Harris Walker: Modern Modern Nation-States and Islam

The mass uprisings that occurred in the Middle East in the spring of 2011, which would come to be known as the Arab Spring, featured citizens that were fed up with their ineffectual governments that left them constantly unsatisfied. However, the root of the problems can be traced beyond simply these leaders’ inability to govern effectively. Western imperialists led the charge to establish modern nation-states in lieu of Islamic Empires, an approach that served their own interests at the time but ultimately led to disgruntled populations. These people were unhappy with their governments because their governments failed to adequately incorporate Islamic tradition in governance since the Western conception of the modern nation-state is incompatible with Islam. Only through the incorporation of Islamic tradition into the concept of the nation-state can such a state succeed.

The West has attempted to exert its influence over the modern Islamic World at times when it believes imposing its will can serve its own political and economic interests. This can be traced back to Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, which is the first encounter between colonialists and the Muslim World.[1] The British exerted their political will throughout the region, often with harmful impacts. The British supported Saudi Arabia in its conquest of the Arab Peninsula because they believed the Saudis had the best chance at defeating the Ottoman Empire. This conquest resulted in the death of 400,000 people, an unimportant consequence to the British, who were attempting to consolidate power.[2] A third example of British influence in the region is the creation of the State of Israel in an effort to once again increase British influence in the region. This led to the creation of mandate states in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. The rise of these nation-states due to Western influence has resulted in unstable governments that have not persisted.

The western concept of statehood is antithetical to Islam and therefore has trouble gaining legitimacy amongst the citizens these states serve. In The Impossible State, Wael Hallaq outlines the reasons why these two concepts are unable to coexist. The crucial issue that makes these two concepts difficult to reconcile is the origin of morality in each system. For Islam, the law to follow is Sharia, which comes directly from God. God is therefore the sovereign entity over the body politic.[3] The secular nature of nation-states on the other hand means governments gain their sovereignty from the people, who are believed to be able to discern morality for themselves. This difference can be conceptualized through the attempt to discern what “is and what ought to be.”[4] In the nation-state, governments attempt to alter laws to fit the desires of their constituents at the time. For Islam, what is and what ought to be are the same because the laws come directly from God. Any alteration of this law is a direct affront to God. The incongruence between modernization and Sharia has led to three distinct responses in the Muslim world, including religious fundamentalism.

Prior to the rise of the rise of modern-nation state produced a number of changes in the Muslim world that would come to alter political life in the region. Attempts to nationalize the nation through secularization led to changes in demographics, education, and economic models. Secularization leads to efforts to “weed out…indigenous traditions that were believed to impede national unity,” shifts the balance of power in a nation squarely in cities rather than agrarian areas.[5] This led to an increase in urban populations, which almost doubled from 1950-1970.[6] Additionally, the governments made primary education universal for both boys and girls in an effort to push a secular curriculum that was determined by the state rather than the Ulama.[7] Finally, the government attempted to alter economic models by switching to “command economies” that were dominated by the state and followed either the capitalist or socialist models.[8] All of these are factors that led to both increased expectations for the government as well as a shift away from the political quietism that had defined the Muslim world prior. This is a major reason for the rise of religious fundamentalism, as Brown says, “Religious fundamentalism thrives in cases of rapid modernization without governments that are able to meet the needs of changing populations.”[9] These governments’ inability to meet the needs of the changing political landscape combined with an increased political awareness throughout the population created the conditions for a change to the political order.

Alterations to the political structure of the Middle East in response to modernization came in three distinct forms, accomodationism, anti-colonialism, and fundamentalism.[10] Accomodationists believe that the issues facing the Muslim world, primarily the military defeats they suffered during the mid 18th-20th c. occur because the region is unwilling to accept modernity, which they believe is the best form of government. Khayr al Din of Tunisia falls into this camp, as he abandoned old forms of governance and asked for help from Europeans in establishing a new political order. The anti-colonialist approach is rooted in the belief that Islam could flourish if it embraced certain aspects of the modern approach, but needed to retain its Muslim identity. This model can be seen in Iran following the rise of Ruhollah Khomeini, who adopted US models of executive power but believed that the executive should embrace Sharia. Finally, the fundamentalist approach completely rejects modernity and believes the only way to adhere to Islam is to harken back to the First Golden Age of Theology and have the world adjust to fit that lifestyle. Groups such as the Wahhabis in Arabia and Sayyid Qutb adopted these ideas. In his book, Religion and Politics in the Middle East, Robert Lee believes that a middle ground between accomodationism and anti-colonialism will be most conducive to a well governed Modern Muslim World, saying, “Stabilization would require not separation of church and state but some regularization of the relationship between political decision makers and unauthorized preachers…stabilization would require a common understanding of the appropriate role of the state in maintaining the country’s moral climate.”[11] The Arab Spring gave countries that had long been attempting to fit the project of modernization a chance to redefine their governments as to best serve their interests. As we see in Tunisia, Lee’s approach has resulted in the most stable nation-state in the region.

The origins of the Arab Spring stem from Tunisia, where a street vendor committed self-immolation, starting a trend of protests to demonstrate how fed up people were with their underperforming governments. Tunisia serves another key role in the Arab Spring, as the party that was elected to power following the ousting of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali can serve as the model by which other Arab states should follow. The Ennahda is the nation’s largest Islamist party, but rather than running on a platform that stressed the importance of Islamism, they ran on “a pledge to break with repressive tactics of the former regime.”[12] At the same time, its opposition parties were stressing the need for secularization in Tunisia, a strategy that ultimately failed. The people of Tunisia wanted a progressive government that could also incorporate Islam into its platform. Some of these religious policies include the legalization of the hijab for women who want to wear it. Under the previous regime, the Hijab had been completely banned because he felt it was a sign of extremism. This shift was well received by a population that aims to achieve equal rights for women, signified by the election of 49 women from the Ennahda to the assembly.[13] Rashid Ghanhoushi, the leader of the Ennahda described this alteration in society as “the time for Islamic Democracy instead of political Islam.”[14] The balance struck by Tunisia following the Arab Spring can be seen as an effective way of blending Islam into the society of a modern nation-state, garnering the support of the people it governs.

The project of modernization in the Muslim World came about as a result of European Imperialism for the purpose of furthering their economic and political goals. Their influence took a toll on the state of Islamic society, as their attempts at secular modernization meant a shift away from the moral code of Sharia that had been the dominant force in shaping early Islamic civilization. The attempt to impose modern-nation states in a region that had never subscribed to that model created political dissention born out of government’s inability to meet the needs of their changing populations. The fulfillment of this political dissention can be seen in the Arab Spring, when local populations pushed back on efforts to secularize the Middle East. As seen in Tunisia, the adoption of traditional Islamic principles into a democratic framework can be applied in Middle Eastern nations and perhaps is the most successful way to achieve political success in the region. The attempt to modernize the Middle East was an ill-fated exercise with reverberating effects that have only recently played out to fit the needs of the Islamic world.




[1] Mahallati, M. Lecture. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. 20, September 2017.

[2] Mahallati, M. Lecture. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. 11, October 2017.

[3] Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013, 72.

[4] Ibid, 80.

[5] Brown, L. Carl. Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 129.

[6] Ibid, 126.

[7] Ibid, 127.

[8] Ibid, 131.

[9]Ibid, 135.

[10] Mahallati, M. Lecture. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. 9, September 2017.

[11] Lee, Robert Deemer. Religion and Politics in the Middle East: Identity, Ideology, Institutions, and Attitudes. Westview Press, 2014, 39-40.

[12] Piser, Karina. “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy.” Foreign Policy, 1 Apr. 2016, foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/31/how-tunisias-islamists-embraced-democracy-ennahda/.

[13] Mahallati, M. Lecture. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH. 4, October 2017.

[14] Piser, Karina. “How Tunisia’s Islamists Embraced Democracy.” Foreign Policy, 1 Apr. 2016, foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/31/how-tunisias-islamists-embraced-democracy-ennahda/.