Ideas & Philosophy — 20 March 2012
Whither the Nation-States?

Sharique Naeem 

The Law of a land governs the relationship of individuals within that Society; therefore, the law is central to any society as it is the yardstick for decisions. In the west, the secular law has found general acceptance as the premises for governing the society, and while there are debates on reforms, ethical values, and policies, etc. every now and then, the undertone is set within the context of the secular law.

In the Muslim societies, however, this general acceptance never materialized. And it is for this reason that the very notion of validity of secular law is contested so often.  In fact, a close scrutiny of many of the Political trends in the Muslim world show that the underlying challenge is of identifying and accepting the source of law; for example, whether it is to be derived from Faith or Secular premises. With the advent of the Islamic awakening, labeled as the Arab Spring, this debate has become even more prominent.

While the model of Nation-states and Democratic governance finds a stable premise on the secular viewpoint, in the Muslim world on the contrary, this model faces a persistent dilemma primarily due to its incompatibility with the viewpoint of the common man—that Laws are to be sourced from Islam.

A number of observations are to be noted in this regard. The fact today is that, constitutionally, Secular Turkey has a ruling party that deliberately seeks to benefit from displaying some tenants of Faith.  Also, while Turkey has reverence for Mustafa Kemal, it simultaneously owns its Ottoman Legacy.  Another example is Pakistan where the debate on its founder, Jinnah—whether he was secular or religious—is still disputed by some even to date; whereas, its revered National Poet Dr. Muhammad Iqbal was a strong advocate of pan-Islamic unity and categorically negated democracy and nation-state models. In many Muslim nations, it can be observed that Political parties recognize the sizeable faith-based vote; hence, liberal and religious democratic parties continue to realign themselves to optimize access to seat of authority. Likewise, in the OIC, we find a consensus of States with secular constitutions, Monarchs, and those claiming to be faith-based agreeing in principal to attempt to act in proposition to Laws and policies sourced from faith.

In the wake of the Arab Spring in the middle-east and North African states, the debate as to what would succeed the fallen dictators has become the center of world attention.  Before evaluating as to what the future holds, a brief historical perspective is essential.  A Century ago, most of the nation-states we see today did not exist. The Muslim world had a core state, i,e. the Ottoman Caliphate.

The model of State of the Ottoman Caliphate was fundamentally unique and different from the Nation-State models based on secular creed. Edward A. Freeman in his book Ottoman Power in Europe (1877) highlights this fact:

“We have seen now what the Turk is, and we have seen that it is mainly his religion that has made him what he is. From all this another point follows. A system of this kind, a system under which the bond-age of the mass of the people of a country is enforced by their rulers as a matter of religious duty, is in-capable of reform. It can be got rid of ; it cannot be reformed…The only means of putting an end to the state of things which necessarily follows on Mahometan rule is to put an end to the Mahometan rule itself.”

The model of state based on western law in the west stood in an uneasy ideological confrontation with the Caliphate based on Islamic Faith. And this confrontation sourced the prioritized objective of putting an end to the Rule based on Islamic Law.

Amidst World War I, practical plans were put forth for dismantling the Caliphate. The Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 between the French and British Government laid down the plan to divide the Ottoman Caliphate into regions of respective influence and control. Subsequently, on March 3rd, 1924 when Mustafa Kamal destroyed the Caliphate, Lord Curzon, when speaking in the British House of Commons, said, “The point at issue is that Turkey has been destroyed and shall never rise again, because we have destroyed her spiritual power: the Caliphate and Islam.”

Foreign occupation by Imperialists by virtue of its oppression and exploitative nature could not persist long and had to be rolled back. In doing so, they ensured that the subsequent geopolitics of the Muslim world would operate within nation-state construct. And for that purpose, they left behind a trail of loyal Rulers.

In the recent context of Arab spring, while the sudden surge and resilience of the common folk in accounting the rulers came as surprise, the oppressive response of the Dictators was certainly not. The very dictators who presided over their nation-states had for decades enjoyed the blessings and support from Capitals in West—from Paris, London, to Washington.

The fall of dictators is being seen in some political circles and international media as a triumph that will ‘naturally’ lead to prevalence of democracy.  This expectation is primarily built on the premises that just like in the west where Democracies and Nation-state models are accepted notions, likewise, the Muslims too will gladly embrace Democracies while continuing to adhere to the already existing nation-state models in place.  However, the fallacy of this premise becomes evident when analyzed in the context of history and the belief of the populous.

There are primarily two wrong assumptions made in this generalization.

Firstly, it is assumed that Muslims look up to democracy just like the people in the west look up to democracy. The west adheres to the creed of capitalism whereas Muslims adhere to the creed of Islam. The west ideologically adheres to the notion of secular law and separation of church and state. The Muslims by belief reject the notion of separation of faith and state, and believe that Islam has a role to play in the sourcing of laws and policies. Similarly, the terms ‘Freedom’ and ‘Rights’ have entirely different meanings and implications in the viewpoint of the westerners and the Muslims.

Secondly, it is assumed that the Nation-state model is a natural product achieved by the host population. In the west, the legacy of church-controlled states was ideologically rejected and resisted, which then lead to indigenous movements that materialized into formation of nation states. In the Muslim world, however, it was foreign intervention that sought to terminate centuries of an already existing model of governance, i.e. Caliphate; and it did so by occupation and stroking divisions. The indigenous movements which subsequently followed were geared towards removal of imperial occupation. And the West ensured that upon its retreat, it passed authority to loyal dictators to ruler over nation-state models that it had crafted. Therefore, the Muslims had not intellectually rejected their centuries old state model, i.e. the Caliphate, in the way the westerners had struggled in their own lands.

And it is this difference that puts the suitability of Democracy and nation-state models in the Muslim lands in question.  For the west, its model of governance, i.e. Democracy, is a manifestation of its secular creed and a means to address its own issues related to society and governance, whereas for the Muslims, the manifestation of their creed has historically been an altogether different system, one which they had referred to for over 1200 years to manage and govern their societies.

Today, democracy may seem to be taking shape in the immediate aftermath of fallen dictators. The enthusiastic response and participation in elections might be seen by some as indicators that the region is now on the path towards adopting democracy.  However, there are other growing indicators which point into a different path. Yemen, for instance, is gripped in a multitude of problems, and despite Saleh’s resignation, there are minimal signs that the trust of the people will be restored in the present regime to the extent of channelizing their loyalties.  And if trust cannot be won through reforms, then the conflict it faces is likely to persist and further weaken the hold of present regime. In Libya, the recent protests against the Federation show the similar trust deficit that the existing regime faces.  In Egypt, there is a growing realization that even though Hosni Mubarik has been removed, the present rule under SCAF is a mere reincarnation of the former dictator. Several Protests have taken place, and have met similar brutal response from the regime.  The Bedouin populous has also been emboldened, and the recent calls by some of its tribes—to resort to resistance if their rights were not met—shows the loyalty crises faced by the present regime. Moreover, the disruption of the Gas pipeline to Israel, and the common trend witnessed in Protests—calls for rejection of ties with Israel—goes to show that concern of the masses are not limited within their nation-states. In Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring, the common man, a year on, still faces the same economic hardships. In Syria, the uprising continues in the face of brutal oppression unleashed by Bashar Assad. Given the growing numbers of defectors, Assad’s fall is very likely.

The fact that the Arab Spring, starting from Tunisia, quickly moved into the neighboring states shows how closely knit the region is despite the divisions into nation-states.  Just like the negation of existing political construct, i.e. Dictatorship, reaching a peak in one state resulted in the domino effect. Likewise, the affirmation of a new political construct in one of these states has the potential to spill over if it emanates from the ideology of the masses and carries appeal. Whether or not this new political construct is democracy within the confinements of nation-states remains questionable. For, the underlying factors which had propelled the masses to stand up remain predominately in place with the exception of change of a Face.  And a mere display of democratic institution may not be able to solve those factors, such as economic hardships, access to justice, heath care, education, alignment of foreign policy, etc.

The new political construct, which may find more acceptance and appeal, is the pan-Islamic state model, i.e. the Caliphate, since this model has a historically significant context which gives it trans-national appeal. In it, the sources of law are based on faith, hence, this state model is not characterized with the confused and conflicting politics that we find in some Muslim states today where the regimes try to maintain a blend of both secular law and Islamic law.

An interesting observation in this regard is made by Samuel P. Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations (1996) where he states, “The structure of political loyalty among Arab and Muslims generally has been the opposite of that in the modern West. For the latter the nation state has been the apex of political loyalty”. He further explains, “Throughout Islam, the small group and the great faith, the tribe and the Ummah, have been the principal foci of loyalty and commitment. And the nation state has been less significant.” On the other hand, “In the Arab world, existing states have legitimacy problems because they are for the most part the arbitrary, if not capricious, products of European Imperialism”. Interestingly, he makes a significant deduction that “the idea of sovereign nation states is incompatible with belief in the sovereignty of Allah and the primacy of the Ummah”.

Today, this ‘less significant factor’ of nation-states—that once required dictators to keep in place—will only further lose its credibility.   As the new indicators show, the post-Arab Spring’s political landscape is more likely to move in the direction of pre-imperial political construct, i.e. a Caliphate.


Sharique Naeem, is a politcal writer & analyst. His writings have been published in newspapers in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Yemen, Libya & Iran. He can be reached at [email protected]  Twitter: @shariquenaeem



[1] Edward Freeman Quote:

[2]Lord Curzon Quote:

[3]Samuel P. Huntington Quote:

‘The Clash of Civilization and the remaking of world order’ pg 174-175.


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