Ummatics Colloquium: Muslim Disunion in the Era of the Nation-State

UMMATICS COLLOQUIUM SUMMARY, 30 November 2022

Report by Ibrahim Moiz

Presenter: Dr Joseph Kaminski: Associate Professor and Chair, Department of International Relations, International University of Sarajevo, on his paper “Muslim Disunion in the Era of the Nation State”

Respondents: Dr. Jahja Muhasilovic; Sami Hamdi

Summary: The Muslim experience with the nation-state since the twentieth century has been defined by parochial, corrupt, and autocratic misrule. In his paper for the Ummatics Institute, “Muslim Disunion in the Era of the Nation State,” Joseph Kaminski reflects on the Arab uprisings of the 2010s and how Muslim nation states cracked down on a promising regional reform movemen––prioritizing power over any concern for the people.

Kaminski reflects on Jonathan Laurence’s 2021 book, Coping with Defeat, which traces Muslim decline to the “inconsistent and controversial acceptance by Islamic authorities to the nation-state model, a loss in power that occurred side by side with a displacement of Muslim epistemology and self-reference.” Where Kaminski disagrees with Laurence is in his prescription that religious authorities accept the nation-state and build a “soft restoration” within its confines. Instead, Kaminski calls for a revisitation of this inorganic and irredeemable phenomenon.

Many Muslim nation-states, ranging from Arab monarchies to Central Asian republics, are brittle and therefore fiercely self-protective. Corporatism in these states gives the government and its captors control over not only government institutions but also labor, business, civil society, and even religion (with the rise of pseudotraditionalist, parochialist, and instrumentalist “nationalized” forms of Islam). This “theology of obedience,” as Walaa Quisay and Thomas Parker call it, both stifles dissent and instrumentalizes Islam, showing suspicion of internationalist trends that could help the Umma.

Muslims need to think outside the literal “box” to consider alternate, healthier, more organic, and Islamically authentic models of political organization.

Responses.

Muhasilovic noted that the process of political fragmentation in the Muslim world preceded colonialism, and questioned to what extent a single Umma can be seen as reflected in a single caliphate, given that caliphates were historically often challenged or contested, and might have had less immediate significance in their peripheries. Even the adoption of foreign models can be traced back to the Umayyads and Abbasids, who adopted and adapted Roman and Persian structures. Europeanization was occurring even during Ottoman rule. As Turkey shows, nationalism was not always necessarily a colonial infliction in Muslim societies.

Kaminski: Although forms of nationalism and Europeanization had taken place during the nineteenth century, it was with colonialism and especially Ottomans’ downfall that the phenomenon accelerated and took on a life of its own, largely as a result of colonial influence.

Hamdi applauded the timing and focus of the paper, but wanted to address the historical circumstances surrounding the formation of the nation-state. He pointed out that even the late Ottoman caliphate failed to support occupied Muslim supporters in cases such as the Sanousi movement in North Africa, which led to a necessary “national” focus by Muslim movements against colonialism, even as they invoked Islam. The lack of trust in successive regimes, which have failed to reflect the public Muslim consciousness that they claim to represent, is the real issue. As noted in the Quran, parochial identities such as tribes and nations are natural, even though Islam is paramount. Nationalism emerged largely as a result of the failure of the caliphate and the subsequent recourse to these parochial identities. However, the continued enthusiasm for internationalism and Umma solidarity among Muslims, combined with a trend toward greater independence from colonial powers, gives room for optimism in the right direction.

Kaminski: There is indeed room for optimism, but it is the nation-state as a structure, rather than national/regional/tribal factors per se, that is a problem, especially when it employs coercive measures against Muslim populations.

Questions and Themes

Practical Steps: 

Panelist Heba Ezzat and attendee Sufyan Musah pointed out that the Arab uprisings showed a glimmer of hope and a clear transnational sentiment that needed to be put into action. However, Muhasilovic noted that most pre-modern Muslim governments (prior to becoming nation-states) were imposed by some form of authority, rather than the result of widespread public activism. Similarly, modern international organizations, such as the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, are largely based on existing nation-states.

Panelist Mustafa Salama and attendee Hamzah Raza both felt that activists in the 2010s largely reflected the status quo of the nation-state and the current world order, and therefore failed to utilize the true international connections beyond state borders. Hamdi argued that these parties had little choice but to operate within existing frameworks due to widespread suspicion of Islamic internationalism – for example, the Ikhwanul-Muslimeen were unable to fully leverage their international connections. However, Hamdi agreed that parties such as Tunisia’s Nahda worked within the status quo so much that they ended up alienating their base.

Attendee Syed Shareef mentioned the decline of communism, capitalism, and nationalism, but questioned why Muslims were not bringing more Islamically based alternatives to the table, rather than, for example, emulating China. Kaminski explained that this was a key focus of the Ummatics Institute, speculating – in response to a question from panelist Haldun Karahanli about whether theory or practice should take precedence – that a long-term vision needed to be discussed, outlined, and disseminated among Muslims before any practical action, in order to avoid repeating past mistakes. Ezzat proposed a new paradigm for evaluating not only states, but also politics as a whole. She also emphasized the need for further study on the adoption of Islam by nation-states, as well as greater attention on tribes and understudied, but increasingly important, regions such as the Gulf, and on not only local but also macro-political factors in the Arab uprisings, such as the role of major powers.

Nation-state: Making a virtue of necessity?

Hamdi stated that tribalism is a natural, if primal, aspect of human nature, only surpassed by nobler Islamic solidarity. Tribalism becomes the “tribal” confinement of the nation-state only when Islamic solidarity “betrays” its solidarity, as in the case of the Ottomans with the Sanousis. Panelist Ibrahim Moiz pointed out that many national independence movements, such as Algeria’s, initially had internationalist links and goals, but later consolidated into the nation-state model. Hamdi cited Habib Bourguiba as one of many leaders who abandoned their earlier Islamic rhetoric in favor of nationalism. Attendee Shafat Wani provided the example of Indian preacher Hussain Madani, who implicitly accepted a democratic Muslim-majority nation-state as a viable form of postcolonial government.

However, Kaminski and Salama challenged the association of tribes and national feeling in general with the specific structure of the nation-state, a model that was largely established after colonialism. Panelist Ovamir Anjum noted that although perceived betrayals are common in politics, they rarely result in the kind of concessions, collaborations, and dramatic transformations that marked the Europeanization that followed the end of the Ottomans, which Kaminski had not used as a model, but rather as the point before the nation-state. Muhasilovic countered that the Ottoman Europeanization process predated the fall of the caliphate.

Salama and Kaminski were concerned that the “neorealism” of the nation-state model meant that it would always prioritize state interests over Ummatic interests. Moiz saw the threat more in the state’s subjugation of Islam, regardless of the state type. However, Hamdi and Muhasilovic argued that “state-approved” Islam is rarely taken seriously by the public and that its threat is limited, especially because the Umma and solidarity with it are so important in Islam. Hamdi noted that state autocrats are genuinely worried about the potential of Ummatic sentiment, which only highlights the timeliness of Kaminski’s report.

Although there were many differences and lively debate during the discussion, it was generally agreed that there is cause for both suspicion of the nation-state, especially its corporatist and coercive tendencies, and optimism about Muslim society worldwide. The goal of projects like the Ummatics Institute is to facilitate discussion and create an environment where this optimism can lead to meaningful positive change.