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Nationalism & Patriotism

By: Haider Al-Mosawi

The February 2007 edition of Studentalk (A Kuwaiti student magazine) had a couple
of articles about nationalism (to commemorate the Kuwaiti National Days of 25 and
26 February). I thought I should use the articles to discuss the issue of nationalism and
patriotism, especially since I don’t think the articles did justice to the topic.

Article 1: “The Pearl of the Gulf”

In “The Pearl of the Gulf” article, the writer attempts to answer the question: “What is

Most of the article oscillates between considering nationalism bad (e.g. inciting
violence, leading countries to war, etc) or good (e.g. uniting a nation’s citizens in the
face of an aggressor, uniting different nations in the World Cup, etc). After struggling
to define nationalism, he gives a personal account of sensing “nationalism” when
studying outside Kuwait, and acting as a “cultural ambassador” to explain what “our
country is like.”

He goes on to list some of the things Kuwaiti students do in the West to maintain a tie
with Kuwait (e.g. eating Kuwaiti food, whistling the national anthem, pinning up the
Kuwaiti flag in their residence, etc) and asserts that these are both “examples of
nationalism” and the “best definition of nationalism.”

Commentary on “The Pearl of the Gulf”

While the writer contents himself with reaching a definition of nationalism, his
“defintion” falls short of… well, a definition. Listing a series of examples doesn’t
constitute a definition, and it doesn’t help explain how nationalism can be linked to
war, and whether his definition can completely discard the “negative connotations”
associated with nationalism.

What is striking about the article (actually, about most articles written these days,
especially in student magazines) is the ambiguity of the writing. It’s not a result of bad
writing, but a wrong attitude towards language, in general. Words aren’t taken to have
fixed meanings, and are, therefore, used as approximations, where the writer thinks he
knows what the words mean, and thinks he knows what he wants to say, and assumes
that the reader will understand what he means, even though he doesn’t mean what he
says, because words don’t mean what they do!

The clearest example I can give from the article is the following sentence: “…
continuing the stereotype of a nationalist being unworldly and even racist.” First of
all, what does “unworldly” mean? And how does this “unworldliness” relate to
nationalism? Secondly, while there is commonality between nationalism and racism
(which I will address later on), racism is “discrimination or prejudice based on race”
(from Therefore, it is inaccurate to refer to a nationalist as a racist
(i.e. that nationalism = racism, without identifying a difference between the two).
Such blurring of definitions, I believe, is what led the writer to struggle so much to
define nationalism in the first place!

The second major fault the writer commits is to focus on non-essentials when trying
to define nationalism. If I was to ask you: “What’s a cat?” You wouldn’t say (or, at
least, I hope you wouldn’t): “it comes in different colours, has two ears, can
sometimes be aggressive, but usually brings joy to its owner.” While these
descriptions can be true, they do not define a cat. These characteristics are not
essential to the defintion of a cat, and most of them are shared by other animals,
which does not help to distinguish (or define) “cat.”

In this respect, nationalism can’t be defined by it leading nations into war. That’s a
potential consequence, but is not the definition of nationalism. This includes all the
examples given by the writer on what Kuwaiti students do abroad to keep a
connection with the culture they left behind.

What’s upsetting is that the definition of nationalism comes between the lines in some
instances in the article, but the writer doesn’t refer directly to it. He also fails to
recognize how negative some aspects of nationalism are, and even regards these as
virtues! I will define nationalism towards the end of this post, and will refer back to
this article in order to explain what these aspects are, and why they are negative. But
first, let’s include the second article into the discussion…

Article 2: “National Day”

“National Day” is an interview conducted with a graduate of International Relations,

and the interviewer posed to her some questions regarding nationalism and patriotism.

The interviewee answered 10 questions on the topic of nationalism, which range from
the difference between nationalism and patriotism, to what do the national days
(independence and liberation) of Kuwait mean to the Kuwaiti community?

This article covers more topics than the previous one, but it doesn’t deal with these
topics in depth. There are many important concepts considered, such as the benefits of
nationalism, nationalism and its relation to the individual and to the state, its relation
to modernity, its prominence in wealthy nations, the link between wars and nation-
states and many concepts that branch from these.

Rather than sum up the interviewee’s answers here, I will discuss them in the
commentary, as it is very difficult to mention them without including a commentary.

Commentary on “National Day”

If the first article was ambiguous, the second article is partly meaningless, and partly
dangerous in the understanding of nationalism it asserts and promotes. There are a
wide range of problems in this article, and I don’t know where to place the blame for
them: the interviewer, the interviewee, the editor, the proofreader..?
Spelling mistakes aside, many sentences are not in proper English, so it’s very
difficult to make out what the interviewee is trying to say. But these are minor
problems, in comparison to the definitions she gives, and the opinions she expresses.

The first question asked was: “What is the difference between patriotism and
nationalism?” (a beautiful question, which is why I dedicated this post to it)

She begins her answer with: “Patriotism is the actual state of hand.”

Ok… so what does that mean? And what’s “state of hand”? She tries to elaborate by
saying: “For example, a person feels loyal to Kuwait.” I don’t know what this is an
example of, but it doesn’t seem to be related to her definition of patriotism. Also,
loyalty is a very broad term, and when discussing patriotism and nationalism, it can
mean many different things, as we will see later.

Her definition of nationalism is meaningless, and long-winded: “While Nationalism

may be seen as something to do with the state, or a group of people share same
history, language and believes, also it can be seen as something to do with the state, or
with people who may share certain elements and may be overlap the state bounds” (all
linguistic mistakes are in the original). She gives Arab Nationalism as an example of
the latter part of her definition.

Ok, so what is this “something” that has to do with the state? And if we refer to an
individual as a nationalist, then what relation does he have to the state?

The second question posed to the interviewee was: “Are there any benefits of
patriotism to the country and to the individual?” (The distinction between state and
individual deserves credit. A very thoughtful question)

She begins with: “It is being loyal to die to the state.”

The rest of the answer is not very clear, especially since she avoids using important
words that can make her answer clearer. She justifies this sacrificial attitude by stating
that it makes “the other individuals, who are not in the army, feel secure.” These
“other individuals” could easily have been referred to as citizens. Furthermore, is the
willingness to die for the state limited only to the army, or should it be shared by all
citizens? It’s also not very clear from her answer why citizens (or the army) should be
willing to die for the state, and what possible benefit can they gain from this attitude?
In other words, what does the state represent to the citizens, that they should be
willing to sacrifice themselves for it?

The third question is: “Can one be a patriot and criticise one’s government?“

The answer blurs the distinction between nationalism and patriotism. She begins with:
“Today most people agree that patriotism also invloves service to their country.” This
doesn’t have much of a connection to the question, so I’ll avoid commenting on it.
She then goes on to say that some people believe that you should show full “active”
support for “government policies and actions,” whereas others say a “true patriot”
should speak out against “unwise” and “unjust” actions by his government, giving the
women’s right to vote in Kuwait as an example.
I’ll spare you the agony of a detailed analysis of the other questions and answers, and
I do see myself being able to give a 2 hour presentation (or more) on the faults in this
article. However, I will briefly say that, in her answer to Question 7, she shows
support for propaganda and indoctrination by the government and education system,
so that “nationalism and patriotism” can “remain powerful year after year.” Rather
than refer to propaganda and indoctrination by name, she calls the process a “constant
socialization,” which is intended to “educate” people on their “shared” (albeit, forced)

This is one of the consequences of being unable to define the role of the state, and
what nationalism, or patriotism, should serve within a country.

I will now move on to give my own definitions of nationalism and patriotism, and
why I oppose the first and support the second.


The primary concept associated with nationalism is identity. A nationalist is one who
associates with, or adopts, the identity of his nation, be it in the policies of his
government, the history of his country, the culture of his people, the land that he
inhabits or the religion of his ancestors. Just as racism discriminates between races,
nationalism discriminates between nations (this is why nationalism is sometimes
referred to as geo-racism, or discrimination on geographical grounds).

A nationalist often feels proud of “national achievements”, even if he had no personal

connection to those achievements. What this often leads to is the reliance on national
accomplishments to fill the void of personal accomplishments. It is easier to say: “My
country achieved…” than it is to achieve in life. Again, the same applies to racism.

The ultimate dangers of nationalism are: the support of unjust policies and actions by
one’s government, justification of past crimes perpetrated by one’s country, tribal
attachment to one’s ideology or religion, generalizing characteristics (both good and
bad) over the citizens of an entire country and the inability to recognize a human
connection between others having different nationalities.

The first of these dangers (supporting unjust policies and actions) was mentioned by
both articles, yet both seemed to justify it! This is a natural consequence of a
nationalistic attitude (or a misunderstanding of what one’s responsibility to his own
country is, which I will address in the section on patriotism).

Nationalism attacks one’s ability to think objectively, as his views are distorted in
defence and support of one’s country. This prevents different nations, and the
citizens belonging to them, from having dialogue with one another, since each holds
on to his own subjective “truth.”

And while one may become a nationalist for the benefit of one’s country, nationalism
is not beneficial, neither to the individual citizens, nor to the political system of
the country (i.e. the state). To highlight the faults of nationalism, we must contrast it
with patriotism, to see what the appropriate alternative to nationalism is.

“Identity” is not the primary focus of a patriot, but the well-being of one’s country and
countrymen is. What guarantees a country’s prosperity is not the blind support of
government policies, but the ability to see the truth as the truth, and to conclude what
the correct actions to take are. This requires an objective outlook, where one’s
assessment of facts does not lead to the distortion of the facts to support specific ends
that may be regarded beneficial.

A patriot would, therefore, be willing to admit when one’s country has enacted wrong
policies or carried out wrong actions or oppressed another country. This honesty will
earn the trust and support of other nations, who will not feel compelled to distort the
truth themselves, nor disregard the needs and interests of other nations.

To be oppressive in any form is harmful. Even the dictator who uses force to quash
any opposition will suffer the consequences of his tyranny. Nobody benefits from
oppression, and certainly not for long. There are many harms that tyranny triggers,
which I will address in a separate post. What’s relevant to this post is a patriot’s stance
towards injustice. He does not show support for it because he is morally bound to
oppose injustice as an individual, and because it is not for the benefit of his country.

There are two issues I wish to cover in this post, related to patriotism:

1) If one is loyal to justice, rather than his own country, then does this not mean that
he is patriotic towards all countries on earth? This attitude does not limit one to be
patriotic towards a single country.

A patriot can be concerned with every country on earth, but he will exert his efforts
primarily for the well-being of his own country. As the slogan goes: think globally,
act locally. If one does not act for the benefit of his country, then who will? This
applies to many aspects in life. Do you concern yourself first with the well-being of
other people’s children, or your own? This is why one’s family is more deserving of
one’s charity, and his countrymen are more deserving than those who live in other

This does not mean that one belittles the suffering in other nations, but if each
individual focuses first on the progress of his own country, he can extend his support
towards other countries after having dealt with the problems in his country.

2) If one saw that his country was oppressing another country, is it considered
moral of him to side with his country’s enemy? And how will this relate to patriotism?

This can be asked in a different way: Should one support his own government, even if
it’s a dictatorship? Should Iraqis have supported Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, even
though he was an oppressor?

One is clearly not bound to support his own country’s government if it’s oppressive,
and can even side with another country’s government if it’s in the interest of his own
country. But this only occurs in extreme situations, where one’s goverment cannot be
* * *

In closing, one’s responsibility to his country does not justify support of injustice.
Injustice is not beneficial, no matter how enticing it may be. To fragment people
based on their nationalities is harmful, as it prevents people from recognizing the
common grounds they share with all human beings. Although nationalism and
patriotism overlap in their focus on a country’s well-being, the former disregards facts
and justice, and the latter respects reality and justice.

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