The Complex Nature of Arab Nationalism and Islamism in the Arab World

While the concepts of the “nation” and the “state” have long been present, the “nation-state”, is broadly agreed upon within International Relations community to have been “codified”  by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.[1] Regardless of whether non-Western polities would have adapted the nation-state concept themselves in time, colonial powers crudely instilled the concept in the Middle East, with much of the Middle Eastern map drawn by Great Britain and France as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement after Ottoman rule of the Middle East.[2] Therefore, Arab nationalism has been a force of unity for the Arab people, from opposition to the Ottoman Empire, then to the colonial powers of Europe, and then to US hegemony. As “nationalism” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “loyalty or devotion to a nation,” [3] “Arab nationalism”, then, is not quite the same as the nationalism one might think of in the West. The nation Arab nationalists are devoting to has historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic differences than the nation of Western nationalists, and therefore, will be, according to Anderson, imagined in different ways.

The school of thought that sees Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate, mutually exclusive identities and phenomena identifies the perceived failure of Arab nationalism with the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war. In this case, the nationalist projects that were rampant in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and across the Arab world in the early 1950s, were overtaken by a surge in Islamic sentiment.[4] The collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961 that caused Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser to suffer, as the leader of the “Arab nationalist march,”[5] is seen as another turning point from a nationalist era to an Islamist era in the Arab world.

Here it is viewed that the dwindling of Arab nationalism with its strong rhetoric in anti-imperialist sentiment is believed to be due to Britain’s departure from Egypt and Iraq, the Arab states who had “espoused the ideas of Arab nationalism” suffering the humiliation of ’67, and the gradual shift in power to the more conservative states, which has resulted in an era where “Islam became a way for people to address their grievances from an authentic, respected viewpoint.”[6] The “sun set on nationalism” and “rose on Islamic militancy”, as radical Islamists challenged governments throughout the region, such as the Baathist Iraqi government in the 1970s, the Baathists in Syria in the 1980s and the secular Algerian leaderships in the 1990s.[7]

Yet the idea that Arab nationalism died and was replaced by Islamism relies on the assumption that Arab nationalism and Islamism are merely contradictory, and is a fallacy that suffers from oversimplification. It neglects the history of Islam, the Islamic movements that helped shape the political discourse and Arab society much before the 1960s, the decline of Ottoman and Persian power and how this affected the role of Islam in the Arab world, and so on. Instead, understanding Islamism as a part of the wider “Islamic phenomenon” allows one to acknowledge the deeply complex nature of it, with expressions such as al-ba’th al-islami (Islamic resurrection), al-ittijah al-islami (Islamic tendency) and al-sahwah al-islamiyyah (Islamic awakening); commonly used to refer to the Islamic phenomenon and portraying the cyclical nature of it.[8] The Islamic phenomenon is an intrinsic part of Arab society, thereby inevitably intertwined with each part of Arab society, including Arab nationalism.

Chouraqui uses Descartes’ Discourse on the Method to argue understanding Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate and opposing ideologies confuses the concept of origin with foundation.[9] In this sense, the origin of both these movements have similarities: an anti-West dynamic against the colonial European powers and then US hegemony, while the foundation of these movements, in other words, what these movements consists of, differs – as, while Arab nationalism embraces Western ideas, Islamism fundamentally rejects Western ideas and values.[10] Historically, the two have co-existed, overlapping, and been used by the other for their own aims. Islamism has been used to strengthen nationalist sentiment, such as through Al-Azhar as a unifying ideological tool.[11] Another instance of the two overlapping are the Iraqi Baathists, a nationalist force who held a deeply complex relationship with Islamic forces – in 1993 beginning to embark on a Return to Faith Campaign (which ultimately aimed to emphasis Islamic identity) and in 2003 collaborating with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would later on become Islamic State, and thus, “by 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies.”[12]

The Egyptian Arab Spring witnessed Islamists, liberals, conservatives, all united in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. Tahrir Square was not split by sectarianism nor by ideology, as “inside the field no one asked about religion, no one cared. All Egyptians…all protesting, all united.”[13] Despite this unity disintegrating after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, the unity during the revolutions and uprisings prove the two may work together in ways nationalism in the West and Islamism have not. The widespread suspicion that Nasser had approached the Muslim Brotherhood at some point in his life for a national cause further shows a larger phenomenon whereby Islamist and nationalist groups in the Arab world hold the potential to aid each other.

As Arab nationalism and Islamism are not mutually exclusive, then the argument that rising nationalism has a purely fundamentally contradictory relationship with jihadi terrorists as Islamist forces is faulty and proves oversimplified. The relationship between rising nationalism and Islamist fundamentalism is not necessarily purely fundamentally contradictory. While ideologically Arab nationalism and Islamism seem to be contradictory, with one rooted in transnational goals and the other in national, in practice this has not been the case. Therefore, the relationship between the two entities are deeply complex in the Arab world.

[1] Benno Teschke, “Theorizing the Westphalian System of States: International Relations from Absolutism to Capitalism”, European Journal of International Relations 8 No. 1 (2002), 6, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066102008001001.

[2] Tarek Osman, “Why Border Lines Drawn with a Ruler in WWI Still Rock the Middle East,” BBC, December 14, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25299553.

[3] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Nationality,” accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism.

[4] Dorothy Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism as a Unifying Factor in the Middle East,” (Dissertation, Boston College, 2007).

[5] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 167.

[6] Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism,” 88, 98.

[7] Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, 296.

[8] R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 4.

[9] Nathanael Chouraqui, “Are Arab Nationalism & Islamism Two Sides of the Same Coin?” E-international Relations Students (2016). Received from: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/02/are-arab-nationalism-and-islamism-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “The Baathists: How Saddam’s Men Helped Islamic State Rule,” Reuters, December 11, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-iraq-islamicstate/.

[13] Nermeen Edrees, “Egypt: Inside Tahrir Square,” Global Voices February 4, 2011, Accessed July 23, 2018, https://globalvoices.org/2011/02/04/egypt-inside-tahrir-square/.

Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

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These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

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“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

———————————————————————

The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

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Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

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يا مسافر (Lone Traveler)

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During my visits to Egypt, I often visited many of the mosques in Cairo. I am not a Muslim, but I brought along my own headscarf in respect of their religion. After all, do in Rome as the Romans do. This, I’ve found, is really the only mantra one needs to take heed in when visiting a new place. I’d wear dark clothes so as not to be see-through in any way, and would not be showing much skin. However, different mosques have different regulations. The mosque of Amr ibn al-As, for example, the men near the front door wanted me to wear a long-purple robe (a strange assortment to give out to one entering a mosque, I know; I felt like an elf), although I was already wearing a headscarf and black trousers with a black, long-sleeved blouse. Another mosque (I can’t remember which- perhaps Al-Azhar mosque?),  gave me a thick, heavy, brown robe – which I wasn’t too pleased considering the 40C degree heat. The mosque of Muhammad Ali was less strict, allowing me to enter with my own clothes and headscarf. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun was one of the other ones I remember quite well. Each of these three rather well known mosques in Cairo each had their own unique set of design.

Islamic art is dominated by Islamic geometric patterns, which may overlap or form tessellations, as it is often believed in Islam to depict God, the Prophet Muhammad, relatives of Muhammad, and so on – is blasphemous, or to depict anything resembling God, or with a soul, that is, a human or non-human animal is similarly, also blasphemous, although to a lesser degree. This is called Aniconism, which is against the creation of images of sentient beings. This has resulted in geometric patterns dominating Islamic art, as well as half-formed figures such as wings without a body, and the arabesque. This can be seen in the shapes and architectures of the mosques.

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Mosque of Muhammad Ali
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Mosque of Ibn Tulun
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Mosque Amr Ibn al-As
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Al Azhar Mosque

 

 

The Egyptian Cafe

For those who don’t know Naguib Mahfouz, he’s often considered the most influential writer of the Arab world, having won a 1988 Nobel Prize in literature and having produced over 30 novels and over 350 short stories. He is, of course, Egyptian. One of the reasons he is so well known is due to how he captures the colours, smells, and the atmosphere of Cairo in many of his novels. My favorites are that depict Cairo very strongly are Khan al-Khalili, Adrift on the Nile, Children of the Alley, Cairo Modern and of course, arguably his most famous work, the Cairo trilogy. 

(to see list of books written by Naguib Mahfouz, see https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/naguib-mahfouz/200620/).

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The cafe scene depicted in many of his books is a strong part of Egyptian society. Where one goes to escape the corruption and desperation of nihilistic tendencies, as graduates realise they are unable to  get a decent job or the ones they want without connections, as nationalistic individuals realise their fate has been placed in the wrong hands, or religious zealots lose their faith in God- many of the day to day troubles are forgotten in the smoky, hashish filled, cafes, with little cups of coffee or Egyptian tea (the one with no milk, occasionally mint leaves or sage, and usually many spoonfuls of sugar). Laughter fills the cafes, it is a place where, for a moment, we can truly be in the present.

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Throughout the day, one can hear the calls to prayer resounding from the mosques, the أَذَان  (pronounced “adhan”)  in Cairo. Five times a day. Although we don’t really understand what time is, we have, in some way, captured it to some extent- by being able to accurately get on a flight at the right time, meeting a friend at a cafe at said same time, and so on. The calls to prayer are, for me at least, incredibly calming, placing our stake, some sort of hold on reality , despite being infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, some order to the chaos, and that all is good and constant. Here is a beautiful video I found on YouTube that captures that essence, in a call to prayer taken in Giza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo

Particularly in today’s political climate, it’s important to understand Islam before judging it by the media that survive on the deviants and extremes of society. In 2010, the Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowment decided to have a single Islamic call to prayer resound from downtown Cairo, which will then be transmitted through thousands of mosques. This is because it was said before, when each mosque used their own muezzinine, or callers, there was chaos and lack of unity.  Many were unhappy about this change, as often times, change meets resistance, and many cling on to familiarity, confusing familiarity with a stubborn righteousness, perhaps in the attempt to feel we have control over the otherwise chaotic universe.

 

Greatly Misunderstood

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“Boy on Dirt Road.” Taken in downtown Cairo, August 2017.

“Greatly misunderstood” was one of the most prominent, recurring thoughts that occurred to me when I first went to Egypt. Alone, armed with a few months of self-taught Arabic as well as a one month intensive course at SOAS, I arrived in Cairo in July of 2017. Something had propelled me to go to one of the four most ancient civilisations of our world, alongside China, the Harappan civilisation and Mesopotamia. The country of the pyramids, of camels, of heat, of pharaohs. But Egypt was so much more than that. Not only a strategically important area in the region, with it’s history of battling the Sinai over Israel, but also connecting the African continent to the Middle Eastern world, while also at a crossroads between Europe and Africa.

I had constantly been warned of going to Egypt. My experiences showed me a kindness of people’s that didn’t have much – as Egypt’s economy is suffering even more so after the 2011-2013 Arab Spring(s) than before. Tourism has inevitably taken a massive hit in the country due to the current political climate, and tourism accounts for around 13% of the Egyptian economy. Taxi drivers, shop-keepers, and the like each would bring up the degree to which the economy has suffered since the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Egypt is currently a military state. There are tanks on the street, military checkpoints every few blocks. However, I saw people approaching the policemen on the street, asking for help with parking their cars. The police would be sitting on pulled up chairs by the side of the street, holding little glasses of شاي (“shay”, meaning: tea) with no milk. The second or third time I arrived in Cairo, I had forgotten to bring USD currency with me. The reason why I needed USD was due to the fact that they only accepted USD to purchase a tourist visa at Cairo International Airport, and I had foolishly arrived with Chinese Yuan (RMB) and the Egyptian Pound. This is one of the ways they get USD into the country, and the rules were therefore rather strict. I found I was unable to purchase my tourist visa without USD. Panicked, I ran to the ATM in the airport. Alas, it was broken. Not knowing what else to do, I hastily approached a police officer. His sun-beaten face quivered with the slightest hint of a smile as I frantically explained to him the issue. Once I was finished, he motioned for me to follow him. He went up to the desk where they would issue visitors their visas, yelling at them in rapid Arabic. The young man behind the desk looked at him a bit crossly, then, without so much more as a nod, beckoned for my cash. Once I had gotten my visa, I thanked the policeman. It was then that he looked at me, smiled, and said “welcome to Egypt.”