Commentary:

An Attempt for a Restatement of Interethnic Questions

By Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan
Professor of Armenian Language and Literature, University of Venice

Questions related to the very conception of the principles, axioms, rules that govern the mutual relationship between peoples and nations are among the most troubling problems which, in the present world conjuncture, challenge our attention, and above all our human and social consciousness. These problems are often described, in equivalent terms, as interethnic conflicts. A great risk in this matter is that the rich or the so called advanced world and the great powers are normally inclined to look for solutions in function mainly or exclusively of their own interests without a general frame of theoretical principles and of seriously deontological behavior. Often they are also inclined, especially in the initial phases, to simply consider those problems and conflicts, even if though somehow subconsciously, either as of secondary importance or of no importance at all, just as Pope Leo X, when was at first informed of Martin Luther’s critics to the Roman Church, commented them as being a “quarrel of monks”, so to say, a matter with which to fill empty time.

We also cannot forget that one of the most burning phenomena of our times, namely religious fundamentalism, has strict connections with conflicting interethnic issues. Therefore it seems urgent not to consider them as useless quarrels between idle people, but to dedicate careful attention to them, and above all to develop a satisfying theory to govern interethnic conflicts, since present approaches have more than one gap.

However, in today's globalization era, dealing with interethnic conflicts is somehow embarrassing, since those conflicts are a circumstantial evidence, among other factors, of a strongly existing or even growing ethnical awareness. Such a situation, in our present historical context of ongoing globalization, fills with wonder most commentators, with results almost incomprehensible; moreover, it seems to them to be in violent contrast with the globalization process, independent from the critical evaluation one may have of it. Similar attitudes can have their own logic and find some explanation only in a superficial approach of the whole question. On the contrary, a deeper insight into the inner dynamics both of globalization trends and of contemporary expressions of ethno-cultural self-awareness will discover between them, side by side with the conflicting aspects, also some inner links and a direct ratio of growth.

What does this mean? I think that such links and such a proportion exist between the phenomena at issue for more than one reason, and for reasons which neither line up nor run in parallel with one another. Strengthening of identity awareness can indeed be, on one side, a reaction to globalization, a mechanism, spontaneous enough, of self-defense for single, and especially for somehow subordinate, minority groups, in order not to be lost in the unlimited and undifferentiated scenery of the global village. This is evident enough. On the other side, strengthening of identity awareness can also be a direct outcome of globalization itself, in virtue of a mechanism of imitation. In fact, the globalization process puts on the “market” a long, almost interminable chain of patterns, values, idols and the like, produced by largely dominant groups that stimulate imitation mechanisms in the minority groups, thus leading them to strongly affirm their identity and to look ever-new methods of affirmation.

If confrontation with the globalization process arouses the question of why and how the ethnic consciousness and challenges persist, another question which is often put forward in this regard is related to their origin. As has been the case for some time, there is a largely dominant tendency to interpret interethnic conflicts, and even the persistence of ethnical self-awareness, as a function of economical factors. Marxism has played a considerable role in giving this argument a scientific frame and solidity. However, this argument is not due uniquely to Marxist premises. It can equally be stated that these factors are moving in the context of market ideology. This tendency too, adopted in the context both of Marxist and of market ideologies, has proved itself, like the former attitude, inadequate to understand the problem and to indicate eventual paths for valuable solutions. As to the Marxist context, I make this statement not on the basis of the collapse of the Soviet Union; on the contrary, my premise is stated on the basis of how the situation was during the lifetime, and even during the most prosperous periods, of that Union. In fact, notwithstanding the closest, and often balanced, economical relations between the Soviet Republics, organized as an enormous and mutually interdependent network, a real “brotherhood” among the various nations, as promoted and displayed by official propaganda, was never achieved, and the conflicts that degenerated into bloody wars after the Union’s collapse existed already as underground tendencies that came to light in many different forms, with almost regular ups and downs, and especially with an appearance of cultural and scientific debates which in most cases were rather pseudo-scientific.

Economic factors appear insufficient by themselves to explain ethnic issues within the context of a market ideology. Let us examine one example. In Italy, the 1960's witnessed an active explosion of South-Tyrolean irredentism. But South-Tyrol was and is one of the richest and most privileged regions of Italy. If ethno-national troubles were exclusively or mainly due to economic reasons, the South-Tyrolean case would then have no rational explanation. Nor is it sufficiently convincing to explain similar phenomena as due only to fanaticism. Such a hypothesis should lead us to deny consequently the very legitimacy of the foundation itself that lies under those movements: the sense and consciousness of ethno-cultural identity. Fanaticism exploits, there is no doubt, that sense and consciousness cynically and in all possible ways regardless of ethical and legal legitimacy. But it would be a fatal error not to consider the sense of ethnic and national identity, in its real social dimension, as an expression, at the higher levels of society, of man’s native tendency to meet, to form ever larger groups united by common links.

It would be misleading to have a negative approach of the affirmation of ethnic and national identity because of the different risks of racist nationalistic deviations, or to have of it an underestimating, despising conception confining it among the obsolete aspects of social behavior to be overwhelmed. Risks exist everywhere, in everything belonging to man and his worldly adventure. To remain on our topic, if ethnic and national consciousness may degenerate into racism or national fanaticism, we cannot also ignore the fact, to which history bears a constant and manifold witness, that ambitions of universalism have often been pregnant with the risk of degenerating into imperialism. It is, however, important not to identify imperialism with empire or imperial order, as it is important not to confound ethnos and ethnocentrism, nation and nationalism, race and racism.

The problem of underestimation we are alluding to rises, however, with regard not to those national entities which can be defined and recognized in a corresponding statehood, but in those cases in which this is not possible. Practically, when an ethnic minority is at issue.

Is there any specific reason for this? This question introduces us into the core of our topic. Its reply reveals to us the inner dynamics of the current Western concept of nation and of national identity which is at the ground of the modern conception of State, statehood and of all related items, as well as the whole of international law in terms of good and evil. This conception is essentially based on the Nation-State ideology that took its roots in Europe’s historic developments in the late Middle Age, and in the theoretical elaboration of State sovereignty carried out by Renaissance philosophers, while its formulation was completed by the thinkers of the European Enlightenment, and its final triumph was sealed with the French Revolution and its irresistible irradiation throughout Europe and around the world.

At this point we must first define some basic concepts. It is important, I think, to distinguish between “Nation-State” and “national State”. These terms are normally used as synonyms while they are not indeed. Western reflection over the last four decades, and especially the developments of the theory of ethnicity whose first elaborations came from the USA, offer the theoretical bases for an adequate distinction between the two concepts. While the first cannot realize any other identity but the one identified with the nation that forms the State, the second, on the contrary, remains open to accept the existence of different ethnic identities in the frame of the State’s national identity. This distinction seems to be of vital importance if we wish to open any possibility to overwhelm the absolute rigidity of the Nation-State system, as many contemporary facts and instances almost everywhere claim insistently. It is not certainly due to the case that the cradle of the Nation-State system was in France, a country that had already achieved in its interior, long before facing its Revolution, an almost absolute cultural and linguistic homogeneity of its components. Let us mention the significant title of an article in Le Monde in the late 1970's when the debate on ethnicity was at its first steps in Europe: “Cette culture bretonne que nous avons tuée”.

It is a fact that interethnic conflicts are today at an impasse. The reflection that I shall try to develop now will primarily concern those relations and eventual lighter conflicts which remain within the basic unity of a given State. There is, however, a more dramatic aspect of such relations when conflict reaches the limit of separation. This more intricate chapter requires larger consideration. My opinion, however, is that a possible path of solution, also in those cases, should leave from an analogous methodological approach that we shall apply at present: revisiting, on the basis of historical patterns, in a more flexible perspective, some of the most rigid concepts of our international system.

The now-proposed distinction between Nation-State and national State can help, but is not enough to solve the impasse. It will be necessary to open yet other windows to solution. Since the grounds of the contemporary worldwide debate on the given topics lie essentially in the historical and cultural developments that took place around the Mediterranean, whether we like or not, we can find valuable information in those developments if we look back over the entire history of Western political thought since its origins in the Greek polis. If some basic data of that evolution are clear enough, not all of them are, however, well known nor can their common interpretation be considered as unquestionable. The recent debate between Charles Taylor (The Politics of Recognition, Princeton University Press, 1992) and Jürgen Habermas (Kampf um Anerkennung im demokratischen Rechtsstaat, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1996) is a confirmation for that concept, among many others.

Western antiquity does not show a political structure with a relevant national character, based on an ethnic community and its various implications. On the contrary, Polis, the city, can be a rival of a sister city formed by the same ethnic make-up. The concept of “citizenship”, a pillar of Western law and statehood, meant a juridical status independent from ethnicity as well as other discriminating factors (sex, religion, etc.), originated there. Rome takes this concept as its own in the frame of an empire which offers a great historical model – of course, within the limits of the time, as slavery, sexual discrimination, etc. – insofar as our problem is concerned. All Roman citizens, of whatever ethnic or racial origin, enjoyed equal rights. But we also know that even some non-territorial ethnic groups were recognized as such, within their own ethno-cultural identity. This is true at least of the Jewish communities. Among other testimonies, The Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s Letters give us an impressive image of that. This latter can argue the centurion or claim to be judged by the Cesar in person as a rightful Roman citizen, but he can also be proud of being a Jew at no lesser title than any other Jew. Such a legal structure is far different from that of a Nation-State. I shall call it “imperial order”. I will also add an important point. Ancient Rome has certainly given imperial order a better image than its Medieval Eastern derivation, the Byzantine Empire, which pursued, within its boundaries, openly or deceitfully, sometimes cheekily, a policy of linguistic and cultural assimilation.

The Roman imperial order has survived to varying extents, in different forms and within different ideological frames, in the various empires that blossomed from Europe and on through the Iranian steppes. A special mention, however, must be noted of the Islamic Empires, both the Ottoman and the Safavid, as far as non-territorial ethnic minorities are concerned. This specialty can be condensed in the Islamic ethno-religious conception of milla that found its full achievement in the Ottoman millet system. This system recognized, according to established criteria, the communitarian identity of the various ethnic groups, even if not territorial, with a limit, however, which did not exist in ancient Rome: that of being somehow citizens of second degree insofar as the members of the various non-Muslim millets did not fully enjoy the same rights owned by Muslim citizens. In ancient Rome citizenship was acquired, but all citizens were equal in the eyes of the law.

Moreover, the millet system shows, insofar as millets had their own law and procedures, that fundamentalism was alien to the traditional, classic Islam. This does not mean that there was no fanaticism in traditional Islam. Fundamentalism is not merely synonymous with fanaticism. Fanaticism is a mental and psychological attitude determining a practical behavior that has existed almost everywhere and in all times in a wide range of different historical, social, religious, and political contexts. Nor is fundamentalism merely an equivalent of theocracy or of related integralist concepts of the social and political reality. In fact, even though theocracy admits no other rule and legal criterion in society than the divine one, it can admit, as a rule, a diversity of religious laws to be practiced in a given society according to the various religious beliefs of its members. It is exactly this diversity that is historically attested, for instance, in the classical Islamic theocracies of the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Fundamentalism is, on the contrary, a modern and technical concept to denote a theoretical attitude according to which some principle or law must be applied absolutely and independently from any other social or personal consideration. In particular, religious law must be applied to all members of a given society, whatever their religion and their personal convictions may be. The origins of modern fundamentalism is related mainly to religious contexts, but fundamentalist forms of thought have had a large diffusion in other domains of life as well, as, for instance, in economics. Thus it is possible to speak of a "market fundamentalism" (see Kensei Hiwaki, "The Enrichment of Culture", Journal of BWW Society, Nov.-Dec. 2001).

In this technical sense, fundamentalism supposes a concept of law as a pure form, which is a typically Western concept, and has known its most remarkable developments in the modern era, especially in the culture of Enlightenment and of Kantian philosophy. As a rule, the Ottoman Sultans and Savafid Shahs did not think to impose Islamic sharī‘a to their Christian subjects, although sometimes fanaticism led them to attempt to convert those subjects by force. But it is evident that this did not happen either universally or constantly. Hence, fundamentalism, injected into modern Islam by Western models, is historically and ideologically one of the most crushing betrayals of traditional, classic Islam. What I am saying is not denied even by the Armenian Genocide, since both its conception and execution were due to Panturkic nationalistic ideologies based upon Western models. We know that the Sheikh-ul-Islam of the time opposed this genocide as contrary to Islamic rule.

Let us now draw some conclusions:

  1. First we see that in this long evolution of nearly two-and-a-half millennia a basic concept works as a keystone in the various systems: citizenship (or its downgrade equivalent, “subject/subjection”, in theocratic-monarchic contexts). Consequent to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and on to the French and American Revolutions, it remains at the foundations of the entire modern building of human rights, which basically are the rights of the human individual, the human person;

  2. However, in this modern context, the essence of citizenship develops as the result of a series of historical factors within the frame of the Nation-State ideology which, in its most rigorous formulation, leaves no room for different ethnic identities within a given statehood. A distinction, nonetheless, between “Nation-State” and “national State” seems necessary to moderate the stiffness of the former;

  3. Ancient Rome offers a prototype of what we have referred to as “imperial order”, an alternative system in which different ethnic identities are expressly and officially recognized. This recognition, however, has later often been limited in similar systems in that the minority subjects did not enjoy equal rights with the majority members;

  4. A synthesis between the two systems, taking the best of each, seems possible, and even suitable. Two millennia passed to arrive from the ancient, cosmopolite Rome to the modern Nation-State. Putting together the best of their achievements should be the task of our present generation as we face the third millennium.

Hopefully mankind will not wait for yet another thousand years to see this task implemented.


Dr. Boghos Levon Zekiyan was born in Istanbul on October 21, 1943. He joined the seminary of the Armenian Catholic Mekhitarist Brotherhood in Venice in 1955, and received his higher education in Rome at the Pontifical Gregoriana University, earning a Master's degree in Philosophy in 1962 and a Master's degree in Theology four years later. Dr. Zekiyan specialized in Oriental Christian Spirituality in 1968, and in 1973 he obtained his Ph.D. degree with a dissertation on the principle of inwardness in St. Augustine's theory of knowledge.

In 1974 Dr. Zekiyan moved to Venice as Assistant Editor of Bazmavep, the publishing organ of the Armenian Mekhitarist Academy. He was its Editor-in-Chief from 1980 through 1985. Additionally, in 1976 he was invited by the University of Venice to inaugurate the post of Chair of Armenian Studies, which he still holds today. That same year, in Milan he joined the Center for the Study of Armenian Culture, which promoted remarkable research on Armenian art, as it was then one of the rare private partners of the central Soviet Academy of Sciences in Moscow. In 1988 Dr. Zekiyan was appointed Professor of Armenian Church Institutions at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. From 1988 through 1992 he held annual lectures as a Visiting Professor at the American Armenian International College of the University of La Verne in California.

Since 1978 Professor Zekiyan has animated some of the major activities in Armenian Culture in Italy, such as the first Festival of Armenian Cinema in Italy in 1983, the series of conferences entitled Armenians in Italian Culture, the 5th International Symposium on Armenian Art in 1988, the exhibition 'The Armenians in Italy' in 1990, and since 1986, the Summer Intensive Course on Armenian Language and Culture. In 1982 Dr. Zekiyan joined the Committee Board of the newly founded Association International des Etudes Armeniennes. He is President of the special Armenian Studies 2004 Committee for the celebration of the 16th centenary of the Armenian alphabet. He was one of the founders of the Association Padus-Araxes in 1987, and of the Association Italiarmenia in 1991.

Dr. Zekiyan is the author of 11 monographs and over 100 scholarly articles in six languages. He also directed the first audiovisual course on the Armenian language. Dr. Zekiyan's scholarly interests mainly concern Armenian studies in different dimensions, such as literature and philology, Church history, and Armenian thought and identity, as well as philosophical and theological issues, such as the problem of consciousness, the philosophical idea of humanism, the question of value, and the attempt at a theology of ethnicity.

A brilliant orator, Dr. Zekiyan speaks eight and can understand twelve languages. He has given almost three hundred lectures and has presented more than fifty scholarly papers at international conferences in different countries of the world. In 1992 Dr. Zekiyan was named a corresponding member of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti, and in 1994 he was accepted as a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Armenia. He is an active member of the BWW Society and the Institute for the Advancement of Positive Global Solutions, and attended discussions of the Steering Committee during the Society's 2002 International Congress in Saint Germain-en-Laye, France.

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