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A mono/multi-ethnic state in the context of language and its implications

June 1, 2017

By Jemal Y. Adem

Note: I wrote this commentary to share what I believe in about mono/ multi-ethnic state in the context of language and its implications. (Jemal Y. Adem)

The views of people about wealth, nations, race, religions and many more complex issues determine the social order of a given country. Given these complex nature of humans, people of any homogenous or multi-ethnic nation quite often have differences on the political system they are governed by. The divergent views of the people, thus, lead to the birth of a variety of political forces. If the opposing forces which are competing for political power stand on irreconcilable positions, it would be pretty difficult to sustain the nationhood, let alone prosperous. For example, the power struggle between the two opposing forces; Unionist Vs Separatist, Religious Vs Secularist, Capitalist Vs Socialist is a very common phenomenon in the world. Unfortunately, these opposing forces could not live under the same roof for a long time. As we witnessed in our life, the winner (by arms or people´s voice) take the driving seat and try to (re) shape the country. Being on the seat, however, does not mean that you have a total control of the situation.

As there are so many polarized views in the multi-ethnic state, the political forces, therefore, should come half-way (middle ground), rather than think and apply ALL or NONE approaches. Because “my way or no way mentality” facilitates people´s fall to the deepest and misery hole. It is very understandable that, there could be tensions among ethnic groups within a country; however, there are also ways to avoid the tensions from becoming a deadly confrontation. So, engagement among polarized forces is the very best approaches people can do to resolve their setbacks without bloodshed. Believe me, there are so much uncomfortable things to listen / discuss, but it would be even more uncomfortable & deadly, if we failed not to listen to each other with a hope of consensus.

There are about 6,500 spoken languages in the world. If the country has to be built by the people who speak the same language, we should have 6,500 countries by now. But there are only 195 countries to this date. Thus, if we are really genuine, and determined for the benefits of all citizens in heterogeneous states, definitely, there are ways to have a vibrant and stable multi-ethnic state. What I meant is diversity could not be sources of the mother of all problems. If having a single language was a pre-requisite to establish a nation, Somalia would not have been a failed state. The biggest cause of the problem is, I think, we are not ready to open up ourselves to the reality of the present. We are evolving all the time, yet we are tightly closed not to accommodate the social changes. Now, let us take a look at some experiences across the world.

The USA is the most powerful country today. If we look at the timeline of this country, it went through horrible experiences. Even these days, the Americans have problems here and there and are not immune to conflicts.

The case of USA in terms of nation-building is a bit different. The majority of Americans emigrate from Europe. Thus, there was a possibility that the Europeans could have created a multi-ethnic state of USA. They, however, form new identity called “Americanism”. To be precise, they left their different languages behind and used English as an official language. Nevertheless, there was fierce resistance from Germans. It is important to note that this assimilation process happened in 18th. And the same kind of assimilation approaches had been tried across the world. Few were successful and others were failed. OK, it is fine to think that the emigrated Europeans were successful to create “Americanism”. Could American like assimilation be working these days in multi-ethnic state? Honestly, I do not think so, rather it back-fires very dangerously. Possibly, in American case, assimilation was not a daunting task for elites, partly because people (European) were emigrating in mass from their homeland to America, and found themselves in a pre-existing system led by the colonizer, Britain. Perhaps, people may opted to assimilate themselves in order to be an active player and to have a sense of belongingness in their new land what they called HOME.

Unlike America, with the highest degree of certainty, forced assimilation cannot be applicable in Africa. However, I would like to stress very very highly that ethnic nationalism should not be inflated too much in a way that threatens the survival of a bigger organ called country. I am not making ethnic groups less worthy, because they are the building block of a greater nation. To make my point clear – their (ethnic groups) sum is bigger and stronger than an individual ethnic group and more importantly the ethnic groups of a country should be driven by the highest level of engine – which is ideas and ideals as opposed to their ethnic lines.

Switzerland is one of the most stable multi-ethnic states. It consists of Germans, French, Italians and Romansh. Each language has an official status even though there are a stark difference in the number of speakers – Germans (63%), French (22%), Italian (8%), and Romansh (0.5%). As each language is officials, they can be used both in Federal government and parliament. For the sake of administration, the people opted to have canton (territorial district). Though, most cantons have mono-ethinic affiliation, still the citzens of Swiss get the service they are in need of in any part of the canton. Moreover, each Canton is functioning to the fullest within their constitutional mandate. So, what could we learn from Swiss Federal system then? 1) The success of Swiss is beyond establishing Canton, 2) In order to keep and flourish ethnic identity, people should not

necessarily possess a certain region, which is named after their language, and 3) The less number of ethnic groups, the more efficient federal system it would be.

Middle East: I brought this issue here to look at a different perspective – in the context of language. There are dozens of “independent” Arab countries in the Middle East. If the language, Arabic, were the unifying power, We would have seen a “State of Arabs” rather than a country called Saudi, Qatar, Yemen, Egypt…… the reality is quite the opposite. It is obvious that, today´s borders among Arab, African, and other countries are made during occupation or colonization. If the language was the only biggest unifying factor, the Arabs could have made ONE great nation after the occupation. Clearly, this shows that there are a lot of issues we have to deal with when it comes to nation building. It should not be considered as simple as eating a piece of cake. After all, the smaller the nation you are, the easy prey you would be.

Wait for a second…. if you think that achieving your own “independent” small village will make you the greatest, I guess you are making one of the biggest mistakes. After all, the question has to be the opposite! Big dream – Big output. Not separation, rather taking the wheel that drives you to the greatest height of power. For example; Eritreans fought for 3 decades and became “independent”. I´m not exaggerating, if I say Eritrea is a bed room of a single guy. Moreover, its citizens are running away from the land they fought for. In this inter connected world, being small makes you a soft target and you can be bullied or pushed away anytime soon, if that is the will of the big elephants.

Is not it funny to think that you are all the time “protected” from aggressors simply because you are an “independent nation”? The principal reason why union of an “independent” nations formed is to avoid conflicts through economic & political integration. In addition, they are more powerful to deter the aggressors with a least cost and time. In addition, their influence is very far reaching. It extends to the other parts of the world. So, this is the way I understand it – stronger together. Therefore, in multi-ethnic state, I think, the better way to go forward and further is based on the strength of the bond/ attachment among ethinic groups. With this regard, we should go for the strongest bond – United regions rather than to the weaker bond- Union of regions. But this can only be achieved, if we address at least the base-line principles of Unity.

The lists of examples could go on and on but I would like to make my remarks here: regardless of the composition of the people- homogenous or heterogeneous, there still will be differences in politics, economy, and society across their territory (states). Thus, it is just insane to think that homogenous nation are /will be free of tensions. But the tensions could be stronger in heterogeneous nation. Nevertheless, the tensions would

not be out of hands & minds, if we stand behind ideas and ideals. Keep in mind that people have full right to exercise their cultural heritages including their languages but it should not be to the extent that shake their own and others survival. We should not run for dominance/ knockout game rather we should appreciate our uniqueness for the benefits of everyone in the game. Nation building is not a 90 minutes game – it is a generations which costs life and resources. Hold on here folks, let me say one thing from a basic biology, for instance; an organ liver and heart are made of hepatocytes and cardiomyocytes, respectively. These organs along with others, they made the higher level of component named a System. We could not appericiate the system without acknowledging both the organs and their building blocks (cells). Above all, if the cells in question are in very bad shape, so does the organ and eventually the system will collapse. Fascinatingly, if we cure the problem at cellular level, we are in the right track to let the system function as it should be. So that, there is nothing wrong, if people are exercising ethnic identity. Are you still asking why? Because they are the building blocks of a nation. But I will repeat it again, it should not be on the expenses of others. Let us make the building block in a good shape, the system will take care of itself.

Finally we are here: What kind of agreement can be reached between pro-ethnic federalists vs pro-unitary forces?

At least, these forces believe in building a greater country in terms of land mass, economy, and all other influential establishments. But their major difference is How to make that happen. To begin with, the failed experiments should be singled out. No need to cover up. Let us deal with it. This is a point of discussion right? So, let both groups bring their menu in, and debate on ideas with active participation of the general public. No rooms for hatred, fabricated lies, and unrealistic hopes. Then, let the people (the ultimate deciders on the issue) heard their voices through votes for collective benefits over individual interests.

If few people are benefiting while the majority is struggling, it would be a zero sum game, if not collapsing. If the majority of the people are leading a reasonable life, we will emerge as a formidable force with stronger stability, thereby the people choose to prioritize cooperation over brutal competition, unity over separation, and hope over fear.

Of course as a citizen, I could say my own thoughts on the issue and when it comes to the final decision, I only have one vote, not more – not less and I´m abiding with the rule of the game and so do you. PEACE!


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