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The necessity of differentiation between ‘nationality’ and ‘citizenship’ for multinational countries; a different political view

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Perhaps everyone has been asked at least once in life what his/her nationality is.In all formal forms, the answer is expected to be the name of one’s country. But according to the definition of ‘nation’ and living in a world of multinational countries, we can say that the answer to this question will quite likely be incorrect, especially when involving nations that their nationalities are in reality different from their citizenship and are not related to those countries where they are included. To some people this may sound strange, and they may ask why should I separate nationality from country and citizenship? Furthermore, if this answer is incorrect, why has it been used up to now?
          In the main definition of ‘nation,’ it is mentioned that nation is a group of people who have some common elements, such as language, culture, history, and territory. In another definition, some thinkers mention imagination of unity and sentiment to each other. But the people subject to the first definition often have these imaginations and sentiments mentioned in other definitions. Accordingly, most countries are indeed multinational, as some authors have also mentioned that they are. So, if there are multinational countries why should people asked about their nationalities be expected to answer with the names of countries? Why is citizenship or the name of country of residence not asked instead of the term nationality?
          In this regard, citing the multinational federal countries is better to clarify these questions. Some writers have mentioned Belgium and Canada as multinational federal states. In the absence of a culturally neutral policy option, in Kymlicka’s opinion, liberalism stipulates granting the right of self-government to national groups so that they can maintain their own social culture. Thus he has proposed a multinational federal state, which offers its substate nations political autonomy. By defending multinational states and criticizing liberals like Rawls and Dworkin for working with the unrealistic assumption that nations and states coincide, for Kymlicka, nationality is the relevant unit of freedom and democratic self-government. That is, the substate nations offer ‘the freedom-enabling context of choice’ in multinational states: “the relevant contexts of choice are for instance the culture of the Catalans (not the Spanish), the Flemish (not the Belgians), or the Québécois (not the Canadians).”[1]
          Kymlicka is called a ‘liberal nationalist’ because of his views. For him the kinds of freedom and equality that matter most to people are freedom and equality within their own nation, or in his words, “social culture.” So in his theory, national groups get territorial and political autonomy. And “territorially bounded national communities will, and indeed should, continue to serve as the primary locus for the exercise of collective autonomy and self-government.”[2]
In considering the issue of multinational or multiethnic federations, Gagnon has suggested that “a decoupling of the notions of nation and citizenship may provide an important starting point for the development of an effective multiethnic federation.”[3] In this respect, nations and nationalities are recognized in some countries as Spanish, Ethiopian, and so on. The Constitution of Spain recognizes and guarantees “the right to self-government of the nationalities and regions of which it is composed and the solidarity among them all.”[4]
          In Spain, the different communities, such as Catalonia, Galicia, and Basque that have autonomy, call themselves ‘nationalities.’ Also, the Constitution of Ethiopia has mentioned ‘nations’ and ‘nationalities’ several times. For example, in its preamble it states that “We, the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia….”[5]
          Besides what is mentioned above, some writers note that nationality is linguistically different from country or homeland, such as French, France; Kurdish, Kurdistan; and English, England. Maybe a person living in France, however, holds citizenship in France but is not French. In multinational countries this is morenotable.[6]
          In this regard, Kurdish people are the best example because whenever they are asked, nonformally, about nationality, they like to introduce themselves as Kurdish or Kurdistanian. The nationality of a Kurdish man is Kurdish, and his homeland is Kurdistan, but maybe he has citizenship in Iran, Iraq, Turkey, or Syria because his homeland has been divided between these countries.
          When Kurdish people are asked about their nationality, they like to reply that they are Kurdish; they share sentiment with each other as fellow members of the Kurdish nation. And they have the imagination of their own nation, though their homeland is not that country where they are included. That is because they only have citizenship in these countries, which is compulsory inasmuch as they like to have their countries coincide with their homeland, namely, Kurdistan.
          As written by Ibrahim Ahmad (1914-2000), one of the famous Kurdish political leaders and authors, in his poem that is a very prevalent anthem among Kurdish people: “I’m no Arab, no Iranian, no Wild Turk, not only I, myself; the history also states that I am a Kurd and a Kurdistanian…this is the decision of history: I am a Kurd and a Kurdistanian….”
          According to the aforementioned ideas, I wish to mention that use of the name of a country, or of a nation among the nations of that country, does not show the nation and nationality of any (such as Iranian, Iraqi, Syria, Pakistan), or most (Turkish, India, and others) people of that country. It is merely an attempt to make an artificial nation. There are many nations in these countries. For instance, there is no nation under the name of Iran. It is only the name of a country. But there are Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, Baluch, and Arab nations in this multinational country. And the term Turkish has been derived from the Turk nation, but in Turkey there are also Kurdish people.
          So on one hand, although the term nation is new, it is related to a group of people and an ethnicity that have existed over a very long time in history. And during the domination of the nation-state theory, most countries did not succeed in making nation as a country of homogeneity because ‘nation’ has ethnical, cultural, and historical bases.
          On the other hand, however, many countries have been separated from their mother countries. Whether before these separations they had different nationalities or different citizenships remains a question. It is clear that the citizenship of these people has changed, not nationality. Their nation and nationality are the same now as they were before and after separation. The nations separated from Soviet Russia and other countries during the 20th and early21st centuries are examples of this. So why has this problem (using nationality instead of citizenship) developed?
          After Westphalia pact in 1648, with regard to the nation-state theory, all countries were supposed as territories with a homogenous people or one nation. Indeed, most representatives of the states in such international treaties that were from dominated nations, in the line of their chauvinistic and totalitarian thoughts, showed that all the people of their countries are from their nations (dominated nation in each country). But in reality it was not true because many nations were separated to form new countries, or the people of some nations in some countries wanted and pleaded for their political rights by federalism and other forms of decentralization.
          Thus using the term ‘nationality’ instead of ‘citizenship’ by the government agencies is the legacy of the nation-state theory so that it is thought that every country includes just a single nation. But now with regard to what is stated above, for most countries worldwide this theory is not correct. If all nations have their state or country, this is correct, perhaps as with a country like Japan. But all nations were not allowed to have their own state. Thus we have seen the emergence of multinational states or multinational countries. And we also sometimes see that one nation has more than one country, such as the Arabs, Koreans, and Persians.
          Eventually, it should be regarded that on one hand, the term citizenship is related to country or state, and on the other, the term nationality shows that the word is related to nation. So for the people of a multinational country, such as Iran and Turkey, indeed, when they are asked their nationality, they can mention the word related to their nations: for Kurds, Kurdish; Pars (Fars), Persian; Turks, Turkish, and so on. Thus this is better to ask in regard to citizenship or the name of country. The person being asked may then answer with the name of that country in which they live.
          Therefore totally mixing these two terms can be incorrect. Until now,the term nationality has been used without attention to this reality that only for those countries that include one nation, the words nationality and citizenship can be equally and interchangeably applied. But for most countries the citizenship should be asked. The difference between these two words, with respect to the nations and the equality between them, should be regarded with consideration.

[1]Helder De Schutter, ‘Federalism as Fairness,’The Journal of Political Philosophy: Vol. 19, No. 2, 2011, pp. 167-89.


[3]Ronald L. Watts, ‘Daniel J. Elazar: Comparative Federalism and Post-Statism,’Publius: The Journal of Federalism, 30:4, Fall 2000.


[5]SeeConstitution of The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 1994.

[6]See Steven Grosby, Nationalism: a very short introduction,New York : Oxford University Press, 2005.