Friday, April 22, 2005

The Ummah and das Volk: On the Islamist and "Völkisch" Ideologies

Are there important similarities between the Islamist and the “Völkisch” (or ethnic-national) ideologies? Well, there is one major and obvious dissimilarity that has to be acknowledged at the outset: as I have had several occasions to discuss here on Trans-Int, the “völkisch” ideology is inherently racist or at least, if one prefers a less emotively charged description, “racialist”. (For this distinction, see this earlier post.) Islamist ideology, on the other hand, clearly mobilizes racist sentiments and motifs in its depiction specifically of Jews, but it is not “racialist” as such. This difference is most clearly expressed by the fact that Islamism not only permits, but encourages proselytism. In principle, anyone can become a Muslim. To take only the most famous and infamous example of the “völkisch” ideology having been put into practice, in Nazi-dominated Europe, not anyone could “become” German or, more generally, “Aryan”. (Paradoxically, however, Nazi ideology did permit that certain members of subject populations – selected according to allegedly “scientific” criteria by reference to their “racial attributes” – were “germanizable”.)

There is, however, a clear resonance between the “völkish” and the “Islamist” conceptions of the seemingly organic relation between the individual and the “community” to which he or she is supposed to belong. It is a separate matter whether this “community” is defined in terms of religious conviction as the Islamic “ummah” or in terms of ostensibly objective characteristics – language, “culture”, and descent are the “markers” typically invoked – as das “Volk”. Consider the following remark from Tariq Ramadan as quoted in Paul Landau’s Le sabre et le coran:
Whereever one finds oneself in the world, to be a Muslim means feeling that one belongs to the ummah and developing this sentiment that one belongs to the ummah, as if one was an organ of an immense body.

In the same spirit, Ramadan cites a hadith to the effect that “The ummah is a single body; if one of its members is sick, the entire body feels the fever and the pain.”

Now, consider Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s (considerably more elaborate) invocation of the relation between the individual and “das Volk” in the eight of his “Addresses to the German Nation” [link in German] from 1808. Titled “What is a people [Volk], in the higher sense of the term, and what is love of the fatherland”, Fichte’s eight Address is a, if not indeed the, locus classicus of the “völkisch” ideology. In it, Fichte posits a “noble” individual who would like to see his life work gain immortality, and he continues:
What is it, however, that could warrant this striving of the noble individual and his belief in the eternity and the immortality of his work? Clearly, only an order of things that he is able to recognize as eternal and as capable of incorporating what is eternal. There is, however, such an order of things: the...particular spiritual nature of the human environment out of which he himself, with all of his thought and action..., has arisen, namely the people [das Volk] from which he is descended and among which he has been formed and grown into that which he is.

Pardon the convoluted character of this last citation. But having some professional background in the matter, I think I can vouch for the fact that borderline incomprehensibility is not necessarily the sign of a poor rendering of high philosophical German.

The metaphor of the individual as an “organ” or “member” (i.e. in the anatomical sense) of his or her “Volk” is, incidentally, also present in Fichte. Thus, the last of his “Addresses” is famously addressed to “Every German, who still believes that he is the member of a nation.” "Member" here translates not “Mitglied” - as in the “Mitglieder” or “members” of voluntary associations - but rather “Glied”, as in precisely the “Glieder” or “members” of a body.