Ethnolinguistic map of Myanmar. For a discussion of the political construction of ethnicity and problematics of nation-states (not least those defined by colonial borders), we suggest Professor Jonathan Saha’s short blog in New Mandala on the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya people. Image Credit: Wikimedia, US CIA, 1972.

The shifts in rationalization discussed by Max Weber were not the only ones that characterize the move to modernity in Western Europe and subsequently throughout the world. A new form of political organization, the state, emerged from the city-state model and became the dominant governing paradigm. In the ashes of the Holy Roman Empire, politicians united territories on the basis of shared cultural practices and language. But with the development of the nation state came the need to define who “belonged” and who didn’t, flattening complex and hybrid identities, and to tie groups of people to places. If what became Germany after the process of unification of 1863-1871 was suddenly for a new supra-group of identities called “German,” what happened to people who didn’t fit this new identity?

With the emergence of the nation state, the question of pluralism became central. Groups who defined themselves as a “nation” and who governed—or sought—their own territory pursued a range of approaches towards those who were suddenly not part of “the nation.” Many of the uglier episodes in modernity around the world were expressions of nationalism, as “minorities” were silenced, forced to leave, or killed. Even in democracies, the equal rights–indeed, even sometimes the personhood—of “minorities” are challenged, as long histories of racism and identitarian chauvinisms reveal.

The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the first of subsequent agreements that make up the International Bill of Human Rights—were spurred forward by the systematic and state-sanctioned mass murder of primarily Jewish but also LGBTQ, Polish, and Roma Europeans and Soviets during the Second World War. These international treaties seek to advance and protect “fundamental freedoms” from intra-state abuse, in particular.

In this section, students will consider the modern state system, pluralism, and human rights from Islamic and other perspectives. Muslim communities have a long history of political organization—how is the nation state system different? And do scripture and theological treatises provide guidance as to how pluralism should be enacted? Can people have equal dignity if they are not given equal rights? Lastly, is an Islamic approach to human rights fundamentally different from the current international human rights regime?

Key Terms:

  • Nation
  • Nation-state
  • Nationalism
  • Pluralism
  • Human rights
  • Minority

Photo: Ethnolinguistic Map of Myanmar. Image Credit: Wikimedia, US CIA, 1972. Public domain.

Learning Materials: