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Perspectives

from the Secretary General

Nationality, Culture and Religion

by Robert L. Stern

A priest friend of mine who was born in Israel and raised Jewish identifies himself in a very unusual way — he says “by nationality I’m an Israeli, by culture I’m a Jew, and by religion I’m a Roman Catholic.”

Before reacting to this startling statement of identity, it’s important to define the three key words. It’s a tricky business, because they frequently overlap.

  • “Nationality” is becoming another word for citizenship — the country to which you legally belong. But, its root meaning has to do with the land of one’s birth; this implies ethnic identity.
  • “Culture” can be used to refer to the customs, traditions and values shared by a group of people at a certain point in time. There can also be subcultures within a dominant culture.
  • “Religion” is the trickiest word. It may refer to belief as such; to a system of beliefs, worship and ethics; or to an organization or group that holds them in common.
  • In the southwestern Indian state of Kerala, you may meet ladies going to pray in gold-trimmed white saris, with ear lobes stretched by heavy golden bangles. A foreigner may think them Hindus, but they are Christians. It is their culture that appears Hindu.

    For years in Germany, children born of Turkish immigrant parents were considered foreigners; now they can be German citizens. German identity is no longer limited to people with Nordic features or a common Germanic culture; now it also means those with the same citizenship.

    Canadians describe themselves as “English” or “French.” This is a matter not just of language but of culture — and for separatists, of nationality. Paradoxically, immigrants from the world over are welcomed into both English and French Canada. Chinese-Canadians in Quebec or Ukrainian-Canadians in Alberta share the same citizenship, but not the same culture.

    Historically, nationality, culture and religion tend to be mixed together. Many countries that label themselves by religion are really asserting the distinctive qualities of their cultural or national identity.

    In the example of my friend, he lives in a “Jewish” state. Yet, one can hold Israeli nationality without professing the Jewish religion or being born of an ethnically Jewish family — some Israeli citizens are Muslim, Druze or Christian by religion, and one-fifth are born of ethnically Arab families.

    Israel’s dominant culture is Western and Jewish. Although many Jewish Israelis are more culturally than religiously Jewish, most would object to anyone identifying himself as a Jew who professes another religion.

    Israel’s Arab neighbors are similar. Except Lebanon, Arab countries identify themselves as Islamic, even though some are very secular. The dominant culture may be Arab and Islamic, but not all citizens are Muslim by religion. Also, many Muslim citizens are more culturally than religiously Muslim.

    Traditionally, Western countries have been considered Christian — and similarly mixing religion with culture and nationality. Now, many embrace civic religious neutrality — the idea of separation of “church” and “state.”

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    Tags: Cultural Identity Immigration Religious Diversity