Eqbal Ahmad on the Dangers of Nationalism

(4 December 2013)

I recently began reading Eqbal Ahmad’s books. I highly recommend them. They are superb.

Unfortunately, there are very few videos of Ahmad online. After watching his fantastic lecture “Terrorism, Theirs and Ours” (based on his excellent book of the same name), and after digging through a few small clips here and there, I came across the 1996 BBC documentary Stories My Country Told Me: Eqbal Ahmad on the Grand Trunk Road, just uploaded to YouTube this past October.

The documentary is nothing remarkable. It is decent. It is certainly typical BBC propaganda in parts (the coverage of British imperialism is horribly inadequate–almost glossed over), but I would argue it’s worth watching just because it features Ahmad. It follows him as he retraces his amazing life. He was 13 during the partition of India, and he and his family, as Muslims, emigrated to Pakistan. The film is worth watching mostly because Ahmad speaks well to the dangers of nationalism, and because it’s packed with lots of great historical info.

There are certainly major critiques to be made. Primarily, Ahmad is not critical of Gandhi and he fails to mention U.S. imperialism when he discusses Zia-ul-Haq and the rise of extremism. It is very likely, however, that Ahmad did mention these points–given this is exactly what he talks about in all of his books–but, as this is a BBC documentary, it was probably edited out.

The film follows; some of its highlights are transcribed below.


Nationalism is an ideology of expanded, solidifed identity. If you are going to build identity, collective identity, on the basis of history, you’re going to distort that history. … You want to glorify it. You want to underline the silver linings in that history where you are concerned; you want to darken the picture the best you can where the Other is concerned. Nationalism is an ideology which always has the Other. And therefore, it’s a double distortion. You distort by glorifying your own, and you distort by darkening the Other’s, history.

– Eqbal Ahmad

Here the film quotes Rabindranath Tagore, from his 1918 book Nationalism. It jumps around in the book a bit in quoting him, but I would argue it is still very true to his message.

I am not against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations. What is the Nation?

It is the aspect of a whole people as an organized power. This organization incessantly keeps up the insistence of the population on becoming strong and efficient. But this strenuous effort after strength and efficiency drains man’s energy from his higher nature where he is self-sacrificing and creative. For thereby man’s power of sacrifice is diverted from his ultimate object, which is moral, to the maintenance of this organization, which is mechanical. …
By this device the people which loves freedom perpetuates slavery in a large portion of the world with the comfortable feeling of pride of having done its duty; men who are naturally just can be cruelly unjust both in their act and their thought, [accompanied by a feeling that they are helping the world to receive its deserts; men who are honest can blindly go on robbing others of their human rights for self-aggrandizement, all the while abusing the deprived for not deserving better treatment].

(p. 110-111)

The Nation, with all its paraphernalia of power and prosperity, its flags and pious hymns, its blasphemous prayers in the churches, and the literary mock thunders of its patriotic bragging, cannot hide the fact that the Nation is the greatest evil [to itself].

(p. 30)


Symbols of nationalism rarely conform to historical realities.

– Eqbal Ahmad


[Nationalism] unites the exploiters and exploited to fight united exploiters and exploited of other nations. And thus it prevents social change.

– Mubashir Hasan