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Why Nationalism is Toxic

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

By Irisa R. and Lamisa H.

“Nationalism is a colonial concept: it has to do with divide and conquer, strict ownership of land and the idea that some nations are superior to others.”

We started this piece with a simple conversation, “why do we feel the need to assert that we are Bengali?” And why growing up we noticed that regardless of what space we were in there would always be someone who would assert where they were from. In some of our most formative years we noticed that either people within our community, or people outside of our community, would assert that their country was better; be it the food, the culture, the language, wealth or even religion.

This is a tricky one.

Why would we care about nationalism in a country like Australia - where we don’t even particularly subscribe to being Australian. Neither of us are ever intending to fight on behalf of Australia and to put it plainly we understand enough of our history to know that we don’t believe in how this nation was created. But this conversation about nationalism matters to us because nearly every single person we know is nationalistic. No one usually asserts their Australian-ness but they often identify through their parent’s nationalities. This is so easy to do when we also are taught to glorify their struggle. We are comfortable with asserting our heritage because in a hyper-globalised environment our identities are always at question. It is a way of trying to validate an experience through one another that will never be validated by the white majority here. We use these identities to over-compensate for the fact that we sometimes feel very unheard and misunderstood in our wider society. It is a way for us to understand how and why we relate to one another.

How Nationalism is a Colonial Construct

The idea of nationalism, put simply, is when there is an “Us” and “Them”. This is often built on the assumption of the superiority of one nation as against other nations and that those within its fold are better while those outside are inferior. If this seems extreme just turn your mind to any one of these commonly heard phrases, “we are better than __", “our language is more beautiful because__", “our people are more powerful because ___", or “we are more advanced because__.”

These subtle micro-aggressions are what we are critiquing.

The concept of a nation state is a European invention; it was used as a weapon during the process of colonisation. Nationalism knows no compromise; it seeks to sweep aside the many complications that always are part of life as it actually is. It is a systematic, uncompromising, and unrealistic view of the world and yet the ideology of nationalism continues to thrive.

Nationalism is a Product of ‘Divide and Conquer’

Nationalism was used as a tool in South Asia to divide and conquer. It is a distinctly European way of thinking about social structures and ownership of land. To understand why it is problematic we can turn to our own history, which witnessed colonial rule rupture social ties, and sow division between ethnocultural and religious groups in order to create hatred between one another. In 1947 the largest mass migration in history took place with one million lives lost and fifteen million people displaced. To speak about Partition as a product of competing nationalism is not to simplify what has taken place. However, we can see that nationalism is a by-product of everyday conversation. Where we ourselves have at times fallen into orientalising our own experiences. It’s the need to rewrite history in a way that paints a very clear picture of right and wrong, or superior or lesser of good and bad.

Do we feel offended because of the lives that were lost? Or does it come from a place of ignorance, where we ourselves feed into the desire to orientalise and homogenise our own experiences.

Edward Said who invented the term orientalism described this dynamic very well. He explained that it is where Western scholars at the time of French, Dutch and British colonial rule would position themselves as experts on the “Orient” which was usually any nation they were intending to colonise. Then these “experts” would act to “uncover” and “translate” previously unknown facts, monuments or scripts to establish that there was always conflict between certain tribes or religions. This made it easier to assert their dominance and influence over the local people, where the colonisers were considered to be more “civilised” and bringing goodness to a nation that was already in struggle. We can see this in our own history.

In pre-colonial India there were a number of territories under the Mughal Empire, where they were ruled by different customary law, observed different religions and spoke different languages. However, they were never a unified “nation,” it was not considered particularly important to create a homogenous culture or a place with a codified system of law. The reason for this is quite simple, it was not important for an individual to define themselves by the boundaries of their territory. Instead, it was by their social relation, so which region they were from, or which language they spoke, or their ethnicity. Only in 1947, when the British drew their careless borders did the modern day India and Pakistan emerge, only to be closely followed by Bangladesh in 1971. The people of this land were divided once, then divided again. The result is us feeling more different than we should otherwise feel. The processes of nation-building in these countries in the decades since have only emphasised these divides. Therefore, even trying to assert our differences through this lens can leave us feeding our colonial past. We can state our nationalities, but we are trying to be more conscious that we don’t do this when we’re feeling vulnerable or as a marker of difference.

Nationality without Nationalism

There can be nationality without nationalism. Palestine’s history is a living testament to this.

Palestinian has existed for four thousand years. To say that Palestine did not exist is a colonial statement because it is assuming that if it was not an independent state it means that it did not exist. In Jimmy Carter’s Peace Not Apartheid he noted like many others that Christian and Arab Muslims “continued to live [on the] same land [but] they had no real commitment to establish a separate and independent nation.” This was a way to undermine the legitimacy of their existence.

However, it is deeply flawed to say that Palestine was a land without people because it was not a nation as per the British construct of nationhood. Its people, language, land and culture pre-dated any concept of the word nation. Now, the only way to self-determination is to assert their nationality. Prior to the Isr**li occupation, Palestine existed as a nation. In Nur Masalha’s Palestine; A Four Thousand Year History, he brings to light how Palestine now has to use the language of nationhood to effectively resist against the occupation. The assertion of nationality in this case is to fight against dispossession because it is the only way to self-determination in a post-colonial landscape.

Embracing the Pre-Colonial

To learn a better language when we speak about our history, ourselves in relation to it and to the places in which we are descended from we should borrow from First Nation people. First we need to recognise that the concept of ownership is Western. It specifically derives from English law, where there is an assumption that a person can possess land, property or even a person. This concept did not exist in Aboriginal Australia.

In Aboriginal Australia there was no concept of nationalism, or a unified, singular and homogenous group of people. There was no concept of ownership because as we know Aboriginal customary law emphasises the importance of recognising that the land does not belong to them, but that they belong to the land. Although this seems abstract, it points to a very beautiful and important idea that we do not need to feel ownership over a place, or people, or a culture or a language to be a part of it. We can just exist in that space. Without ownership, there can be no otherness, there can be no “us” and “them”.


A Note:

We know that now Aboriginal identity has to be unified in order to resist against a settler-colonial state that dispossessed them of their land. This relationship with their land has to be communicated through the use of the word ownership so that in our modern day legal system their rights can be recognised.

Editor: Tahmina R.

Further reading:

Jimmy Carter, Peace Not Apartheid

Nur Masalha, Palestine Four Thousand Year History

Azmeary Ferdoush, Symbolic spaces: Nationalism and compromise in the former border enclaves of Bangladesh and India

Steven Grosby, Nationalism: A very short introduction

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