OPINION: Why is nationality so important to us?

by | Nov 27, 2015 | Opinion

Ali Amad

Arts & Entertainment Editor

On November 13, in Paris, France, 130 people were killed and hundreds more injured in a series of brutal coordinated attacks that shocked the world. The militant Islamic State, also known as ISIS, claimed responsibility for these violent acts.

“Faced with terror, France must be strong, she must be great,” said French President François Hollande in a speech soon after the attacks. Hollande spoke proudly of his nation’s ability to defend itself and defeat the terrorists before signing off with a centuries-old exclamation: “Long live the Republic and long live France!”

Hollande’s patriotically charged words made me think of how often leaders turn to nationalist rhetoric during times of strife. For any conceivable crisis, national identity immediately comes to the forefront as a powerful propaganda tool to rally and unify support.

This behaviour extends to peacetime situations as well. At international sporting events, people dress in the colours of their country’s flag, rise for the national anthem and bellow patriotic chants with enthusiasm.

People are proud of their heritage, of the traditions, history and accomplishments of their respective countries. But nationalism has a dark side.

We supposedly live in an era of globalization and togetherness, but there’s been a significant backlash against this phenomenon. As world economies become more intertwined, and as ethnicities in multicultural countries like Canada continue to mix, the more powerful nationalism seems to be. It’s a paradox capturing the fear people have always had of change, of what’s different.

South of the border, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s nationalistic fervor and xenophobic rants have struck a chord with a sizable percentage of the American population, even if they won’t be enough to get him elected.

Canada has its own Nationalist Party championing “the maintenance of European heritage and culture in Canada.”

The Canadian government, particularly during the tenure of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, spent millions on nationalist propaganda trumping up the War of 1812 and Vimy Ridge.

But with a growing immigrant population no longer connecting with that heritage or history, the definition of Canada in 2015 is fluid, to say the least.

Claiming you are Canadian or proud to be Canadian is a statement open to vast interpretation. I am a Canadian citizen, but saying I’m Canadian reveals little about my personality, beliefs or values.

Canada symbolizes different things for different people, the same way France represents a variety of ideals and realities for its diverse population.

Ask France’s substantial Muslim minority what their country’s public ban on niqabs represents to them and a divergence from the French “norm” will quickly become manifest.  A number of the Paris attack perpetrators were even French.

The danger with appealing to people’s nationalities the way Hollande and many other politicians do is it has a tendency to aggregate and stereotype them. I’m sure not all Italians love spaghetti and soccer, as I’m sure not all Israelis hate Palestinians or Islam.

It creates an illusory construct of what it means to be “French” or “Canadian” or whatever. It also fosters an “us vs. them” mentality: if you aren’t for us, then you aren’t a true (insert nationality here)!

Human beings are obsessed with categorizing each other in every possible way, from religion to gender to income. Is nationality a necessary additional means of division?