By Kamran Bokhari
For many around the world, it took the British referendum on EU membership to recognize that the European Union was disintegrating. The Muslim world has for decades viewed the EU as a model worth emulating in its quest to establish pan-Islamic unity. While radical Islamists seek to achieve this goal through the establishment of the caliphate, mainstream Muslims have long sought to unify by forging EU-type institutions. Neither is likely, given that, at a time when the EU is giving way to nation-states, the core of the Muslim world – the Middle East – is devolving into sub-national fragments.
Many Muslims have had an implicit admiration for the European Union project. The more cynical ones point out that the Europeans divided the Muslim world into nation-states while unifying themselves. Now that it is all too clear that the EU will become a thing of the past, there may be a sobering realization that nationalism is more durable than any other higher-level political affiliations. The irony is that while Europe can still fall back on the sovereign nation-state, the Muslim world is struggling to sustain even this basic unit of international relations.
In 1983, noted Cornell University political scientist Benedict Anderson published a book called “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.” Anderson argued that nations are socially constructed entities created by people who deem themselves part of a nation. Different people approach nationalism in different ways. They feel affinity with others based on tribe, ethnicity, geography, language, culture, religion or other characteristics.
Most people have affinities to multiple groups at the same time, and this is very natural. In the modern era, the primary form of nationalism is bound by allegiance to the nation-state. But other forms of nationalism exist at the same time – both at the sub- and supra-national levels. A person living in Scotland is ethnically Scottish, a citizen of the United Kingdom and also European.
The problem, however, begins when the question of state-building arises. In times of peace and prosperity, people have the luxury of expanding their nationalistic horizons. However, when political and economic conditions deteriorate, people are often forced to choose between competing identities and loyalties. They usually prioritize the group that is rooted the closest to where they live.
In many ways, the larger the geography of a given polity the more it becomes unwieldy. The Muslim world in the early centuries of its formation is a case in point. The institution of the caliphate succeeded the Prophet Muhammad’s government when he passed away in 632. The nation that the caliphs ruled over largely adhered to Sunni Islam.
Serious internal differences cropped up even as the caliphate was being established. However, the polity that Muhammad founded remained unified till about the mid-eighth century when rival caliphates and regional emirates and sultanates began to emerge. At that time, the Muslim world was divided along geographic, linguistic, ethnic, tribal and dynastic lines. This was the age of empires and well before the arrival of European colonialism.
Subsequently, Europe exported the concept of the nation-state and divided the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world into nation-states that did not previously exist in these regions. However, Muslim communities had their own varied forms of nationalism, which the renowned 14th century North African historian Ibn Khaldun notes in his work on social solidarity. The push toward the re-establishment of the caliphate by the Islamic State is based on an imagined and ahistorical sense of nationalism – one that sees all Muslims living under a single regime.
Jihadists and non-violent radical Islamists are not the only ones who reminisce about the “golden age of Islam.” Many Muslims are also bitter with the Europeans for dividing the Muslim world into nation-states. At the same time, a larger number of Muslims accept the nation-state and are very nationalistic and patriotic towards their countries of citizenship. That said, they still yearn for pan-Islamic unity.
In 1969, Muslim nation-states created the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to establish unity within the Muslim world. It has largely been an ineffective organization because of the competing national interests of different Muslim-majority countries. Furthermore, the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council have sought unity at the ethnic and regional levels. Over the decades, Muslims have looked at the European Union as a model to overcome the differences between them and build the OIC into an entity that can better integrate the various Muslim states.
The OIC could not emulate the EU because its member states had very little in common – other than the fact that they are Muslim-majority nations. Even religion could not ultimately unify the group because of sectarian, cultural and ethnic divides. Sharp differences in ideology, regime-type and economic conditions have further prevented the OIC from becoming more than a periodic forum for meetings that didn’t amount to much. The fact that many of the OIC member states are unstable polities means that the collective is bound to be dysfunctional.
If the far more advanced European countries could not sustain a regional union, it is not a model to be emulated by any other region of the world – certainly not Muslim countries, most of which are struggling to form viable political economies.