The modern state is often traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. In this narrative, the current political order is tied to ideas of religious tolerance and respect for sovereignty. Those sound like nice ideas, right? Sure, but when you take a closer look the modern state has a darker origin story. Mahmood Mamdani, a professor at Columbia University specializing in African history and politics, traces the modern state back to 1492.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, setting the stage for colonialism, and ethnic cleansing too. These are the pillars on which the modern state was founded. It was the missions sponsored by the Castilian monarchy that brought with them the idea of creating a homogenous nation where everyone adopted their culture. Nationalism and colonialism, go hand in hand with one another. Producing an image of political modernity that is “less an engine of tolerance than of conquest.” (1)
Tolerance does still play a role in the modern state, but it’s not what you might think. Instead of creating a foundation upon which a pluralist society can be built, it is a justification for conquest and the deprivation of rights. Tolerance institutionalized the divisions between the majority and the minority, casting each in a permanent role.
Even as colonialism came to an end, the foundations of the modern state had been laid. Creating the groundwork for violent postcolonial nationalism where the state attempts to unify their territory through some form of ethnic cleansing.
Mamdani’s presentation of the modern state and the ethnic cleansing nationalism that comes with it seems contradictory to the values of western democracy, including equality, freedom and opportunity. A quick glance at a history book could confirm that modernity is better characterized by violence and inequality than equal respect for rights under the law. This nationalist process has, according to Mamdani, colonized the political. Creating permanent minorities that are sustained and reinforced by the political system.
With this understanding of political modernity, we are left with the question of how to unmake these identities. Are states doomed to continue participating in this violent image?
The importance of these minority/majority identities are constructed by the modern state, and as such can be deconstructed. Diversity in race, culture, language, or ethnicity do not need to be in conflict with the state. Instead, they can help strengthen free societies.
However, it is easy to get this wrong.
France would be the first to hold itself up as an example of secularism and a non-racial democracy. For example, they don’t collect any census data about race, ethnicity, language or religion to try and avoid biased policy, but this doesn’t work. A color-blind approach is not the way to decolonize the political system and cannot hide the existence of the permanent majority/permanent minority.
The most pronounced example of this is with the way France treats their Muslim population. A majority of whom are of Algerian descent. Algeria was brutally colonized by France, and the conflict between the two nations has left deep and lasting traumas. This is partially due to France’s attempts to rewrite and ignore their history. Like failing to acknowledge that the Algerian fight for independence was even a war until 1999. Through colonization, they demonstrate the ideals of political modernity: conquest of the “uncivilized”.
Mamdani’s view on the origins of the modern state allows us to understand this dynamic. The French cultural identity is viewed as being at odds with being Muslim. Any act of terror is being projected onto the entire population. Islamic ‘separatism’ is feared, but instead of focusing on the extremists, the entire community of people who identify as Muslim are being attacked.
This was further compounded when the French government asked the National Council of Imams to sign a Republican Values charter stating that they are not a political movement. All of this shows how the foundational idea of nationhood- a cohesive identity- is at odds with the idea of a free democractic nation.
Where does that leave us? Is the modern state completely incompatible with a free and open society where citizens have equal rights?
Mamdani suggests that there is. He points to the example of the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. Where the leaders there chose to view the violence as a political issue, and sought a political solution. The solution was to create a non-racial democracy. Because permanent minority status is not something that is natural or inherent to a person. The political implications of those identities were constructed to serve the majority. Thus, they can also be deconstructed. While a far from perfect solution to all the inequalities that were and still are present in South Africa, they set that groundwork for a lasting process of decolonization.
The political system can be decolonized. This isn’t an easy process but it is a necessary one to end the cycles of ethnic cleansing and cultural hegemony that have been raging since 1492.
(1) Mahmood Mamdani, “Neither Settler nor Native,” in Neither Settler nor Native (The Belknap Press, 2020), p. 2.