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A month of ideas.
Giancarlo Bosetti Editor-in-chief
Association for dialogue and intercultural understanding
Intercultural Lexicon
IT AR Tuesday, 7 November 2006


Amara Lakhous

The 20th Century was par excellence the century of nationalisms. It is sufficient to remember that the causes of the two world wars were directly linked to the consequences of nationalist doctrine exalting all that belongs to one’s own nation.

In his essay entitled Meaning of nationalism, published in 1954, Louis Leo Synder analysed the various nationalisms and emphasised four basic models: integrative (the Unity of Italy), dividing (scission of the Ottoman Empire), aggressive (fascism and Nazism) and finally, contemporary (decolonisation of third world countries). Starting precisely with the third model, and therefore “aggressive nationalism”, one can prove how violence is congenital in all forms of nationalism.

The objective of all nationalisms has always been that of creating an autonomous and independent political body, hence a “nation state”. This inevitably involves the need to continuously define, also using force, one’s own geographical, historical, linguistic and religious space. Hence establishing first of all impenetrable borders, emphasising and exasperating differences, eliminating all points in common with “others”, denying all processes involving acculturation and syncretism. There are many emblematic examples of the attempts made by a number of nationalist elites, for example in the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, to eliminate from the ‘national dictionaries’ words of “non autochthon” origin.

One must however admit that the nationalist doctrine has been a functional instrument for third world countries so as to free themselves from colonialism. After conquering independence however, nationalism became an ideological and propaganda platform for maintaining power, repressing dissent, strengthening internal consensus and oppressing the various minorities (as in Algeria and Vietnam). In this case, resorting to rhetoric to safeguard one’s beloved homeland from external and internal enemies is obvious.

Many horrible crimes have been committed in the name of love for one’s homeland and hence it is important to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism (My professor of political philosophy at the University of Algiers always repeated that: “patriotism means loving one’s country, nationalism instead means hating the homeland of others”). It was precisely hatred that set off the genocides in Rwanda and in former Yugoslavia at the end of the last century, after nationalism had generated a new model: ethno-nationalism.

Finally it is legitimate to ask oneself whether the nationalist doctrine is compatible with democracy. The answer is negative. The acknowledgement of political, religious and linguistic pluralism is at the basis of all democratic projects, unlike nationalism that aspires to a project (utopia?) involving one single territory with precise borders, one race, one religion, one language, one political party, one flag, etc.


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