Ethnic Nationalist Movement

Feeling patriotic? Let's delve into what counts as patriotism, what counts as nationalism, and how the two terms overlap. They are often confused: you may hear that "ethnic nationalism" is a bad thing, whereas "civic nationalism" is a good thing," but it's not so simple. Some ethnic nations are highly patriotic toward their nation and simultaneously toward the country they are citizens of. Others aren't, and may be openly hostile toward their country, but for a good reason: perhaps discrimination and persecution are involved, and they've had enough. Let's take a look.

Ethnic Nationalist Movement Ethnic Nationalist Movement

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Table of contents

    Ethnic Nationalist Movement Definition

    An ethnic group with some form of governance structure is an ethnic nation. An ethnic nation typically promotes feelings, words, and actions that support its identity and rights. This is called ethnic nationalism and may involve slogans, symbols (such as flags), media presence, education, (re-)writing of its history, and more. In the eyes of the state, ethnic nationalist movements can range from innocuous to highly threatening, particularly in the latter case when they involve separatism or the formation of an armed wing.

    Ethnic Nationalist Movement: the collective ideas and actions of an ethnic nation designed to promote the identity and rights of an ethnicity in cultural, economic, and political spheres. Ethnic nationalist movements often are represented by political parties (in situ or exile) and may include different factions with distinct objectives but within a shared, broader goal.

    Ethnic Nationalism vs Civic Nationalism

    Civic nationalism is the promotion of the values of "good citizenship" amongst the citizens of a country. It is typically promoted by the government of the state and in all public institutions. It is the "glue" that holds countries together.

    Civic values (which proponents often call "civic virtues") may include patriotism; knowledge and appreciation of government functions; the roles and responsibilities of citizens in this government; and a connection to perceived dominant value systems of the "national culture," often related to religion.

    "E Pluribus Unum" (out of one, many) and "One Nation under God" are two US value statements; the former, suggesting that unity comes from diversity, is less controversial than the latter. Many US citizens support the mention of the Christian deity as a patriotic statement, while others reject it based on the secular (non-religious) government structure which has no ties to any religion, as defined in the Constitution.

    Civic values are often instilled in children in public schools via the incorporation of certain patriotism-building exercises such as pledges of allegiance to the flag, patriotic songs ("My Country 'tis of Thee"), and a curriculum that includes state-approved content in subjects such as history (the "official version").

    Let's contrast this with ethnic nationalism. In Native American cultures of the US, national civic values, as well as national ethnic values, are taught. This is because, as officially-recognized ethnic nations with a degree of autonomy, allegiance to nations, bands, tribes, pueblos, and so forth must accompany allegiance to the US; one does not diminish the other.

    However, when any ethnic group begins to demand access to certain rights that challenge the sovereignty of the country in which it is located, or support the state but challenge other ethnic groups in the country, things can get messy. Very messy. Think Nazi Germany messy. More on this below.

    Aztlan and the Republic of New Afrika were US ethnic nationalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s that advocated the use of violence (among other tactics), and as a result, were infiltrated and dismantled by the state.

    Ethnic Minorities Targeted by Nationalist Movements

    An ethnic group perceiving itself as innately superior to other groups, if it gains power, will very likely seek to diminish the power of what it perceives to be "inferior" minorities through tactics ranging from discrimination to expulsion to outright genocide.

    Ethnic Nationalism in Nazi Germany

    The Nazi Party in post-World War I Germany drew from the deep well of German nationalist sentiment. It linked ideas about ethnic nationhood to the need for land, the subjugation of other "inferior races," resentment over loss in the Great War, and economic punishment by other countries.

    The story, and its denouement, have served as a reminder of how dangerous ethnic nationalism can become.

    Ethnic nationalist movement Jewish badge StudySmarterFig. 1 - Jewish badges, an infamous identifying symbol the Nazis forced Jewish people to wear

    The Nazis created a hierarchy with those of supposedly ethnic "Aryan heritage" at the top, and distinct fates were allotted to different groups: ethnic minorities such as Roma ("gypsies"), Jews, and Slavs, and other populations not considered normal, whether in sexual orientation, religion, or ability. Treatment ranged from expulsion to enslavement to extermination. This was known as the Holocaust.

    Feelings of ethnic superiority that end in genocide did not begin or end with the Third Reich. Far from it: this is why the UN Genocide Convention exists. It specifically excludes economic persecution and seeks instead to prevent ethnic destruction.

    Melting Pot: Unity vs Diversity

    While many countries have pursued devolutionary strategies recognizing the rights and privileges of ethnic nations, others have gone in a different direction and tried to forge civic nationalism subsuming ethnic (and other) differences under an often invented unifying identity. There have been spectacular successes as well as failures; below is a representative list.


    "Yugoslav" was an invention that did not survive the fall of communism (which typically subsumes ethnic nationalism to civic nationalism). The federal system of Yugoslavia relapsed into chaos as ethnic nations reasserted their unique rights to territory and became separate countries after 1990.


    Like most other African countries with boundaries imposed arbitrarily by European colonial powers, the Rwandan national identity was revealed as fiction after Hutu and Tutsi ethnic nations engaged in several rounds of genocide and civil war. In recent years, the national civic identity of being Rwandan has re-asserted itself. Indeed, the project of forging this type of identity to combat ethnic nationalism is ongoing throughout the continent.


    Tanzania has over a hundred languages and the same types of long-running inter-ethnic animosities found elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Given this, independence icon Julius Nyerere promoted Swahili, a coastal trade language, as the national language, part of his platform of Ujamaa, African socialism that attempted to transcend tribal and other ethnic sentiments. As a testament to this legacy, aside from separatist sentiment and action early on in Zanzibar, an island off the coast, Tanzania has been remarkably free of ethnic-based conflict in nearly 75 years of independence.

    United States of America

    Without an official language or religion, the US nevertheless managed to forge civic nationalism among millions of immigrants, members of hundreds of ethnic groups, arriving from across the planet. Some lost their languages and ethnic nationalist sentiments after a generation or two, becoming part of the "American" melting pot. Others such as the Amish and similar Anabaptist sects engaged in long-term peaceful separatism in their own geographic territories, and kept their original languages, with the same fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

    Ethnic nationalist movement US StudySmarterFig. 2 - Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni (Japan) residents singing "America the Beautiful" and "My Country 'tis of Thee" during a September 11 memorial ceremony in 2006

    Many groups have retained enough of their ethnic character to justify being labeled with a hyphen: Mexican-American, Italian-American, Irish-American, and so forth. In the case of African-Americans and Anglo-Americans, there is a fraught discussion of the difference between ethnicity and race.

    Latin America

    Most Latin American countries gained independence over 200 years ago and have well-formed national civic identities ("Mexican," "Costa Rican," Colombian," etc.). Ethnic nationalism rarely threatens the state in Latin America, though it is widespread in the resurgence of ethnic pride among Indigenous groups, peoples of African descent, and others.

    Ethnic Nationalism Countries

    In this section, we look briefly at each region of the world.

    Ethnic Nationalism in the Americas

    The assertion of ethnic nationalist values is widespread among the peoples descended from groups present before 1492. Each country's situation is different, from the First Nations of Canada to the struggles of the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina.

    In general, Indigenous groups have often regained or held onto substantially large areas of land but do not form majorities of the overall population outside of Bolivia. They have been subject to systemic racism in most countries, but hundreds of active Indigenous movements are currently working for positive change.

    Ethnic Nationalism in Europe

    The European Union is an exercise in civic nationalism, among other things, given what the history of ethnic strife has wrought in Europe. Ethnic nationalist movements are still present and gaining strength; this has been seen on both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict since 2014. This is instructive for understanding the scale of the threat from ethnic nationalism that remains in Europe (we could also mention Serbia, Kosovo, Scotland, Flanders (Belgium), Catalonia (Spain), several parts of Italy, Cyprus, and the list goes on).

    Ethnic Nationalism in Sub-Saharan Africa

    Devolutionary strategies to combat violent ethnic nationalism in Nigeria, Ethiopia, and elsewhere have had limited success. Ethiopia suffers from regular bouts of inter-ethnic warfare, as does Nigeria, though the latter has avoided all-out civil war for several decades. Other countries range from those that have forged a national identity that supersedes ethnic nationalism, as could be argued has happened in Botswana, Senegal, and Ghana, for example, to countries that seem to be largely fictions, as allegiance remains almost entirely to ethnic nations: Chad, Niger, Somalia, and the Central African Republic come to mind.

    Ethnic Nationalism in North Africa and the Asia-Pacific Region

    Islam and particularly the presence of Arabic-speaking ethnic nations has been a unifying factor, albeit riven by ethnoreligious differences between Shi'ites and Sunnis and between moderate and extremist factions.

    Ethnic nationalism in the service of the state, often tied to a religion, has led to discrimination against minorities in places as diverse as Turkey (Turks vs. others), Myanmar (Burmese/Buddhist vs others), and Sri Lanka (Sinhalese Buddhists vs. others). Ethnic nationalist movements, in turn, have organized and turned violent to resist being erased: Tamils in Sri Lanka, Kurds in Turkey, Chin State ethnic nations in Myanmar, etc. Japan, China, and Indonesia also have histories of promoting civic nationalism at the expense of ethnic nationalism, as do many other countries in the region.

    Ethnic Nationalist Movement Example

    A Torres Strait Islander named Mabo asserted a prior claim to land in Australia, a case upheld by the country's Supreme Court in 1992. Mabo v Queensland (No 2) overturned the British colonial concept of terra nullius under which the entire continent of Australia, it was claimed, did not have owners and therefore had been rightfully taken by the British. The Mabo case led to the Native Title Act 1993, opening the floodgates of ethnic nationalism in recognizing that Indigenous nations of Australia could regain their territorial autonomy.

    Ethnic Nationalist Movement Australia StudySmarterFig. 3 - Indigenous land rights in 2022: dark green=exclusive native title exists; light green=non-exclusive native title; cross-hatched=Indigenous-owned land

    The assertion of rights by numerous peoples of the continent, aided by legions of lawyers, has allowed ethnic nations to regain vast Aboriginal "countries" of deep ethnoreligious significance. Some 40% of the continent is now titled or otherwise granted to Indigenous Australians, who comprise just 3.3% of the country's population. At the same time, while these ethnic national territories have considerable autonomy, they are not independent of the Australian state. Full sovereignty movements, while they do exist, are minor.

    Ethnic Nationalist Movements - Key takeaways

    • Ethnic nationalist movements exist in many countries and range from complementary to the state to threatening to the state.
    • When ethnic nationalist movements seize control of the state, they often discriminate against and persecute other ethnic groups and minorities, sometimes seeking to expel or exterminate them.
    • In the Americas and Australia, ethnic nationalist movements are largely limited to Indigenous movements that do not threaten state sovereignty.
    • In Africa, Europe, and Asia, ethnic nationalist movements may involve secession, civil war, and other aspects of ethnic separatism.


    1. Fig. 1 Jewish badge ( by Francisco Peralta Torrejón ( licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0
    2. Fig. 3 Australia ( by Fährtenleser ( licensed by licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ethnic Nationalist Movement

    What are ethnic nationalist movements?  

     Ethnic nationalist movements are social movements involving political, cultural, and sometimes economic ideas and actions that promote the existence and rights of ethnic nations. 

    What are some examples of ethnic nationalism? 

    Ethnic nationalism is exemplified by Tamils in Sri Lanka, Kurds in Turkey, and by hundreds of other cases in the majority of countries in the world. 

    What is the meaning of nationalist movement?  

    A nationalist movement is a social phenomenon wherein a political body with claims to territory promotes its values and rights; it can be of an ethnic nature or of a civic nature. 

    What are the different types of nationalist movements? 

    Two types of nationalist movements are civic and ethnic.

    What is the difference between ethnicity and nationalism?  

    Ethnicity is ethnic identity, a culture phenomenon tied to a group sharing a common language, religion, history, territory, etc. Nationalism may be the expression of this ethnicity politically or culturally, usually both, or it may refer to civic nationalism wherein the values of a state are promoted. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which of the following is an example of ethnic nationalism that does not threaten the state?

    Which parts of the world have a lot of ethnic national movements but very few that threaten the state?

    In which African countries have civic identity projects forged national unity and helped avoid ethnic nationalist conflicts?

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