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WHAT IS A NATION? ما الأمة؟

February 17, 2011

Baffalo Herd

Nations and national feelings are not new – they are at least as old as history. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Persians and Hebrews, to take but a few, knew they were nations[i] having come to a consciousness of their unique selves at different points of history – they were proud of themselves and their achievements and heritage; and, in the process of defending themselves, or fighting, against other peoples, whom they called foreigners, barbarians, or gentiles, and who threatened either their existence or way of life, they came to define themselves not only by the innate features of themselves, but also by how much they differed from others.

What is new, however, are modern social theorists who have made it their habit studying peoples and nations and trying to find what they called the objective criteria of nationhood, by which they mean certain characteristics the absence of any, or some of, in a certain group of people negates that that group constitutes a nation, similar to biological taxonomists who observe and analyse all living organisms, and having decided first what a living organism is, they go on to classify them, by the aid of certain criteria, into either Plantae or animalia.  But the problem of studying the principle of nationality is not an easy one, and scientists do not always agree on the tests they use in the classification of the objects of their study. The subject is often complicated by the intrusion of politicians into the debate, who tend, out of faithfulness to a certain ideology or because of certain prejudices they possess, to emphasise their nationhood while denying it to others.

Plenty of books have been written on the subject of nationality and all seem to attempt to define what a (or the) nation is created by, and suggest the use of some tests as the yardstick of nationhood. It is generally stated that nations possess certain objective criteria, which include commonality of race, language, religion, tradition, culture, history, natural frontiers, territorial contiguity, and economic interests.  And while some theorists insist that all tests must be met before a group of people is passed as a nation, and if only one criterion is lacking, the “nation” ceases to be a nation;[ii] most are not so strict and dogmatic with their definition – they realise that certain de facto nations-states lack several of the objective criteria, and may possess only one of them in common, or their various sections of population posses different criteria that are regarded as essential in other nations, and yet they are stable states. The Jews, for example, come from different racial backgrounds, and having lived before 1948 in the Diaspora for almost two thousand years lacked geographical contiguity; spoke different languages; were influenced by different cultures; and pursued different economic interests; yet, they saw themselves as one cultural nation, based on Judaism and a distant shared history, and having adopted Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century as their nationalistic creed created the State of Israel with which Jews, both of the inside and those of the remaining Diaspora, identify. And in this State the only thing which seems to define Jewishness for them is religion.[iii] Switzerland is another commonly cited example, and its case helps to demonstrate the case on two counts: first, although Switzerland lacks commonality of religion and language, its people, of all backgrounds, in what could be described, in the words of Ernest Ranan, demonstrate a ‘daily plebiscite’  of a will to live together and stay within one federal nation-state; secondly, its different religious and language groups, although each unites in what are regarded as objective criteria of nationhood, and differs in them  from other Swiss groups, do not show a will to secede and create independent nation-states for themselves.

It is easy to see the difficulty in the adequacy of the objective criteria of nationality. A certain criterion may be strong enough to be pivotal in one nation’s identity and definition, while the lack of the same criteria in another nation may not preclude it from acquiring its title to nationhood. As E. J. Hobsbaum, the Marxist historian, explains:

“Attempts to establish objective criteria for nationhood, or to explain why certain groups have become ‘nations’ and others not, have often been made, based on a single criteria such as language or ethnicity or a combination of criteria such as language, common territory, common history, cultural traits or whatever else … All such objective definitions have failed, for the obvious reason that, …, exceptions can always be found.”[iv]

What is really crucial in the definition of the nation, as we have seen in the case of Israel and Switzerland, is the will of people to live together. Israel was created, in the face of all odds, because the Zionists wanted to create a homeland for all Jews who aspired to live together; Switzerland, on the other hand, managed despite its internal differences to remain united because its peoples wanted it to be so. There is no doubt that this will must be based on some objective criterion or criteria, but it is wrong to say that all or any of the aforementioned criteria must be satisfied first before a nation is regarded as a nation by social scientists; equally wrong is to say that because a certain criterion acts as the reference of identity to a certain nation, it must be regarded as an essential yardstick of national definition to all nations, and those who lack it are consequently denied the title of nationhood.

E. J. Hobsbawm sheds some doubt not just on the objectoive criteria, but also on the subjective one. “Neither objective nor subjective definitions are … satisfactory, and both are misleading.” [v] He warns that undue concentration on the subjective criterion “can lead the incantations into extremes of voluntarism which suggests that all that is needed to be or to create or recreate a nation is the will to be one: if enough inhabitants of the Isle of Weight wanted to be a Wightian nation, there would be one.” [vi] One could easily replace the Isle of Weight with Rawdah Island or the Island of Philae in Egypt to understand his point.[vii]Yet in his study, Hobsbawm uses a working assumption (based on agnosticism in the matter, as he says) of a nation as “any sufficiently large body of people, whose members regard themselves as members of a ‘nation’.” [viii] There is no doubt that the subjective conviction, that is instilled in the minds and hearts of peoples by some objective criterion or criteria, that forms the essential factor in nation creation. The British historian Alfred Cobban in his The Nation State and National Self-determination concludes that “The best we can say (in the subject of the definition of the nation) is that any territorial community, the members of which are conscious of themselves as members of a community, and wish to maintain the identity of their community, is a nation.”[ix]. And again Hugh Seton-Watson, another British historian, says, “All we can say is that a nation exists when an active and fairly numerous section of its members are convinced that it exists.”[x]

For a comprehensive definition of the nation, which takes into account most, if not all, factors, we can find none better than that which was made by Sir Ernest Barker, the British political scientist:

“The nation may be said to be a body of persons, inhabiting a definite territory and thus united by the primary fact of contiguity, who physiologically, and in respect of the blood in their veins, are generally drawn from a number of different races or breeds brought by time and their own wanderings into the territory, but who psychologically, and in respect of the content of their minds, have been led by a life of contiguity to develop two forms of mental sympathy. The first is a common capital of thoughts and feelings acquired and transmitted in the course of a common past history: a common capital, or tradition, which includes as a rule a common language, a common religion (which may, however, assume a number of different forms), and a common culture variously expressed in art and architecture, in literature, in social habits, and otherwise. The second is a common will to live together for the future, freely and independently increasing the common capital of thoughts and feelings, and thus exercising a right at the very least of social, but possibly also a political self-determination.”[xi]

The role of history in shaping nationalities cannot be overemphasised. The existence of a shared history is a strong objective criterion in the creation of nations. Its importance is demonstrable by its usefulness as a litmus test in assessing the strength or weakness of other objective criteria in their ability to create nations: thus a people with a special history, particularly when it comes to the record of its relationship with other peoples, must have a special race, or language religion, or else, that makes it unique and different, and sets it aside from its neighbours. Likewise, a people who possesses other objective criteria but has no special history of its own, that is different from its neighbours’, cannot be said to be in possession of strong enough criteria to qualify them for nationhood. Realising the importance of history, John Stuart Mill, after defining a nation as “A portion of mankind … united among themselves by common sympathies which do not exist between them and any others – which make them co-operate with each other more willingly than with other people,”[xii] goes on to detail and evaluate the strength of these ‘common sympathies’:

“(They are) sometimes the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language, and community of religion, greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past.”[xiii]

And on the same subject of history, again, Renan tells us:

“A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I understand genuine glory), this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea. To have common glories in the past and to have a common will in the present; to have performed great deeds together, to wish to perform still more – these are the essential conditions for being a people.”[xiv]

We are now in a position to define the nation in simple terms as a group of people who possess all or some of the objective criteria of nationhood, which could include commonality of race, language, religion, culture, history, territorial contiguity, and economic interests, and which help inculcate in the mental constitution of that people a unique situation that creates in them common feelings of belonging and pride, and a will to live together for the future in order to enjoy their special way of life and be able to defend themselves, and their way of life, against threats and aggressive behaviour of outsiders.

If this is the definition of a nation, and it does not seem to be in conflict with any of the commonly adopted definitions proposed by social scientists, then the Copts constitute a nation.


[i] I admit that their national consciousness was not as advanced as what emerged in the modern age, but it cannot be denied that they saw themselves as unique and different from their neighbours, and that they possessed what we call now objective criteria of nationhood.

[ii] See Stalin’s restrictive and dogmatic definition: “A nation is a historically-grown stable community of language, territory, economic life and a psychological make-up manifested in a common culture … It has to be stressed that none of the mentioned criteria, taken on their own, is sufficient for the definition of what constitutes a nation. More: if only one of them is lacking, the nation ceases to be a nation.” Read Socialism and Nationalism; volume I; edited by E. Cahm and V. C. Fisera; Spokesman; Nottingham; 1978; p.23.

[iii] Section 4B of the Israeli Law of Return of 1950 defines a Jew as “a person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and who is not a member of another religion”. See Paul Johnson: A History of the Jews; Harper and Row; New York; 1988; pp. 538-9. See also Geoffery Wheatcroft: The Controversy of Zion – Jewish Nationalism, the Jewish State, and the Unresolved Jewish Dilemma; Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1996; pp. 266-7.

[iv] E. J. Hobswawm: Nations and Nationalism Since 1780; Cambridge University Press; Cambridge; 1994; p.5.

[v] Ibid; p.8.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Rawdah or Rohda Isle is officially Al Manyal ar-Rawdah but commonly known as Roda outside of Egypt. It is a small island in the Nile between Cairo and Jiza. The Isle of Philae is in the Nile River in Upper Egypt.

[viii] Hobsbawm; ibid; p.8.

[ix] Alfred Cobban: The Nation State and National Self-determination; Apollo Editions; 1970; p. 48.

[x] Hugh Seton-Watson: Nationalism – Old and New; Sydney University Press, Sydney; 1964; p.5.

[xi] Ernest Barker: Principles of Social and Political Theory; Oxford University Press; 1952; p.53.

[xii] John Stuart Mill: Utilitarianism, Liberty, and Representative Government; Temple Press; London; 1948; pp. 359-360.

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Ernest Renan, Qu’est ce que c’est une nation? (Paris, 1882).

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