They’ll show a picture of the Sikh community and they’ll say Muslims XYZ. And you have to say please, you know, I wrote an entire book on this, stop it.

And so what we have are these influential institutions that have very little knowledge of marginalized communities, who are allowed to set the agenda of how these communities are framed.

And so I would say that the way that—you know, if—to say—the critique I would have of media is, unfortunately, the pressures of the newsrooms, the pressures of the business do not allow for people, I think, to take enough time and training to understand and engage the conversations that they want to be part of. And I think that’s why public television is so much better at this, right, because I think that there is a different approach to the responsibility.

And I also—I mean, the other thing that I’d like to just add, as a person who entered this profession ten years ago, I remember when I could turn on news outlets, regardless of their political, you know, their seeming political orientation, and I would actually see scholars of color on television talking about race in really intelligent ways. And the second the election started, the second we were going to imagine a future without a black president, that conversation was gone. And so news outlets that at least would try to show a glimmer of diversity have moved kind of, like, an all-white staffing model. And it happened so quickly that if you think about it, what does that say then about the utility of these types of conversations?

LAWTON: And you think that’s a deliberate factor from the election and everything that’s going on?

CHATELAIN: Absolutely. Because why do you need intelligent conversations about race now? We don’t have a black president, you just have the rise of white nationalism. Do you see how those types of moves then normalize a kind of discourse that is not only harmful, but doesn’t give the opportunity for a larger public to learn anything or to grow?

LAWTON: And, Simran, you’ve certainly been in the mix of social media. You know, not talking the media outlets in an official sense, but the broader conversation. It’s gotten kind of toxic. Is it at a different level than perhaps it has been in the past?

SINGH: Sure, I mean, I think so. I think we’re at a point where everybody is arguing about what’s fake news and have—you know, what Foucault calls the “regimes of truth.” And when you have these different regimes of truth operating on entirely different foundations, then there’s no real—there’s no real middle ground. And it seems very bleak when we’re thinking about how do we actually move forward.

But let me answer your question in a different way. And I appreciate, you know, your comments on media, but I think there’s another way in which we are missing the boat on how media and social media are playing into this moment, into the development of white nationalism, and that is many of the people who are falling into white nationalism are being radicalized online. And I don’t think we are doing a good job of taking seriously how urgent white nationalism is, how toxic these websites are, these message boards, 4chan, 8chan. I don’t know any scholars who are spending time looking at that stuff. And I understand why, it’s hard, it’s traumatic, but it’s serious. And this is where our young people are going, and not just young people.

So the role of media, not just in terms of perpetuating and reflecting, but also in terms of actually creating, that’s a serious, serious issue that we haven’t actually figured out how to deal with as a society. We’re behind the curve on that.

And if you look at a platform like Twitter, for example, Twitter just this past week announced that they will no longer verify people who are advocating for hate or part of hate groups. But all of those voices are still there. It’s still a cesspool for hate and pushing out messages of hate.

And so this is a step in the right direction, but there’s a long, long way to go, and I don’t think we’re doing it seriously as a society.

LAWTON: We wanted to go overseas for a little while before we end parts of this conversation.

Jocelyne, you’ve already referred to differences between the situation here in the U.S. and Europe, although a lot of people do draw comparisons. And we saw the elections in France where some of these issues really came to the fore, especially with regard to the Muslim community. What is happening in Europe with the rise of some of—rise, resurgence of some of these movements there?

CESARI: Actually, I’m going to talk about similarities in the sense that what you just said about radicalization online of the young white man is also the same process for the young Muslim. And we never, ever draw the comparison.

LAWTON: The radicalization online between—uh-huh.

CESARI: Yes, yes, and the attraction to a more radical kind of narrative by some fringes of the population. And I can see here the kind of complete back-to-back discourse or analysis, and it would be worth looking and comparing because these people, especially in Europe, are neighbors. We are not talking about people living in different domains. They are the neighbors. That’s why I’m concerned about the situation in Europe, because it’s more than a kulturkampf; it’s also a possibility of rioting each other. And we have seen the catastrophe that this can do in some situations in the—in the U.S., where you have this movement coming to an event to make a point and destroy or disturb.

In Europe, you don’t need even to go to make a point. You can turn and attack your neighbor, because we are talking about the same level of vulnerability of young people who live in disenfranchised zone.

And why I am worried? It’s because of white men here, everywhere, and from political discourse. And I would put the political discourse first here, not the media discourse—and this has been going on for twenty years, not for two years—that Muslims are responsible for major economic issues, housing issues, control issues, immigration issues.

LAWTON: What about values, this notion of some kind of organizing Western values? And I know you’ve written about the perception of some that Islam is at odds with that. How much does that play into this?

CESARI: There is a perception that Islam is at odds with that, but it’s not the reality of people. And we—what happened in the last fifteen years is that the concern about immigration is still there, but it has been, I would say, expanded into a concern about multicultural diversity, and it has been expanded in the last ten years about a concern, or even more, fifteen years, about a concern about Islam.

So instead of having the same group of people, what we have seen is an expansion of hostility from anti-immigration to anti-multicultural to anti-Islam, which includes the secular liberal elite. I mean, I have seen the change in the discourse of my colleagues and friends, especially in France, you know, saying we are for immigration, we are for the diversity, but we cannot accept a religion that alienates women.

So this is what I call the worrisome aspect of adding up instead of, you know, diluting the failure into different groups. And this comes together at the national political level, but also European level, you know. So that’s why I think that there is a lot of concern here.

And since I have left—I left France in ’98—it has been growing worse and worse instead of, you know, seeing a sort of lifting or breathing room for Muslims, not only in France, but all over Europe.

SINGH: Right. And if I can just jump in there?

LAWTON: Yeah, go ahead.

SINGH: I think what you’re pointing to here is essentially the political discourse is relying on this clash of civilizations model, Huntington’s model—


SINGH: —that our scholarly community has debunked, I think forcefully, but that hasn’t actually—it’s gone the other way in the political discourse. And that is something that has been fomenting in Europe for years and it’s been building in the U.S.

And so when we’re looking at the campaign election and Marco Rubio and Donald Trump talking about radical Islamist terrorism because of a clash of civilizations and we’re talking about creeping sharia, these are code words that are essentially telling us that we are buying into this model of a clash of civilizations, that Islam and the West are incompatible. And I think that’s what’s really concerning here.

LAWTON: Some of us had mentioned gender earlier, and I’m just wondering about the role of gender. Several of you have talked about it being largely white men that are being radicalized. But is there a gender split? Is there a gender role here?

CESARI: Can I—because this is a very important element in the comparison between white supremacists and young men going to the jihad. Despite the fact that some have said there are women, yes, but in the jihad fight and going to the now destroy, almost, caliphate, there is a component, the massive component is young men.

And if you look at the literature of ISIS—I know it says different thing as a white supremacist to look into—they are addressed to young men in majority or primarily. And what they put forward is the image of the masculine hero. There is not so much—I’m talking about the magazine in French, in English, Arabic is a different kind of rhetoric, but they put out the major here you’re going to be a hero. And they oppose the effeminate version of some form of leadership in the West. So this is something that is very strong and is appealing. So I think it’s the same kind of logic for the appeal of the young white men to supremacist movement.

LAWTON: Marcia?

CHATELAIN: And I would just say, historically, gender has often been at the center of racial-based violence. So whether it’s this idea of reclaiming masculinity from racialized groups, protecting white womanhood in the South was the key justification for lynching and all of its—you know, the tolerance for it and the celebration of it.

And I think what we’re seeing now on these sites, like 4chan and all of this type of chatter online, it’s this idea that men in the U.S. have been emasculated, not only because of the rights of women, but because communities of color are also challenging this type of masculinity. So it’s not only particularly toxic, but I think it becomes doubly problematic because it does have a role for white women in which to be complicit or to celebrate the extraordinary violence it needs in order to consolidate its power.

And at the same time, with many of the terrorists we see in the United States, people often say, well, this person never committed any act of violence except for the violence in their home. And so we know how important domestic violence is to understanding, right, a certain type of behavior in the outside world. And then we also have gun policies that allow a person to be armed, you know, in these extraordinary ways.

And so, in many ways, it is the perfect storm of an ideology about masculinity in which any type of inclusion is supposed to be imagined as erasure. We have a domestic sphere in which there’s these power imbalances. And then we have an industry that arms people with very little consideration of these issues. And then we wonder why Charlottesville happens, we wonder why Las Vegas happens, we wonder why all of these things happen when it’s so clearly in front of us.

LAWTON: There’s so many more avenues we could pursue, but we did want to allow time for questions from the audience.

So let me just finally, for my final question, ask you all to talk about—we’ve raised a lot of concerns, problems. What are some positive ways the dangerous parts of these ideologies can be countered? You know, what is a model for a constructive engagement of all of this?


SINGH: Sure, yeah, this is a hard question.

LAWTON: Yeah. (Chuckles.)

SINGH: I think what Marcia was just saying is actually something I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently and something that gives me hope in this context. If we look historically, it’s moments like these when the ugliness is exposed that we have opportunities to deal with them.

And I think in this moment particularly, what I’m seeing that I haven’t seen, either in the literature before my time or within my own lifetime, is a recognition of these issues as systemic, as institutionalized. And I think that’s what’s—that’s what’s threatening to people who are in power because it’s not just about patriarchy or sexism or, you know, people of color, racism. It’s all these things intersecting with one another.

And so I think this is a recognition that we are—it’s something we’re reckoning with as a nation right now in the U.S. And each country, I think, around the world is sort of doing this and going through its own process. And I’m finding quite a bit of hope in that.

And what I would like to see is actually, now that we’re connecting the dots here, it’s important that we start connecting the dots globally and thinking about, well, what are the ways in which, you know, our model of nationalism and ethnonationalism here is not the same as what we’re seeing in India, that we’re seeing in France. You know, they have their particularities, but we really need to understand the ways in which these systems are working so that we can combat them. And I think that’s the next step that I would like us to see.

CHATELAIN: As someone who was Jesuit educated and teaches at a Jesuit school, the best I can offer in these moments is a little bit of individual discernment before we attack the big structures.

I do a lot of these talks about racism and its various forms and people often ask me, you know, what can I do as an individual? And I stopped answering that question because when people ask that, they really want to know what four books should I read. (Laughter.) And I don’t want to assign any reading.

What I want to ask people to do is think about what you have done to cause harm. In a very kind of quiet, deliberate way, think about the ways that you have participated institutionally or participated as an individual in behavior that caused harm to others. And after you grapple with that, imagine what you are willing to do, recognize your own limits, and then proceed.

Because I think in this moment with the type of ugliness that we’re seeing and the types of concerns that are leveraged, we all want to be a superhero, but we’re terrified because it’s so immense. And so I think that this is really a wonderful time for some quiet reflection before we decide where our voice should land.

CESARI: I would take another step, which is, besides the individual responsibility and engagement, there is also collective responsibility. And as much as we can do as individuals, I also believe that you need to be involved and engaged in institutions. I know it is not the right time, especially when I talk to my millennial students, it is not the right time to go to political institutions. But I think that if we want to change the way that things are deliberated and sometimes phrased, it is an important point to have.

I had lots of hope, there were these moments where there were these city halls where people were there talking to their elected person and it was a moment of democracy. This is what it’s about. Then it goes away because people go back to their usual routine. And I think this is an important element to keep.

And one second thing to make things better, these stories show that you need to change the national narrative, the collective narrative. Where do you draw the line between we and us? And this is also taught collectively. And then, there is a responsibility of not only higher institutions, higher education, but also where does it start? On the bench of, you know, first grade or even earlier than that?

For example, Muslims have lots of challenges in the U.S. and in Europe because they are seen as alien, while the history of Islam in this country is you can date it back to Christopher Columbus, especially the slavery. Ten percent of the slaves who came here were Muslim. It’s not a little number. So there is all this national history that nobody taps into, that the kids do not learn, because once you are familiar, it’s a very different story.

You can accept the unacceptable in some way, you know, like, what’s a Christian dimension of some of the people who have recently done rampages, you know? It doesn’t come because we know them, these are part of our cultural, you know, common bag or basket. And this is how you change the narrative nationally is through institution of education and transmitting the national history differently.

LAWTON: Thank you.

Thanks to all the panelists.

We’ll take time for some questions. The format will be there are microphones around someplace. So if you have a question, just signal me and we’ll try to get to folks around the room. Please stand up when you’re called upon, give your name and your affiliation. Please keep it to a question and a very short question so that we can get in as many as we can.

So, OK, there’s one here.

Yeah, wait, the microphone is coming.

Q: Thank you very much for your reflections on the topic of vulnerable populations in sort of the U.S., and they are immense, as well as Europe.

What I would be interested in is expanding the scope of the discussion and especially I would like your comments on the vulnerable populations in other parts of the world, the Middle East for example. And what I’m thinking about in particular would be Turkey and there, for example, the vulnerable population of the Gülen movement and their followers and what’s happening in that country.

I’m also thinking about Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. And I wonder what your comments would be about the challenges that vulnerable populations face in these countries. So thank you.

CESARI: I’d be happy to take on this one. The countries you are referring to are the outcome of a post-colonial war of independence, although Turkey was never colonized. But what my point is that nation states have built a completely different religious culture, and I think it’s important to keep this in mind in the sense that we tend, with our Western lens, to look at Turkey as secular, for example. While I do not think that Turkey is secular, at least not at the level of building a Turkish culture that is legitimate or defined by an Islamic dimension, especially a Sunni dimension, and you can go back to Atatürk and even before.

So what we are seeing—and the same thing for Pakistan. Pakistan was built by a very liberal Westernized elite, but they built a country for Muslims. What does this mean? Everywhere that post-colonial nation states in Muslim countries has been built on an Islamic dimension, it doesn’t mean that people are to behave like Muslims, but it meant that being a national citizen of this country meant also to be a Muslim of a certain obedience, of a certain school, or a certain orientation. And then the state became the major agent of defining what it is to be a right or wrong Muslim, if you see the evolution of Pakistan, for example.

So then the tensions come around the religious diversity that may be here, but is not reflected in the legal situation and in the political discourse. Think of the situation of the Hamidiyah, of the Shia in Pakistan, of the Alevi in Turkey, of the Kurds in Turkey.

We know that nationalism is a homogenization process, so the differences are, more or less, eradicated. But what the liberal Westernized elite did as a national faith is to include Islam and a certain type of Islam as a segment of the national identity, which also means that if you are a minority you are Muslim by nationality and of the religious minority by family or by individual.

You know, the Copts say this very well. We are Muslim by nationality, but Copt by religion. This is the situation. And the challenge is, how do you rebalance the equidistance between the state and the religious and ethnic diversity of the population. So it’s a different question than the ethnonationalism.

LAWTON: OK. Do we have another question?

On this—we’ll go here, yes.

Q: Thank you. This question is for the whole panel, whoever would like to chime in on it.

So I was wondering, to what degree do you think people and groups with political and especially with economic interests in the United States contribute to ethnonationalism? Like, I was thinking about Sara R. Farris’s book talking about France, the Netherlands, and Italy casting Muslim women as objects in need of rescue so that they can then kind of tailor them into low-pay, low-status, domestic work, you know, those kinds of things.

And so if you could speak to that, in the U.S., that would be helpful.

CHATELAIN: Yeah. I think that there’s a version of that that happened after the election with the so-called disaffected white working class, which if I hear one more time I’m going to pull out my hair because the analysis is so ahistorical and often so patently racist in its construction. Because it is this idea that there is a segment of the population that has been left behind, but not under capitalism, but under diversity and multiculturalism, that my existence has caused factories to go away and that, you know, our existence has caused, you know, the gutting of the state, that leaves people poor and sick and susceptible to drug addiction, and that this is the problem with politics.

And so I think that, in many ways, the way that, you know, women in certain parts of the world become an idea rather than a place in which people struggle, I think that the construction of a disaffected white population becomes a prop in order to consolidate power instead of an opportunity for a meditation on the many ways people can have power and have no power. Right?

Because, yes, there are large segments of the U.S. population that are left behind. But isn’t it interesting that this particular population does not have the right to vote messed with the way that other parts of a population that are left behind? Isn’t it interesting that since 2014 with a renewed conversation about police brutality that communities that are left behind that are called Ferguson and Baltimore and Chicago are not considered a focal point for our political institutions, but other parts are, right?

And so I think that this is where the lost opportunity is, an analysis that takes together the way in which power can have all sorts of tricky ways in which to fool a large population to avoid some of the central reasons why it’s so difficult to consolidate and it’s difficult to share.

SINGH: I mean, I just want to add one piece to that, and that is your question is getting at, in what ways are our political institutions and our political actors complicit in white supremacy and white nationalism? And I want to very much take the opportunity to point out that white supremacy and white nationalism are very different things. I mean, they can be acting in unison with one another, but they allow themselves to be different in a lot of ways. And so using the framework of ethnonationalism, I think, is important because often we conflate these two pieces.

White nationalism, what we are seeing is that it is allowing itself to be coded as xenophobia that then gets enacted through immigration policy or through criminalization of young black men, right, and the ways that our law enforcement and our incarceration forces work. And so I want us to be aware, I don’t think we always are, that white nationalism is actually now, in a way, normative, it’s accepted in a way that white supremacy isn’t.

A white nationalist—and this happens on their message boards all the time. If you go—a white nationalist is offended if you call them racist because they’re saying I’m not actually saying I’m better than them, I’m just saying we should live separately, that they should go back to their country and we should have our own country and that’s what America is about. So these are very different systems of logic, even if from the outside they might seem similar to us. And when we understand that logic, then we can see how these political forces and the rhetoric is working within our institutions.

LAWTON: Great. There’s one in the middle. And I forgot to ask people, state your name and your affiliation please. And wait for the mic.

Q: Jay Geller, Vanderbilt University.

Do you feel that Christianity plays a role in white nationalism beyond merely an aspect of the white nationalist heritage?

CESARI: Yeah, I mean—

LAWTON: Whoever, yeah, whoever.

CESARI: Yes. Yes, it does in the sense that there is this association between Christianity and white America that goes back indeed to the foundational history of the country. And it’s about religion as belonging. Again, you know, what makes me a citizen of this country? It’s also my Christian affiliation. It doesn’t mean that these people are particularly pious or particularly, I would say, knowledgeable. Actually, the less knowledgeable on their traditions, the more there is a probability for radicalization.

And that’s why I cannot keep making the comparison with young Muslims becoming radical in the West. It’s exactly the same kind of process.

LAWTON: Marcia, did you have something to add to that?

CHATELAIN: I would just say that we’ve been having a lot of these conversations at Georgetown, especially in light of some of the work we did around the university’s history of slavery. And we made the decision to change the name of two residence halls, away from the two Jesuit priests who facilitated the sale of 272 men, women, and children in 1838.

And some of the reaction to changing the name of the building, I think of it as a form of idolatry that Catholics were engaged in in that moment and Christians are. It’s the Confederate flags, it’s the American flag, it’s this idea that there are these symbols that one needs to worship in the name of a preservation for a Christian nation, that I find personally alarming. But I think that there are very few religious voices that are making those comparisons as a way to move believers away from racism and white nationalism. And I think that we have very few strong evangelical voices that are helping raise that consciousness, and very few Catholic voices. We have very few religious voices that I think are bringing that kind of clarity to the conversation.

LAWTON: And yet, we have seen a growing interfaith movement, including Christians and others, who are countering some of this ideology.

CHATELAIN: My concern is that they find that outside of their churches.


SINGH: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. And I think the other thing I would add to this—I think your question is a fantastic one because what we’re seeing right now is that white nationalism doesn’t rely on Christianity or position itself in relation to Christianity in the same way that we saw with the KKK. And I think that’s an important difference.

The logic of white nationalism is actually quite diffuse, very different than the KKK. Those who are being radicalized don’t actually share the same ideology. The rally in Charlottesville was actually an opportunity, an attempt to bring together these diverse forms of white nationalism under one banner, but it wasn’t Christianity. And so I think that’s really important.

Probably the most central aspect once could say about white nationalism or the alt-right or neo-Nazis is antisemitism. That is the most apparent aspect of it. But xenophobia is a sort of key aspect of it as well. It’s not shared across the board.

But I think your point is really—it’s really important for us to recognize that the logic, again, is different and it’s not based necessarily on Christianity. And that makes sense, right? If we think about young people in this country, they’re moving away from religion. And if they are, then why would they be inspired by religion at the same time? I think we should be thinking about how these populations and demographics are working.

LAWTON: OK, thanks.

Go ahead, maybe in the back.

Q: Dr. Chatelain, deponent is impressed with the extensiveness as well as indeed the effervescence of your resume. Pardon this shall we call it a shock bomb, but what is your current assessment of the welfare state? And indeed, sub questions, is it sustainable? Should we view it morally justified as war reparations for the horror of the national sin of slavery? And should it be expanded and even modified into what has been called by some as workfare?

CHATELAIN: I don’t think I entirely—I hear a number of strands in your questions, but there are a few things that I will say, especially being engaged in this conversation about universities and slavery. We start from the point where there is a debt that can never be repaid. And so our goal then is to imagine the resources we have within an institution. And at a university, it’s knowledge production, the care of—the care and treatment of people seeking knowledge, and our influence and power to help communities meet their basic needs. Right? Those are three things that I think universities can do in different ways. And so I think that universities who are engaged in that question have to act accordingly or their gestures are small and never move us closer to some type of reconciliation.

In terms of, you know, the welfare state, if we use a comparative lens, I think, you know, I don’t know if that’s an accurate description of the United States. And I do think that, again, there is a way in which this particular historical moment, that this idea of proximity to state benefit, that people are so woefully undereducated about what the state is actually providing the most vulnerable populations, that if we actually provided the things that are in the imagination of some of the groups that are rallying against it, I think people would be actually doing a lot better.

And so I think that this is where the facts, truths, fake news dilemma really is shown in stark relief, when we have a Tea Party movement that is against state entitlements, but wants to keep Medicare and Medicaid. That’s how we have this kind of confused understanding about what undocumented people in the United States are eligible for and not. So there’s all of this kind of confusion, and I think the imagined welfare state has become far more powerful than the actual things that citizens are getting from the state.

CESARI: Yeah, just one little thing on that. I don’t think there is a welfare state in the U.S. Let’s put it clearly. Coming from Europe, I don’t think we are talking about a welfare state. What we have seen is a slashing, cutting of all the middle class, and it was already a tiny one compared to the strength of middle classes elsewhere, by the neoliberal politics. And this is a global movement. It’s also happening in Europe, which also explains the needs of young people vis-à-vis these dramatic changes in socioeconomic skills and status.

And one thing we do—I think there is one thing that is more taboo than race in America, and it’s class. Nobody talks about class. We’re always going—I mean, class cuts across ethnic, religious, immigrant lines, right? And this is something we need to address. And because there is no real political discourse around that, that’s why nobody would have—nobody of these vulnerable populations would have elected someone like Trump. That tells you a lot about, you know, there are things that have to be taken into account at a certain point.

LAWTON: We are almost out of time. We’ll take one last question, very short if you will and very short answers. OK?

Q: It’s a short question. This is for Jocelyne. Are you familiar with Douglas Murray and his book The Strange Death of Europe? I’ve seen him on BBC, other national networks, in which he might give somewhat of a pushback to some of the discussion here. He is a gay man, and for the last twenty years of so he has been discussing the whole area of Islam in Europe, not just around his own identity as a gay man and what that might mean, but covering other aspects of it, too. That’s my question. Do you know him or his book?

CESARI: No, I don’t know.

Q: The question that I would submit then is, what is your comment on Poland and Eastern European countries that oppose their borders, generally, to the whole immigration process in Europe? That would be my substitute question, if I may.

CESARI: Yeah. So, I mean, this is the same process happening again beyond Western Europe. What we—what we tend to forget is that the European Union as a new liberal space is affecting not only France, Germany, but also the eastern part of Europe. And I think what we are seeing here is a delayed kind of reaction to processes that have started in the core, you know, of Western Europe ten years ago. But it’s a similar process.

LAWTON: Well, obviously, we could keep going. There’s a lot to discuss here.

But I want to let you know that this discussion will be posted on the Council on Foreign Relations website, the transcript of it, and maybe the audio, depending on if the technology gods were in our favor today.

So thank you so much for the audience, and thanks to the panel. (Applause.)


Top Stories on CFR

West Africa

The split between ECOWAS and the mutinous AES states may be just what the regional body needed. 

Election 2024

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: Republicans are gathering in Milwaukee next week optimistic about their chances in November.  

United Kingdom

CFR experts discuss the results of presidential elections in France and the United Kingdom, as well as what to expect from the 2024 NATO Summit in Washington, DC.