“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk,” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
Whether it is a question of Catalonia or Scotland or Ireland, or Corsica and Kosovo, or of the Flanders and the Basques, all of Europe clings to the unity of the nation state. Europeans consider “territorial unity” the basis of the identity of the “nation” and a pillar of the Hegelian “harmony” of “people”, geography and history, within the framework of a mythological narrative that makes national unity coalesce into the nation-state.
The nationalism that arose through the process of consolidating the nation-state has become the dominant ideology in strengthening the sense of belonging to this imagined entity called the “nation.”
In his 1983 book "Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism," Benedict Anderson says that nationalist discourse “imagines nations as specific groupings of people sharing the same interests and traits, especially the language.” Nationalism is not a “political ideology,” according to Anderson, but rather a “cultural system close to religious beliefs.”
It was the emergence and evolution of what he called “print capitalism” which contributed to the development of local European languages (instead of Latin) and to the emergence of imagined communities because readers who read the same books imagine that they belong to the same entities.
This is how Europeans came to believe that their nations had a mythological dimension, as if their destiny had always been in their own being. However, the interest in the imagined nation, as a meeting point of mythology, geography and history, has not been respected when it came to the colonial setting in the Global South.
David Fromkin argues in his 1989 book “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East” that France and England’s desire to dismember the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century “and replace it with the colonial rule led to the establishment of imaginary boundaries in the Middle East,” and to the appointment of local rulers who had nothing to do with local communities.
In the Islamic West, the Algeciras Conference of 1906 took the decision to divide the Sharifi (Moroccan) Empire into international areas (the city of Tangier) and areas under French protectorate (the center and Mauritania) and others under Spanish protectorate (Northern Morocco and Western Sahara) and, at the same, de facto confirm the French annexion of the territories of the Oriental Sahara (starting 1860) to French rulers stationed in Algeria since the 1830s.
Not only did the colonial powers tear apart the Arab, Islamic, and African empires (especially after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885), but upon their exit they tore apart entities that had a historical presence -- such as Morocco--, created new entities that did not exist before colonialism, and left behind border problems between countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia.
According to Emmanuel Ggbenenye of the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, the phenomenon of the so-called “Scramble for Africa” created imaginary borders, which resulted in great chaos at independence. As Ggbenenye sees it, colonial boundaries must only be maintained if there is no dispute over them but must be reconsidered if they are contested by neighboring countries.
What matters is that European countries are the primary reason for creating a map that is incompatible with the principle of the nation as a meeting point of of language, geography and history, which has been the modus operandi of Europe's nation-building efforts since the establishment of the Westphalian order in 1648. It does not matter if this unity between language, geography and history has been more imagined than real in Europe, but it has been sustained willy-nilly in the midst of war, chaos, imperial and colonial scrambles.
The colonial delineation of Southern independent nations out of the colonial mayhem, was engineered in geography laboratories and by “scientific missions,” and made to forcefully fit an economic or a sociological reality that is convenient to the departing colonial power. In many cases, the tendency was that culture, geography, and history should not meet, as is the case with the Fulani, Mandinga, Maasai, Yoruba, Bantu (including Zulu), Tuareg, Hamites, and dozens of other ethnic groups who are scattered in more than one African country.
Indeed, the sociological and demographic nature of these ethnic groups may not allow that, but the keen concern was that culture and emerging national interests should not meet or reinforce each other as this would jeopardize the interests of departing colonial powers. The danger would be the emergence of a collective consciousness based on a national belonging based on mythology, history and their anchoring in geography and ecology as is the case, more or less, with European nations.
It is ironic, therefore, that the same European countries that were behind the creation of a chaotic post-colonial order, are the staunchest supporters of separatist movements in southern Morocco, southern Sudan, and Darfur.
Furthermore, the same Europeans do not seem to have qualms about dividing Iraq into three states, Syria into a small state in Damascus with protectorates of powerful countries in its northern and eastern parts, re-dividing Yemen into a a northern and a southern state, supporting the Azawad and Tuareg movements in the Sahel, dividing Libya into an eastern and a western state, and Somalia into manageable small states…
This does not mean that the Arab and African political elites do not bear amajor responsibility for the socio-political disintegration, war, and chaos prevailing in their countries. They do. But for Western countries to support secession, whose existence they contrived in the first place, indicates the continuation of the same mentality that prevailed over the Berlin conference, the Algeciras conference, the Sykes-Picot agreements, and the Independence Accords with African and Arab countries.
It does not mean that peoples and communities should not defend their own identities or do not have the right to claim autonomy or their share of post-colonial states’ resources. But Europe’s admonishing of countries in the Global South for defending their territorial unity, while it is Europe itself the architect of the disintegration of that very unity, indicates the existence of a strong neocolonial mentality.
Even more indicative of this dismissive attitude towards the Global South is that, while advocating for separatism in post-colonial countries, these same European states are strongly supportive of, for example, Spain’s efforts to preserve its unity in the face of separatist challenges from Catalonia and the Basque.
Other similarly revealing examples of Western double-standards on the question of sovereignty and self-determination is France’s determination to crush the liberation movements of Corsica and New Caledonia; Britain clinging to Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands; Belgium not accepting Flanders’ secessionist aspirations; European countries’ refusal to recognize Turkish Northern Cyprus, their rejection or condemnation of Moravians’ independence from the Czech Republic, as well as their efforts to ensure that Bavaria remains within Germany, Sicily and Sardinia remain under the rule of Italy, Scotland and Northern Ireland under the authority of the British Crown.
It is as if Europe were to say that it deserves this historic encounter between culture, language, the “spirit of the people,” and the imagined nation, something countries in the Global South, mired in underdevelopment and fragmentation, cannot achieve. Nobody dares remind Europe that European colonialism played a pivotal role in creating the chaos and the unrest prevailing in most post-colonial countries, even if the mismanagement of the local elites has largely contributed to their countries’ failure to develop and remain united in the face of a daunting post-colonial reality.