Novak Djokovic may or may not have been a victim of injustice when he was denied entry by Australian immigration authorities. But the way this comedy of errors is developing makes it evident that for a substantial number of people, this is neither merely about vaccines nor about personal liberties.

For them, it is much more about the most destructive phenomenon of recent times: nationalism.

Take the words of Srdjan Djokovic —Novak’s father— at a press conference: “[Novak] is being kept in captivity… Novak is Serbia and Serbia is Novak. When trampling over Novak, they are trampling over Serbia and Serbian people.” It is as if the vaccine controversy does not even exist. Djokovic’s detention in Australia has been an opportunity for Serbs all over the world to enthusiastically wave their national flag.

Earlier, in an Instagram post Srdjan also claimed that Novak was denied entry because of his Serbian ethnicity. He even compared his son to Spartacus. One might think that as absurd as the comparison may be, at least Srdjan was thinking about a slave who fought for freedom. But given the context, I think it more likely that Srdjan chose to compare his son with Spartacus, not because Spartacus was a rebellious slave, but because he was a Thracian— an ancient people whose homeland was in the Balkans.

Novak himself has a soft spot for Serbian nationalism. He visited Bosnia and had a very friendly meeting with a commander of the “Drina Wolves” unit that was allegedly involved in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of Muslims during the brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing as Yugoslavia disintegrated. Novak also felt very comfy being embraced by Milorad Dodik, a leader who is fanning the flames of Serbian nationalism in Bosnia.

And he is by no means shy in his views on Kosovo, as he remarked in 2008 after the Kosovan declaration of independence: “We are prepared to defend what is rightfully ours. Kosovo is Serbia.”

Serbs are entitled to love their nation, as are Mexicans, Australians, Ghanaians, or Mongolians. And surely patriotism is a powerful emotional force that can result in great acts of kindness and civic virtue. But when it comes to nationalism, there is a very thin line separating love for your nation, and hatred for other nations— all too frequently, for neighbouring nations.

And particularly for nationalism in the Balkans, the record is grim. After all, it was in that region of the world where nationalism turned the assassination of an archduke into a global conflict, the likes of which had never been seen before.   

These days, progressives in the West shun right-wing populist leaders because of their nationalism. And they have a point. Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, and many others play with fire when they fire up nationalist crowds.

But progressives ought to remove the beam from their own eye, before removing the speck out of others’ eyes. For what is identity politics, if not a form of nationalism? Nationalism appeals to the most basic tribal instincts of human beings, and that is exactly what identity politics does. It is the us-versus-them mentality that so captivates people at sporting events. In one case, it is “My country, right or wrong!”, in the other, it is “My race, right or wrong!”

It is helpful to compare the Djokovic affair with an early example of gung-ho identity politics, also in the world of sports. In 1995, football star O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of his ex-wife and her boyfriend. But it soon became evident that the trial was not about criminal justice. It was painfully obvious that most African Americans supported Simpson, not because of evidence—or lack thereof— that he committed the crime, but simply because he had a particular skin colour. For them, it became a matter of racial identity.

Although now most African-Americans believe that Simpson was probably guilty, identity politics and tribalism have only grown across the United States and elsewhere in the West. In 1995, it was inconceivable that in the name of social justice, American colleges would have racially segregated dorms and graduation ceremonies. In our times, such segregated events have now been commonplace, allegedly as a form of liberation— when in fact, it is a regression to the tribalism and bigotry of Jim Crow times.

The Djokovic affair should be a cautionary tale about the perennial presence of tribal instincts in human nature. Civilization is the process of taming those instincts and developing cosmopolitan values. But it should also be a reminder that, while the Balkans have witnessed horrible things such as the start of World War I and the vicious conflicts of the 1990s, the West is increasingly falling captive to the same tribalist mentality.      

Gabriel Andrade

Gabriel Andrade is a university professor originally from Venezuela. He writes about politics, philosophy, history, religion and psychology.