The Rise of Ethnonationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Jocelyne Cesari, Jack A. Goldstone, and Pankaj Mishra, with Stewart M. Patrick moderating, discuss the rise of ethnonationalism and the future of liberal democracy, as part of the 2017 CFR Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop.

Learn more about CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative. 

PATRICK: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to this session on “The Rise of Ethnonationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy.” 

My name is Stewart Patrick. I’m a senior fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations where I direct the program on international institutions and global governance. It’s a great honor to be able to moderate this session and to participate once again in the Religion and Foreign Policy Workshop.

I want to commend Irina Faskianos who basically organized this entire event, as she has for the past 11 sessions. And she and her team simply do a terrific job. (Applause.)

It’s our good fortune to be joined today by three superb experts on the topic at hand. I won’t read their full bios since you have those. I do want to remind all participants that this session is on the record. 

The experts that we have with us include Jocelyne Cesari who is the professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham. And in addition, she’s also a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. 

We also have Jack A. Goldstone who is the Virginia E. and John T. Hazel professor of public policy at George Mason University.

And then finally we have Pankaj Mishra who is a writer, an educator, and public intellectual. He’s also a prolific author, including of the book “The Age of Anger: The History of the Present,” which touches on many of the themes that we’re going to be discussing in this session, both in the conversation we’re going to have amongst ourselves and then when we open it up for questions and comments from all of you.

Now, the title of this session is “The Rise of Ethnonationalism and the Future of Liberal Democracy.” We’re going to expand this topic a little bit to include exclusionary identity politics that go beyond simply ethnicity or nationalism to include religious chauvinism. Our canvas is broad, it spans developing countries, emerging and transitional economies and societies, as well as advanced market democracies.

And some of the questions we hope to answer or at least stimulate lively discussion around include the following. First, in terms of description, how should we think about the wave of exclusionary ethnic, national, and religious extremism that’s currently inundating the world or large portions of the world? Is it all part of the same phenomenon of identity politics, or are we looking at a number of different phenomena? Is populist rage, for instance, and sectarian division qualitatively different?

Second, what are the underlying dynamics driving these trends? And are there historical antecedents or particular periods in history, say the 1920s in Europe, 1920s and ’30s in Europe, for instance, that we might see as being foreshadowing or that this is an echo of? 

Third, what are the potential consequences of all this extremism and instability? Is this a passing phase or something that will be with us for the foreseeable future?

And then finally, it would be great if we could get as a policy institute and a policy organization—the Council on Foreign Relations is always interested in finding out whether or not there’s policy guidance or insight that we can provide policymakers in government, in international organizations, but not least to those of you who are religious and spiritual leaders and have your own, in a sense, flocks to guide and instruct and advise, about what we can do to moderate these forces and improve prospects for liberal democracy which seems very much on the ropes.

I will note that this is the 11th-straight year that Freedom House has declared freedom in the world to be retreating. 

So what I’d like to do is engage each of our participants in order. I’ll start with Pankaj. The first question really is about how we should think about the age of anger and its causes. How do you interpret the current volatility?

When I was thinking about this, I thought, well, this could be simply just an inevitable collision between the liberal concept of democratic self-government on the one hand and the concept of the ethnic nation. And we’ve seen this collision going on for at least a couple of centuries, and maybe with an added mixture of religious identity thrown into it.

Alternatively, or perhaps in addition would be sort of more of an economic explanation, that this would be a function of globalization and its attendant economic and social anxieties, an unhealthy coping mechanism, if you will, to deal with the dislocation and uncertainty of the age, exploited by often unscrupulous leaders in an effort to find scapegoats, to reassert a sense of control, or to demonize others.

Obviously, that’s an enormous question, but I wonder how you see the problem and some of its underlying dynamics. And after that, I’ll go down the line.

MISHRA: Thank you very much for that very stimulating introduction. I think one useful way of thinking through these issues is to examine the very idea of liberal democracy or to see liberal democracy historically as something that is deeply contingent. 

Let’s speak more specifically of liberal democracy as belonging to an interlude, a particular interlude that began in 1945 out of the ruins of Europe, indeed wherever liberal democracy flourished in Asia and Africa. That, again, was contingent on certain very specific circumstances, countries emerging from long decades of imperial rule, countries with very strong—and I’m speaking here of India most particularly, where a nation-building ideology came to be built around certain ideals of liberal democracy, such as secularism, equality. And that interlude, which began in 1945, it could be argued, I think quite plausibly today, has come to an end. 

And the other history, the history we lost sight of, the history which is largely of conflict, tensions, contradictions, a history in which minorities have been periodically demonized in which democratic solidarity has been built upon excluding certain members of the population that don’t belong, a history that is really commonplace all across Europe and America in the late 19th century, not just the 1920s and ’30s, that history has resumed. And perhaps that history is the norm rather than this particular interlude when liberal democracy was or appeared the only alternative to the ruins, ostensibly, in which large parts of the world found itself in, and began to devise institutions, social welfarism, social democracy, broadly speaking, where the fruits of economic growth could be offered to many more people than they were previously, when equality came to be cherished after a long period in which there was extreme inequality.

And in the last three decades, we’ve seen an acceleration of, of course, inequality. We’ve seen nation states losing or finding their sovereignty being eroded by opaque transnational forces, and as a result, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people feeling excluded, marginalize, scorned, even humiliated by the people who are pondering the benefits of economic growth and recoiling into assertions of ethnic, racial, religious identity, tribalisms, collectivisms.

Again, I mean, this is a story, I would argue, we’ve seen before. We saw it for the first time in the late 19th century when a global capitalist economy began to emerge, leading to largescale disruptions in the lives of many people in Europe and America, people finding themselves out of a job, unemployment rising, or skills rendered redundant by an economy that places a large premium on technological growth. Essentially, large numbers of people feeling left behind and becoming vulnerable to demagogues offering new forms of solidarity built upon excluding people who they held responsible, scapegoating, for their plight. And those could include ruthless cosmopolitans, various liberals, and indeed, most notoriously, Jews, who were seen as a part of a large transnational conspiracy against the masses. 

So both pathologies we see now recurring in different parts of the world. So I think if you want to take a broadly global view on this, we should really start thinking of liberal democracy as an exception, as a product of certain historical circumstances, and as something that could not be replicated in different parts of the world. So, you know, we should try and turn this question around rather than think of liberal democracy as a norm. 

PATRICK: Could I just follow up on that before turning to Jocelyne? It’s interesting. It would seem to me that there are two comfortable liberal conceits or assumptions that are being tested. One of them was, of course, the notion of sort of a teleology to the development of political life and sort of the Francis Fukuyama “End of History” notion that—and he didn’t really reckon, I think, with nationalism in part, at least in terms of his notion that there would be no competitor for open politics, democratic politics, and the market. And his argument is more sophisticated than sometimes treated, but that would seem to be an Achilles’ heel, at least the nationalist identity.

The other is this notion that at a certain level of per capita income that one’s aspirations would, in terms of political aspirations and the sort of society one would like, would sort of converge onto this sort of Western enlightenment. You know, we fall short of the ideal, too, but at least in that direction.

And yet, I almost wonder sometimes, when you see the expectations, the rise of expectations which are, of course, now anybody can see how the wealthiest people in the world live, so that even in the sense prosperity in and of itself, if there’s always a differential, does not necessarily lead one to think, well, I’m so much better off now and I should be happy about that, I actually have huge aspirations that aren’t being satisfied.

MISHRA: Yeah. I mean, this is a situation captured by the phrase “the evolution of rising expectations,” which can very quickly turn toxic.

But I think you do make a very important point, which is that liberal expectations about irreversible progress or countries converging on a particular model defined and refined in the modern West, in many ways this particular ideology or teleology so closely mimics the Marxist version of revolution that it’s really staggering, you know, how closely they resemble each other.

But also, most importantly, both of these ways of thinking make the same mistake. Marxism notoriously neglected the potency of nationalism. It completely failed to understand why nationalism in the 19th century, for instance, even Marx was notoriously blind to that aspect, and that has always been their Achilles’ heel.

And now, I think what we’ve seen in the last three decades, the Achilles’ heel of liberal internationalism has been the failure to reckon with the emotional appeal of nationalism. 

PATRICK: Thank you very much. That’s fascinating.

Jocelyne, you’ve done quite a lot of work looking at identities particularly in the West both amongst marginalized Islamic immigrant populations and other immigrant populations, but also as well as downwardly mobile, for want of a better word, indigenous citizens of European nations, in a sense the majority population. What do your findings suggest about the causes and manifestations of this problem? And do you see actually some of the parallels in terms of the rate both of the marginalized and within mainstream society as well?

CESARI: I think that what we are witnessing all over the established Western democracies is expression of a very slow, actually tectonic shift that have happened in the last three decades, which is the changes, the rapid changes, not only in social relations, but also in economic positions, and we have not paid attention enough to the fact that the changing jobs, the changes in skills, in competency was also having a deep influence on social identities and on access to political power.

And what we have done especially in Europe, much less in the U.S., is to focus only on Muslim immigrants as the cause of these changes without seeing that it was affecting everybody around or close to them. And this has been, I would say, what I call the tree hiding the forest, you see, in the sense that because there is a reason why Muslims have been so central in all this debate because, unlike the U.S., most of Muslims have an immigrant background and most of immigrants are from Muslim origin, although it’s changing very quickly right now in Europe. But this is a public perception. So any debate on immigration, which is not the case here, any debate on immigration in Europe is a proxy for debate about Islam.

The question also of socioeconomic changes that have affected a whole cohort of people same age, same level of education as the Muslims, but we have focused on the lack of socioeconomic integration of Muslims only.

These two factors have actually turned the bad, negative consequence to—(inaudible)—the question of changes. What is neoliberalism? What is the neoliberal doing to the social distribution, access to power of groups of people that are now marginalized, not only economically, but also politically? And that’s exactly what happened in the U.S. as well. And in some ways, the election of Trump is a sign of this attempt by this group to have a voice, to get a voice in the public space. So the question is there. 

You see, it’s very interesting. If you look at the people between 18 and 24 and between 35 and 45, they have voted in majority for the National Front in France and not for Macron or Fillon. So this is a sign because we usually associate in political science young categories with more kind of leftist positions, and this is not happening anymore. So, for me, working on Muslims of the same features and seeing how they can also be attracted to that kind of narrative that gives them a sense—and again, it’s not only about socioeconomic, it’s about, how do I make my voice heard in this particular society?

And I think there is something in there that extreme ideologies are trying to fill the void here. And so in this sense, to bridge the gap with the global trend, what we have witnessed outside the West is an expectation of the nation state. You know, to become internationally valued, you need to be a nation state, right? And we thought that we, I said, from the Western scholarship, we thought that by bringing the nation state everywhere, we were also bringing all our principles of secularization, liberal democracy. Some countries have attempted that, but it doesn’t mean that when they use the term “liberal” or “secular” they are talking about what we are talking. 

The greatest mistake, for example, is Turkey. Everybody thinks that Turkey is secular. I mean, if you look at institutional relationship between state and Islam, Turkey is far from being secular. They have actually nationalized Islam, so is this secular? So there is a lot of misunderstanding. And because these political elite talk the language that we in the West want to hear without getting, you know, in the meaning of it, we get lots of disappointment in the long run, you know. 

All these changes were put in, were seeds in the ground 50 years ago, and they are now, you know, blooming in a way that is disconcerting and disappointing from a Western point of view. And in the West, what we are witnessing is the parallel effect of this new liberal process on deep social changes here also, you know. And so extremism is part of that, but it’s not coming out of outside. Only ideological or clever kinds of intellectual leaders hear. It does resonate with big social issues.

PATRICK: I think both your comments, Jocelyne, as well as Pankaj’s tee up Jack really well.

Jack, you’ve written widely about the history of democracy and its emergence and also the cross-currents that societies experience when they’re whipsawed between the forces of modernity on the one hand and remaining or even resurgent ethnic, religious identity on the other. Can that history, and you go back several centuries—


PATRICK: —can that help explain what’s occurring today? And are there special challenges that confront liberal democracy or even, frankly, stable, authoritarian government in our current age where we have instantaneous technology and social media to sort of stir the pot even more so?

GOLDSTONE: Well, those last things make it all happen faster.


GOLDSTONE: Sure. My expertise is on the history of revolution and rebellion. And people tend to think of that as you overthrow kings and set up democracy, and that’s one way to look at it.

But I look at it more fundamentally, that what happens in a revolution is that the ruling elites have lost the trust and support of the people. They tend to have fallen into fights among themselves. And disorder rises up at every level. There are protests in national capitals, but they’re protests against local governments, they’re protests against intermediate leaders, and everything seems to be enflamed.

And I see something similar now in the world, what I call a revolution against the global order, the liberal democratic order that was set up after World War II by global elites at the time. We see it in terrorism. We see it in a revived ethnonationalism and the attacks on the European Union. We see it in the revival of an illiberal democracy in Eastern Europe in certain places, in the U.S. to some degree, in Turkey. And we see it in the assertion of more confident, stronger authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, even the Philippines and other places we had thought would be more stable and would have to accommodate to our vision of the world. And it’s simply not working.

So what do I think has gone on? I actually see all of these things that worry people, rising inequality, religious terrorism, declining faith in democracy, rising nationalism, as part of one larger phenomenon, and that is the reassertion of identity politics at every level. 

You mentioned that in your opening comments. Our other commentators have mentioned that.

Religion is a big part of that. Nationalism is part, religion is a part. These are things that provide people with a sense of identity. Why do people need a sense of identity? We don’t talk about it like food and water, but it’s equally vital. People want a sense of identity to know who they are, where they belong. They may look for 23andMe or their to find out where they go, that’s the popular culture side of it, or they may join groups that give them strength and sense of identity. 

The Manchester bomber started out as a gang member before he drifted to a different identity. But in both cases, he was looking for a group that would give him a sense of strength and belonging larger than himself. A lot of people feel adrift in the world today, given all of the rapid changes, and a sense of identity gives them an anchor, it gives them strength to resist this overwhelming change. Now, some people find this in groups that we would say peaceful, faith-based communities, some people find it in gangs, some people find it in their professions. Some people adopt a global identity, like many of us who are connected with CFR.

But a large number of people in recent years have felt that their identity group is under attack, being degraded, neglected, humiliated. It may be those whose communities are not doing well economically. It may be those communities that feel pressures of change from immigration. It may be communities who feel that their leaders are betraying them or too cozy with people from other parts of the world or other faiths. And wherever they are, they’ve lost faith in their leadership. And their response is to blow things up.

A lot of Trump voters described what they were doing as wanting to blow up the system. Why? Because they felt the system no longer paid attention to their interests. 

Terrorists, who literally blow things up, are acting out of a similar impulse. They want to create a sense that they are strong and able to fight back for an identity group, it may be themselves, their family, their religion, that they feel has been neglected or humiliated.

We, meaning the elites who try to construct a global order and a social order in our countries and communities, we’ve not been fully effective in giving all people a sense that they belong, they’re included, they are cared about, and that we’re looking out for their future. And people who feel that, hey, you’re not looking out for my future, you’re looking out for your own interests, they’re not going to play by the rules, and they’re going to encourage leaders who don’t play by the rules.

It was hard for me to understand the visceral hatred that a lot of voters in my country, the United States, had for Hillary Clinton as a candidate. I mean, you could like her, you could dislike her, you could dislike the policies, but people just said I really hate her. And as I tried to understand that, it seemed a lot of it came from the fact that people believed she represented a group of leaders who were looking out for themselves and were not really, despite what they said, despite what statistics showed, they didn’t have a gut sense that they were really, Clinton and her supporters, were committed to building an America that was strong for everyone. 

And phrases like there are “deplorables” among our opponents, or the phrase from the Obama administration denigrating people who were “clinging to religion and guns,” those really hurt. It made it feel like we’re not one nation that respects each other’s beliefs. And how can democracy work, democracy which is founded on compromise, if people feel that their adversaries across the aisle don’t share common interests? You can say, hey, we have different beliefs, but we have to think we have common goals and some common interests if we’re going to make democracy work.

And these identity politics that have led to polarization and distrust and anger have naturally subverted the effectiveness of democracy wherever they’ve gotten strong as well. And that unfortunately is where we are.

PATRICK: Thank you, Jack.

I’d like to move—we have about 10 minutes before we’ll open it up to all of you and to get your comments and questions and observations. 

But I do want to talk a little bit about policy implications or prescriptions or at least guidance. We’ve heard a lot about some of the expressions of this phenomena or phenomenon of identity politics and some of the underlying dynamics. But is there anything that we collectively, and by that I mean governments, citizens, civil society, and religious leaders, can actually do at this time of anxiety to promote tolerance and pluralism? Or is there no choice really, in a sense, for us to ride out this wave?

Are there things that governments and other bodies should be doing that they’re not? And also, importantly, are there things that governments are doing that they should stop doing in terms of how they’re at least diagnosing or treating some of these things? Are there ways to channel, in other words, ethnic pride, nationalism, national pride, and religious revival in productive ways that still comport with a sense of pluralism and a sense of tolerance for those who have different viewpoints, as opposed to getting into a zero-sum sort of set of arrangements?

Jack, you want to take a stab at that first?


PATRICK: And then we’ll work our way back down the other way.

GOLDSTONE: The history of religion is one of enormous, positive outcomes in providing strong values and one of enormous conflict when religious identities become exclusionary and aggressive. This polarity is almost built in, and yet it is shifted very strongly by leaders. Religious leaders that emphasize pluralism, compromise, and understanding can shift their followers. If their followers can get focused on the value of tolerance and inclusion, societies generally have done better. 

And when I tell people of world history, it’s interesting that whether you look at India or Spain or Europe or America, the times when the religious establishment has been most open and tolerant have been the times of scientific flourishing and economic growth, and the times of intolerance, repression and attacks on religious minorities have generally been accompanied by economic downturns, a decline in innovation, and increased conflicts.

So it’s a project that requires enormous effort, but it can pay off. And so I think communities everywhere—we see in the United States there are a lot of communities that are very successfully emphasizing open values, tolerance, and they’re also on the cutting edge often of technology and growth. And it’s the communities that are suffering from drug epidemics, from high unemployment that often also harbor the most negative values. Those are the communities, I think, need to be targeted for let’s see if we can build on positive values, respect your needs, understand that things need to change, that you want change, and let’s see if we can build on a sense of religious values and shared identities to go forward.

Tom Friedman had a very good column today in fact about communities that are building and moving forward versus communities that are kind of letting their bottoms fall out because the communities are not pulling together.

PATRICK: Jocelyne, I’d love you to take a stab at that same question because I’m interested in particular about what—

GOLDSTONE: Let me just one quick thing.


GOLDSTONE: I remember in the Obama administration they said there’s a tendency to treat all problems as communication problems. 


GOLDSTONE: That didn’t work if communication meant telling people why what we’re doing will help.


GOLDSTONE: But if communication means listening to people who are dissatisfied and figuring out how to respond to them effectively, then it worked.

PATRICK: Yeah, thank you. 

Jocelyne, I’m sort of struck where I have a debate inside my head right now about the degree to which this is changing, in a sense, mind-sets, or whether or not there also has to be an accompanied change in material circumstances and material opportunities and so that, in a sense, dealing with some of the downsides of globalization, for instance, would be—and there are different ways of doing that. One could argue maybe curtailing levels of immigration to sort of let social tensions heal. Others would say that there are, you know, job retraining things that could be done for marginalized communities, efforts to improve the social standing of marginalized groups on both sides of the divide that you have discussed.

Are there lessons from what you’ve seen about what governments should not do or should do to ameliorate the situation?

CESARI: First, I would like to think that most of the political class all over Europe, and to a certain extent that’s what happened also in America, is very discredited. They are seen as people of the system and people indeed who do not allow automatically lots of diversity within. And I don’t think that this is only—this is not economic. I think this may be class issues, certainly, but it’s also a kind of political culture. And the gap between certain segments of European society and the political class is huge. And that’s why populist movements are gaining so much ground among what in the U.K. they call the white class, you know, the young, white men. 

It becomes now a topic of interest because we can witness they have the same process of radicalization that we thought was affecting only the young Muslims. And so there is something here about, where are the spaces? And this is a question for democracy. Where are the spaces today where these kinds of groups can feel, because this is a word that we use a lot in the U.S., “safe” to express themselves. I don’t think there are so many, so this is a question of political culture.

The second point, and this is also coming, it has been going on in Europe for a long, long time if we look at the religious dimension, and it’s now hitting the U.S. also very, very strongly. It’s what I call securitization of religion, meaning the tendency, and Europeans have done a lot since even 9/11, it was already on the agenda before that, the idea of looking at religion through security purpose only. And, of course, Islam is central to that, but we have now data showing that in the last—and you were mentioning some of the Pew—these are other data that show that in the last 10 years, the level of control by European states on all religion has increased significantly. So you try to securitize Islam, but, gee, you are controlling more and more all other religions. 

In the U.S., the situation is slightly different. I think most of the securitization is in the Islamophobic discourse. Also, there is the practice of it on the ground. But we don’t see the same elevation of state control that is happening in Europe. And I think this is not a good sign of, you know, democratic functioning here. 

And it’s all about Islam, you see, the question that religion is trouble, and that Islam is embodying this trouble is very deep down ingrained in the way that Europeans are looking at religions today, while in the U.S. I would say Islam is pretty much on its own in this respect. 

PATRICK: Pankaj, you subtitled the “Age of Anger” a “History of the Present.” How long do you expect this present to continue? (Laughter.) It’s certainly becoming—it’s becoming history every day, we’re writing another day of history. But do you see this, again, is this—will we look back on this as a blip or, you know, are we really going into a dark period? And I realize I’m asking you to use your crystal ball, but do you see it as sort of when you look at the trends that you think are driving it that it may pop up more in different places over time? But do you see this as continuing for quite some time?

MISHRA: Well, I mean, I do think that the present has been with us for a while, and that we have been blind to it. We have been living in a state of ideological intoxication, indifferent to many of the forces that have been reshaping, radically reshaping our world.

So, you know, as far as policy prescriptions are concerned, I feel that the crisis we are facing is so unprecedented that it brings into question the legitimacy of not only political and business elites, but also the intellectual class, the policymaking class, the media. Never has the media suffered such a, you know, loss of credibility in the way it has, not just in the United States. I see it in India, so many different countries around the world. So we are really looking at, you know, this sort of crisis to which any kind of solution will involve a truly transformational thinking. 

And I feel that as a writer, you know, my role is to diagnose the problem correctly. And I feel that’s where we’ve gone wrong. And I think I completely agree with what Jocelyne is saying, that for a long time we tried to preserve our comforting fictions about ourselves and about our moral superiority by locating the source of all troubles in a particular religion or a particular religious community. And now we, and by we I mean, you know, people in this room, a kind of transnational class of thinkers, intellectuals, writers, who, you know, do believe, do subscribe to a notion of liberal autonomy, individual freedom, self-invention, all these things. And we have been empowered by our circumstances to believe in these things. 

But there are large numbers of people we are now recognizing—realizing who either do not subscribe to these ideas or are simply not empowered enough to believe in them, to embrace them. So this is something we now have to recognize. As to how one devises a policy out of that kind of intellectual reckoning, frankly, I do not know.

But we do have to understand that the liberal project of self-invention, going out into the world, creating yourself, competing with others in the marketplace, this is a project that is felt by large numbers of people to be a great burden. And many people feel temperamentally, in all kinds of ways, unable to take part in it, and, as a result, often seek identities of the kind as Jack pointed out, where they can feel safe and secure.

So I would argue that, first of all, we have to examine many of the assumptions, many of our own working assumptions before we start thinking ambitiously of policymaking. Perhaps policymaking would emerge out of this kind of reckoning that I’m asking for.

PATRICK: Yeah. And I think that the sort of discrediting of elites and, in a sense, disintermediation where you don’t need the middle man anymore, in some ways, in our current technological environment means that, you know, there’s a democratization of information and a democratization of facts or alternative facts as well, which, again, enables folks to mobilize in ways that they haven’t necessarily been able to in the past so that it’s less a global village that’s all sort of moving in the same direction than a very fragmented set of communities.

What I’d like to do now, if possible, is to open it up to folks on the floor. Please raise your hand up if you’d like to be recognized. I will call on you. And please state your name and your affiliation, and try to keep your questions brief.

This gentleman right here first.

BARZEGAR: Thank you. Thank you to all the panelists. My name is Abbas Barzegar, professor of Islamic studies at Georgia State University.

And the line of my research portfolio that follows modern Islamic revival or political Islam has been guided by a question that says, what does an analysis of this social and political and phenomena look like without pathology? And what I’ve asked is, how do we understand Islamism without ascribing to it bad faith, false consciousness, and social, you know, pathologies? 

So the question begins with you, Pankaj. And that is, the framework of anger to understand the sort of rise of ethnonationalism, does that help or hinder us? Is there another way to think about identity politics?

And then I’d like to start with you, but I imagine all of you have commented on it. And so, what do gain and lose from thinking in the framework of anger to describe the rise of these movements?

MISHRA: Shall I take this or—

PATRICK: Yes, please. Yes.

MISHRA: Thank you for this very interesting question. I mean, I think, you know, anger arises in this present context out of a denial of many human values and needs that have been, you know, seen as necessary for centuries and centuries of human history, such as identity, sense of belonging, feeling of solidarity within a particular community. The first instance where ethnic nationalism becomes politically potent in the late 19th century, that is also, unsurprisingly, also the time when so many ideologies that we identify with Asia and Africa, whether it’s political Islamism or Hindu nationalism, Buddhist nationalism, Zionism, that is also the time when those ideologies start to germinate out of an experience of powerlessness and humiliation, out of the experience of young men, largely men, feeling humiliated by the existing social, political order, by feeling that their identity, their particular values, their communities they belong to, it’s all being radically reorganized and that they need to find an ideology, a way of uniting themselves, a way of creating a community that can defend themselves against this onslaught.

And so that is where anger becomes this politically potent and often, as we’ve seen over and over again, politically toxic. A lot of those energies is also going to nation-building, creating anti-colonial movements, but also we have seen a lot of those ideologies can also become toxic. So there is no one clear way of distinguishing between forms of anger that are politically toxic and forms of anger that can be political creative, because they all belong to the same continuum.

CESARI: If I may, actually I have a different take on political Islam. I don’t take it from an anger management approach, so to speak. I mean, I have a book coming out where I try to show that to understand political Islam you have to bring to the table all the protagonists, political and religious, that have been interacting or confronting each other since the building of the nation state. 

In other words, political Islam is the foundation of the political culture shared today by the so-called secular versus the so-called Islamist where they have put a strong emphasis on being a citizen and being a Muslim. This is the bedrock of what then you can consider opposition to the existing state, but the so-called secular in Muslim countries do not context this at all.

And this is, I think, part of what you can also call forms of religious nationalism, but it’s there. So in itself, it’s not neither good or bad, it’s how you manage it. And the management of it, unfortunately on the authoritarian, secular state, unlike what people think, have led to the exclusion of lots of religious groups that didn’t belong to the mainstream either form of Islam or religious minority that was taking on the state. And that’s the problem here. It’s not Islam in itself that is a problem, it’s the connection between the state and one particular Islamic group that created a hegemonic situation. So even the Copt in Egypt, they would say I am Copt by religion, but I’m Muslim by nationality. That’s exactly what is at stake. This is political Islam. And the Islamists are just another iteration of something that is deeply shared by everybody. 

I was very surprised by the Arab Spring. None of the secularists questioned the connection between state and Islam anywhere except Tunisia, Tunisia questioned it. 

ISAAC: What is the name of the book?

CESARI: The book that is to come? “What Is Political Islam,”—(laughter)—not very original, I’m sorry. 

PATRICK: I’d like to take a couple of questions here from Ephraim Isaac and then Mr. Singh.

ISAAC: OK. My name is Ephraim Isaac. I have been a professor of African and Near Eastern languages and literature at Harvard and Princeton. I am retired now.

Anyway, can I be a devil’s advocate?

PATRICK: Absolutely. This group? This group would have to, yes. 

ISAAC: I do not deny that there’s a strong movement of ethnonationalism. But I think that movement is visible because it’s too loud. I don’t see any time in history when there is actually more internationalism. There is more intermarriage in our day today than any other time of history I know. There are more interfaith movements worldwide, the fact that the social media, like Facebook and so on, connects young people all over the world, the air travel. I think in short, I don’t deny that there is a strong movement of ethnonationalism, but I’m a little more optimistic than that by looking at the world of ours today. Even when you look at the election in America, the majority of people did not vote by number for nationalism, if I may put it that way. 

I belong to at least four boards of interfaith movements. I have been to India, to China, to many places, and everywhere I see this movement. The air travel, too, is bringing people closer. So I want to be a little more of an optimistic person, that the minority is not going to win the majority where human beings are coming closer to each other in interfaith, interethnicities. It’s the way I look at it. 

PATRICK: That’s a great thing to put on the table for us to discuss. 

Mr. Singh.

SINGH: Thanks. Satpal Singh from Sikh Council for Interfaith Religions.

And this question relates to Jack’s expectations and other comments you made. So if you look at the different grassroots movements, like the Arab Spring, our own civil rights movement, civil disobedience movements in many countries, the Black Lives Matter, and so on, some of them eventually succeed in bringing social changes. Some of them fail. Some of them initially succeed and eventually dissipate. So do you have a sense on what factors determine which such grassroots movements would succeed and which ones would eventually fail?

GOLDSTONE: Would you like me to answer both questions?


GOLDSTONE: All right. The two are related. When you talk about globalization still being strong, if I can sound a bit professorial pedantic and say these things happen together in a paradoxical way so that ISIS is a reaction against globalization in one way, it’s a reaction against Western influence and models penetrating large parts of the Middle East and Asia, but ISIS is also itself a globalized organization that draws recruits from all over the world and uses international social media to sell its case, recruit, and publicize.

So it’s not as simple there’s globalization on one side and reaction against it on the other. The reactions against globalization also take the form of drawing on international networks because the battle of globalization is global. So one has to look at, where are people seeking to build alliances, coalitions that can strengthen what they are fighting for and confront what they oppose?

And this gets to the question of, when are groups able to succeed? Protests usually succeed only when they’re able to build broader coalitions bringing in a number of diverse movements. So, in Tunisia, there was an uprising that meant to unite professionals in the cities, rural groups, Islamists, and secularists long enough to sustain a movement that frightened the leadership into leaving. In China, there was an echo, there was a Jasmine Revolution in 2011 to 2013, uprisings in cities, asking for more accountability and for control of corruption. But those were put down because the political and economic elites in China hung together, believed in supporting the status quo, and the protesters were not able to get a broad enough set of alliances with other elements in society.

So I think we’re in a stage now where we’re living in fragmented societies. The majorities are not cohesive, the elites are strongly divided, polarized, fighting with each other. There is a call for strong leaders to break through all that and create change, and at the same time, those protests from below saying my group, my people, my country is not happy with the way things are going and needs to see a change. 

The groups that will eventually win will be the ones that manage to build the broadest alliances to bring together the most groups in pursuit of a shared ideal. I am optimistic in the longer run that these will be groups that subscribe to the great, broad values that have sustained civilization. That’s at the end of the day where we all want to move toward. 

But in the short run, we have a lot of promises that have been made, promises that people will have opportunity, that their old age will be secure, that foreign enemies will not threaten them. And those promises are not being kept, which I think leads to this sense of anger and assertion. 

But in the longer run, building alliances of the right kind I think will prevail, but it will be a tough few years to get there.

PATRICK: I’m not sure if, Pankaj or Jocelyne, if you have things you’d like to add on the cosmopolitan versus sort of exclusionist trend in the world, otherwise we can go on to the next. 

CESARI: I mean, they are, to concur with Jack, they are parallel, they are part of the same kind of transformation. And again, I would say that it depends on what kind of access to resources you have. You can surf the wave in the cosmopolitan way or you can indeed try to pull back and recreate a more kind of safer, less open-ended kind of world. But it doesn’t mean that one is taking over the other. What we are seeing now is a political expression given to a group that was pretty much invisible in the last two decades. But it doesn’t mean that the cosmopolitans have disappeared. I don’t think so, no.

PATRICK: Great. This gentleman here, Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, and then Scott Alexander. And then we’ll move to the back of the room.

AHMAD: Yes. I’m Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, I’m with the Minaret of Freedom Institute.

And I want to raise the point regarding the securitization of religion. I very much appreciate the points made by the panelists on this. I want to point out that in the United States, the success of that movement will depend on the attempt to redefine Islam as an ideology rather than a religion, because the freedom of religion is so firmly ensconced here that without making that shift it would be too difficult. But as you are aware, there is an attempt to make that shift. 

CESARI: Absolutely, yes.

PATRICK: And Mr. Alexander?

Q: Yeah, I have a proposition that I wanted to just get a sense of your response to it, and that is that kind of informed by the work of Vamik Volkan, and I’m not sure if some of you are familiar with that, who works on large-group identity formation, one could say that there’s no reassertion of identity politics, identity politics has been around for a long time. It’s a question of what he distinguishes between maladaptive, large-group identity construction and adaptive. And he uses those terms actually in largely value-free ways because he’s coming out of a psychiatric tradition really of understanding individual identity formation.

And so two of the threats he talks about, for instance, are chosen trauma and chosen glory and how a leader, for instance, or leaders construct identities and indeed national identities based on how these threads are used and interwoven with some other threads. So I want to just get your response as to whether or not you think that’s a friendly inundation to the whole question of this rise of identity politics.

PATRICK: Would you like to take this?

MISHRA: No, I think that’s very interesting. And it is important actually now to engage more with how psychoanalysts and psychologists have conceived of the human individual and to look at particular claims of identity as deeply flawed, deeply conflicted because human souls are deeply conflicted, and to look at identity politics in general as essentially claims, that we have this identity, we have this past in which we were victorious, glorious, or defeated, humiliated. Now, this is how nation states have been constructed, this is how political communities have been constructed since the 19th century, upon these particular narratives, most of which you could argue were actually invented. This particular history was invented. Historical consciousness begins at that time with the construction of these pasts that particular peoples have had and the past that would help them define a modern future for themselves. 

This is really common to all nationalist ideologies or indeed all nation state ideologies around the world. So it’s important to look at these and not sort of ascribe to them some kind of essence, but to see them as shifting dynamic forces which can be periodically redefined. It very much depends on what the political economic situation is at any given time, but they can go in all different directions.

CESARI: I mean, about identity politics, yes, everything is about identity, but you can mobilize around invested interests, economic interests. For example, in Europe the major way of mobilizing was around trade unions or political parties. What we are witnessing now is a clear expression of cultural identities. And sometimes, I would say in the U.S. what we are witnessing is an excess of self-identity. We are in an excess of the self, not of the community. So the Europeans are not here yet, not here yet, but what we are witnessing is a clear attempt to make issues that could be phrased in economic or social terms in terms of identity, like us liberals versus the Muslims, you know, and all this debate about the women, the body of women, the way they dress, while it is part of something much bigger, as we discussed initially. So, yes, it’s all about identity, but what kind of identity are we talking about? 

And about the securitization, you’re absolutely right. The only way in the U.S. to allow the securitization at the procedural level, I’m not talking just about the discourse, but also rules and administrative action, it’s by delegitimizing Islam as a religion. Otherwise, there is strong jurisprudence that you cannot go against that. While in Europe it’s not the case, it’s much easier because the states have its hands in all kinds of religious pots, you know. 

PATRICK: I’d like to actually, for a little gender balance, get Ani—I’m sorry, I can’t see your last name.


PATRICK: And then the woman against the wall in the back, yeah. 

ZONNEVELD: Thank you.

PATRICK: Hopefully not your back up against the wall. (Laughter.) You know, normally we provide seats for people, Irina. I’m not sure what’s going on here. (Laughter.)

Please, Ani—

ZONNEVELD: Yeah, thank you. Ani Zonneveld—

PATRICK: —Zonneveld.

ZONNEVELD: —Muslims for Progressive Values. 

I would like to address this to Jocelyne. You had spoken about religion as a security issue and how the EU has controlled religion. I think I understand what you’re saying, but I’d like for you to expand that with a few examples.

And I’d like to also second the optimism of Ephraim here, because as an organization we do officiate a lot of interfaith marriages, so I have a lot of optimism in that. Thanks.

PATRICK: Thank you. 

TOFT: So I am the woman against the wall and my question is about women. Where are they in this? You know, Hillary was just—

PATRICK: Could you give us your name so we can—

TOFT: Oh, sorry, Monica Toft, I’m at Tufts Fletcher School. 

And, you know, one way to interpret the rise of ethnonationalism and the resurgence of religion is sort of a backlash against women’s equality. It started in the same time in the 1970s, we’re now in the 21st century. You could make the argument that Hillary, it was a misogynistic fight. Some men do not want a woman in power. And so I’m just wondering with these identities that we’re putting on the table, where is the woman in it?

PATRICK: Fascinating question. 

CESARI: Yeah, yeah.

GOLDSTONE: Well, I’ll start. And patriarchy has been a large part of traditional identity in many faiths. And it’s under challenge. And because we live in a time of all these challenges, we’re seeing pushbacks, right? And so for every assertion of Black Lives Matter or women’s equality, there have been pushbacks.

I’ve got a student who wrote a paper for me on the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment. You know, you look back in time, we went through this debate and it failed in part because of assertions based on traditional faith that were widely held. And so I think it’s absolutely important to keep raising it. 

I was upstairs in the Rockefeller Room for the working. You know, those of you who know the room, you know, you’re looked down by these old, white men in nice suits. And I was thinking, how come there are no women on these walls? You know, we’ve had distinguished women in foreign policy and foreign affairs now for decades. So the absence is striking and powerful, but I would say it’s going to be one of these ongoing conflicts about building the larger coalitions and treating problems not as evils, but as injustices. 

And when you talk about anger, the anger framework, I think the anger framework is better than the terrorism is evil, because then what do you do with evil? No cause, it just has to be done away with. 

But if you see these things are a result of anger and the anger arises from a sense of injustice, then there are constructive ways to encourage people to act. And I think that’s true about women’s rights, religious identity rights, minority rights, citizenship rights. And in that sense, talking about the anger is useful. And I think that’s true for this case as well.

CESARI: About the women’s rights, it’s kind of a paradox. If you look at the progression of women’s rights in terms of access to work, access to political expression and so on, you see a rise everywhere, including in Muslim countries, except—except—Saudi Arabia, which is a big exception there, and the Taliban also.

If you look at the discourse on the capacity of women to master their body, meaning their sexuality, this is a debate here in the U.S. that, for me, having worked in Muslim countries, echoes all the debate in Muslim countries. This is the burning point now, meaning there is something. Nobody would contest the right of women to get access to jobs, even the king of Saudi Arabia would not say that it’s not right. It doesn’t mean that it’s happening. But what he would contest is the capacity of women to act as free agents in their family life and in their sexual life. And this is a common point across all countries all today. And I think this is also something that is threatening certain visions of masculinity. 

So I’m OK with talking about women rights. We have also to talk about masculinity. Because looking at the magazine of ISIS, the way they recruit, I’m telling you, they are presenting the figure of a male hero that I have not seen since the cowboy movies of the ’50s. (Laughter.) No, no, I mean and they are really—this is what they do. And they talk also to women. 

So there are lots of interesting things here. But we cannot just say women’s rights. We have to unpack this and also include a discussion of what is our definition of masculinity today. It has to be taken together. 

There was another question. Oh.

PATRICK: Can I ask Pankaj to pick up on that? It’s interesting to me that I think that—is it possible that in some of the religious narratives, in particular the elements of patriarchy behind the—contribute to the level of rage, but that in other forms of populism, when you saw, for instance, in the—there were many things that went into the election of Donald Trump, but he did not do this without quite a bit of considerable female support as well. 

And so, you know, is there an element of—do you see a building element of female rage, too, in the world? (Laughter.) I mean, I’m just saying, or is your narrative largely about—and it could be justified by saying, look, it’s about the age of anger and it’s the men who have the guns who have the political power and they’re oppressing women, so, of course, it’s going to be basically a male story. But do you see it as more complicated?

CESARI: I mean, women would say that the gap is still there economically, socially, and politically even more so, going back to, you know, the presidential election. So this is the frustration of women. And at the same time, I’m not sure that all the question of, you know, sexuality, and that’s why it has to be discussed by men and women is so clear, you know. And the traditional role of women when it comes to family and sexuality have not completely been challenged. And this is part of the frustration and anger probably, yes.

PATRICK: Pankaj?

MISHRA: Well, and I speak from the experience of India where nationalism is explicitly about the control of the female body.


MISHRA: And that has been right from its construction in the 19th century. And it’s interesting, you used the word “crisis of masculinity”—


MISHRA: —because this book that I’ve just published is, I feel, almost entirely about the crisis of masculinity that begins in the 19th century with the modern project of self-empowerment, a project that faces all kinds of hurdles at different points and this crisis starts to have very, very destructive political consequences. And in many cases, you could argue today that, although there has been a great advance in women’s rights and that gap has shrunk in large parts of the world, but also the burden, the tasks, the responsibilities of self-empowerment put many men in a competitive marketplace where many of the old buffers of trade unions, voluntary associations, all kinds of communities that used to support this project of self-empowerment have either disappeared or their authority, their legitimacy has been eroded. People find themselves more exposed, more powerless. And in that process, they take their anger out on the weaker people around them, and that includes women, as well as in the case of India, people from different classes or people who are not in a position to retaliate. 

So a lot of violence and misogyny against women in India can be very directly related to the experience of young men who are emerging into the modern world and find themselves blocked and find that, in many cases, that women are becoming more prominent in the public space. They are seen to be taking away the jobs that should ideally belong to the men entering the workforce.

And a lot of that anger, a lot of the frustration and violent rage against women emerges out of this particular experience, more so than the traditional forms of patriarchy, which, of course, play a role in shaping overall mentalities. But I think the crucial experience really is one of basing an ideology of self-expansion, self-aggrandizement and then finding yourself blocked.

PATRICK: Can we go to Jack next?

GOLDSTONE: Just very quickly. The experience of revolutions, and I describe this in those terms, whether you look at the Cuban Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, and the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, women took two roles. There were women on the vanguards of revolutionary activity who were pushing for greater women’s rights, and there were women who fought for the revolution as mothers whose goal was to protect their family, who marched for bread and who marched for safety.

As the revolutions unfolded, it was usually the latter, the traditional women-as-protectors role that was elevated and the women as free and leading actors that was suppressed. And that seems to be because during times of tumult and turmoil and insecurity, patriarchy is reassuring to large numbers of people and particularly to males who have felt hard to adjust, they fight for it.

So I’m sad to say I think the struggle for women’s rights will probably be tougher and longer because of this global phase of identity politics and anxiety that we’re going through. It just needs to be persisted and fought that much longer.

MISHRA: Can I add something to that?

PATRICK: OK, sure.

MISHRA: Very quickly. I mean, there’s a very important, very neglected book, sadly, by Susan Faludi about the rise of misogyny and the setback to women’s rights after 9/11 in the atmosphere where retaliation, fantasies of violence filled the public sphere. And I think she was arguing—it’s a book worth referring to today—that that had a terrible effect on the women’s movement in the way women were attacked, people who were dissenters at the time, people like Susan Sontag, Arundhati Roy, they were viciously attacked for arguing a different way of approaching this problem. And I think the argument goes much further and basically says that the assertion of masculinity, of hypermasculinity that filled the public sphere at that time really caused a historical setback to women’s rights.

PATRICK: Thank you. 

Last question from is it Ms. Harper? Is that right?

HARPER: Thanks so much. Hello, Lisa Sharon Harper, chief church engagement officer at Sojourners in Washington, D.C.

I’m actually really struck in this conversation by the reality that in America one thing that we know very, very clearly, looking back at antebellum slavery, is that wherever you see hard racism, you also see hard patriarchy at work. You could see that in the antebellum South. And what’s really striking is that most of the people, most of the nationalist revolutions that you have going on, they are exuding hard patriarchy, and yet you actually have women who are either promoting them, like Marine Le Pen, or you have women who are putting them over the top, like, as in America, the majority of white women actually voted for Donald Trump. 

And so I think my question is, what do you do with that? How do you explain, really, literally, how do you explain the reality that while white women have not benefited, and this is real, have not benefited from hard patriarchy, had to suffer huge humiliation, even being drugged up by opiates in the antebellum South in order to make it through life, yet at the same time are the defenders of that patriarchy and the purveyors of it? So how do you explain that and how do we actually mitigate against that?

PATRICK: Thank you.

Briefly, if anybody has responses. Yes?

CESARI: I think, again, it depends what context we are talking about. Let’s start with authoritarian regimes because you mentioned them. Knowing lots of them in Muslim countries, they all promoted women’s rights, all of them. Think of Bourguiba in Tunisia. He removed the headscarf. He removed all limitation on access to education, job market, limited the inequality of women in the marriage. So, of course, you’re going to find here a lot of bodies of women in favor of the patriarch. 

And if we had video, I could show you the pattern of this leader going and unveiling the women like they were his daughter. And, you know, you cannot be more patriarchal than that, I give you the right.

Only one thing he didn’t give up, which was indeed about the affiliations or religious identity of children, the capacity of women to be more active in the marriage; this he maintained. But he gave lots of rights, so that’s why we have to unpack, what rights are we talking about? Economic, political, personal? 

What we are witnessing in the West is, on the part of women, is something different, I think. What we have underestimated in secular democracy is the importance of religion, including for women to define themselves. And in the religious realm, you have limitations on what you do or don’t do for some kinds of trends, not all of them. But what I’m witnessing is a combative tension between the self, I am entitled to do anything I want, including with my body, or I’m not entitled to do that because there is above me some kind of limitation related to my tradition or my group. And this is a question that is very central today among women across religious traditions. The comparison here is key. 

And so it can look like patriarchy, but these women would not renounce the rights they have gained in the West, but they will have some issues with the excess-of-self liberation that is now the key, including for lots of, you know, gender groups or sexual minorities. And that’s why sometimes the connections happen with the patriarchal figure. 

PATRICK: Well, I apologize to the questioners that I did not get to. We’re slightly over time now, so we’re going to have to break. But before we break, please join me in thanking our wonderful panelists. (Applause.)



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