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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 17   16-31 January 2014

State and Nationalism in the Muslim World

Professor A. R. MOMIN

In much of Africa, Asia and the Arab region, the British and the French ruled over vast Muslim territories. The Dutch ruled over territories that later formed Indonesia. The Germans, Spanish, Portuguese and Russians held Muslim territories in East Africa, the Philippines. Though the colonial era in Muslim lands lasted less than a century, it had a profound and enduring impact on all aspects of geography, economy, social relations and politics in the colonized territories.

Colonialism and State Formation

The map of dozens of countries in Africa, Middle East, South Asia and Central Asia was systematically drawn and redrawn by the European colonial powers. South Asia was divided into India and Pakistan, while Southeast Asia was divided into Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei. In most of the 50 independent nation-states in Africa, the political boundaries were arbitrarily drawn at the instance of the colonial rulers. Under the 1813 Treaty of Gulistan put together by the British diplomat Sir Gore Ouseley, Iran was forced to cede a part of its territory.

The Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) was one of the largest and longest-surviving empires in the world. Its boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory from the Middle East to the Balkans and from North Africa to the Danube. The Ottomans ruled over a large multiethnic and multi-confessional population with a wide-ranging diversity of ethnicities, languages, religions and cultural traditions.

The decline of the Ottoman Empire began in the latter half of the 19th century. Following the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), Ottoman holdings in Europe declined sharply. In 1981 Austria occupied the Ottoman province of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria conquered East Rumelia. Italy seized Libya in the aftermath of the Italo-Turkish War (1911-12). The remaining Ottoman territories in the Balkans were lost following the Balkan Wars (1912-13).

European machinations and intrigues played a major role in the disintegration and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. As World War I unfolded, the Ottoman Empire joined hands with the Central Powers (Germany and Austro-Hungary) against the Allies (France, Great Britain and Russia). The Allies declared war on the Ottoman Empire shortly after the outbreak of the war. In 1915 the British entered into a secret pact with the Sharif of Makkah, Hussein ibn Ali. The pact involved an armed revolt against Ottoman rule under the Sharif’s command, for which Great Britain and France would supply money, weapons and logistic support. In exchange, the Arab territories, held by the Ottomans, would be granted independence. The Sharif organized tribal groups from the Hejaz and Jordan and led them to attack Ottoman troops. By the end of 1916 the French had given 1.25 million gold francs to the Arab tribes who participated in the uprising. The British spent £220,000 a month on the Arab fighters, who were also provided with rifles and machine-guns. By 1918 the Arab troops succeeded in driving the Arab forces out of the Hejaz and other parts of the Arab region.

British and French troops seized Palestine in 1917. Amir Abdullah, who later became Jordan’s first king, fought on the side of the British during World War I against the Ottoman Empire. The British rewarded him for his loyalty by giving him a fixed stipend and the control of Jordan. Italy, which had joined the Allies against Germany and the Ottoman Empire, was promised a large part of southwestern Anatolia. Great Britain and France also began encouraging and instigating Christian minorities living in the Ottoman Empire to rise in revolt. In the violent Christian uprisings in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia, thousands of Muslims and Jews were mercilessly killed. By the time the Treaty of Sevres (1920) was signed, the Ottoman Empire had lost the Arab provinces and ceded a large area of Asia Minor to the newly created Armenian state. France and Britain also backed the creation of an independent Kurdish state as part of the Treaty of Sevres, but the idea fizzled out. The withdrawal of Russia from the war and the victory of the Turkish nationalists saved Anatolia from being expropriated by Italy.

Though Britain and France had made a promise to the Arabs at the beginning of the20th century that if they rose in revolt against the Ottoman Empire and supported the Allies they would be granted independence, they did not keep the promise and the Arab region continued to be under British and French control. In 1920 France invaded Syria and established direct control over the country that lasted until 1946.

In 1916, in the middle of the war, Great Britain and France, with the assent of imperial Russia, hatched a conspiracy to dismember the Ottoman Empire and to divide the territories that were under Ottoman rule among themselves. Mark Sykes, a British diplomat, and Francois Georges-Picot, a high-ranking official of the French government, were tasked with working out the modalities of the plot. Sykes and Picot drew a map, according to which Egypt, Transjordan, Palestine and Iraq were to be given to Britain, whereas Syria, Lebanon and North Africa would be under French control. Russia, according to the map, would acquire the Ottoman provinces of Erzurum, Trebizon and Bitlis in Asia Minor. In addition to geopolitical and strategic factors, religious and sectarian considerations also played a role in the division of the Ottoman territories among the Allies. For example, France favoured the creation of a Christian-dominated state in Lebanon, which was sliced out of Syria. Sykes and Picot’s map suggested that Palestine should be given to Belgium, but in 1917 the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour announced Britain’s keen interest in the creation of an independent Jewish state in Palestine.

European colonial powers, which arbitrarily drew the boundaries of Muslim states, had no concern for the consequences of the division of territories for people, communities, resources and cultural traditions. Many of these national borders divided groups of people and communities that had lived together for centuries. This fuelled inter-ethnic tensions and conflicts.

Postcolonial States

The decolonization of Muslim lands began after World War II when Britain and then France withdrew from most of their colonial territories. By the mid-1970s most Muslim regions from sub-Saharan Africa to South and Southeast Asia had gained independence. The emergence of independent states in the Muslim world did not follow a uniform pattern. It involved negotiated withdrawals, as was the case in Malaya, India and the Persian Gulf, as well as violent wars, as in the case of Algeria.

Muslim states in the postcolonial era have largely been modeled on the colonial state. This is particularly reflected in the political institutions, including the constitution, judiciary, government, bureaucracy, military and the police. Postcolonial states in the Muslim world are marked by considerable political and ideological diversities. Some Muslim states in the Arab region, such as Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Bahrain, adopted the system of constitutional monarchy. Constitutional monarchy is a form of government in which a king or monarch or hereditary ruler acts as the head of state within the framework of a constitution. Most constitutional monarchies adopt a parliamentary system of government in which the monarch has restricted or ceremonial powers. Some states, such as Tunisia and Egypt, allied with the West and followed capitalist economic policies. Others, such as Syria, were drawn into the orbit of the socialist bloc.

The legacy of the colonial era continued to cast a long and ominous shadow over Muslim states. In Pakistan, for example, the Indian Act of 1935 was the law of the land until the promulgation of a new constitution in 1956. Even after its former colonies in Africa gained independence, France continued to set its eyes on their rich and abundant natural resources, particularly oil, gas, gold and uranium. In Africa the French government followed a policy that came to be known as Francafrique, according to which it supported authoritarian and unpopular leaders in order to protect and consolidate its economic interests. The policy of Francafrique involved payment of huge bribes and corruption, rigging of elections, and military operations and coups.

The educated, Westernised elite who attended educational institutions created by the colonial rulers or European universities played a key role in the consolidation of postcolonial states in the Muslim world. In most cases the ruling class was drawn from the ranks of the educated elite, who also exerted control over parliament, courts, bureaucracy, educational institutions and political parties. In many cases, there was a disjunction between the goals and priorities of the state, as envisaged and executed by the elite, and the hopes and aspirations of the masses. This was particularly striking in the case of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, Kemalism in Turkey, the rule of Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt, and the National Liberation Front in Algeria. This disjunction, compounded by authoritarian rule, spawned Islamic opposition movements and groups.

Nationalism and Democracy

In the wake of decolonization and the independence of Muslim countries, a wave of Arab nationalism swept across the Arab region in the late 1950s and 1960s. The Arabic language, a common history and shared cultural traditions have played a central role in fostering the idea of Arab unity and solidarity. The Arab League was formed in 1945 to foster a sense of unity among the Arabs and to resolve political, territorial and other disputes among Arab states. The idea of Arab nationalism was initially enunciated by some Christian Arab and Bathist intellectuals, notably the Syrian political philosopher Michel Aflaq (1910-89) and the Lebanese-Egyptian intellectual George Antonius (1891-1942). They were inspired by the 19th century German theories of nationalism that emphasised the primacy of descent and ancestry. The idea was taken up and promoted by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70) and the Palestinian activist Abdullah al-Rimawi and the Jordanian Munif al-Razzaz. Between 1958 and 1961 Egypt and Syria joined to form the United Arab Republic. Wars and civil strife in some parts of the Arab world in the 1970s and 1980s, the failure of Arab states to stand up to Israel, rising economic hardships and authoritarian rule led to growing disillusionment with Arab nationalism.

In the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, some Muslim intellectuals were influenced by the socialist ideology. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) argued that socialism (ishtirakiyah) was an indigenous Arab phenomenon, which could be traced to pre-Islamic Bedouin traditions. Some Muslim intellectuals and political activists in the Middle East and North Africa, who were drawn to the socialist ideology in the 1960s, sought to synthesise it with Islamic values and principles, which they called Islamic socialism. The idea of Islamic socialism has been popular, at different points of time, in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and South Yemen. A prominent socialist thinker in Egypt was Salamah Musa (1887-1958). Musa, who had studied in England and was deeply influenced by Fabian thought, wrote a large number of books and tracts on social justice in a socialist framework, which were widely read in the country. The Egyptian intellectual Shaykh Khalid Muhammad Khalid argued that socialism was sanctioned by Islam and was a desirable alternative to capitalism. The most influential theorist of Islamic socialism was Mustafa al-Siba’i (1915-1964), head of the Islamic Socialist Front in Syria. Al-Siba’i argued that Islam and socialism were compatible and that socialism represented a desirable goal for society. He believed that the basis of social solidarity in a state and society inspired by Islamic socialism was provided by a combination of principles, including equality, social justice, cooperation and responsibility. Al-Siba’i’s ideas were adopted by the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, who sought to combine Arab nationalism, socialism and Islam. In 1963 Algeria’s constitution declared Algeria to be a socialist state with Islam as the official religion. Proponents of Islamic socialism supported a centralized economy and favoured the nationalization of banks and other key financial institutions.

Hasan al-Banna (1906-49), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, rejected the ideas of Arab nationalism and socialism and proposed an alternative in the form of what he called ‘Islamic nationalism’. He argued that Islam was everything, “a belief and a form of worship, a fatherland and a nationality, a religion and a state, spirituality and action, a book and a sword.” Sayyid Qutb, an influential ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, denounced Arab nationalism and described it as a manifestation of modern paganism. He also denounced Islamic socialism and held that capitalism, socialism and communism were symptomatic of pagan ethos and as such could not be reconciled with Islamic principles. Sayyid Qutb argued that the idea of popular sovereignty, which lies at the heart of democracy, is at variance with the Islamic belief in divine sovereignty.

Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-79), founder of Jama’ate-e-Islami, held that Islam was the “very antithesis of secular Western democracy.” However, he believed that democracy as a form of government could be acceptable if it was conceived as a limited form of popular sovereignty, regulated and restricted by divine law.

Egypt’s influential scholar Muhammad Abduh endorsed parliamentary democracy and held that it was compatible with Islamic principles. Hasan al-Turabi (born 1932), an ideologue of the Islamic National Front in Sudan, held that the Islamic political system rests fundamentally on the tenets of the unity and oneness of God (Tawhid) and consultation (shura). He argued that democracy, which is based on the idea of the ultimate sovereignty of the people, is incompatible with Islamic principles. Al-Turabi held that liberal democratic systems were flawed because they are based on factional interests and therefore cannot be expected to promote real equality, freedom and unity.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-89) argued that the essence of the Islamic state lay not so much in compliance with Shariah but with the quality of leadership. In a significant departure from the mainstream Shia belief in the Hidden Imam, Khomeini suggested that Muslims need not indefinitely wait for the return of the Hidden Imam, but must strive to establish an Islamic state under the guidance of the clergy. The central element in the establishment of the Islamic state, according to him, is the principle of wilayat al-faqih (guardianship of the jurisconsult).

The term ‘Islamic state,’ which prominently figures in the contemporary political discourse in the Muslim world, has come to be surrounded by a good deal of controversy and contestation. Many Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere seem to be wary of the term in the context of its abuse and manipulation by autocratic rulers as well as militant organizations in the Arab region. There seems to be a broad consensus among contemporary Muslim scholars, intellectuals and activists that, in a broad sense, democracy is compatible with Islamic principles and that it is possible and desirable to harmonise Islamic values and principles with democratic ethos. Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi has consistently spoken in favour of pluralism and democracy. Some prominent leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood like Abdel Moneim and Abdel Futuh endorse democracy as a desirable form of government for Arab and Muslim countries. Similar views are expressed by Fathallah Arsalane of Morocco’s Justice and Excellence Party and Nadia Yassine (daughter of Shaykh Yasine). Many commentators emphasize that the process of consultation (shura) should involve representatives of various groups, including the educated and professional classes, traders and merchants, the ulama, landowners and the masses. Consultation may be mediated through an elected parliament, but it is important to define and identify the role and functions of an elected parliament through free discussion, deliberations and dialogue.

Tunisia’s most influential leader Rachid Ghannouchi is widely credited for having emphasized the centrality of democracy, social justice, human rights and political pluralism in the current Islamic discourse and in Islam-inspired political and social movements in the Arab and Muslim world. He argues that the values of justice, human rights and public consultation are embedded in the Quran and in the Islamic tradition. For more than three decades, Ghannouchi has consistently argued that democracy and pluralism are compatible with Islamic values and principles. He espouses a tolerant and inclusive vision of society and polity and is against the forcibly establishment of an Islamic state.


The discourse on secularism in the Arab region has largely focused on the separation between the political and religious domains and on the adoption of the secularist principle as an instrument of state policy. One can identify three distinctive streams of thought in respect of secularism in the Arab and Muslim world. Secularism and modernity were introduced as a state-sponsored project in the first half of the 20th century in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Turkey. In Egypt, the foundations of a secular state were laid during the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805-49) and Khedive Ismail (1863-79). In the early decades of the 20th century, a group of Egyptian intellectuals were inspired by the ideas of Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963). They argued that religion should be confined to the personal sphere, that Islamic institutions such as mosques, madrasas and charitable endowments should be placed under the supervision and control of the state, and that Western legal codes should supplant Islamic laws, except in family matters. Secularist ideas were forcefully articulated by prominent Egyptian intellectuals and scholars like Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Husayn Haikal (1888-1956) and Taha Hussein (1889-1973). Muhammad Abduh (1848-1905), an influential Egyptian scholar, held that there was no inherent conflict between Islamic principles and secularism. He argued that Islam urges Muslims to establish a form of state and government on the basis of reasoning and reflection and in the light of the experiences of other nations. Taha Husayn argued that Western culture was far superior to Arab and Islamic culture and that Muslim societies should be restructured on the model of Western societies.

In Turkey, Ali Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966), who was trained at Al-Azhar University, argued in favour of separating religion and politics. Mehmet Ziya Gokalp (1875-1924) was an influential Turkish poet, writer, sociologist and political activist and a pioneering figure in the nationalist and modernist movement in Turkey. Gokalp, who was greatly influenced by French secularism and the sociological positivism of Emile Durkheim, argued that the process of secularization should encompass all aspects of social and political life and that religion should be confined to the private sphere. He equated secularization with Westernization. As a member of the parliamentary committee that drafted Turkey’s constitution, his ideas had a profound impact on the formation of the Turkish republic. Gokalp believed that Islamic institutions, including mosques and Shariah courts, should be under the control of the state. He argued in favour of the adoption of a civil code, modeled after the Swiss code, in place of Islamic family laws.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the establishment of Turkey as a secular, republican state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the first president of the Turkish Republic, sought to make a radical break with the Islamic and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, Westernization and secularization. The project was inspired by what came to be known as Kemalism. The ideology of Kemalism rests on six core principles, which constitute the official creed of the Turkish state and are written into the constitution: Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. Ataturk abolished the caliphate and declared Turkey a secular republic. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobin state, at the expense of local governments, NGOs, people’s rights and religious and ethnic minorities.

The ruling establishment introduced wide-ranging and sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. The pilgrimage to Makkah was prohibited. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. The post of Shaykh al-Islam was abolished and the ulama were placed under the authority of the ministry of religious affairs. Sufi orders were banned and Islamic madrasas and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin and an attempt was made to purge it of words of Arabic origin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez -- was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. In 1928 the Assembly voted in favour of deleting the words ‘The religion of the Turkish state is Islam’ from Article 2 of the constitution. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology.

The influence of the Kemalist ideology, which sought to impose a top-down model of Western modernity and secularization on the Turkish people, remained confined to the urban elite. The ideology had a calamitous and insidious effect on Turkish polity, economy, society and religious and cultural ethos. Under its influence, the state acquired absolute and tyrannical powers. Laicism or secularism became an official instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights. The Kemalist ideology created a cleavage between the Westernised ruling elite, including the army and the courts, and the masses. Kemalism was used as a pretext for repeated military interventions and takeovers in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997.

Tunisia was in the forefront of the modernist movement in the latter half of the 20th century. Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000), the first president of Tunisia, was an enthusiastic votary of secular modernity and had great admiration for Ataturk. Bourguiba’s 30-year reign was marked by an all too evident pro-Western and secular orientation, an unrelenting drive for modernization and a disdain for political parties and groups that claimed to be inspired by the Islamic ideology. In 1956, shortly after independence, Bourguiba launched a massive programme aimed at undermining the vitality of Islamic institutions and the authority of religious functionaries. Shariah courts were abolished and Islamic endowments were placed under the control of the government. In addition, Bourguiba pushed through a controversial legislation called the Code du Statut Personel, which secularized the family code and replaced the Shariah-based laws in respect of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child care. Polygamy was outlawed and divorce was made subject to judicial review. The celebration of feasts at Sufi shrines was prohibited. The wearing of the headscarf was prohibited in universities and government offices.

Secondly, there has been a strong anti-secularist current in the political and intellectual discourse in the Muslim world in the 20th century. Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (1873-1960), Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi (1903-79). Hasan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini rejected the secularist doctrine and held that Islam admits of no duality or separation between the religious and political spheres. Abd al-Qadir Awdah (d. 1954), an ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood, argued that “Islam is a religion and a state and the two are inseparable.”

Thirdly, some Muslim thinkers and intellectuals draw a distinction between secularization as a social process and secularism as a matter of state policy. Ghannouchi, for example, holds that secularism and modernity are broadly compatible with Islam. At the same time, he is critical of the secularization process, which is “turning the West into a place of selfish beasts and which is posing a serious threat to the moral fibre of society.” In the course of his tours of Arab countries in the wake of the Arab Spring in September 2011, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Arab states to create secular polities that would give “equal rights to all religious groups, including Muslims, Christians, Jews and atheists.” He called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, emphasizing that secularism did not mean renouncing religion. Drawing a distinction between secularism as a personal ideology and as state policy, he added, “As Recep Tayyip Erdogan I am a Muslim, not secular. But I am a prime minister of a secular country. People should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be religious in a secular state. Turkey defines secularism as the principle that the state is equidistant from all religions. Secularism is not atheism.”

More than half of Muslim-majority countries have declared Islam as state religion. These include Iran, Afghanistan, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Mauritania, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Morocco, Algeria, Yemen, Palestine, Somalia, Kuwait, UAE and Brunei Darussalam. On the other hand, Turkey, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Indonesia, Sudan, Mali, Albania, Chad, The Gambia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Burkina Faso are officially secular states.

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