Year XLV, 2003, Number 3, Page 173

 

 

ISLAM AND THE IDEA OF NATION
 
 
Since its appearance during the Seventh Century Islam has always represented a difficult reality for the Western world to understand. The speed with which it spread over a vast territory, caused an immediate armed opposition in Europe of which the Crusades are only a marginal aspect, especially from the Muslim point of view which sees the efforts of the Christians to re-conquer the Holy Land as mere clashes. This period of strong territorial expansion and great religious proselytism is commonly called the Golden Age by Muslim historians and it is the period where Islamic integralists are recalled in order to reaffirm the superiority of Islam on the world of the infidels.
The expansionist force of Islam towards Europe only placated during the 16th Century and from that moment a slow military and cultural decline began. The discovery of new merchant routes and new lands, the strong impulse towards the art of war and science favoured Europe and marginalised the Muslim world. It is also important to underline the fact that the Protestant Reformation and the subsequent Counter-Reformation in Europe contributed to a strong ideal, cultural and artistic outburst which set the continent off towards a laicism which became fully rooted over the course of the centuries, breaking the ancient temporal power - secular power link which in the Islamic world is still today the source of many problems.
But this long period of decadence left behind a great religious entity stretching from Bangladesh, Indochina and one part of the Philippines at one end to Morocco at the other, which was destined to become the base for crucial events of a political nature — some of which have already happened and some of which are yet to happen. It is important to distinguish here the wider Islamic community (the umma) which includes all the people who belong to the same religion, from the Arab community, which adds language and culture to the unity of religion, even if these are articulated in a multiplicity of different dialects and lifestyles.
 
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Islam was until relatively recent times a predominantly religious and cultural reality, without a direct political relevance. When Muhammad began his task of proselytism he used faith as an instrument of unification for the tribal realities which characterised the Arab world. Faith justified the wars of expansion: One didn’t have to assert the principle of the defence of a territory but the superiority of one community, which shared the only and true faith, above another. In this context politics was secondary to religion. The Islamic community saw the succession and co-presence of different caliphates with changeable boundaries who were responsible for the administration of the lay aspects of communal life, but beyond the umma, the principal link which united Muslims, and in particular Arabs, was the pre-political reality of the tribe, which lives on today. It is important to note that in the Arabic language there are no words to describe what in Europe we call State and nation.[1]
Profound changes were introduced into the Arab world, and more generally the Muslim world, by European colonialism and by the process of decolonisation. Russian colonialism in Crimea in the 1700s and subsequently in the region of the southern and eastern Mediterranean demonstrated to the Islamic world their inability to react to the challenges of the modern world, also posing the problem of how Muslims could live alongside infidels who imposed their own laws (civil and criminal) and their own institutional models.[2] This is the way the reality of the State, with well defined borders, an administration and an army was introduced into large regions of the world. The fact remains that the colonial process and its ending divided the Arab (and Muslim) world with artificial frontiers that were incomprehensible for those who felt they belonged on the one hand only to their tribe, and on the other to the Islamic community which does not recognise frontiers or barriers and for which the only boundary is that beyond which there are no more devotees.[3] It is no coincidence that the governments of the first nation states that arose with the European imprimatur were directly or indirectly controlled by military castes trained in Europe, which attempted to support themselves on a nationalism that had absolutely no foundation in the history of these new entities. In a few cases attempts were made to marry Socialism with Islam.
But the reality of the State was born, with its problems, its conflicts and its rivalries. Moreover the umma has continued to profoundly influence this reality. Without Islam it is practically impossible to govern an Arab State, or more generally a Muslim one, which is indispensable for legitimising it. Religion therefore acts essentially as an instrumentum regni, but at the same time it makes it difficult for a true nationalism to be born. In the Arab world (and more generally in the Muslim world) there is a national loyalism, which in reality is very fragile and a supranational loyalism, which have the State and the umma as their reference point respectively, and thus the latter began to acquire political importance.
During the last fifty years a further element characterised the Arab world: The enormous riches which derive from the oil reserves are in reality concentrated in the hands of restricted elites that generally come from the dominant tribe or ethnic group. In the Arab countries, with the exception of Turkey and Egypt, a modern tax system never developed because in any case the coffers of the state are re-supplied by the income deriving from petrodollars.[4] This is a further element which indicates the detachment between the State and the citizen, and which is the sign of a conception of statehood, of its functions and prerogatives, which is profoundly different to the European idea of the State.
 
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These brief statements help us to understand the resistance to change present in this vast area of the world and the tensions which permeate it. The war in Iraq and the continued failures which have been met during efforts to create a framework of stability in which Israelis and Palestinians can live together are indicators of a situation in constant ferment: the question is how to make the situation evolve towards peace and development and to steer it away from the current chaos and disorder. We have repeated many times in the pages of this review the important role a united Europe could play as an example of pacification and political, social and economic stabilisation.[5] Europe undoubtedly has responsibilities both for what happened during the colonial era, and for the inheritance it has left behind with decolonisation, and for its current impotence in the sphere of international politics.
But there are also responsibilities for the Muslim countries in particular those of the Arab world. It is essential that the State structure, albeit still an imperfect one, that they have inherited from the West is completed with the introduction of democracy and a reasonable degree of laicism. At the same time it is essential that, along with the democratic consolidation of the States inherited from colonialism, supranational initiatives take shape in the region. Without such a turning point any hope of development is destined to go adrift.
The internal crises of countries such as Iran or Algeria are the consequence, albeit in a different form, of political tensions that develop even as a consequence of globalisation. However many efforts are made to limit access to the world of the Internet and satellite television, contact with the Western world is inevitable and destined to push the current governments of the area to share more and more the affairs which link the East to the West. At the same time globalisation deepens the interdependence between Islamic, and especially Arab, countries adding its own effects to those traditionally due to the commonality of religion and culture. The point is therefore to be able to guarantee an international framework which supports every effort towards the opening up to modernity and towards preliminary forms of democracy and domestic unity. We therefore need to favour the most tolerant Islamic movements (which in any case are the majority, because the Koran in no way negates democratic principles), and to support every effort towards forms of regional integration.
As regards in particular the Arab world, the role of Europe would be essential, even if we consider the strict interdependence which unite her to it, that is to say to the most western part of the Islamic world. The collaboration between the Arab world and Europe could favour stability and union where American military domination foments disorder and brings war. The future of the Arab world is therefore also tied up with the fact that Europe has institutions which allow it to have its own autonomous presence in the region, supported by an autonomous foreign and defence policy. For this reason a new heavy responsibility lies with the European countries that are unable to take on the role that history gave them after the end of the Second World War: Promoting peace and development whilst respecting diversity.
 
Stefano Spoltore


[1] Panayotis Vatikiotis, Islam: States without nations, Milan, Il Saggiatore, 1993, p. 54 (translation of Islam and the State, Routledge, 1987).
[2] Giorgio Vercellin, Islam, faith, law and society, Florence, Giunti, 2003, p. 50 and p. 88; Heinz Halm, Islam, Bari, Laterza, 2003, pp. 21 and onwards. (Translation of Der Islam. Geschichte und Gegenwart, Monaco, Verlag C.H. Beck, 2000).
[3] See: Panayotis Vatikiotis, op.cit., pp. 54-70 and pp. 143-187.
[4] See the review Aspenia, Rome, No. 20, 2003, p. 167.
[5] Il Federalista, XLIII (2001), No. 3.

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