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Competition for national dignity drove 9/11

by Liah Greenfeld

September 11, 2001, may — at least at first — seem like an inappropriate addition to the history of nationalism, given al-Qaida’s explicitly stated global pretensions.

In fact, now that the initial shock and confusion have given way to a more sober perspective, the terrorist attacks of that awful day are increasingly seen — as they should be — as one among numerous other nationalist milestones.

From this perspective, the attacks no longer appear, as they did to so many immediately afterward, to reflect an incomprehensible, irrational and uncivilized mentality, or a different civilization altogether — premodern, unenlightened and fundamentally “traditional” (in other words, undeveloped).

It is in this unflattering sense that Islam, the dominant religion of an economically backward part of the world, was said to have motivated the attacks of 9/11. Because those who believed this (virtually everyone whose voices were heard) belatedly perceived its insulting connotation, discussing the matter has caused considerable anguish in the years since.

There are no euphemisms that can inoffensively imply that one of the great world religions is a murderous, irrational ideology unacceptable for modern, civilized human beings. And yet two different American administrations have implied — and consistently acted upon — this assumption.

But once we place the tragedy of 9/11 and the broader political phenomenon of international terrorism in the context of other historical tragedies in the past century, religion becomes an unlikely explanation. It is here where the influence of nationalism becomes obvious.

Nationalism has been the major motive force in the West since the beginning of the modern period. Historians have noted its influence in Elizabethan England (which produced the spirit animating the Puritan Rebellion and migration to America), and increasingly recognize it as the motive force behind the French and the Russian Revolutions.

Meanwhile, Chinese scholars are beginning to view it as the inspiration for Mao Zedong’s struggle against the Kuomintang (the openly self-named Nationalist Movement) and the policies of the People’s Republic. No historical acumen is needed to understand that nationalism was the source of Hitler’s National Socialism and, therefore, World War II.

It would be puzzling if this were not the case, given that nationalism is the cultural foundation of modernity — the framework of its social consciousness. Precisely because nationalism shapes the way we think, its role in phenomena that do not trumpet their nationalist motivation — like al-Qaida’s attacks in 2001 — can easily be overlooked.

As a rule, most nationalists do not call themselves nationalists. Like the rest of us, they believe that their nationalism is natural and does not have to be emphasized. But a little self-examination should lead any thinking person to recognize that we all are nationalists — we feel, think and react to the world as nationalism prescribes.

Nationalism is a temporal vision (and thus secular, even when using religion in its rhetoric) that divides people into sovereign communities of equal members. The equality of national membership (which, at the same time, may be exclusively defined) elevates every member’s status to that of the elite, making it dependent on the dignity of the nation as a whole.

As a result, those who possess national consciousness become committed to and defensive of the dignity of the nation — measured by its standing, or prestige, vis-à-vis other nations.

That is why competition for national prestige has been the main motive in international politics since the beginning of the 20th century.

Specifically, the aggressor in many international conflicts in this period has been motivated by perceived injury to national dignity. Actual injury is not necessary: the perceived superiority of another nation is enough.

In an advanced modern society, such as Germany, intellectuals have no difficulty using openly nationalist language to convince a nationally conscious populace of threats to national prestige.

By contrast, in a society where national consciousness is limited to the better educated (for example, the Arab Middle East), they must resort to traditional means of mobilization. In the case of the Middle East, that traditional mobilizer is Islam, and so threats to national prestige are presented as threats to Islam.

Some nations do not feel threatened by imaginary insults to national dignity — for various historical reasons, they believe themselves to be superior to others. But if their prestige is in fact at stake, the perception of a threat becomes decisive.

Why else would citizens across the developed world be so preoccupied with their economic competitiveness? Is it not enough for us to be well off? Why do we need to be better off than others?

Why, for example, do Americans feel so threatened by the peaceful economic rise of China (as they did by Japan’s economic success in the 1980′s)?

To no longer be “Number One” would offend America’s sense of dignity. There is no more to it than that.

China is now also motivated by nationalism, and it will rise as high as a motivated population of 1.3 billion people can. The threat to America’s international standing is real, but blinded by it, Americans believe that they are still in a position to condescend to China as they would to an inferior power.

For the time being, the Chinese may be too preoccupied with their own backyard to pay attention to such insults, but it is foolish to offend them deliberately.

Because Americans misunderstood the motives behind the attacks of 9/11, the United States fought two costly wars, which did not defeat its enemies and have left the Middle East more volatile than ever. Being blind to the connection between nationalism and dignity in China — and in America’s own conduct when dealing with China — may cost the U.S. even more.

Liah Greenfeld, professor of political science and sociology and director of the Institute for the Advancement of the Social Sciences at Boston University, is the author of “Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity and The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth.” © 2012 Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Science (www.project-syndicate.org)