The Bitter Fruits of Nationalism in the Muslim world

A nation is generally defined as a community of people who are joined together by the factor of political territory, language, culture, race, and shared history. The factors that brings people together as a nation give rise to a phenomenon called nationalism. Nationalism is a difficult term to describe. Graham Evans and Jeffrey Newnham in the Penguin Dictionary of International Relations give a benign description of nationalism in these words, "This term is used in two related senses. In the first usage, nationalism seeks to identify a behavioral entity – the nation – and thereafter to pursue certain political and cultural goals on behalf of it. In the second usage, nationalism is a sentiment of loyalty toward the nation which is shared by people."

However, there is no universally accepted definition of nationalism. For our purpose, we may define nationalism as a pseudo-religion and ideology based on ethnic land, language and cultural heritage. For an ardent nationalist, the land, language, and culture are sacred and holy, which in turn gives way to irrationality and fanaticism.  He will not accept a person as equal, though born in the same land and share the same faith but of different language and cultural heritage. He feels that his, language and culture are superior to all others. The ideology of nationalism has acquired the status of pseudo-religious credo. The key tenets of this new conviction are allegiance and loyalty to fatherland, adoration and awe for national heroes, religious reverence for the national anthem, veneration for race and language, pride in national history and traditions, and feeling of national and racial superiority over others. This fierce feeling of nationalism can be described as a conversion from traditional religion to “civil religion” in Rousseau’s term.

The seed of the modern nationalism was sowed in the Western Europe during the Napoleonic era (1799-1815).  The feeling of nationalism sparked during this era gave rise to nation-states in Europe. It also gave impetus to the breakaway of the Balkan states from the Ottoman Empire. The effects of nationalism did not remain confined within the non-Muslim territory of the Ottoman Empire; it slipped past the borders of Balkan states into the Muslim population.

In the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire the national feelings based on the ethnicity and language led to the formation of a nationalist movement during First World War against the Ottoman rule. Britain and France exploited the Arab disaffection and rallied them against the Turks in the Great War. The British promised Arabs a United Arab State comprising the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, including Palestine, if they revolt against the Turks and support Britain in the War.

True to the nature of Imperialist powers, behind the door Britain and France were plotting something else. They signed an infamous secret agreement in 1916 (during the Great War) to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire among themselves. The pact is known as Sykes-Picot Agreement, named after the British and French diplomats who negotiated the deal. The Imperial Russia also privy to the secret accord gave its consent to the agreement.

In divvying up the crumbling land of the Muslim Empire, Britain and France created artificial states from the former territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire. Modern Iraq was drawn from the Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Kuwait was created from the district of Basra. Jordan was carved out of Palestine. The carving of the new nation-states from Arab land was to prevent the formation of a single and united Arab nation. From a single and united Muslim political regime across racial and national bonds emerged many small Muslim nation-states forged by arbitrary political boundaries.

Britain and France did what Imperial powers do –” divide and rule. They craftily isolated Arabs into smaller countries so they may not ally together to pose any threat to their imperial interests. While it is easy to blame the Britain and France for the disintegration of the Muslim land in the aftermath of the First World War. However, at the end of the day, the burden for the dissension and division in the Muslim world rests squarely with the Muslims.

Muslims committed a cardinal sin, not only in the phraseology of political parlance but also in the Islamic faith. They shifted from “ideological group”, one ummah united under the flag of Islam, to “ethnic groups”, segregated based on national, regional, linguistic, and racial feelings –” referred as asabiyyah in the Arabic language. Arab nationalists and anti Arab Turks gave away the ideological breadth and depth of Islam and adopted the narrow nationalistic view. They saw in the Arab and Turkish past, not in the Islamic past, a classical period that predated the advent of Islam. Together, they dealt a crowning blow to Pan Islamism. Hence, for Muslims to gather on a single political platform has become a far-fetched proposition, let alone to form a single political regime.

Among the ills afflicting the Muslim body today nothing is more debilitating than the disease of asabiyyah. The body that was once sound and strong, now a mere carcass, and “Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather”. The Holy Prophet Sallallahu Alayhi wassalam foresaw the situation and prophesied, “A time will come when the nations of the world will invite themselves towards you like a group of hungry people invite themselves to a plate of food placed in their midst." He further said, “you will be at that time, in the majority, you will be a great number." The Holy Messenger went on to tell why this condition would exist, he said, "Your enemies will have no respect and no fear of you". How true is the Prophet’s prophecy made over 1400 years ago! True to the Prophet’s saying, the nations of the world are preying today on the weak and divided Muslims for an easy feast; the Muslims are neither feared nor respected. Borrowed idea of nationalism based on region, language, and culture is greatly responsible for the present sordid condition of the Muslims.

But while the Quran admonishes Muslims, "And hold fast, all of you together, to the Rope of Allah, (Islam) and do not be divided among yourselves" (3:103), the Muslims are divided today into fifty plus nation-states holding tight to the rope of their national flags, anthems, languages, and local heroes –” golden calf idols. These idolatrous forms of nationalism whom all loyalty and homage is owed diverted Muslims from the demand of the Quran to be a single brotherhood, “The Mu’minoon are but a single Brotherhood.” (49:10), and one Ummah, "And verily this Ummah of yours is a single Ummah” (21:92). The Holy Prophet calls the ideology grounded in the allegiance to one’s national flag, anthem, and language “rotten”, and instructed Muslims to leave them.

The Quran proclaims, O Mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other. Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well-acquainted (49:13). People are born in families of varied culture and races, and families lead to the formation of clans, tribes, and nations. Therefore, assembling of human beings into tribes and nations is a natural occurrence. Common place of birth, ethnic origin, language, and culture naturally bring people closer and give them a feeling of kinship. This feeling is expected, instinctive and quite legitimate; this is patriotism in its innocent form. Nevertheless, these feelings should remain checked and should not be allowed to turn into bigotry and intolerance for people of different origins.

According to the Quran, grouping of men and women into nations and clans is only to facilitate identification and recognition, not to assume and assert superiority over others. The ayahs (49:13) cut the evil root of nationalism and racism by stating that all humans are descendants of the same parents and thus belong to one human family, the only thing that gives superiority over others is their righteousness. As the Holy Prophet said, “The most honorable among you in the sight of Allah is the one who is the most pious and righteous of you.”

The intense feeling of nationalism based on the ethnic and linguistic lines has not only divided Muslims into many regional, tribal, and linguistic groups, but it has often pitted one against the other. Worse yet, too often we have seen a Muslim state seeking military help from non-Muslim powers in its conflict against a brother Muslim country. One Muslim country provides logistic support to a non-Muslim power to help attack and destroy another Muslim country. The vice of selfish nationalism also come to play when a Muslim minority national and linguistic group want to separate from an ethnic Muslim majority; in its pursuit for separation and independence it conspires with an enemy power to subvert and sabotage and destabilize the Muslim state it is a part of. On the other hand, a domineering Muslim majority ethnic group will exploit and oppress a minority Muslim ethnic community for its own false sense of national superiority and dominance. There is yet another very ugly aspect of agonizing attachment to nationalism, a flag-waving Muslim feels closer to a non-Muslim based on their common language, land, and ethnicity than to a fellow Muslim of distant land and different ethnic and linguistic heritage. In the Muslim world, the bitter fruits of nationalism are found in all the hideous forms.

The world is moving forward towards globalization. European Union is created with one currency, one central bank, free trade among its member, and with the Schengen visa, twenty-five European countries have become borderless. Chinese and Russians, two foes, are making alliances and working to lower regional trade and investment barriers between their two countries. The Muslim world is a different story.

While the European Union countries are actively demolishing the borders over which they had fought many war for so long, Muslim countries, especially the prosperous ones, with their strict visa regimentation do their best to keep the fellow Muslims at bay. One Muslim country is building steel wall and installing sensors to keep their next door besieged Muslim brothers and sisters away from its border. The poor of the Romania and Bulgaria are free to go to rich countries of the European Union in search for jobs and better life. However, the rich Muslim countries keep ever-vigilant watch over their ports to prevent the entry of poor Muslims in search of livelihood. And those who are admitted to work are mistreated and humiliated. The haughty attitude of the elite stems purely from their nationalistic feelings of superiority over Muslims of poor origin.

When Quran says, “Verily this community of yours is a single community”(21:92), it means that a Bangladeshi Muslim is not a foreigner in Morocco and a Moroccan Muslim is not an outsider in Indonesia. Today, the Quran’s proclamation, however, remains in theory only. What is in practice? Saudi Arabia and Yemen, two Muslim nations, located side by side, share all common elements that form one nation, including faith and beliefs, but separated by ten feet high concrete barrier along the border, entrenched within their own politically defined geographical boundaries, honoring their flags and revering their national anthems.

To have a Muslim Union on the pattern of the European Union, at this point, realistically speaking, is pie in the sky. The leaders of Muslim countries, most created and supported by foreign powers, are engrossed in their own selfish ambitions and rivalries to rise above personal considerations to allow any political and economic union of Muslim nations. However, a few small measures that can be adopted will give some sense of oneness to Muslims living in the fifty plus nation-states without changing the political status quo.

First, all the Muslim states can adopt one national anthem written in the Arabic language; after all, Arabic is the language of Islam. Second, instead of having over fifty different flags, Muslim nations can adopt one flag with their national emblem imprinted in one of the corners of the common flag for country identification. Last, observation of a common national day through out the Muslim world based on the solar calendar. These will be small but significant step towards more meaningful unity in the future.