by Nikhil Aziz and Chip Berlet

"Nationalism is one of the most powerful forces in the modern world," say social scientists John Hutchinson and Anthony Smith. This is true even in these times of globalization when one might think we have a weakened nation-state system. If anything, the real and perceived effects of globalization on peoples across the globe have reinforced nationalism - as much in the United States as in Iran or India.

The tragic attack in New York on September 11, 2001 witnessed a groundswell of nationalism within the United States, gripping the political leadership as well as common people. Political leaders quickly attempted to mobilize support for their agenda through the use of nationalistic rhetoric and imagery. From the President on down, politicians, pundits, and pollsters portrayed the conflict in simplistic and stark terms of good versus evil. This us/them dichotomy saw the "them" sometimes explicitly identified as particular individuals or organizations, and at other times saw people of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent and immigrants being tarred collectively with the terrorist brush. Flying the U.S. flag and wearing red, white, and blue became rallying points around which people were mobilized, and nationalism and patriotism were proudly displayed. Yet, there were those who for all the flags they might have flown and the national colors they might have worn still were made to feel, or were seen as, less than "real Americans." Most of them were immigrants and most were also Middle Eastern or South Asian.

The Nation as an Imagined Community

Nationalism is an ideology grounded in the allegiance to one's nation. It is crucial, therefore, to understand what the nation is to be able to understand nationalism. What is the nation? Benedict Anderson calls the nation an "imagined community," meaning it is more imagined than real, limited in its scope, and can change over time. Why is the nation imagined? After all, it exists in very concrete and real terms. It has defined territorial boundaries, governments, populations, flags, anthems, histories, and all the trappings of what one believes to be the essential ingredients of a nation. We live in it. And we feel it. This perception is even more real in times of celebration or disaster. Anderson argues that the nation is an imagined community because "the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion." An individual often feels an immediate kinship with another based on nothing more than that they are from the same country, or because they happen to speak the same language or speak it in the same accent.

Anderson says a nation, "is imagined as limited because even the largest of them, encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations." There is always a "them" where the "us" ends. A nation is imagined as sovereign because it was conceived in the crucible of the enlightenment and revolution that dethroned absolute monarchs who claimed the divine right of kings. In the minds of its members the nation became the ultimate political authority. And, "it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship." Class, gender, race, sexuality, religion, and ideological beliefs that indicate difference can and often do get smothered within the common idea of nationality, usually on terms set by the dominant group. These differences also serve to exclude other individuals or groups, including recent entrants, from the imagined community.

It is precisely because the nation is imagined as limited and sovereign that it is inherently exclusive. Imagining the nation as a community does not erase this exclusivity. Certain categories of people are included within its self-construction based on particular and narrowly defined criteria, and many others are excluded. This is true for all nations. Further, these boundaries are both materially and mentally constructed - the barbed wire fences, the deep moat-like ditches, and the armed and uniformed guards exist as much in our minds as they do on the ground.

While nationalism is inherently exclusive in that it excludes others, many nationalists are also exclusive in that they imagine their nation as the "chosen" one. The belief in the United States as the exceptional nation, with out whose leadership the world system would not function, is sacrosanct not only on the U.S. Right but is prevalent across the political spectrum. And it is manifested in the baton-wielding role of global economic, political, and social policeman the United States has assumed.

Implications for Immigrant Rights

Like their counterparts elsewhere, nationalists in the United States look nostalgically at a past that never was to provide a model for the future. Although they often pay homage to their predecessors and past immigrants, recent immigrants and other vulnerable groups are portrayed as different and become the locus of all the present ills. This is a pattern that has repeated itself consistently throughout U.S. history. The groups of people that have been excluded from the U.S. imagined community have included, American Indians, women, African Americans, Catholics, Irish, Southern and Eastern Europeans, Asians, Latinos, Middle Easterners, Haitians, lesbians and gays, and throughout this time,immigrants. Recent demographic changes and economic restructuring in the United States have led to another rise in nativism and nationalism fuelling anti-immigrant sentiment and an attack on immigrant rights. Each economic downturn, societal change, and wave of immigration causes a backlash and a vain move to reimagine the community along more homogenous lines. Although nationalism in the United States professes diversity as an ideal, it negates it in practice.

What are the implications of nationalist ideas for the work of U.S. immigrant rights advocates?

It is clear that we need to work against the negative expressions and effects of nationalism. Recognizing that the nation is imagined helps us to challenge nationalism on different levels. A nationalism that promotes the belief that immigrants are not just outsiders but inferior or potentially harmful, helps justify policies that regulate their entry, whereabouts, length of stay, and access to services and legal rights. But it also contradicts our democratic principles of equality, diversity and pluralism. We can try to redefine the U.S. nation on more inclusive terms, so that recent immigrants, people of color and other frequently marginalized groups are included in the nation without having to pass a higher bar than others do. This approach reaffirms a commitment to the fundamental goals of a democratic state.

Nevertheless nationalism's coercive influence, which requires allegiance to an idealized nation, can be difficult to oppose, especially in times of national distress. To effect long term change, an alternative to nationalism may be necessary. We can challenge the nation as the primary means of identification, encouraging people to think of themselves as part of a global community and to identify with people all over the world. This will help us to advance human rights everywhere, over and above national rights.

Finally, we can see that believing in the uniqueness and superiority of the United States, as well as placing U.S. interests above all others, affects not just immigration policy but foreign policy as well. This suggests necessary coalition work, especially in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, that can strengthen both the immigrant rights and international human rights movements. All in all, gaining a better understanding of nationalism and other factors that affect anti-immigrant initiatives can help activists forge more effective responses.


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This article first appeared in Defending Immigrant Rights: An Activist Resource Kit, published by Political Research Associates, © 2002.

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