There are some subtle, but notable and important differences between patriotism and nationalism. And unfortunately, trouble happens when you approach the gray area between the two.
When I learned about nationalism in school – must have been junior high – it seemed like a good thing. How could national pride be a bad thing? In fact, nationalism is patriotism.
The distinction between the two lies in the intensity. How patriotic you are matters, because as we all know and understand, too much of a good thing isn’t great. In fact, it’s destructive and corruptive. Even worse, it’s blinding.
It’s the difference between the confident man and the narcissist, or the optimist and the deluded who’s lost his sense of reality. One is healthy and balanced, while the other harms those around him because he can only exist at the expense of others.
Nationalism is defined as being an extreme form of patriotism, emphasizing one heterogenous group over another. It is through this emphasis that issues arise, like in the case of ethnic cleansing. There’s a desire to reign supreme with one nationalistic people, to assert dominance over all others, even if it means getting rid of them.
We’ve seen it time and time again throughout the course of history. It’s usually driven by the need for independence, the fear of “others,” or the coming of age of a superior people. Any of these things are terrifying.
So, I’ll tell you a story. I hear I’m a terrible storyteller, so bear with me.
I remember what it was like on September 11, 2001. New York City was under attack and the terrorists overseas were responsible. We didn’t know a lot about them. Most of us were unaware of the trouble brewing between our nation and their group. Few knew why they sought to attack us. No one was prepared for it.
I was a child in the 8th grade when it happened, and it was a scary day. I have a pretty vivid memory of it, too. I got on the school bus that morning as usual, but the bus driver had turned the radio on. She never did that. What’s more was that the whole busload of junior high students was silent, listening. As the radio announcer detailed what little we knew about the attacks at that time, none of us could really get a handle on the situation.
That morning at school? Somber.
First period? The TV was on and no algebra got done. We learned that an Islamic terrorist group had orchestrated the attacks.
Second period? My friend walked into the classroom bawling her eyes out. I assume she’d been in that state for the entirety of her first class, too. My English teacher’s eyes were wet, and being an English teacher, she encouraged us to talk about our feelings surrounding the attacks.
The general sentiment in the room was,
“Why would they want to do this to us?”
We couldn’t comprehend the attack. As far as our 8th-grade selves saw it, here we were, minding our own business (LOL.), when these planes came out of nowhere, killed a bunch of people, and destroyed a bunch of property.
Then there was the fear. Who were these people? Would they attack us again? Were we at war? How could we protect ourselves?
When it came my turn to talk about my feelings, I kept it pretty surface-level. I had to. I looked like the attackers. I was a brown, Muslim girl in Texas, and while that had never been an issue before, I had a sinking feeling that it was about to become one. I was just a month shy of my 13th birthday, but I was suddenly worried about xenophobia and ignorance. I knew things in this country would be different from that day forward.
As expected, there was a surge of patriotism that swept the country. Everything was about what it meant to be an American. We had to band together as a nation to form a united front against their villains. We couldn’t let them break our spirit or take our freedom. Any objective criticism of the government, our president (who already wasn’t super popular), or our response to the attacks was seen as being “anti-American.” There was no room for questions, no room for discussion.
For me, the fact that I was a Muslim was never really anything I spoke about with my friends, for no reason in particular. It was just a part of my life, a part of me. I was still the same American girl I’d always been. My religion, while it influenced me, was never something that came up in my day-to-day. People never looked at me differently because of it. My friends never treated me differently because of it. I never felt isolated because of it.
Fortunately, my personal life remained largely unaffected after September 11th. I didn’t cover my head or outwardly appear Muslim, which I’m sure had something to do with it. Still, I heard stories of friends of mine who had been told to “go back to your country,” as if they hadn’t lived here their whole lives.
This was happening because with this surge of patriotism came the fear of the unknown. I had underestimated how “unknown” my religion was in this country, too. It’s the largest religion in the world, and the fastest growing. We learn about its similarities and ties with Christianity and Judaism from elementary school. Our mosques are here in plain sight. Women with their heads covered and men with beards shop in the same malls as the rest of us. I saw them. Didn’t everyone else?
No, everyone else didn’t. And not everyone lived in one of the most diverse cities in the nation. I found myself defending my religion to others, whereas before I would just teach them about it. People would listen to me skeptically, whereas before, they’d listen with fascination and intrigue. And now, nearly 16 years later, I’m still in the same position.
I’ve since taken it upon myself to identify more as a Muslim because I think it’s important for people to have a more rounded idea of what a Muslim looks like. We’re as diverse a people as any other religious group. We each practice our religion differently and to varying degrees. We all do things we aren’t supposed to, from drinking to eating pork to engaging in premarital sex – but who doesn’t? Who follows their religion to a T? As a very good non-Muslim male friend of mine once expertly put it,
“Just because you wear a hijab doesn’t mean you can’t ask for a dick pic.”
With the fear of the unknown that is overtaking our country and other major countries in the world, the rise of nationalistic political candidates and leaders is a little terrifying (not naming any names), if only for the fact that the conversation around diversity, acceptance, and understanding is stifled and discouraged. Fear is the dominant tactic used to sway people away from integration and cooperation. Fear prevents any kind of open-mindedness.
But in a truly patriotic nation, we can learn to each identify as Americans, embrace the differences that make us stronger as a nation, and encourage thought and awareness.
To paraphrase a Hamilton lyric, the world is wide enough for us all.