The words “nationalism” and “patriotism” are frequently used interchangeably and usually in terms of admiration of those who possess these qualities. The truth, however, is that the two ideas are poles apart, and lead to dramatically different results in a body politic.
Nationalism is a feeling among a group of people that they are “a nation”, a people distinct from all the others. The group may base this feeling on a belief in a common origin, on the use of a common language, or religion, or on any other attribute, as long as that attribute serves to emphasise a difference of that group from the other people and groups.
Nationalism is Aa state of mind independent of State borders, as for example, in African nationalism, Arab nationalism, and even religious nationalism such as Hinduism, Sikh, and Catholic/Protestant nationalism in Northern Ireland.
In early human history, man as an individual would have been vulnerable without a supporting group within which to wrest a living from nature. The need to know oneself as part of a group thus developed to the level of an instinct. This is probably why Aristotle described man as “a political animal”.
Patriotism on the other hand, (derived from the Spanish word patria, meaning one’s country or homeland) is a more modern “feeling” of one being aware that one’s destiny is linked to a particular country or Patria, within its geographic confines; of wanting to advance the common good for all who find themselves within the borders of that country.
Patriotism is not concerned with the origins of the people and rejects the notion that any differences in people could affect their political rights, obligations or benefits.
As a means of attaining political office, the leader of a group finds nationalism an incredibly efficient recruitment tool. All the leader has to do is remind “his” people who they are, point out some other people as the enemy, and the faithful will instinctively rally to the call.
There can be no nationalism without “the enemy”. The patriotic leader’s job is not easy; he or she must to explain what the real issues and problems are that need solving, how they came about, and what should be done. This takes more deliberative effort on the part of the supporters as well, as they shift their focus from who to what the problem is.
Clearly, patriotism would be the way to go to serve the interests of the people. But in the rush for political office, many leaders prefer to use nationalist sentiments, unable to resist the easy (but very transient) political dividends.
And the faithful feel good, each basking in the glow of their own colourful tribal parades, proclaiming their eternal difference from all the other people, never suspecting that what they admire is the dangerous beauty of a fresh-hatched viper!
In Uganda these days, these “tribal” nationalisms are becoming ever stronger and more vocal, as patriotic sentiments seem to recede. What is your leader telling you today? Is he or she a patriot or a nationalist? Is he/she promoting our differences or the ties that bind us? You had better know the difference, for the sake of all those upon whom you wish peace. Because nationalism is war!