Nation state versus Muslim nation
The capacity of Arabs to endure tyranny and failed development is one reason why the Islamic ummah, inferior to the modern citizen state, retains such popular purchase, writes Azmi Ashour
Some concepts emanate from and are borne out by reality; others float high in the air untouched by and unreflected in the intricacies of life on the ground. If this matrix is a gauge for the strength or validity of a concept, then the contemporary concept of the civil nation state passes the test, for almost by definition it is connected to tangible realities and actual practice. The victory of this concept was neither sudden nor random. It was the product of a long history of trial and error during which human societies suffered the anguishes of vicious and protracted wars due to circumstances related to the stubborn adherence to certain ideological or religious concepts or beliefs. The genius of the citizen state resides precisely in the fact that it is anchored on the ground -- almost literally. It treats society from a geographic standpoint: a given society is the product of a place. A people is a people not because of some abstract beliefs or notion of ethnicity, but because certain geographical and climatic circumstances shaped the way they existed and organised their lives. Perhaps the clearest example of this is to be found in the riparian cultures that established the first contours of the concept of the nation state. In the great civilisations that arose in ancient Egypt and in Mesopotamia, it was the inundations of the Nile and the Tigris and Euphrates combined with the discovery of the arts of agriculture and irrigation technology that determined the diverse patterns of social organisation and behaviour. Such were the concrete factors that created the Egyptian personality in ancient times and formed the basis of its development over thousands of years.
It should be borne in mind that the concept of the nation state as it emerged following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 has little bearing on the modern concept. The 17th century concept was less a reflection of actual social and geographical realities than of an abstract ideology or ethnic notion. The consequence was a nearly unbroken chain of wars and conflicts in Europe that only came to an end following two hugely destructive world wars and at the cost of millions of lives. This enormous toll underscores the importance of the victory of the concept of the nation state as reformulated in terms of universal humanitarian principles and values. In the modern concept, the individual human constitutes the basic unit of the state which, in turn, established the safeguarding and advancement of human dignity and welfare, regardless of religious, ethnic or other affiliations, as the chief aim of all modern political systems.
The US offered a new model for translating the concept of the nation into an institutional and legal order that transcended religious and ethnic divides and created what has become known as the great American "melting pot". The federal system, which struck a balance between centralised and local government, succeeded in establishing the individual human being as the primary component of this federation and it is out of this system that the idea and value of the American citizen was born. Moreover, the value of this citizen is enshrined in a set of basic unalienable rights pertaining to life, dignity, freedom and the pursuit of happiness, all of which are upheld by a number of institutionalised and codified guarantees.
The American experience is not easy to explain in view of the fact that its constitution's principles and its legal and institutional frameworks are, at heart, an application of the ideas of such philosophers of the Enlightenment as Locke and Hobbes. Nevertheless, for simplicity's sake we can say that the American system also sought to ensure that neither the interests of the individual nor the interests of the whole came at the expense of the other, the idea being to foster a kind of harmony between the private and the public domains that would function to promote the welfare of all. This practical application of the modern concept of the nation state enabled religiously, ethnically and sometimes even linguistically diverse individuals and communities to fuse into a single united nation. What made that possible was that all citizens were fully equal in rights and duties, and in access to opportunity and justice. It should be stressed that equality, here, does not hamper the right of more talented members of society to succeed; rather, it opens the horizons before them.
Most Arab states have been unable to embrace the modern concept of the nation state. In spite of the ancient civilisations that set parts of our region on the right course, the emergence of some unrealistic notions and ideologies that were often the product of an attempt to project the past onto the present worked against its fulfilment. Foremost among such concepts are two that are antithetical in terms of their geographic scope. The first is the ummah, or Islamic nation. "Nation" here refers not to a geopolitical entity but rather to all that is Muslim. It is a concept that transcends national boundaries, including those of many Western states that are also home to millions of Muslims. As such, it is a rather nebulous concept and, moreover, one of those airier concepts (its proponents defend it on the basis of purely theological arguments) that run aground when making contact with realities on earth.
Indeed. it is virtually antithetical to the concept of the nation state which, as we said, is inherently connected to place, and especially to the concept of the citizen state, which seeks to meet the needs of all its people regardless of race, creed or colour. It is because of this definition and aim that Muslims in modern nation states are generally better off in terms of standards of living, civil and individual rights, and other principles associated with human dignity than the majority of Muslims in such countries that champion the idea of the ummah, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and even some Arab countries. Moreover, I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to apply the transnational concept of the ummah on the ground without precipitating massive civil strife and warfare, because people will suddenly find that they have to defend their intrinsic right to practice their faith instead of working for communal subsistence.
The second concept is the Islamist organisation, which we might term the "micro-ummah" in that it operates according to the same logic which is inimical to the concept of the nation/citizen state and essentially works to dismantle and fragment that entity. The Islamist organisation bases its very existence on a religious/ideological vision, one that has less to do with the daily concerns and practical needs of society than it does with question of religious and organisational identity, and the relations between its members and their environment and with others emanates almost exclusively from this standpoint. The prime example is the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which has succeeded generating a large anti-citizen state subculture in Egypt and in creating something akin to a government without boundaries, with branches in many other societies and countries. The ultimate aim of all this is to realise the calling of the organisation's founder, which is the "revival" of the ummah. The strength of this calling resides in its powerful emotive appeal, at least to the in-crowd of members of the Islamist organisation or the ummah. But attempts to apply it would almost certainly clash, most likely violently, with realities on the ground and especially with existing religious and sectarian diversity.
What drives this kind of thinking and behaviour? What is the real point of advocating such a religious/ideological concept in an age when the modern concept of the nation offers everyone the freedom of belief and the right to practice the religion of their choice? What makes these Islamist organisations imagine that their drive to impose a vision drawn from some idealist notion of the past will solve the problems of the present? Does this not suggest that they are somehow out of touch with the nature of the world of today and all its problems and complexities? Surely this voids the notion of the ummah of any substance it might have, especially when compared the modern concept of the nation which seeks the advancement of human welfare and dignity through all available means in the contemporary world.
Perhaps the root problem is that Arab societies have the ability to live with emotive, unrealistic concepts, not out of any fondness for such concepts but rather because of their ability to absorb the disastrous consequences of such concepts, such as tyranny and chronic underdevelopment.
The writer is managing editor of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya published by Al-Ahram.