National anthems fuel ethnic, diplomatic, political strife
America’s national anthem is not easy to sing. It’s hard-to-remember lyrics include some outright antiBritish propaganda in some of its lesser-known verses. And “The Star-Spangled Banner” is under constant attack from critics who argue that “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America” would be a more fitting national song.
Other countries should be so lucky.
Every nation has one, including groups seeking sovereignty, such as Iraq’s Kurdish region and the breakaway South Ossetia region of Georgia. But it seems at times that national anthems are more trouble than they are worth — posing political, aesthetic, ethnic and protocol problems at every turn.
Just this month, Nepal formally adopted a new national anthem to replace the anthem that served the country for more than a century. The first line of the old anthem — “May glory crown you, glorious sovereign!” — no longer seemed appropriate after massive street protests last year forced King Gyanendra to cede most of his powers.
Pradeep Kumar Rai, who wrote the words to the new, non-royalist anthem, said the change signaled the “end of the culture of praising feudalism and an individual.”
The anthem “now recognizes that the people are the real source of state power,” he told Reuters news agency.
Conceived as a symbol of national unity, anthems at times have a perverse way of accentuating social fault lines.
Conservative Israeli politicians earlier this year sharply criticized Raleb Majadele, who in March became the first Arab Israeli to serve in the Cabinet, for refusing to sing the lyrics to the national anthem — “Hatikvah” — at public events. The anthem at one point speaks of the “Jewish soul” yearning for Zion.
Mr. Majadele said he would stand when the anthem was played but would not sing the lyrics.
“I fail to understand how an enlightened, sane Jew allows himself to ask a Muslim person with a different language and culture to sing an anthem that was written for Jews only,” the minister told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper.
And conservatives in Bolivia were equally aghast when leftist President Evo Morales earlier this month said Bolivians should hold their left fist aloft while the anthem is playing, as a sign of “solidarity” with the country’s “peas-
ant indigenous movement.”
Divided and disputed countries can pose particular problems when it comes to national anthems.
Ethnic Turks on the divided island of Cyprus refuse to recognize the “Ode to Freedom,” Greece’s national anthem that is also used by the Cypriot Greek majority. “ ‘Twas the Greeks of old whose dying brought to birth our spirit free” is not a line likely to appeal to Turkish Cypriot partisans.
A U.N.-sponsored reunification plan called for a whole new set of national symbols, including a new anthem, but the Greek Cypriots rejected the plan in a referendum in April 2004, leaving the “Ode to Freedom” as the country’s official song.
The national anthem of Taiwan, which has long waged a bitter battle for international legitimacy against the communist Chinese mainland, has been an especially acute problem child for the protocolconscious.
Some Taiwanese object to the anthem, whose lyrics are taken from a speech by Sun Yat-sen, modern China’s first president, because the song is also the party anthem for the Kuomintang, one of the Republic of China’s two main political parties. The anthem is banned on the mainland, and China demanded a substitute song
be played at international summits and sporting events, such as the Olympics where Taiwan is represented.
Earlier this month, the Chinese foreign ministry lodged a formal protest when Japanese organizers played the Taiwanese anthem by mistake at the Asia men’s basketball championships in Tokushima.
“China expresses strong protest and demands the Japanese side immediately take effective measures to remove the vile influence and avoid similar events from happening again,” the Chinese statement said. The Japanese organizing committee and the Asian Basketball Federation both apologized for the mistake.
Even the Bush administration tripped over the sensitive topic of anthem politics during the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Washington last year. At a White House welcoming ceremony for Mr. Hu, they mistakenly announced the band would play the anthem of “the Republic of China” — the official name of Taiwan.
Lost in translation
National anthems tend to get caught up in even the most up-todate political disputes.
A German Green Party official sparked a sharp national debate last year when he proposed that the words to the national anthem be translated into Turkish, in recognition of the country’s huge Turkish minority. Center-right politicians close to Chancellor Angela Merkel denounced the idea, saying it would send a message that the Turkish immigrants did not need to learn German.
A similar proposal to translate the Norwegian anthem into Urdu, a nod to the country’s sizeable Pakistani minority, met a similar hostile reception from the country’s right-wing parties.
“This is integration in reverse,” said Per-Willy Amundsen of the populist Progress Party.
Even President Bush was drawn into the linguistic debate when a Spanish-language version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” titled “Nuestro Himno,” was played on many U.S. Hispanic radio stations last year.
“I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English, and I think people who want to be citizens of this country [. . . ] ought to learn to sing the national anthem in English,” Mr. Bush told reporters.
Anthems can unite as well as divide.
U.S. military officials considered it a small breakthrough when a Kurdish military band played the Iraqi national anthem at a ceremony in Irbil that marked the hand-over of security duties from the U.S.-led military coalition to local forces. Iraq’s Kurds aim to retain strong autonomy from the central government in Baghdad and national symbols like the Iraqi flag are almost never seen in the Kurdish north.
On July 14, France’s ambassador to Algeria, Bernard Bajolet, ordered Algeria’s national anthem to be played at ceremonies marking Bastille Day, France’s national holiday. It was the first time the anthem was played at the ceremony since the vicious war that led to independence for Algeria in 1962.
Know your own
In whatever language, it is not smart politics to be unfamiliar with your own national anthem.
In what may be the biggest anthem-related gaffe of modern times, Belgian Prime Ministerdesignate Yves Leterme was asked last month to sing a few bars of the Belgian national anthem, “La Brabanconne,” to mark the country’s national day.
Mr. Leterme, whose political base is in Flanders, stunned his audience and became an overnight YouTube star by proceeding to sing the first line of “La Marseillaise,” France’s national anthem, instead. He later apologized, explaining that he knew the Belgian anthem in Dutch, “but I was asked to sing it in French and the circumstances were not ideal.”
The Iraq soccer team played Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup final on July 29 in Jakarta, Indonesia. Iraq’s 1-0 victory was tainted by a post-tournament celebration hosted by the United Arab Emirates, at which the old national anthem dating to Saddam Hussein’s rule was mistakenly played. Several players walked out in protest.