After Authoritarianism: State Development and National Identity in the Middle East

Image by Jacques Delarue

Image by Jacques Delarue

The Arab Uprisings have resulted in an increase in the expression of both sectarian and trans-state identities, making the process of reunification and the prospects for a peaceful coexistence somewhat dependent on the new leaderships’ ability to unite, make amends and, possibly for the first time in the region, craft a territorial nationalism that complements rather than conflicts with sub-state and supra-state identities. But what is it about the nature and history of Middle Eastern states that has created such a fragile balance between territorial nationalism and extraterritorial nationalism? And why is it that the collapse of authoritarianism in the region has lead to an increase in sectarian identity? Finally, how has the Islamic State (ISIL) picked up the pieces of these fractured identities and reconstituted them into a “state”?

Identification, as Hall (1996) argues, “turns out to be one of the least well-understood concepts…it is drawing meanings from both the discursive and the psychoanalytic repertoire, without being limited to either.”[ref]Hall, S. & Du Gay, P. Questions of cultural identity. London: Sage, 1996, p. 2[/ref]Identification relies on the recognition and belief in a ‘common origin’[ref]Ibid.[/ref] or, for Benedict Anderson, a belief in the of the nation.[ref]Anderson, B. Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London:Verso, 1983[/ref] For Anderson, it is the construction of these imagined communities that has provided nations with the cohesive materials necessary to form a state. In contrast, Anthony Smith argues that these nations are not simply a product of a constructed or imagined cohesion, but rather are a product of much older ethnic origins, rooted firmly in a continuous and distant past. [ref]Smith, Anthony D., The Ethnic Origins of Nations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986[/ref]

Despite the differences between these two theories, both would agree that the logical end result or by-product of nationalism should be the realization of a sovereign state. However, history has shown this hasn’t always been the case. In fact, the consolidation of states in the Middle East runs contrary to Smith and Anderson’s assumptions in numerous ways. As Hinnebusch argues, the consolidation of nation-states in the Middle East has been “obstructed by the profound flaws originating in its largely external imposition: the resulting often arbitrary borders and ill fit between states and national identities means that loyalty to the individual states is contested by sub-state and supra-state identities.”[ref]Hinnebusch, R. and Anoushiravan Ehteshami. The Foreign Policies of Middle East States. London: Lynne Rienner, 2002, p. 7[/ref]  This was due, in large part, to the colonial processes by which the former Ottoman territories were divided, which in some cases reflected certain pre-existing entities, but for the most part involved either the restructuring of former Ottoman provinces, as in the case of Trans-Jordan, or combining several provinces as in Syria and Iraq.[ref]Owen, Roger. State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 9[/ref] As a result, the states took on a rather artificial shape, “with their new names, their new capitals, their lack of ethnic homogeneity and their dead-straight boundaries.”[ref]Ibid., p. 9[/ref] The immediate effect of this fracture was that these new ‘states’ and their citizens had no real nationalistic attachment to the state, and often times only a flimsy attachment to its territorial boundaries. As a consequence, common colonial practices like the census and the issuing of identity cards were used to re-categorize and re-identify populations, whilst central governments issued laws by which the relationship between citizen and state, as well as the principals of the newly defined nationalism were established. In the case of the Arab states, this redefined nationalism was determined, as Owen argues, by a combination of territorial attachment, with citizens proving nationality based on historical connections to territory within the newly defined borders, as well as proof of a family member having lived in the territory before a certain date.[ref] Ibid., p. 9[/ref] Therefore, both the ethno-nationalism of Smith and the imagined community of Anderson, while useful up to a point, fall short in that territorial sovereignty, and its implied territorial nationalism, assume a certain measure of particularity. Implicit in this particularity is the presumption that nationalism is limited to the boundaries of the state, whereas the development of states and nationalism in the Middle East has acted, as Noble argues, more as “a set of interconnected organisms separated only by porous membranes”, rather than the kind of mechanical determinism of Smith and Anderson.[ref]Hinnebusch, p. 7[/ref]

As a result of national identity’s extraterritorial character and lack of any real democratization processes within the majority of Arab states, which would have helped secure state-centric national support from the masses (Turkey), Arab political elites have attempted to secure their legitimacy through a number of populist strategies aimed at creating a singular identity for their citizens and whilst attempting to absorb traditional and localized power structures on the periphery. As Zubaida agues, elites attempted to curb cross-border relationships through what he terms the ‘national political field’, in which all political activities were focused inward towards the capital city and all assertions of localized power were centralized.[ref]Zubaida, Sami. Islam, the people and the state: essays on political ideas and movements in the Middle East. London: Tauris, 1993, p. 145[/ref]

This was the case with the early 20th century expression of Pharaonism, a territorial nationalist movement in 1920s and 30s Egypt. The development of nationalism in Egypt is unique to the Middle East in that Egypt’s historic territory has, more or less, remained constant throughout history (with a few exceptions). Meaning that, unlike other former Ottoman provinces, the Egyptian state was never in a position to “convince” its citizens of their territory. There was, however, an attempt to convince Egyptian citizens of their cultural uniqueness amongst the Arab states. As Charles C. Smith argues, Pharaonism attempted to both undermine the traditional authority of the ulama (religious elite), by focusing on the period prior to the introduction of Islam, and to sever extraterritorial connections by focusing on the pre-Arab ethnic character of Egypt.[ref]Smith, Charles C., “Imagined identities, Imagined Nationalisms: Print Culture and Egyptian Nationalism in Light of Recent Scholarship” International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1997): 612[/ref] To what extent the Egyptian state succeeded in this is debatable, however, as C. Smith argues, even when supra-Egyptian nationalism spread and began to supplant Pharaonism in the 1930s, “Egyptians…continued to assume ‘hegemony’ over their Arab neighbours, indicating a continued feeling of being Egyptian vis-à-vis their counterparts from other Arab regions”, while continuing to feeling connected to them through Islamic and pan-Arab nationalism. [ref]Ibid., p. 612[/ref] Regardless of the fleeting success of these territorial nationalist movements, what became clear to Arab leaders in their state’s nascent period was that any attempt to legitimize their authority must include what had become populist issues: namely, anti-colonial pan-Arabism, the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict and Islamism.

Therefore, during the period between the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the 1967 War, Arab leaders sought legitimisation through what Hinnebush and other have termed ‘symbolic politics’, with the Arab leadership co-opting issues more broadly central or symbolically relevant to the Arab world.[ref]Hinnebusch, p. 8[/ref]However, after the failure of the 1967 and Yum Kippur Wars with Israel, it became clear that anti-Zionist posturing was nothing more than rhetoric and that the pan-Arabism of Nasser had failed to counter western and Zionist imperialism in the region.

This period of soul searching lead many of the Arab states to abandon pan-Arabism in favour of an inward consolidation of power made possible, in part, by new investment from the USSR in the Levant and Egypt, and the United States in the Gulf. These regimes and monarchies were able to redistribute wealth to the middle and lower classes, thus pacifying to a certain degree internal opposition to the ruling elites, whilst securing their grip on power through the development of pervasive security apparatuses. The failure of the Arab States to curb Israeli aggression in Palestine and beyond also had the effect of increasing the popularity of Islamist movements, which was furthered by the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by the forces of Saddam Hussein and subsequent American military intervention, the unforeseen consequence of which was the strengthening of anti-western sentiment in the Islamic world, as well as a general shift in attitude away from the pan-Arabism of the 1950s, 60s and 70s towards pan-Islamism. If we fast forward to the Arab Uprisings we were then left with several types of states in the Middle East: the oil rich and western-backed monarchies of the Arabian peninsula and Gulf, the authoritarian regimes of Syria, Iraq, Egypt and beyond, and the stateless nations of Palestine and Kurdistan.

The Islamic State and National Belonging

When this article was first published in 2013, it explored how the breakdown of authoritarianism in the region would ultimately lead to a collapse of nationalisms – a ‘post-authoritarian identity crisis’. It also suggested that new political actors would seek popular legitimacy through the reconstitution or co-opting of traditional identities not necessarily bound to contemporary international borders. Now, some four years after the Arab Uprisings began, the emergence of the Islamic State seems to suggest that this new paradigm now exists in the Middle East. But it also leads to the question of how national belonging has evolved in response to and within ISIL – particularly as ISIL attempts to carry out many of the functions of a state – administrative, military, etc. – whilst lacking fixed borders, a shared culture, language or ethnic background and other basic elements of national identity.   What then provides a sense of national cohesion for a population that has very little in common – apart from a shared experience of Sunni Islam? Indeed, is a form of pious-nationalism cohesive enough to constitute a “state” in the contemporary context?

Within the Andersonian model of national identity, a move towards secularism within nation-states is implied because the state gradually replaced the church in areas of politics, education, and social welfare. As a consequence, the public role of the church declined. Simultaneously other allegiances and identifications, which, ‘in a pre-modern age or in more traditional societies, were given to tribe, people, religion and region, came gradually in western societies to be transferred to the national culture.’[ref]Hall, Modernity–an Introduction to Modern Societies / Edited by Stuart Hall … [Et Al.}.[/ref] However, grounding the analysis of national identity within the secularism model is problematic, not only because, since the 1970s it has become outmoded, but also because it seems to apply only to a western experience, and even then only marginally.

In the context of the Middle East, Wedeen, Kartveit, Zeberi and others have discussed the role of pious-nationalism within Arab states, where religion has continued to play a significant role in the public discourse and politics. In essence this model largely forgoes territoriality in the place of membership in the global religious community. While the long-term goal might be unification of the religious community in a single territory, national aspirations may take priority. However, pious-nationalism can take on several different forms. Two obvious examples are Hamas and ISIL. Whilst Hamas views Palestine as an Islamic waqf, its political ideology and goals are largely based upon a territorial nationalism, which prioritises the liberation of Palestine over the establishment of a global Muslim Caliphate. In other words its national identity is simultaneously Palestinian and Islamic. In contrast, ISIL views itself as the “authentic” Caliphate representing the entire global Muslim community – whether they like it or not. Its goals are therefore not based upon any one national project, in the sense of Iraqi or Syrian nationalism, but rather the establishment of a global Islamic hegemony. “Nation” in this context can be equated with the Islamic umma or global community of Muslims, and is less orientated towards “state”.

Within a typical nation-state, modes of national attachment and public displays of nationalism might include the celebration of national days, wearing of national costumes, traditional dances, etc. These are, in essence, a form of secular ritual with the focus on the citizen and state rather than the believer and God.   Expressions of pious-nationalism in the Islamic context place emphasis on the umma – expressed through hajj, the observance of religious holidays, public morality, and other areas of social conduct. In this way, the global Muslim community can relate to other Muslims regardless of their national, ethnic or other backgrounds. Loyalty to ISIL in relation to other Islamist or national groups is proven through the adherence to a specific brand of Islamic interpretation. This brand is reinforced through shari’a schools attended by both children and new immigrants to the state, but also through the very public enforcement of ISIL branded Islamic morals. One then proves one’s loyalty to the state by adhering to these principles, which distinguish the Islamic State not only from the surrounding Arab states, but also crucially between a correct and incorrect interpretation of Islam. In a roundabout way, this actually mirrors the construction of national identity within nation-states in that the practice of national identity necessarily distinguishes itself from the other.

Authoritarian Arab states utilised their monopoly on violence to curb the plethora of trans-state and other traditional identifications. Their collapse and, ultimately, the disintegration of state borders has allowed the Islamic State to play upon traditional identities in order to secure a stronger sense of legitimacy for itself. Whilst these terms “traditional” and “modern” conjure up a rather orientalist interpretation of Middle Eastern society, they do highlight certain factors that undoubtedly influence the construction of identity within the Middle Eastern context; namely that political actors will often frame their own ideologies and understandings of the nation within traditional cultural, religious or tribal frameworks. In other words, political actors may attempt to merge, reconstitute or repurpose traditional affiliations in order to both consolidate power (through identification with a cultural or demographic majority), and to unify otherwise heterogeneous populations (as the state seeks to secure its position as the primary authority).

As discussed above, this is accomplished primarily through ‘recurrent social practices’ like ceremony, tradition and religious ritual. [ref]Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity / Anthony Giddens (Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1990., 1990)., cited in Hall, Modernity–an Introduction to Modern Societies / Edited by Stuart Hall … [Et Al.}., 599.[/ref] By placing these social actions within a continuous narrative of past, present and future, traditional societies can make use of symbols and histories that represent the collective experience of previous generations.[ref]Ibid., 599. [/ref]  In other words, the use of traditional symbols may actually serve to create a stronger sense of legitimacy for ISIL vis-à-vis the past Arab regimes because it can present itself as representing a time prior to the end of Islamic hegemony and western colonialism in the region. Whereas the Arab regimes represented the last vestiges of a past corrupted by colonialism, the Islamic State presents itself as being rooted in a period and worldview before this occurred. This is obviously a perspective shared by numerous Islamist groups, but the difference is that ISIL has succeeded in establishing itself as a “state”, where other groups remain isolated within larger national contexts.

Image courtesy of Jacques Delarue


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About Quinn Coffey

Quinn Coffey is a PhD candidate in the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. He received his MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in 2011. Quinn’s research focuses on the interplay of identity, religion and politics within the Palestinian Christian communities, in light of the stagnant peace process, demographic decline and the current shape of the Palestinian Authority. Quinn has lived and worked for extended periods in the West Bank where he previously taught at An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine. Prior to this, Quinn worked in the legal field in the United States. Apart from Quinn’s contributions to Global Politics, he is also regular contributor to Open Democracy and has been featured on the award-winning blogs Informed Comment and the Web Arab News Digest (W.A.N.D). Quinn lives and works in Oslo, Norway where he spends his free time playing music, skiing and cycling.

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