What it is: Nationalists believe in 'the nation' as their preferred political unit and a source of pride. They may already belong to a nation, and want it to be more prosperous and powerful, as many countries' nationals do. They may want to create a state of their own within an existing country (as the Tamils have done unilaterally in Sri Lanka or the Basques by agreement in Spain) or across existing frontiers (like the Egyptians and Syrians who, after the Second World War, tried to create a pan-Arab nation based not on religion but on land, language and law). Nationalists may belong to a group with common interests and culture who want to free themselves from colonisation or imperialism, as the East Timorese did.
What it means: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that 'everyone has the right to a nationality'. It's been said that people tend to identify more with their nationality (or ethnicity) than with their government. Being 'British' (a national term) seems to matter to many Britons more than being citizens of a state, 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'. The UK, like many other states, contains more than one group that has a sense of nationhood, such as the Scots and the Welsh. 'National' flags, 'national' sports teams, 'national' rights arouse more passion than 'national' government - not least because in democracies governments seldom represent more than half the population, and other types of government may be simply forms of management and authority to resent and possibly resist. Governments also change. Some nationalists are keen to preserve what need not change: their national language, traditions, culture and history. But nationalism starts to be dangerous when people believe that their nation is superior to others, and that the people of other nations must be excluded, even forcibly. The Nazi government in Germany is one of the most infamous examples of aggressive national pride expressed through racist policies. Neo-Nazism - militant nationalism and racist aggression - has been banned in most countries, but continued its activities into the 21st century.
Think about it:
(1) Much aggressive nationalism has been created needlessly, simply by the imposition of national boundaries. If you look at the history of countries created in the 20th century (such as Iraq, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, and the Irish Republic) you will see that the creation of their borders crossed, and divided, natural 'national' and ethnic groupings. There have been wars in all those countries. One state, Yugoslavia, has even ceased to exist - with yet more cross-border conflict as a result. Those fatal frontiers were drawn up by people from other states such as France and the UK. What about these mapmakers? - unwise, or unaware, or working for the interests of their own countries ?
(2) For many years Israel and Lebanon were at war. The father of an Israeli killed in Lebanon in 1982 wrote to Israeli leaders and denounced them for starting a war for purely nationalist reasons. After the Israeli army finally withdrew from Lebanon, in 2000, the father told the leaders they should beg forgiveness for 'all those murdered young men, whose innocence and love of their country you exploited so shamelessly...' He warned Israel's public to beware of 'the violent nationalism that at all times in history has wrapped itself in the mantle of a patriotism claiming to act for the good of the nation. And always, too, leaves behind nothing but ruins, destruction, blood and tears'. How is it that some kinds of nationalism can make people do dreadful things? How responsible are the leaders for this?
(3) How important is language? Ukraine is a country with borders that shifted many times. It achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. After that the Russian and Ukrainian languages became the weapons in a struggle between the two cultures. A writer living there said cultural conflict was 'much easier than reforming the economy and creating a society in which all can feel they are citizens fully valued and with full rights'. In Greece minority languages have effectively been banned, including the Slav language spoken by the Macedonians of northern Greece (two of whom were taken to court for claiming that there was a Macedonian minority in Greece and that it was discriminated against). There has been deep fear in Greece that a Macedonian 'national identity' might develop. Do people use language and culture to find an identity for themselves? Is being a nationalist a good way to do it?