The Rising Trend of Nationalism and Its Implications on Human Rights

american flag
American Flag. Ken Jones. Source: Creative Commons.

During the 2016 election, I was 17 years old, meaning that I was too young to vote and just old enough to be very frustrated by this barrier. Now, for the 2020 election, I am excited to cast my vote in my first presidential election and have thrown myself into learning as much as I can about domestic and international politics. Through this process, I have begun to recognize political trends and waves. Idealism has shifted and flowed along the political spectrum throughout history. Recently, many countries across the world have taken a conservative shift in their political maneuvers and with their elected officials. What makes this shift slightly different is the large rise of nationalism across many countries.

What is Nationalism?

For a definition, people with nationalist leanings dislike the rise of globalization in social structures and political institutions. There is a rather large emphasis on putting national interests and needs before global ones, hence the name “nationalism.” Nationalism is understood to be focused on the ‘cultural unit of the nation.’ However, for a significant portion of history, one’s political leanings were not reliant on national boundaries. This changed in Europe after the Protestant Reformation. The state became more reliant on the people who resided within the nation instead of outside forces like the Catholic Church. Soon, nationalism and self-determination became integral parts of the view of democracy.

 

love china
Love China. Christopher Cherry. Source: Creative Commons.

Nationalism is the strong support of a country, akin to patriotism. Self-determining nationalism refers to a desire for a state rooted in a self-identity. This is the basis of white nationalism, the desire for a white state. Some people may believe that nationalism is rooted in the American story and that without it the Constitution might not even exist. However, realistically, racism and racists in general feel represented and validated by Donald Trump’s form of nationalism. The campaign of “America First” and “Make America Great Again” are set in a very distinctively nationalist direction. The primary issue with this stance is that Donald Trump’s definition of “American” excludes quite a few groups of people who live in the United States. This is called ethnonationalism. A few examples of the ethnonationalist tactics employed by Donald Trump and his party include the creation and fascination with the border wall between the United States and Mexico, the Muslim ban, and the active separation of families along the Mexican border, among many others. Similarly, a rise in white nationalism has occurred, encouraged by the Donald Trump base.

Nationalism Throughout History

During the Industrial Revolution, it became apparent that aspects of a shared identity, such as shared literacy in a single language, would be important to a nation’s success. Thus, the assimilation of groups outside of the collective norm of the country became perceived as a top priority. This assimilation happened through civic institutions but also through ethnic cleansing, war, and other violent methods in order to completely wipe out any cultures or traditions considered to be “different” from the nation’s own. In the 1900s, there was a separation created between the ideas of ‘liberal capitalism’ and ‘nationalist democracy.’ This history lesson is to depict the ebbs and flows of nationalism throughout history. It is not uncommon to witness a resurgence of nationalism; however it is important to understand the negative consequences in order to navigate the resurgence in the most effective way for all groups.

Benefits and Dangers of Nationalism

Nationalism can be utilized for development. Throughout history, nationalism can be attributed to a rise in the buying and selling of domestic products, recruitment in the military, and general patriotism. The idea of a shared identity connected to a country is a motivator among citizens. In Korea and Taiwan officials were able to implement the Japanese inspired top-down nationalist model that greatly encouraged growth. However, nationalism can also encourage exclusion and competition. In Europe, imperialism and colonization were often justified by nationalism. These were two techniques employed by western countries to overtake and completely control countries in Africa and in the Asia, the extremely negative consequences of which are still being seen today. During World War II, Adolf Hitler employed nationalist techniques in order to secure his base and rationalize his tactics as in the best interest for Germany. Nationalist sentiment, seen as establishing one group to be the rightful citizens of a country, is dangerous in an increasingly globalized world.

vox sign
Pro Vox sign. Vox España. Source: Creative Commons.

Nationalism Across the Globe 

After 2016, there was a large rise in nationalist sentiment across the world. Perhaps the most popular stage for this phenomenon was the United States with the election of Donald Trump, who ran on a nationalist platform with the slogan, “America First.” In Germany, the nationalist AfD party has become a major opposition party, and in Spain right-wing Vox has become prominent within the Spanish Parliament. Similarly, nationalist leaders have ascended onto the political stage in China, the Philippines, and Turkey. Nations are no longer made up of a single ethnic, religious, or language group. This increase in exclusionary nationalism that we are seeing could prove to be potentially very dangerous for the groups considered to be “outsiders.” It is important to understand the many different facets of nationalism in order to protect against the negative consequences it brings as these political leaders rise in popularity.

The Return of Alt-Right Conservatism in Spain

A woman waves a Spanish flag and a Vox party flag at a rally.
A woman waves a Spanish flag and a Vox party flag at a rally. Source: Vox España, Creative Commons.

I studied abroad in Alicante, Spain during the spring semester of 2019. I loved my experience, especially the experience I recieved by choosing to live with a host family. I was able to really immerse myself in Spanish culture through my host family and in turn they eagerly showed me their city and their traditions. One of the things my host mother said when she was walking me around Alicante for the first time has stuck with me, even since I left Spain. She pointed out the many Spanish flags that were hanging on the balconies and outside of the windows of the myriad apartment buildings around the city. Unless there is a soccer game, she said, Spaniards hang the Spanish flag outside to show their solidarity with the rising nationalistic ideals in Spanish politics. I looked around that day and was surprised at the number of flags that I saw.

Nationalism was the primary basis of Francisco Franco’s dictatorship that lasted from 1939 until his death in 1975. Franco’s ideologies have been compared to Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy. He led a civil war that lasted three years, dramatically reduced the rights of women to almost nothing, and is considered responsible for killing close to 150,000 people. When Franco died, many Spaniards hoped that extreme Spanish nationalism died with him. Spain has been one of the few countries that has not seen a conservative resurgence until very recently. The rise of the political party Vox has led to a return in ultra-right, conservative, nationalism.

Vox is a far-right nationalist party in Spain that was founded in 2013 by politicians who did not believe that the right wing People’s Party was conservative enough. Vox is considered socially conservative as it works to restrict abortion and economically liberal as it champions policies that reduce taxes. The party’s chief goals include removing the current system of regional powers in favor of one government and one parliament, eliminating the Constitutional Court and the Senate, and introducing Spanish language examinations at the end of each school cycle. At the forefront of Vox’s goals are the needs of Spaniards as party supporters chant the phrase “Spain first.”  The party and its leader Santiago Abascal have been compared to the United States President, Donald Trump, and his administration. Ultimately, Vox has gained power by taking a stoic stance against the Catalan separation movement, a movement where the wealthy region of Catalonia attempts to secede from the country of Spain, solidifying the party’s nationalistic views.

 

Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally.
Santiago Abascal speaks at a rally.
Source: Vox España, Creative Commons.

A large concern about the rise of Vox surrounds the controversial policies that they support. One of the ways that Spaniards have compared Vox and Franco is with their treatment of women and their stance on women rights. Spain recently passed a gender violence law in hopes of reducing the number of women killed or harmed by domestic abuse within the country. The first Spanish political party to openly challenge the law, Vox advocates for repealing the gender violence law as they deem it discriminatory against men. Instead, the party is campaigning for replacing the gender violence law with a Family Violence law that will, as they say, protect all groups. At the same time, the leaders want to create a Family Ministry and use the law to protect the “natural family.” It is interesting because Vox routinely advocates for the family group as a whole, as shown by their support for longer maternity leave and their support for mothers, but when asked about their stance on the divorce or separation of a woman and a man, the party has always argued in favor of the man. Vox aims to eliminate what they consider to be radical feminist groups and prosecute any rape or sexual harassment claims that could be deemed phony. This is problematic because a political party that citizens trust publicly decreeing a claim to be phony without any evidence against the claim delegitimizes the woman making the claim as well as any claims made after. The delegitimization removes any power the woman may have as well as the power of any women who follow her. Vox claims that a “genocide” of men is taking place in the modern era and their policy choices have reflected their stance on women’s rights.

Immigration has been a touchy subject for many countries around the world in the past couple of years.  Vox has taken a very strict perspective on immigration which has gained the party a lot of supporters from the conservative right. However, these strict policy choices could have some serious ramifications on many people in the country should the policies be enacted. Vox advocates for immigration quotas for a majority of countries around the world, referencing back to their “Spain First” mentality. The nationalities that would be exempted from these quotas would be those that also speak Spanish and have good cultural ties to Spain. Vox is also in favor of deporting all undocumented immigrants, no matter their home country situations or the circumstances that caused them to move to Spain illegally. At the same time, Vox wants to prosecute non-profit groups that aid illegal immigrants with anything from providing legal representation to finding shelter for the immigrants. Finally, the party states that removing state aid for illegal immigrants would be a priority.

Vox has proven to be a party that wants Spain to return to an entirely Catholic country. They champion Catholic values and the Catholic church while threatening to remove the presence of other religions within the country. This is especially concerning for Muslim groups within Spain. Spain has a large percentage of people who identify as Muslim, especially in the south of Spain because of the close proximity to the north of the continent of Africa. Vox supports shutting down mosques throughout the country and arresting and deporting what the party leaders consider to be extremist imams. They are also advocating for government funded military missions against “Jihadist threats.” Finally, in a fashion comparable to that of President Trump, Vox lobbies for the Spanish government to enclose the two Spanish cities in Northern Africa, Ceuta and Melilla, in walls in order to prevent any immigrants entering Spain by way of the cities.

The concern following Vox stems from the connections people can draw between the party and the former dictator, Francisco Franco. Vox draws on a voter population that openly sympathizes with Franco. Their support is at 10% with the average voters being men between the ages of 35 and 44 despite the support for Vox within the youth population of Spain also growing. Comparisons are drawn between Vox and Franco’s doctrines of nationalism, policies of limiting women’s rights, and traditional catholic ideologies. The rise of the alt-right within Spain is important to watch as many people within and outside the country can and will be directly affected.

The Kurdish Question

Kurdish soldiers salute the Kurdish flag.
Peshmerga | Kurdish Army. Source: Kurdishstruggle, Creative Commons

Many years ago, or so the story goes, a young, Kurdish man named Mem fell deeply in love with the Emir’s sister – a beautiful, young woman named Zin. This Emir, however, had in his service an ambitious young minister named Beko who coveted the affections of Zin for himself and, thus, set about conspiring to undermine his competition. Ultimately, his machinations proved to be successful, creating a tragic series of events that concluded in a similar vein to that of two far more famous, star-crossed lovers. Mem perished alone in the darkest corner of the Emir’s dungeon, and upon discovering this, Zin followed her lover into the afterlife.

At the funeral, the two lovers were buried side-by-side, but the grave was not yet full. Entranced by the beauty of Zin even in death, Beko leaned over her grave to stare, enraging the Emir:

[He] pulls out his sword and slices off Beko’s head. A drop of his blood falls between the two lovers, and a thornbush grows on the very spot, separating Mem and Zin just as Beko tried to separate them in life. It is said that every time the thornbush is cut down, it grows back. 

The mausoleum of the two lovers still stands today in the city of Cizre, the point at which the borders of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria meet. Yet this story possesses a significance far greater than simple literary achievement. It is the recurring tale of the Kurdish people and their struggle for self-determination.

In this explicitly nationalist story, Mem is a metaphor for the Kurds, while Zin represents the Kurdish homeland. As much as they long for each other, however, there is always a Beko, a meddling outsider, a Turk, a Persian, an Arab who seeks to divide them. The empires of these outsiders may fall, but each plants, in its death throes, the seeds for a new thornbush that will once again deny Kurds self-determination. Ultimately, the modern states of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey are merely the latest iteration of this thornbush.

Turkey and Iraq threaten Kurds over their independence referendum

Mountain Turks or Kurds?

In the Middle East, citizenship and nationhood strongly revolve around the concept of identity primordialism, involving, among many other factors, a common history, language, culture, and ethnicity. It is primarily on this basis that its enemies seek to deny the Kurdish people self-determination — their right to establish a nation of their own and exercise uninhibited control over their own affairs.

For centuries, states portrayed their Kurdish minorities as merely “ignorant and reactionary ‘Mountain Turks’ speaking a debased [combination] of mixed Turkish, Persian, and Arabic.” This is a sound strategy in the sense that it – if true – nullifies the linguistic and ethnic requirements needed to justify a primordial basis for self-determination. As can be expected, however, the Kurds believe otherwise. Masoud Barzani, the current Kurdish leader, succinctly rejected these claims, stating that “from World War One until now, [Kurds] are not part of Iraq. We have our geography, land, and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.”

Ultimately, this leads to the question of who to believe. Are the Kurds simply backwards, uneducated mountain people? Or do the Kurds constitute a distinct people who have been unfairly portrayed by their opponents?

The Linguistic Test

Despite his Marxist inclination to dismiss the nation as a purely “imaginary community,” Benedict Anderson nevertheless made a crucial observation, namely that language possesses “central ideological and political importance” as the “private property”  of a specific ethnic group. Ehmedê Xanî – the Kurdish author of Mem u-Zin – recognized this at an early date (1692 AD), exhorting the Kurds to become literate in their own language “so that people won’t say that […] all sorts of people have their books and only the Kurds are lacking.” Unfortunately, the Kurds ignored his warning, granting their enemies a powerful weapon in the fight to deny them self-determination on the claim that they lack a language of their own.

There are three criteria by which one can evaluate this claim: (1) mutual intelligibility, or the ability of two people speaking two different languages to understand each other; (2) uniqueness in terms of letters, sounds, and words; and (3) recognition.

In order for languages to be mutually intelligible, they must be descended from the same language tree. Although Kurdish is a member of the Indo-European language family, neither Turkish (Altaic) or Arabic (Afroasiatic) can claim the same, meaning that they are not mutually intelligible. Persian, on the other hand, is a member of the Indo-European language family, but it is not mutually intelligible with any Kurdish dialect either.

The origins of these differences are disputed. Some claim it is a result of the mountainous geography making communication difficult, while others claim Kurdish ultimately descended from a language that predates the arrival of Indo-European languages. However, it is known for certain these differences are significant. Aside from primarily using the Latin alphabet (as opposed to the Arabic one), Kurdish also possesses differences in sounds, grammar, and words. This is evidenced in Mem u-Zin where “out of 26,560 words, […] 19,601 (74%) of them are Kurdish, 6,015 (23%) are Arabic, 918 (3% are Farsi), and 26 (less than 1%) are Turkish.”

As in the case of nations, recognition by others represents an important signifier of linguistic legitimacy. Kurdish is recognized as an official language only in Iraq, but only under duress from the United States. Unofficially, both historic and contemporary bans on the use and teaching of Kurdish by the Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Turkish authorities represent de facto recognition of their distinctiveness. After all, is there a point in banning a language that is your own?

News coverage of Saddam Hussein’s chemical attack on the Kurds

A History of Suffering

Despite the fact that scholars disagree on much regarding nationalism, all can agree that a nation – whether civic, primordial, or imagined – requires “a historic continuity” for use “as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.” Such cohesion becomes even stronger when marked by having “suffered together, […] for having suffered together unites more than joy.”

Although the Arabs, Persians, and Turks deny the Kurds their right to self-determination, the Kurds arguably possess a much stronger claim to the northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, eastern Turkey, and northwestern Iran than their current owners. The Kurds resided in these lands at least as early as 2000 BC when they were first mentioned by the Sumerians. Over one thousand years later, the Kurds remained. Ancient Greek historians, such as Herodotus and Xenophanes, described them, as did Strabo during the Roman Empire. Without fail, they always resided in these same lands, even establishing independent kingdoms that still existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Throughout this period, however, the majority of Kurds were conquered by one foreign empire after another. Some Kurds, such as Saladin – the Egyptian Sultan who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders – rose to great heights, but the vast majority were not treated well, to say the least. This served as the impetus for Mem u-Zin, which was passed on orally until Ehmedê Xanî codified it in 1692 AD as one of the first explicitly nationalist pieces of literature to ever be written.

Following the First World War, the suffering experienced by the Kurds began in earnest. They were promised independence in President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the Covenant of the League of Nations, and the Treaty of Sèvres. Ultimately, these promises came to naught as the Turks under Atatürk forced the allies to invalidate the treaty, which was replaced by the treaties of Lausanne and Ankara. These two treaties split the Kurdish populated regions among the newly created nations of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, effectively ending Kurdish hopes for a negotiated independence at this point in history.

However, it did not end agitation for independence by the Kurds, who refused “to accept subordination to the Arabs who, like the Kurds themselves had until then been a subject race.” These feelings were magnified by the harsh treatment of the Kurds by the new nations, which colluded to help each other suppress the Kurds. The Turks executed and imprisoned tribal leaders, students, politicians, and intellectuals, while ethnically cleansing Kurds from some areas. Furthermore, Kurdish youths were forced into boarding schools through which they could be ‘Turkified.’

In Iran, a brief Kurdish state was founded, but it ended after several months following the Allied withdrawal. The leaders of the state were hanged, while other participants were rounded up and imprisoned. Today, even being suspected of being sympathetic to separatist groups can lead to torture, imprisonment, or execution. Meanwhile, the treatment of Kurds in Syria was no better. Members of political organizations were routinely arrested. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds were deprived of their citizenship and deported, their property given to Arab settlers in an attempt at Arabization of the region. In all three of these countries, the Kurdish language was banned.

However, the Kurds have been consistently treated the worst in Iraq, beginning from 1961 to 1963 when the government massively bombed Kurdish towns and cities from the air. Under Saddam Hussein, a systematic attempt to commit genocide against the Kurds occurred. Almost three hundred thousand Kurds were forcibly relocated to southern Iraq, and during the process eight thousand young men and teenagers are believed to have been executed en masse. According to Human Rights Watch, this was part of a “long-standing campaign that destroyed almost every Kurdish village in Iraq […] and displaced at least a million” Kurds. The campaign ultimately ended with the chemical weapons attack on the town of Halabja that killed several thousand men, women, and children.

All of these actions constitute gross violations of every human rights document ever written, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s justification for the Kurdish independence referendum

The Last Thornbush?

Following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, one would expect that things dramatically improve for the Kurds. While there was some improvement, namely that they were no longer being massacred in the hundreds of thousands, the Kurds have merely traded a Pan-Arabist government that despised them on account of their ethnicity for a Shia-dominated government that despises them on account of both their ethnicity and religion, Sunni Islam. The supposedly democratic government of Nouri al-Maliki regularly discriminated against Sunni Arabs and Kurds: delivering inadequate public services to non-Shia Iraqis, cutting power to non-Shia areas, purportedly arresting thousands of Sunnis and Kurds based on their ethnicity, and reneging on constitutional agreements with both as well.

Ultimately, this rampant discrimination pushed many Sunnis into the waiting arms of the Islamic States; however , the Kurds resisted such radicalization. Instead, they fought alongside the United States, as well the Iraqi central government that oppressed them, against the Islamic State. By all accounts, the Kurds suffered from the brunt of the fighting, retaking large portions of Iraq and capturing the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa in Syria.

It is in response to the previously mentioned discrimination, as well as their role in defeating the Islamic State, that Kurds decided that they are finally ready for an independent state of their own. The question now becomes, do they deserve it? The answer is an unequivocal yes for the following reasons:

1) The Kurds meet all of the criteria for nationhood and self-determination, including possessing their own distinct language and a common history.

2) The Kurds have been promised – through a variety of international agreements – independence for over a century. These promises should be honored in order to provide legitimacy to other international agreements on human rights, which also rely on their participants living up to their commitments.

3) The independence referendum occurred peacefully with both high turnout (72%) and overwhelming support (93% in favor).

4) The Kurds rejected radicalization in face of discrimination and persecution, and instead, fought alongside the United States against the Islamic State.

5) The Kurds have been treated harshly by every government that has ruled over them, even committing crimes against humanity against them.

6) The Kurds, unlike the Catalans, will actually be achieving sovereignty.

Throughout their history, the Kurds suffered greatly, but with uncommon resilience and strength, on behalf of their ethnicity. With each passing decade, however, it seems to grow worse. For that reason, it is high time that the world intervene on their behalf. This should be done not only to stop impending bloodshed in the aftermath of the fall of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces, but in order to assist the Kurds in permanently removing the thornbush that stands between them and their beloved, and long overdue, homeland of Kurdistan.