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Tuesday, May 30, 2000

Ghost in the political machine

NATION AND RELIGION: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, edited by Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999, 231 pp., $17.95 (paper).

The modern world is characterized by the differentiation and separation of social domains that in ancient and medieval times could not easily be disconnected. Economics, politics and religion were closely interwoven. Put differently, the secularization of the state is one aspect of modernization.

The prevailing view of Western modernity assumes that the dominance of the capitalist market, powerful state institutions and the political ideology of nationalism combined to undermine the power of irrationality and religion in the public sphere, pushing it back into the private realm.

It turns out, however, that this picture of modernity is simplistic. The forces of superstition, faith and religion refused to be expelled from the public spheres of state and government. At the same time, many states do not refrain from using religion for political purposes.

"Nation and Religion" examines the many points of contact between cult and state, religion and nationalism in the modern world. The book focuses on four countries, two Asian and two European: India, Japan, Britain and the Netherlands.

Arbitrary as this selection may seem, it opens up interesting perspectives on the connections between religion and politics in four societies that have experienced the process of modernization in quite different ways.

The 10 essays here demonstrate that nationalism, like religion, binds people together, arouses public sentiments, and creates community. Yet it would be a mistake to consider nationalism the modern substitute for religion. It is more and it is less. As Benedict Anderson pointedly remarks in his contribution, "My Country Right or Wrong" is every nationalist's slogan, but "My Religion Right or Wrong" is unacceptable for any true believer. How could one's religion be "wrong"?

There are, then, important differences between nationalism and religion. The challenge is to understand how religion was affected by modernity, and how religious notions were transformed when they were transferred from the religious realm into that of national politics.

Japan provides a fascinating example. One of the few Asian countries to avoid colonial subjugation, it defined its path to modernization on its own. Religion was assigned a major part in this endeavor by the political elites of the Meiji state. They deliberately reconstructed the Shinto cult to serve the social and political ends of the government. In the event, modernization of the state implied the sacralization -- not the secularization -- of society.

The remnants of this exercise in politicizing religion are examined by Harry Harootunian in a contribution dealing with the role of the Yasukuni Shrine in postwar Japan. Founded only in 1869 after the Meiji Restoration and the capital's relocation from Kyoto to Tokyo, the Yasukuni Shrine was from the beginning a locus of national celebration and commemoration -- functions, the author argues, that it still fulfills today.

The shrine is no longer what it was in the 1930s and '40s, but, then, Japan isn't either. Still, the Yasukuni Shrine is anything but an ordinary place of worship. Like no other place, it embodies the problematic relationship between nationalism and religion in Japan.

In India, too, this sometimes sinister link is a known quantity, but, as Partha Chatterjee shows, the nationalist discourse in the colonial context could produce a rhetoric of joint Hindu-Muslim efforts at nation-building just as easily as one of Hindu revival and opposition to Muslim tyranny.

Despite their enormous differences both Japan and India experienced modernization and decolonization with a strong dose of religion that peppered public discourse.

However, as several of the other papers in this absorbing volume reveal, this must not be taken as reconfirming the common view that Western nation-states are secular, whereas Asian nation-states are still under the spell of religion.

In Britain and in the Netherlands, as in many other Western societies, nationalism to some extent feeds on religion. In many cases, the links between church and state are much stronger than societies' avowed secularity leads one to suspect.

It is more than obvious that religion has not been displaced by politics, nor has it been reduced to a private undertaking. The present volume is, therefore, a timely and welcome contribution that investigates the many questions that remain regarding the manifold interactions between the spiritual and the secular in the modern world.

Reading these essays, it is hard to escape the realization that the purported divide separating the enlightened secular West from the backward religious rest is discredited when analyzed without prejudice.

Florian Coulmas is professor of Japanese studies at Duisburg University.

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