Ashley Belohlavek: The Spectrum of Muslim Reactions to Modern Crises

The idea of a nation-state is a fairly new concept to Muslim majority countries. Aside from empires, there was no real means of separating people by their geographical location. This started to change once the era of colonialism hit the Muslim world, breaking it up into completely arbitrary regions based on precious resources each area contained, particularly oil. As expected, these partitions were made for the sake of convenience for Western colonizers, and these newly formed Middle Eastern nation-states were forced to adapt to this completely foreign system of state and order. As one can see while studying political clashes in the past couple centuries in various MENA states, some countries have been able to work out the kinks popping up in their governments but others have spiraled into violent warfare.

The negative consequences of Western powers imposing their control over Middle Eastern societies can be seen in many ways, including this new government’s lack of accommodation to its Muslim constituency. In Wael Hallaq’s critique of Western society’s installment of their separation of powers in Muslim dominated states, they say, “For Muslims today to seek the adoption of the modern state system of separation of powers is to bargain for a deal inferior to the one they secured for themselves over the centuries of their history.”[1] What Hallaq is saying here is that before the interference of colonists, Muslims had created their own system of law that fit their specific needs and cultural traditions but were then forced to adapt to a new governmental system that was never built for them in the first place. This can be seen in countries such as Saudi Arabia where present day Shari’a has a completely different interpretation than it had centuries ago, due to interference of Western powers.[2] Hallaq also comments on this idea by saying that Shari’a has become politically twisted and abused due to the Western concepts that were dropped off and left in Saudi Arabi, leaving the true essence of Shari’a essentially dead.[3]

In various different MENA countries affected by this sudden surge of colonial meddling, there have been very different responses to consequential problems. In many of these nations, new governments have simply been formed and then left to fend for themselves. In 2011 in Tunisia, there was an infamous uprising sparked by a vendor who self-immolated to show his extreme dissatisfaction with current governance and this led to a short lived rebellion against the regime and president at the time. The conclusion of this reaction was the decomposition of the administration, resulting in somewhat of a success as the unfavorable regime was demolished and replaced with a much more appealing democratic administration.[4]

The political climate in Egypt fluctuated massively between the arrival of colonialism and the 21st century. There would be a back and forth movement between a secular minded state taking over or a religious uprising to reestablish Islam’s hold over the country’s governmental mindset. The Muslim Brotherhood, a Muslim organization created in 1928, united under their desire to return to the first Islamic government created by Prophet Muhammad way back in the 7th century, created waves in the fragile political system of the mid-20th century, with president Jamal Abdel Nasser at its core. The rivalry between state and religious groups got so heated that Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, had a government orchestrated assassination placed against him in 1949 after one of his Brothers assassinated the then Prime Minister of Egypt.[5] Only a few years later in 1954, Nasser cracked down on the Brotherhood after an attempt on his life, executing many members of the religious extremist group.[6]

While several MENA states crumbled under unstable rulers and regimes, Morocco had some rather smooth sailing in comparison. King Muhammad VI, the current president of Morocco whose rule began in 2004, has done a lot to show his consciousness of and consideration towards his subjects. He immediately encouraged Moroccan citizens to express any grievances they had with the past king’s rule and he paved the way for massive amounts of rights for women, granting them not only political equality but social and civic equality as well. He also released many political prisoners and legalized non-governmental institutions.[7] While there were positive developments in Morocco such as these, there were still bumps along the way, but King Muhammad handled them in a much more productive way than other MENA rulers had. When Moroccans began to protest in 2011, within about four months, Muhammad had ordered an updated constitution to be drafted to better fit the needs of his people, and he even knew this new document would limit his power but he paved the way for its creation despite that.[8]

After considering the responses of different leaders from various MENA countries battling political and religious clashes, there are various themes that can be seen. The most obvious takeaway from these upheavals is arguably that colonialism swept through these countries, completely altering society and leaving the new countries to fend for themselves in unknown territory and end up in shambles, for some countries like Egypt, Syria, and Libya. But in other countries like Morocco or Tunisia, citizens have come together to demand either a change of regime or a change in law, and positive change was able to come out of their protest without serious violence, something unavoidable in other countries.


Works Cited:

Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press. 2012. Print

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 5b Lecture. 9-28-16

Piser, Karina. “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy,” Foreign Policy, March 31, 2016

Brown, L. Carl. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics. Chichester, West Sussex. Columbia University Press, 2000. Print

Totten, Michael J. “Is Morocco the Model for Arab Democracy?” The Tower, August 2013

Mahallati, M. Jafar. Week 6c Lecture. 10-7-16


[1] Hallaq, pg 72

[2] Mahallati, week 5b lecture

[3] Ibid, Ibid

[4] Piser

[5] Brown, pg 145

[6] Ibid, Ibid

[7] Totten

[8] Mahallati, week 6c lecture