Ummatics Forums

Colloquium: Pathways to Ummatic Integration Ft. Dr. Alexander Thurston

For our first colloquium of 2023, we were pleased to feature a talk highlighting our third upcoming Ummatics Institute paper, written by Dr. Alexander Thurston (Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Cincinnati) and titled, “Secular Integration Models and Global Governance Systems.” Dr. Thurston’s paper specifically assesses the multilateral organization as a vehicle of ummatic integration and considers its possibilities and limitations, based on historical examples of the most powerful multilateral organizations since 1945. Dr. Thurston concludes with why ummatic thinkers will likely have to look beyond the multilateral organization as a template for future integration.

We welcomed respondents Dr. Emad Shahin (Shawwaf Visiting Professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University, former Dean of the College of Islamic Studies, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar) and Dr. Oumar Ba (Assistant Professor of International Relations, Cornell University).

Ummatics Colloquium Summary, January 2023


  • Dr. Alexander Thurston
  • Dr. Emad Shahin
  • Dr. Oumar Ba


In the first colloquium of 2023, presenters and panelists examined popular models of transnational integration drawing on Dr. Alexander Thurston’s forthcoming paper, “Secular Integration Models and Global Governance Systems”. 

Summarizing his research, Dr. Thurston presented common challenges that accompany the multilateral organization, an institution often proposed as a vehicle for ummatic integration. He described his findings as both pessimistic and experimental, leaving room for debate and encouraging alternative proposals. His ten core findings include:

1) Integration efforts often trigger resistance from nation-states against the threat of lost sovereignty.

2) Historical attempts to combine two or more nations into a federation were typically short-lived, such as the Mali Federation and the United Arab Republic.

3) Multilateral organizations tend to be dominated by a few powerful nations.

4) Forming a regional bloc can trigger the counter-formation of a rival bloc, such as Morocco’s and Algeria’s respective leagues of African ʿulamāʾ.

5) Integration efforts since the 1940s have promoted freer flow of people and capital by easing border and trade controls. Though the former is in the Umma’s interests, the latter further exacerbates economic challenges for developing countries.

6) Even the most successful integration efforts have experienced reversals, as the European Union did via Brexit.

7) Excessive integration efforts can be counterproductive, creating a traffic jam of actors trying to affect change in a single region.

8) Most surviving integration models since the Soviet collapse have actively promoted or been amenable to capitalism.

9) Secular integration models will be difficult to refashion in religious terms because they depend on notions of secular citizenship.

10) Ummatic thinkers should promote integration efforts that allow for the free movement of people, and thereby the free flow of ideas.

Dr. Thurston concluded by acknowledging potential counterarguments to his findings; in a world of nation-states, multilateral organizations are often seen as the most feasible form of ummatic integration. The failed models cited above originated in particular contexts, and cannot necessarily preclude the success of future models.


Dr. Emad Shahin perceived an implicit differentiation between “the Muslim Umma” and “Muslim states” within the paper, which raises questions about what form of integration is being discussed: economic, political, social, or otherwise? It is important to clarify the goals and desired degree of integration under consideration. Clarification is also needed regarding which actors will be the primary agents of this project. Though foreign policy is the domain of states, there may be an intellectual project of integration to be undertaken, which can be insulated from political ramifications.

Dr. Shahin also noted that the Umma’s strategic interests differ from those of global powers. These include the Umma’s economic security, cultural security against Islamophobia and Western norms, and the preservation of Islamic values.

As they stand, Muslim states have a high degree of mutual hostility and tend to prioritize economic cooperation with non-Muslim countries. Recognizing the challenges which Dr. Thurston listed, Dr. Shahin expressed interest in potential alternative models of integration. 

Dr. Oumar Ba analyzed the paper through the lens of international relations and global governance, raising the question: what sort of world order would ummatic integration give rise to? Namely, which shared governing principles, rules, and institutions would dominate this order?

World orders have historically emerged in the aftermath of crises, such as post-Westphalia and Bretton Woods. Ummatic thinkers should consider the type of critical juncture that would serve as a catalyst for ummatic integration, and whether such a catalyst can be anticipated.

Dr. Ba also cited the principal-agent problem: an agent (e.g. a multilateral organization) can more efficiently and effectively solve problems for a principal (e.g. states) because it is dedicated to a limited set of issues. However, the agent’s interests may conflict with those of the principal, creating friction and limiting effectiveness. International organizations are also prone to certain “pathologies”; once established, they can develop identities and goals that don’t align with the reason for their initial creation. When envisioning a multilateral organization for ummatic integration, it is important to think about preventing the formation of pathologies without solely serving the nation-state’s interests.


Thurston: Regarding Dr. Shahin’s question about alternatives, it’s difficult to envision a bottom-up integration movement led by intellectuals without eventually running into the problem of state power. However, Dr. Kaminski’s paper on the bankruptcy of nation-states may help inspire alternatives. As for the crisis that Dr. Ba said will likely precede a shift in the world order, climate change and the eventual depletion of fossil fuels are potential catalysts.

Dr. Hossameldeen Mohammed: Why not give more credit to the EU as a model to emulate? Brexit has not produced sufficient evidence to downplay the EU’s success as a multilateral organization.

Thurston: The creation of the EU was catalyzed by a major crisis, which raises the question of how something similar would come about in the Muslim world. Europe is also geographically contiguous, allowing for a form of integration that can’t be completely replicated across the Umma.

Shahin: The circumstances under which the EU arose are very different from the current state of the Muslim world. Europe is more economically homogeneous as well, whereas wealth distribution across Muslim countries is quite disparate. The main obstacle to ummatic integration is a lack of will on the part of states, many of which export similar products and thus stand in competition.

Ba: I agree that the EU offers a model to improve upon, but its success depends largely on geographic continuity. Unless we only focus on the Middle East, this would be a significant obstacle for the Umma to overcome.

Abdelrahman Rashdan: Muslim public opinion differs greatly from states’ official positions on ummatic integration. Integrating public opinion by unifying the Umma on certain issues is more feasible than engaging states; this can be done through media, for example.

Thurston: I agree that media has a large potential for impacting integration. The question remains of how long grassroots integration can last before running into barriers at the state level.

Dr. Usaama Al-Azami: People need to be convinced of the value of ummatic integration. A unified Muslim state would have the largest territory, economy, and military in the world. A unified entity doesn’t have to be geographically contiguous, either, as demonstrated by the United States’ global “hidden empire”.

Mustafa Salama: We tend to view the EU as primarily an economic alliance, but it exists against the backdrop of NATO, a military alliance which holds much of the region together. Economic cooperation depends on security. Additionally, the nation-state is a natural expression of the will of European peoples, but it did not arise naturally in the Muslim world. If Muslims could express their own political will, they may not be as concerned with maintaining national identities and borders.

Azizat Amoloye-Adebayo: Building on Dr. Al-Azami’s comment, we should ask: why integrate? Is it a spiritual imperative? This must be answered in order to shift people’s worldviews and persuade them to buy in.

Thurston: One of the key arguments for integration is that it would benefit ordinary people through enhanced economic opportunity, political power, and collective security. Muslims care about issues across the Umma, and there is popular desire to improve conditions in other parts of the world.

Shahin: Identity also is a major factor in answering the question of why. Muslims have a deep-rooted notion of shared history, values, and aspirations. The golden age of Islam may be a romantic notion, but it nonetheless represents the ideals and aspirations of many Muslims. Economy is another factor: of the 57 least developed countries in the world, 22 are Muslim countries.

Sami Hamdi: Dr. Thurston mentioned earlier that, when nation-states join a multilateral organization, they are concerned about how other states view them. If smaller countries are being asked to cede their sovereignty to integrate with more powerful countries, they must be convinced that they are of equal value. Integration does not have to entail erasing sub-identities. When the Prophet ﷺ invited his Companions to identify as Ansar and Muhajirun, he elevated them without erasing their tribal identities.

Ba: From a material standpoint, an important benefit of integration is the freer movement of people, which allows them to seek better economic opportunities.

Ayesha Syed: Ummatic integration must be universal, so all of humankind should be seen as potential members of the Umma. Also, Muslims can develop their own indigenous model without having to rely on external models like the EU.

Shahin: One thing that can be deduced from this conversation is that the Umma has many goals, but limited resources for achieving them. Moving forward, we should prioritize specific goals and create networks that can address them intellectually and practically.

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