Church and State: Social and Religious Identity in Southeast Europe

By Giannakos, Symeon | Harvard International Review, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Church and State: Social and Religious Identity in Southeast Europe


Giannakos, Symeon, Harvard International Review


Religious extremism seems to be the latest in a succession of catch phrases like "red scare" and "ethnic cleansing" that have permeated political discussions. However, the term seems contradictory because no religious person would undertake violent activity and still be considered religious, just as a person who commits a violent crime would no longer be considered a law-abiding citizen. Indeed, the term is as contradictory as the term "conscientious or sentimental murderer" would be. Perceived religious behavior is primarily political. Empirically speaking, religious affiliations have generally subordinated themselves to perceived patriotic and national causes and that the national or ethnic aspect of a person's identity is prior to his or her religious one. The understanding of extreme violence, therefore, does not depend on the understanding of the fundamentals of a specific religion, but on the understanding of the regional, national, state, ethnic, or local interests a religion serves.

The paper will develop the aforementioned assumption in three ways: first, it will elaborate on the origins, nature, and utility of social identity; second, it will look at the origins, nature, and purpose of religious identity as well as at its relation to social identity like ethnicity and nationalism; and third, it will relate both social and religious identity to the political domain and examine the nature of that relationship. To verify and illustrate the relationship between identity, religion, and politics, the paper will rely on the evolution of that relationship in Southeast Europe, examining how the region went from being part of the Roman and Byzantine empires, to the Ottoman millet system, and then to modern nationalism. Southeastern Europe is an ideal political environment for testing any such assumption, because historical realities there have encompassed every conceivable political scenario.

Origins of Social Identity

This paper begins with the premise that an individual's social identity is multiple and multidimensional corresponding to different levels of social interaction and environmental circumstances. Such a premise implies that an individual could possibly identify with more than one social group and that the degree of intensity of each identity manifestation varies from location to location and from time to time depending on an individual's perception of the origins and purpose of his identity. The premise also implies that an individual's perception of the origins and purpose of social identity is influenced primarily by concerns of that individual's security and safety. Following a Hobbesian approach, an individual will primarily identify with that social arrangement which is perceived to maximize safety and security and minimize threats to both. In this context, social identity is conceived primarily as functional or purposeful. To use one of Plato's classifications of all things, social identity is primarily a means to an end, the end being human security and safety.

Because security is an end and identity is primarily a means to that end, identity is multidimensional precisely because security concerns are multidimensional. For example, a person is mainly concerned about physical security against harm, economic security- against deprivation, and spiritual and individual integrity against interference and oppression. Thus, there are multidimensional identity- manifestations in societies as well as people. The multiplicity of security concerns derives from the fact that more than one source provides for the same security, concern, while security concerns are inevitably communicative and metaphysical. By communicative, it is meant that an individual is no only concerned for oneself, but for others as well. By metaphysical, it is meant that an individual is not only concerned for the here and now, but for the previous, the later, and the afterlife. Socrates eloquently phrased this idea in his Apology when he pointed out to the jurors in his trial that "you must look forward to death with confidence, and fix your minds on this one belief, which is certain that nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death, and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the gods. …

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