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An Outline of Ethnic Nationalism

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When looking at history and its events, one can see the amount of horrifying acts done by humans in the name of their ethnicity or religion. Genocide, war, and colonialism are all products of ethnic nationalism and its ideologies. Ethnic nationalism is when a nation is defined by ethnicity. This could also include sharing a common language, a common religion, and a common race. When a religion or race thinks they are greater than another, you have ethnic nationalism. Oftentimes, the spread of nationalism can be hateful, violent, and horrendous. Ethnic nationalism can be seen in past events like Nazi Germany and Yugoslavia. Adolf Hitler used the economic hardships Germany was experiencing at the time, to his advantage and put the blame on Jewish people to gain support. Hitler saw Germans with blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin as the Aryan race. He used violence and murder to ethnically cleanse Germany of anyone who was not German or had blond hair, blue eyes, and white skin. This lead to the deaths of 11 million innocent people, mostly minorities including people with disabilities, Jewish people, homosexuals, children, and many more. Another example of ethnic nationalism is the Yugoslav war. Many have tried to write about the controversial topic but former politician and Canadian author, Michael Ignatieff, gave the most explanatory analysis.

Across the globe, many races and religions believe they are more superior to others. Many authors and historians have tried to piece together the puzzle of nationalism and why it occurs. Most authors look towards the most infamous rise of ethnic nationalism of all, Nazi Germany. Many different authors and historians have come to different reasons and causes for Hitler’s rise. Some of them include economic hardships, rising intolerance, and racism. Authors like Michael Ignatieff went the opposite way and looked at the Yugoslav wars between the Croatians and the Serbians. Through his investigation, Ignatieff portrayed his findings for the cause of ethnic nationalism in “The Narcissism of Minor Differences”, a chapter in his book, The Warrior’s Honor. There are many reasons for why ethnic nationalism emerges but there are three necessary reasons as to why ethnic nationalism emerges. In Michael Ignatieff’s The Warrior’s Honor, specifically in his chapter “The Narcissism of Minor Differences”, Ignatieff explains how the media, fear, and loyalty all lead to the emergence of ethnic nationalism. His analysis includes outbreaks of ethnic nationalism in Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda. Together, media, fear, and loyalty assemble together to lead to the emergence of ethnic nationalism. The most significant cause of ethnic nationalism that Ignatieff analyzes is the media and its role in the emergence of ethnic nationalism.

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In the chapter “The Narcissism of Minor Differences”, Ignatieff analyzes ethnic nationalism and the causes for its emergence. Through his analysis, Ignatieff brings to light the strong effects that media has on ethnic nationalism and its emergence. Media plays a major role in people’s lives. It can have both positive and negative influences on people’s perceptions of the world and the people around. The media is a place where many people get their news. This can be good as people can have a greater knowledge of what’s going on in the world. This however, can also be bad as the media can influence and distort people’s perception of the truth and reality. The media has the ability to taint society through false ideals. This leads to the media having a strong influence over people and their ideas and beliefs. When analyzing the Yugoslav war and how media lead to the emergence of ethnic nationalism, Ignatieff says, “Long before a shot was fired in Yugoslavia, the media of both Croatia and Serbia were readying their populations to think of the other side as vermin, insects, dogs and other noisome creatures” (Ignatieff, 49). Ignatieff states that before the war started between the Croatians and the Serbians, the media was using their influence over the citizens in both countries to change their perspectives of each other. This lead to further tension between the Croatians and Serbians which aided in ethnic nationalism in Yugoslavia. This was also seen in Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany was regarded as on the biggest propaganda machines of the century. Adolf Hitler had very strong propaganda tools that worked in his favor. He used simple and recurring slogans and images that people could associate with. This manipulation tool helped Hitler gain power of Germany and commit mass genocide. Hitler, known as the “Father of Propaganda”, would not have become chancellor of Germany if it were not for his effective propaganda (Stout, 6). Stout’s analysis of Nazi propaganda and its effect of Hitler’s reign of power, show how effective propaganda was. Hitler had crowds of people lining up to see him and many people were devoted supporters of Hitler and his ideas of Jewish people and on preserving an Aryan race of people with blonde hair, blue eyes, and white skin. This can be seen today in America with Donald Trump’s presidential victory. While many see Trump as a sexist, Islamophobic, xenophobe who should not be running the country, there are many who support his ideas on keeping Mexicans and Muslims out of America. Trump’s spread of popularity could be a result of the media and spread of false and bias media. He gained support over issues that are not even issues. Mexican and Muslim immigrants pose no threat to the safety, availability of jobs, level of poverty, or government debt but through strategic propaganda techniques like name calling, bandwagoning, plain folks, and card stacking. These are all techniques that Hitler used in Nazi Germany and what the Croatians and Serbians used before the Yugoslav war. The false media influenced information, propaganda, helped in the emergence of ethnic nationalism in the nationalistic states Nazi Germany and Yugoslavia. Coupled with the media, fear plays a big role in the emergence of ethnic nationalism.

Fear plays a big role in ethnic nationalism. Fear drives humans to think, do, and say things they would not otherwise do if they did not fear something or someone. When looking at Yugoslavia, one can see the peace and harmony that the Serbians and Croatians lived together in. Ignatieff states that “Before the war, they had been to the same schools, worked in the same garage, went with the same girls.” (Ignatieff, 27). There wasn’t any fighting and just like in many multicultural countries today, people from different backgrounds were living together peacefully as they shared common values. The rising tension in Yugoslavia paired with the change in the way the Croatian government was governing themselves, created fear amongst the Serbians as they were quickly casted aside as minorities. The Croatian government was willing to do whatever possible to unify their own culture, as mentioned in the text “…the project of reunifying the Serbs (or any other ethnic group for that matter) could be achieved only by forcible population transfer, by ethnic cleansing” (Ignatieff, 36). With all of this knowledge, the Serbians knew that all they had was each other. Ignatieff says, that “Nationalism creates communities of fear, groups held together by the conviction that their security depends on sticking together” (Ignatieff, 38) and that “People become “nationalistic” when they are afraid; when the only answer to the question “Who will protect me now?” becomes “my own people”. (Ignatieff, 38). Their trust for others was not high as they knew they could only trust each other. When a person feels threatened, they will always look for help. They will acquire a group mentality, meaning that they think that the only chance of survival is with the collective help of others. In this case, the Serbians abandoned ties with Croatians and stuck to their own ethnically based group of people. The only reason they did this was due to the impending fear that their lives were at risk. If the Serbians did not have this feeling, they would never have divided themselves from the Croatians and created a group that was based on shared ethnic values. As a result of this, both the Serbians and Croatians began to believe that their cultures were superior to each other, which is ultimately the basis of any ethnically nationalistic group. Even though this example is relatively old, fear still has enormous influence upon the minds of individuals which in some cases leads to the emergence of ethnically nationalistic groups. The same idea can bee seen in America today with Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Trump got most of his votes due to fear mongering. Trump and his exaggerated ideas of mainly Muslims, Mexicans, and other immigrants appealed to many voters. Trump used them as the scapegoat for terrorism, crime, and lack of jobs in America. If he would not have built his campaign around building a wall to keep out Mexicans, extreme vetting and banning of Muslims, and harsh rhetoric about women, homosexuals, and people of color, he would not have won the presidential election in November 2016. Therefore, showing that even today, fear has a tremendous effect upon individuals, leading to them diverging back to their ethnic roots and cutting off the external world. Alongside fear, the emergence of ethnic nationalism is attributed to the loyalty that one has for their group.

The loyalty that people have to their culture and religion plays a big role in the emergence of ethnic nationalism. Nationalism is a very aggressive form of patriotism which comes with much more aggressive actions of showing loyalty for your country. These aggressive actions of nationalism often include honor killings, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and war. When talking about ethnies and ethnic nationalism, Anthony D. Smith says that ethnies are a “named human populations with shared ancestry, myths, histories and cultures, having an association with a specific territory, and a sense of solidarity” (Smith, 32). Both Ignatieff and Smith share the same ideologies of nationalism in the sense that if someone feels an intense tie to their group, they are nationalistic. While both the Croatians and the Serbians have their own separate ancestry, myths, histories, and cultures, they both share the same territory, which is Yugoslavia. Ignatieff says, that “Nationalism is a fiction…To believe in nationalist fictions is to forget certain realities” (Ignatieff, 31). While the Croatians and the Serbians share a common territory peacefully, the minor difference that is their nationality or ethnicity, is focused on a lot. It is the minor difference of their ethnicity that comes between them. When recounting his conversation with the Serbian soldier, Ignatieff says, “My dapper Serbian soldier simply cannot tell me what he is fighting for, other than his own survival. But survival doesn’t entirely explain why he is here, because he knows perfectly well that until a few years ago, his survival was not in question.” (Ignatieff, 30) and, “Nationalist ideology tries to fill this void inside him; tries to give the foot soldiers a reason to fight and die. But whatever this particular Serb has heard on his radio and in his local paper does not swallow up the identity formed by his own personal experience” (Ignatieff, 30). This illustrates that the Serbians and Croatians are not actually fighting for a true cause. The Serbian soldier knows deep down that he is no better or superior than the Croatians. They are simply fighting only in the name of their ethnicity or for the loyalty to their ethnicity. While there are no problems with being loyal to your ethnicity or religion, acting blindingly on behalf or for your religion or ethnicity can lead to many problems like it has in Yugoslavia between the Croatians and the Serbians, and also presently in the Middle East. Everyday, there are people who claim that they are killing and dying in the name of Islam. People who are not reflecting the true values of Islam are killing others and themselves for Allah. This can be a huge issue because it tarnishes the true Islamic religion and it brings negative outcomes to people who are practicing true Islam. This has caused many problems in the Western world. Many good Muslims are facing hate and violence from people who are ignorant to the truth that the people who are killing others in the name of Islam, are not true Muslims but rather radical extremists using Islam as their scapegoat for killing others. By looking at these instances of loyalty to one’s ethnicity or religion, it is clear that an extreme loyalty can become very nationalistic and dangerous for others as it leads to war and murder. Being one of the biggest causes of ethnic nationalism, loyalty can make a person disregard reality. Ignatieff says, that “Nationalism is a fiction: it requires the willingful suspension of disbelief. To believe in nationalist fictions is to forget certain realities.” (Ignatieff, 31). This means that people are often ignorant to change and new ideas about others. They think that they are the best and their ways of life, including religion and culture, are also the best. Along with media and fear, loyalty plays a big role in the emergence of nationalism.

Overall, Michael Ignatieff, a highly respected former politician and Canadian author, illustrates the most critical reasons for the sudden emergence of nationalism. Ignatieff’s analysis in the novel The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, specifically in his chapter “The Narcissism of Minor Difference”, is the most influential and intuitive piece of work on the subject of ethnic nationalism to date. Throughout time, the world has seen various groups and communities that are regarded as ethnically nationalistic, however, the world has never seen anything like the sudden emergence of ethnic nationalism in recent century. Ignatieff’s theory illustrates the causes behind the sudden uprising of ethnic nationalism and communities throughout the world today. Ignatieff associates the emergence of ethnic nationalism with three principle causes: media, fear, and loyalty. Unlike other theorists, Ignatieff’s’ reasons for the emergence of ethnic nationalism are supported by historical evidence and studies conducted by himself in Yugoslavia. Ignatieff’s interpretative analysis of ethnic nationalism and the reasons for its emergence will serve as the turning point for perspectives on ethnic nationalism.


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