Nationalism & Patriotism

Posted in Politics at 12:30 am by Haider

Nationalism and Patriotism – By Haider Al-MosawiUpload a Document to Scribd
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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 Nationalism?”

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 dictionary.com). 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) identity.

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 countries.

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 reformed.

*     *     *

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.


  1. Seth said,

    March 18, 2008 at 6:51 pm

    Would you agree that “nationalism” is a natural emotion, while “patriotism” is a cognitive choice? If so, would you elevate “patriotism” over “nationalism” as far as rationale is concerned?

  2. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 8:02 am

    Seth, I would say that both “nationalism” and “patriotism” are cognitive choices, but the former is more simplistic and leans more towards a perceptual level, whereas the latter is more abstract and very conceptual.

    Nationalism is a tribal attitude extended over a landscape, where the government is perceived as the tribe leader, who the people place their trust in.

    Patriotism doesn’t place so much trust in the authority of the government, but seeks to evaluate the conditions a country is living in and propose the best solutions that would serve the country.

    Patriotism is more individualistic, and aims at the pursuit of justice, whereas nationalism is more tribal and justice is lost to immediate gains for one’s country.

  3. Seth said,

    March 19, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    You don’t see any emotional attachment involved in “nationalism”? Or well, perhaps this is better, what would you call the emotional attachment one feels towards his homeland with disregard to any governing institution, or even cultural background? Just that age old saying to “long for home”?

  4. Haider said,

    March 19, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    Yes, the bond you speak of is certainly natural, especially if we associate fond memories to the place we live in, the people we meet and greet, the climate and the lifestyle we have.

    We can certainly see ourselves “belonging” to the place we were born. That’s a strong attachment to have.

  5. Computerchi said,

    April 9, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    I hate you.What is this? I struggle with my MBA assignments as they expect us to write 2500 words per assigment. This single post on your blog is 2523 words according to MS-Word.
    You know what, can I have your thoughts on Operations Management, Marketing Strategy, and Human resources. Please have each in a separate post with the same word limit. Let me know when done!


  6. Haider said,

    April 10, 2008 at 9:36 am

    Salaam Computerchi,

    hmmm… maybe I should be taking an MBA course! 😛

    I think I should do a series on How to Write to help you go above the 2,500 word mark! I think I’m an expert in this field 😀

  7. teagirl said,

    July 11, 2008 at 6:27 pm

    I agree with Computerchi. Your one post is more than I’ve ever written for any report on any subject. Ouch, my eyes.

    Your topics are interesting, but in my opinion way too long for a blog… You should consider publishing your posts online: http://www.scribd.com/
    Its like flickr, but for writers 😉

  8. Haider said,

    July 11, 2008 at 8:20 pm


    Thank you for your feedback and suggestion. In my more recent articles I’ve included a summary of the post so that it becomes easier for casual readers to get the gist of the articles. But to post the summary on my blog and the full article on scribd is an option to consider…

    Thanks again and my apologies for any eye injuries you may have suffered while going through my blog.

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