Sri Lanka ’s Predicament: Ethno-Na tionalism versus Civic-Nationalism

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Jun 25 13:09:11 UTC 2007

  Published on Asian Tribune (
Sri Lanka's Predicament: Ethno-Nationalism versus Civic-Nationalism Created
2007-06-25 02:28

Professor Laksiri Fernando, University of Colombo

The failure of Sri Lanka to forge national unity which is the main reason
for the long drawn out war since 1983 can mainly be attributed to the nature
of nationalism on both sides of the fence. Instead of civic nationalism
which is sane and rational and looks beyond one's own ethnicity or religion,
Sri Lanka has been immersed in ethno nationalism which is quite the
opposite. Terrorism is not an isolated problem but part and parcel of ethno
nationalism. Nationalism has been the main guiding ideology of many of the
countries in the world in modern times whether we like it or not. If
nationalism could be replaced by liberalism or socialism, or by a
combination of both, the world would be a better place to live. But that is
not the reality as at present. Both liberalism and socialism have variably
capitulated to nationalism, and worst of all to ethno nationalism. This is
the case in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. But this is not to give up hopes. Sri
Lanka or the world at large still has a chance, if civic nationalism could
be strengthened and forged.

What I mean by civic nationalism is that kind of nationalism which could
unite all or greater majority of the citizens of a polity irrespective of
race, ethnicity, religion or any other such distinction. Any other such
distinction can be language, caste or even gender. For this to happen there
should be an enlightened creed or policy, enunciate by a strong multiethnic
leadership, a party or a movement. Ethno nationalism in contrast is that
nationalism which divides people on racial, ethnic, religious or language
lines and invariably strengthens caste or gender discrimination, depending
on the country of concern. Most often ethno-nationalism is the product of
primordial instincts and affiliations.

*Origins of Distinction*

The distinction between civic nationalism and ethno nationalism was first
made by Hans Kohn in 1940 when he wrote *The Idea of Nationalism.* One
reason to make that distinction was the experience in Germany under Fascism.
Kohn was of Jewish origin who had to flee Germany facing ethno nationalist
violence and atrocities. As we all know, the German variety of ethno
nationalism led to the Second World War that cost more than 15 million human
lives and many other disasters including the invention of the atomic bomb.
The emergence of the two types of nationalism was also observed vaguely by
Ernest Renan as far back as 1882 when he wrote *Qu'est –ce qu'une Nation*?
(What is a Nation?). The reason again was the distinction between
nationalism in France and Germany. The French Revolution of 1789 is
considered to be the mother of modern nationalism.
I use the adjective 'modern' to allow the possibility of existence of some
proto types of nationalism in the pre-modern times in the West or the East.
However, the phenomenon that we call modern nationalism could hardly exist
in pre-modern conditions. An ideology like modern nationalism was not
necessary or possible.

The ideology of modern nationalism is supposed to have a 'vision.' That
vision is to make the national unit and the political unit congruent. The
controversy and the conflict, however, have always been on the definition of
the national unit (or the nation) and the political unit. In the case of
some countries, the achievement of the congruence appeared smooth and easy,
but not in all the cases. Civic nationalism has proved to be quite useful in
achieving the vision of national unity (if not congruence) in many countries
that have advanced economically, socially and politically. The natural
advantage of being socially homogeneous is obviously rare in countries. Only
less than a dozen of countries might claim for the qualification today.
These include the countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, two Koreas,
perhaps Japan and a few of Arabic and Latin American countries. Yet many of
them are internally diverse or becoming increasingly multi-ethnic due to
increased migration.

When the French Revolution declared the 'nation to be the base of political
sovereignty,' the idea was to enunciate civic nationalism. The nation was
conceived to be the people of all sorts including various minorities. The
base of that kind of nationalism or civic nationalism was considered to be
'the rights of man and the citizen.' This is equivalent to the conception of
today's human rights. Whatever the distortions that France encountered after
the revolution, the origins of civic nationalism could be traced to that
revolution. In contrast, the origin of ethno nationalism was mainly Germany.
The two thinkers who enunciated ethno nationalism at the onset of the 19th
century were Johann Fichte and Johann Herder. According to them, people are
eternally divided into nations. The proof of this division is the language.
The meaning that they gave to nation is equivalent to race or ethnicity. The
nation is a collectivity. It is like the body. Nationalism is its sole. The
State of Ethnicity is the embodiment of both the body and the sole.

While ethno nationalism is an organic theory, civic nationalism is not.
Civic nationalism has only a functional or utility value. While ethno
nationalism is exclusive, civic nationalism is not. Civic nationalism is
inclusive of diversity, pluralism and democracy. While the contrast between
the two types of nationalism is considerable, in social reality they may
exist side by side. The issue is what is dominant in a particular country
and what the guiding principles of nationalism are.

*Relevance to Sri Lanka*

One may question the relevance of the distinction between civic nationalism
and ethno nationalism to Sri Lanka. Another may go even further and reject
the relevance of foreign or 'Western notions' at all to Sri Lanka. Whatever
may be the reservations, Sri Lanka's present predicament is related to these
two notions directly and indirectly. This does not mean that Sri Lanka
acquired these two notions one from France and the other from Germany.
France and Germany are only two examples where these two notions appeared in
distinct forms in the Western hemisphere. That is also not completely
correct. While civic nationalism was predominant in France, there is
evidence of ethno nationalism appearing intermittently undermining civic
nationalism at times. This was the case in Germany as well. Before Hitler
came to power, there were attempts at forging nationalism on civic grounds
under the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). Social Democracy was the main
ideology that facilitated civic nationalism in Germany at that time.

The emergence of nationalism is related to modern socio-economic changes. In
the process of modernization and nation building or one may say in the
course of capitalist development, many countries both in the West and the
East have zigzagged between civic nationalism and ethno nationalism. Sri
Lanka is no exception. But the question is for how long Sri Lanka could
afford to go along in this tortuous path with instability and uncertainty.
In the case of Sri Lanka, it is not just a question of instability or
uncertainty. Ethno nationalism on both sides has led to nearly 25 years of
internal war with over 70,000 direct deaths so far, not to speak much of
other disasters like displacement and human misery.

In the development of national feelings or nationalism, it is somewhat
natural for different communities in a multi-ethnic society to first focus
on one's own community in religious, ethnic or language grounds. Therefore,
the appearance of religious revivalist movements amongst the Buddhists, the
Hindus or the Muslims towards the beginning of the 20th century was quite
natural, inevitable or even healthy. This was more so given the colonial
circumstances. One of the main vehicles of nationalism is the media - the
print media in the context of the past. One predicament of the print media,
however, is the language barrier. According to Benedict Anderson, 'nation is
an imagined community.' This does not mean that nation is a fiction. But
nation is formed in a process of imagination or conceptualization. The print
media plays a decisive role in this process and most often promotes ethno
nationalism instead of civic nationalism. This may be understandable at the
beginning. There was nothing particularly wrong in the publication of *Sinhala
Jathiya* on the one side of the fence, and* Hindu Organ *on the other side
of the same, at the beginning of the nationalist movement in the country.

Likewise, the formation of the Tamil Maha Sabhas or the Sinhala Maha Sabhas
was understandable in the interim. But the failure of the Ceylon National
Congress to be an overarching national organization could not be easily
forgiven. At the beginning of the nationalist movement in Sri Lanka, then
called Ceylon, there were a plethora of organizations based not only on
ethnicity and religion but also on caste and region. All must have been
inevitable given the context. But the failure was to forge a national
organization similar to the Indian National Congress which could unite
people and direct the country for independence.

There is nothing wrong in ordinary people having ethnic feelings in a
multi-cultural society. But at least the leaders should be able to transcend
them. Otherwise they are not proper leaders. The building of civic
nationalism does not mean the eradication or suppression of all ethnic or
religious affiliation or feelings. It means the transcendence of parochial
or narrow ethnic or religious feelings for the greater good of all
communities. Civic nationalism does recognize the importance of ethnic
identity whether of the majority or the minorities. But there is no
possibility of recognizing one or one against the other.

Sri Lanka has been lucky to achieve independence in one piece in 1948. This
also shows the existence of some form of civic nationalism towards
independence. The failure of the country, however, was its inability to
continue and strengthen this path. Hans Kohn has opted to give an
explanation on why ethno nationalism predominates over civic nationalism, if
it does. His explanation is on class or economic lines linking the strength
of civic nationalism to the existence of a strong bourgeoisie or a business
class, and in contrast ethno nationalism to a weak bourgeoisie. This may
have some relevance even in the case of Sri Lanka.

But in Sri Lanka one may find many other additional reasons such as the
pre-modern social influences, distortions in the democratic system or the
'dark side of it,' or divide and rule policy of colonialism, to mention only
a few. There is no question that the country also faced a vortex of problems
at independence, some deriving from the colonial heritage. The issues of
citizenship, official language, further decolonization and the need of an
endogenous constitution were some of them. In addition was the question of
how to divide the 'small cake' that we inherited. While all these could have
been resolved on civic nationalist lines strengthening unity, mutual
understanding, equity and fair play, the leaders unfortunately opted to
utilize ethno nationalism and its partial criteria to device public policy
in post independence Sri Lanka.

The blame should go not only to the parties of the majority community but
also to the parties of the minority communities. There was considerable
reluctance on the part of the Tamil leaders to cooperate on national policy
and take mutual responsibility on national issues. Rights were claimed but
there was no proper readiness to take responsibility. This was the
predicament of ethno nationalism.


There is no meaning of arguing who started ethno nationalism first or who
should be blamed most. There is no possibility to say one type of ethno
nationalism is better than the other. All types of ethno nationalism are
detrimental to national or human progress. The only exception can be the
fact that minority communities do have disadvantages than a majority
community in general because of numbers and political power. This has to be
recognized. The question, however, is how to forge civic nationalism in the
future while recognizing ethnic identities and their separate interests
which are not detrimental to national unity. There is no possibility of
de-ethnicizing people whether they belong to the majority community or the
minority communities. There is no need for that either.

Civic nationalism is the overarching glue for national unity of any country.
Civic nationalism is compatible with internationalism or other civic
nationalisms. Civic nationalism cannot be forged instantly, but some of the
main elements are already in existence in our society. Many of them are
available in (1) all four religious teachings (2) principles of liberalism
and socialism and (3) discourse of human rights and responsibilities. This
may appear civic nationalism to be eclectic, but the issue is to select the
necessary principles from a host of practically available sources. The most
important might be to forge possible unity, solidarity and cooperation among
the leaders of all communities to do away with ethno nationalism and to seek
solutions on the lines and in strengthening civic nationalism. This is
equally important to our discussions on restructuring of the state or
constitution on the lines of devolution or federalism.

- Asian Tribune -

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