We often think of a country’s border as a defined albeit arbitrary demarcation of culture, language, traditions, mores, and values. A germane question to ask, considering the recent unrest in Catalonia surrounding an independence referendum from Spain is: what exactly is national identity? How do we define and understand it?
What are the parameters and defining features of a national identity? How do language, cultural commonalities, religion, and history all intertwine and interplay to shape and form an identity?
While Catalonia’s recent referendum for independence might be in the midst of the news cycle nowadays, it is hardly the only region within a national border that is seeking autonomy or even within Spain for that matter. The Basque Country has an established history of documented demands for independence from Spain. Furthermore, Scotland voted on a referendum for independence in 2014 and most likely will hold another one in light of Brexit. The German state of Bavaria has also skirted the idea proclaiming their distinct Bavarian identity and idiosyncrasies. What is more, the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq on the border of Iran overwhelmingly voted for independence in September, and Anglophone Cameroon is also questioning their role in Francophone Cameron as well.
*It is important to note that CAI does not have a position on whether these regions should be independent or not, we purely seek to inform and ponder on the meanings of national identity and cultures.
Catalonia lies in the northeastern corner of Spain near the border of France. It is one of 19 autonomies that compose Spain. Catalonia has its own political, economic, and social structures spanning more than 1,000 years of history and tradition. Moreover, the region speaks the language of Catalan making many who reside within the locality bilingual with Spanish as their second language. Barcelona is the heart of the area and is home to the renowned Antoni Gaudí whose architecture has infused the city with an unparalleled uniqueness. FC Barcelona, of course, is one of soccer’s most beloved teams.
Throughout its history, Catalonia has always been adamant about maintaining a semi-autonomous relationship vis-a-vis the federal government of Spain. Throughout the centuries this autonomy ebbed and flowed in context within the broader political winds of the nation. It was first repressed when the Spanish crown started consolidating in the 1500s and then viciously under General Francisco Franco’s 39-year dictatorship, Catalan institutions and language were banned.
The 1978 Constitution and following reforms allowed for more autonomy in the region. However, in 2006, the federal government began rolling back on some of these guarantees and assurances. Moreover, in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008 the Spanish state has taken measures to weaken Catalan’s autonomy. Additionally, there is rising resentment in the face of austerity measures that collect the wealth of Catalonia, one of the wealthiest and most industrialized areas in Spain, and distributes this wealth to other parts of the country.
Referred to as “Africa in miniature” this country was first settled over 2,000 years ago in the Neolithic Era and has been continuously inhabited since. It is rich in languages, home to over 200 linguistic groups, a reflection of its diverse history. The Portuguese set up sugar plantations and started a slave trade in the 1500s. In the 1600s, the Dutch also gained a foothold in the area. However, it was the Germans that had significant settlements from the 1840s until the end of World War I when the region fractured into a French and British Colony. After a series of reforms and referendums, present-day Cameron formed and unified in 1961.
However, English-speaking Cameroonians are only a fifth of the population and have claimed a history of discrimination over the past decades. Moreover, similarly to Catalonia’s complaints of the state, Anglophone Cameroonians allege that oil resources found in the region fill the coffers of the federal government and do not trickle back down.
Over the last few years, resistance from English speaking Cameroonians has increased. With their own language, history, culture, and even a flag, the call for independence is growing louder in this Central African Nation.
The notion of identity is incredibly complex and multilayered. The variables that are stressed depend on the disciplinary approach; psychology might highlight specific factors such as self-identity which includes gender-identity and intersects with other aspects such as race or religion. Sociology views social identity to understand group membership. Studies have shown that national identity is fluid and may sometimes conflict with personal identity. Moreover, studies illustrate that even the factors that countries see as integral to national identity are fluid. The Dutch and German are much more concerned about having a shared language whereas Canada which has two national languages does not see that as the primary unifying factor.
This current call for independence in various parts of the world has broader implications in how a subset of individuals are seen and treated by the state and how they see themselves. Whatever the outcomes may be the ramifications will be wide-ranging and long-lasting.
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