To define the controversial political ideology ‘Nationalism’, we must first define ‘Nation’. It is a community of people linked by race, religion, language, or geographical location. Nationalism is the ideology that such a community forms a separate sociopolitical group; nationalists seek to safeguard the interests of this particular group, as well as take precautions necessary to preserve what they see as its distinct identity. Nationalism as a phenomenon can be found in virtually every society in the modern world, but scholars suggest the roots of modern nationalism are European. It rose to prominence after the Napoleonic period. As the nation-states of Europe came into their own, it was necessary for their success to have a shared belief that could hold their people together. The 18th and 19th centuries were also a time of expansionist tactics and empire-building. While it certainly lent ferocity to their own nationalist sentiments, colonialism is regarded by some as the reason for the spread of the ideology to non-Western societies. A lack of non-Western classical texts on the subject written in the pre-colonial era is cited as evidence for this. I disagree, and in this essay I shall attempt to discuss the place of nationalism in the subcontinent, specifically Pakistan. Asian cultures, particularly those found in the subcontinent, are very strongly collectivist. The importance of the whole is stressed; the individual is important only because of the purpose he or she serves in the betterment of the whole. This concept is clearly seen in early Islamic texts and even the Quran itself: Muslims are a part of one nation, the umma that does not recognize any secular divide. The Quran states that God has divided people into distinct groups so that the identity of each may be preserved. This can be seen as laying part of the groundwork for the nationalist movements that led to the independence of the subcontinent and the simultaneous formation of Pakistan.
European thinkers assumed the philosophy of nationalism would fade into incongruity in the 20th century, but the First World War proved them wrong; not only that, but the period also turned out be a golden age for nationalist movements in British India. It motivated the people like never before; it brought the nexus of Indian identity away from the throne and focused on the common people. In some ways, it created that identity; the subcontinent is a land history shows to have been invaded many times, an ancient melting pot of cultures spread by the sword. From the Aryans to the Mughals, all the rulers were of foreign descent. Yet, only the British faced stiff opposition. It cannot be doubted that nationalist movements played a significant part in the perception of people. The two-nation theory, the Aligarh movement are examples of the strong influences affecting people in the era. The effects did not die out when the ‘stimulus’ of British rule was removed. They can still be seen in policy-making and national aims. Pakistan has lost many soldiers and precious decades on the issue of Kashmir. It has served as a propaganda tool and a direct influence on government policies: trade with India, the political “other”, our perennial rival. Similar sentiments can be seen reflected in Indian policies and media, despite Mahatma Gandhi’s own views. Both countries have been in a prolonged stand-off with each other for generations now and have also fought wars. ‘National spirit’, as psychological support, has helped keep morale high during such times.
That same national spirit is found not just in the political sphere of Pakistani life, but also in the social and personal. Patriotism is a considered a virtue. The media plays an active role in perpetuating this view, but an analysis of school textbooks also reveals just how strongly nationalist ideologies are inculcated in the average Pakistani. Events such as August 14 (Independence Day) and September 6 (Defense Day) are celebrated with fervor, even if the intensity of it varies. This in turn encourages civic values for the good of the nation: hard work, honesty, social awareness and the like. According to Lipson, nationalism is correlated with development in the arts and other hallmarks of culture. It also promotes unity, and provides motivation for the preservation of indigenous cultures. Even in the dry world of economics we can see markets derive benefits from nationalist measures that favor local merchants in various ways. Put together, it seems nationalism is a required element for the optimum functioning of human societies.
But is nationalism really like such a positive element? Critics feel nationalism is a parasitic ideology that has outlived its usefulness. The very definition is uncertain, because it assumes the nation is a homogenous group of people. It ignores the diversity between populations and reduces people to a ‘checklist’ of characteristics. As a result, nationalism often provides cover for xenophobia and warmongering. Evidence for this is apparent in the political and military history of Pakistan. On the individual level, it has an even more insidious complication: a love for one’s country seems inevitably linked to a love of the military. It is no surprise that Pakistani has often been under military rule, and ideological opposition to this can be seen as slowly ebbing away. Secondly, even the concept of ‘national identity’ is tenuous. Some say it is a myth created by intellectual out of romantic, elitist inclinations. As a result, national identity is an explosive term: traditions such as honor killings are defended as part of our distinct culture. In this way nationalism may also pose a hurdle to the development of a progressive, tolerant society.
The lack of nationalist ideology will not, however, guarantee the smooth transition such a Pakistani society. Religious fundamentalists are often against a secular nationalist approach, because the idea of a nation other than the umma is an anathema to fundamentalist thinking. As discussed earlier, the umma itself is symbol of nationalism. This means there must be multiple forms of this ideology. That may be one reason why it is such a controversial one, yet its adherents are from diverse backgrounds. In this case, a tolerant form of nationalism may be just as crucial to the prosperity of Pakistan as a retrogressive, intolerant form would be harmful. Nationalism is a social and political phenomenon that has long been predicted to end, but it is a reality here to stay—as the global and local situation heats up with dangers such as the spread of extremism and wars, a positive form of nationalism will most certainly rise to the challenge to combat these. It’s a matter of survival.
N.B. This essay was later published in the magazine “Ideas Evolved”.
- “The Great Issues of Politics” by Leslie Lipson, 9th edition
- “Nationalism“: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy