Nationalism, nationality, and ethnicity: a better world without them?

By  Tim Jan Rozendaal

Today, it is commonplace to make sense of the world in terms of nation states and corresponding ethnic groupings. Usually, when I start a conversation with someone who does not speak Dutch, the where are you from-question is unavoidable. When someone asks me about my nationality, I usually answer that I am Dutch. That actually means: I have been raised by two Dutch parents in a small village in the vicinity of Rotterdam. Recently, however, I started wondering: am I Dutch, as in that it is a fixed and stable fact, or is it an identity imposed upon me without my actual consent? And if I consider myself ethnically Dutch, does that mean that other Dutch people could be ‘less Dutch’ than me?

This brings me naturally to a very interesting case: that of immigrants in the Netherlands. I do not mean students who come here to study at Leiden University for a certain amount of time. Although the contemporary Dutch society is very diverse in terms of cultures, I mainly refer to people from Moroccan or Turkish descent, people that according to some discourses, ‘do not belong here’. But, tell me? Why would someone don’t belong here whereas some else does belong? Did hunter gatherers, for instance, think in such terms? To them, the world was one big, vast, undiscovered space. Never had they heard of borders, states, nationality, or ethnicity. These are all modern constructions, and we should really start wondering if we have made the world a better place by attaching so much value to these constructions.

The ideology of nationalism and the categories of nationality and ethnicity seem to be so embedded in our thinking that we use them without being aware of the danger of them. Real life examples tell me that they often lead to stereotyping, tension and in the worst case even to warfare or massacre. Dutch people, to provide such an example, sometimes make jokes about people from Flanders. Innocent on the surface, but hurtful and stigmatizing in effect.

More extreme examples are the large-scale ‘ethnic cleansing’ that occurred in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s or the racial ideology of the Nazis during World War II. The connection between ethnic genocide and simple jokes perhaps does not seem obvious, but yet they are both based on our unabating tendency to categorize people. Let’s look at a more recent example: Syria. the country is torn apart simultaneously by a civil war and by the terror of ISIS.

However, the collaboration of Turkey and the other engaged forces to jointly address these issues is impeded by the fact that the former views the ethnic Kurds, situated in both Turkey and Syria, as terrorists. This is presently turning into a conflict in itself, as if the Syrian war was not already complicated and alarming enough. Regrettably, ethnic cleansing still occurs as well. I read about the deplorable situation of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and this morning I saw an item on the news about mass graves. How much more evidence do we need about the noxiousness of ethnicity as a category?

And what about nationalism? I consider nationalism a desire for unification between people, which makes sense to me. To come back to the beloved hunter gatherer-comparison once more: dividing themselves in tribes was one of the very first things they did. Identifying yourself with a particular flag or ethnic group is not very different from aligning yourself with a particular tribe.

But what has all the upheaval in Catalonia genuinely yielded thus far? I am aware of the fact that economics plays a big role in this as well; Catalonia is among the richer areas of Spain and believes it pays to much tax to the Spanish government in Madrid. I also understand that from my lazy chair in The Hague, it is hard to judge about the feelings of Catalonians in relation to the rest of Spain.

And yet, when I get a sense of the animosity between the  Spanish and the Catalonians, I simply cannot help asking myself: why? For what reason this strict dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’? Why so strongly identifying with nations? I do not wish to be very judgmental, but I do think, quite frankly, that the abstract forces of nationalist thinking have gone too far in our world.

I am not advocating for a world entirely devoid of nationalism and ethnicity, but I do think, however, that we should realize that at the end of the day we are all human, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, descent, or any other form of categorization. In that way, I think we could actually make the world a bit better.

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