April 28, 2011

The Development of National Identities

Hannibal Travis, Florida International University College of Law, has published On the Existence of National Identity Before ‘Imagined Communities’: The Example of the Assyrians of Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Persia. Here is the abstract.

Studies on nationalism and the emergence of modern ethnic identities rarely examine sources dating from the period 0 CE (A.D.) and 1453 CE, or the period between the fall of the Neo-Assyrian Empire in the mid-first millennium CE and the Age of Discovery in the mid-second millennium CE. Testing generally accepted theories of national and ethnic distinctiveness against these sources reveals that a similar case exists for the existence of an Assyrian identity and/or nation as for a Greek, Kurdish, Jewish, or Persian identity or nation. Assyrian populations, religions, and political formations survived in present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey from 0 CE well into the 1800s CE.

Commentators on modern nationalism in relation to Assyrian identity have assumed, with little evidence, that the non-Arab, non-Jewish peoples of the East lacked the agency or the intellect to maintain a consistent identity, and that these peoples relied in their ignorance and indolence concerning their own identities on the theories of Western missionaries and colonial officials. After a long tradition of historical and cultural work assumed nations and peoples as subjects of analysis without critically examining the linguistic, cultural, or religious foundation of these groups of individuals or families, a new generation of scholars emerged who questioned this approach by positing that nations and peoples emerged in conjunction with modern capitalistic cultural forms and secular nationalistic liberalism. This theory, however, has the risk of degenerating into a vulgar instrumentalism, which assumes that identity entrepreneurs can manufacture ethnic, racial, or religious identity for their own purposes and little objective foundation. Thus, more recent studies point out the flaws in grounding national and ethnic distinctions in modern nationalism by compiling evidence that nations and peoples perceived themselves and were perceived by other collectivities as such long before the rise of European humanism or the Enlightenment.

This study attempts to show that the longevity and diversity of national and ethnic distinctions undermines a one-size-fits-all explanation such distinctions in the manner of Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Communities.” The evidence from the Assyrian case suggests that the undifferentiated hordes of Asia did not coalesce and order themselves in modern times and under Western influence into nations created and sustained by advanced technology. This “Imagines Communities” narrative suffers from hindsight bias and an exaggerated Eurocentrism. It also insults and infantilizes the peoples and nations of premodern eras and non-Western regions by assuming they lacked the intelligence with which modern Europeans constructed national cultures, laws, literatures, schools, and economies. Historians have long since disproved such ideas.

By examining translations of and academic commentary on Aramaic, Greek, Roman, and Persian literature and inscriptions, among other sources, this Essay demonstrates that the British Empire invented neither the modern Assyrians as a people, nor the territory of modern Assyria that was considered for statehood by the League of Nations after World War I. Rather, the identification of present-day northern Iraq, northwestern Persia, and southeastern Turkey as “Assyria” draws support from the Middle Assyrian and Neo-Assyrian usage of the second and third millennia BCE, and the Greek, Roman, Persian, and Aramaic usage in the first millennium CE. Finally, the contribution of ancient Assyria to the cultures, languages, and religions of the non-Muslim populations of contemporary Iran, Iraq, and Turkey, especially Assyrian Christians, Mandaeans, and Yezidis, may no longer be doubted. This contribution is present in these peoples' daily vocabularies, place-names, and indigenous beliefs.
Download the paper from SSRN at the link.

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