Nationalism was a Western construct mainly designed and driven by the rise of the mercantile/trader classes. As an idea, it was a revolt against the feudal mindset and the traditional influence of the aristocratic sections who dominated Europe in alliance with the church.
The American and French revolutions in the 18th century were both prompted by the growing number of men and women sandwiched between powerful aristocrats and the downtrodden. This section would eventually rise as a separate and distinct class, described by Karl Marx as the bourgeoise and/or the middle-class.
The architects of both revolutions rejected colonialism, monarchism and political aspects of religion as central signifiers of a people’s identity. Instead, to express their growing political ambitions triggered by their economic successes, the architects of nationalism began to construct notions of identity based on shared political and economic interests, languages and cultural memories.
To American and French nationalists, this meant devising a system which would make the people direct participants in the state-building process; a people united by certain common political, economic and social interests derived through a consensus, which defined them as a single nationalistic entity.
In the Muslim regions, when Muslim imperial powers began to erode from the 19th century onwards, various concerned Muslim thinkers and activists responded by rejecting the decaying memories of a glorious imperial past.
They adopted notions of nationalism to find their peoples’ place in the rapidly changing paradigms of international order. For example, from within the decaying Ottoman Empire emerged the ‘Young Turks’ movement, which searched for a squarely Turkish identity based on a common language and cultural memories. Turkish nationhood was the result, which eschewed the imperial pretensions of the eroding Empire and defined Turkish nationalism as a modern, progressive component of Europe.
In the Arab world emerged a nationalism that was anti-colonial and revolutionary, but one that rejected old Muslim imperialism and notions of so-called ‘Pan-Islamism’ — a 19th century concept which attempted to stem the collapse of Muslim empires by advocating the modernisation of the concept of Muslim universalism and the caliphate.
Arab nationalism was strongest in Egypt, Algeria, Syria and Iraq. It painted its people and borders with exclusively nationalistic strokes but, at the same time, also adopted an Arab universalism based on the history and memory of a once powerful, enlightened and progressive nature of the Arab peoples.
In India, a region with a Hindu majority but with a 500-year history of Muslim rule, certain Muslim thinkers also adopted nationalistic notions after the demise of Muslim rule. Rejecting the decaying past, Muslim nationalism in India advocated the adoption of modern political thought and sciences so that an ‘enlightened’ Muslim nation could emerge in India to face the challenge of British colonialism, and, later, ‘Hindu majoritarianism’.
This nationalism was intellectually driven by the modern Muslim bourgeoise and bankrolled by the Muslim landed elite. It saw the Muslims of India as a separate nationalistic entity, united by memories of a once glorious past and an urge to revitalise its shared faith through a more rational, modern, and flexible reading and implementation.
Indian Muslim nationalism also largely bypassed Pan-Islamism because it believed that Muslim culture in the region had bearings which were separate from how Islam had evolved elsewhere.
Nationalism was the main engine behind the creation and liberation of various Muslim regions in the 20th century. But its influence and impact began to lose hold from the early 1970s onwards. Failed economies, and some disastrous wars, polarised the Muslim societies created on the basis of nationalism. And with the absence of democracy this polarisation began to be expressed by radical alternatives such as neo-Pan-Islamism, offered by a new generation of bourgeoise and petty-bourgeoise Muslims, and bankrolled by oil-rich Arab monarchies that had always seen Muslim nationalism as a threat.
The state in various Muslim countries tried to retain the status quo by rapidly adopting various aspects of Pan-Islamism, even to the extent of sacrificing many nationalist notions with which most Muslim liberation movements had originally been constructed.
The erosion of the nationalist narratives created wide open spaces. These spaces were rapidly occupied and then dominated by ideas initially rejected by the nationalists. These ideas were opposed to the nationalist narrative, criticising it for going against the grain of Islamic universalism and creating separatism based on indigenous cultures and languages in Muslim regions.
Ideas which offered alternative political and social models (as opposed to the ones based on nationalism) were largely based on a contemporary understanding of pan-Islamism. But some three decades after these ideas had managed to engrain themselves in the polity, state and psyche of various Muslim countries, from the 1970s onwards, these countries were left grappling with a new crisis.
For example, the new generation of Turks, Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians, Pakistanis, etc, are now completely disconnected with the original notions of their countries’ nationhood and nationalist identities. In the past few decades they were more exposed to ideas of Islamic universalism, pushed aggressively by oil-rich Arab monarchies and their political allies.
In Pakistan, a young millennial is not quite sure what being a Pakistani now constitutes. Does it mean being a citizen of a Muslim-majority nation in South Asia, which evolved on the banks of River Indus and is part of the region’s 5,000-year-old history; or is he or she a member of some approaching universal Islamic set-up who should just see Pakistan as a temporary abode to mark time in, till that universal empire emerges? Is he or she first a Pakistani and then a Muslim, or vice versa? What about a non-Muslim citizen of Pakistan? Who or what is he?
Such confusion was triggered by the gradual erosion of the initial nationalist ideas in Muslim countries and the rise of a rather ill-defined and overtly ambitious notion of universalism in a world still defined by nationalistic boundaries. It made a whole generation vulnerable to the ways of those who promise the same universal utopia — but through unprecedented violence against the state and a number of imagined ‘enemies’.
Maybe the solution now lies in reinvigorating and updating the original notions of nationalism in Muslim countries so that future generations would feel more comfortable, sure and confident of being entities defined by their shared cultural heritage of a region that was carved, encapsulated and bordered by nationalist notions of state, society and nation — and not as some epic launching pad to jump-start a utopia from.
By Nadeem F Paracha