Islamic identity vs. nationalism
by Ken Myers
“On 2 November 1945, political leaders in Egypt called for demonstrations on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. These rapidly developed into anti-Jewish riots, in the course of which a Catholic, an Armenian, and a Greek Orthodox church were attacked and damaged. What, it may be asked, had Catholics, Armenians, and Greeks to do with the Balfour Declaration?
“A few years later, on 4 and 5 January 1952, during the struggle in the canal zone in Egypt, anti-British demonstrations were held in Suez. In their course, a Coptic church was looted and set on fire, and some Copts were killed by demonstrators. The Copts, though Christians, are unquestionably Egyptian — none more than they — and it is certain that no attack on them was intended or desired by the Egyptian nationalist leaders. Yet, in the moment of crisis and passion, the mob in fury felt instinctively that their own Arabic-speaking but Christian compatriots and neighbors were on the other side, and they acted accordingly. For both these incidents there may be explanations deriving from local circumstances. But both undoubtedly reflect a common Muslim perception, that the basic division of the world is into two groups, the Muslims and the rest, and that the subdivisions of the latter are ultimately unimportant. It is in the same spirit that the Algerians found their response to the French slogan of ‘Algérie française,’ not ‘Algérie arabe’ or ‘Algérie algérienne,’ but ‘Algérie musulmane,’ Muslim Algeria.
“From the beginnings of Western penetration in the world of Islam until our own day, the most characteristic, significant, and original political and intellectual responses to that penetration have been Islamic. They have been concerned with the problems of the faith and the community overwhelmed by infidels, rather than of the nation or country overrun by foreigners. The most powerful movements of reaction and revolt, those that have aroused the strongest passions and evoked the widest response, have also been religious or communal in origin and often also in expression. In its long confrontation with the civilization of the West, the Islamic world has gone through successive phases of revival and resistance, response and rejection. Until the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth and, in some areas, in the twentieth century, it was in religious terms that problems were formulated and different solutions propounded and argued. In the period when nationalism and other Western-derived ideologies dominated political thought in Middle Eastern countries, religious sentiments and loyalties did not figure prominently in the programs and manifestos and polemics of modernizing politicians and professors, journalists, and intellectuals. They retained, however, their hold on the mass of the population, and particularly on the small merchants and craftsmen of the cities. In times of stress and disillusionment, they assumed a new importance and urgency. There was a time, not so long ago, when many were willing to assert that the secularization of political discourse in the modern Middle East had passed the point of no return. But few would be rash enough to make such an assertion today.
“An Israeli scholar defined the difference between the religious and nationalist approaches to events in this way: ‘As believers in a religion, our forefathers gave praise to God for their successes, and laid the blame for their failures on their sins and shortcomings. As members of a nation, we thank ourselves for our successes, and lay the blame for our failures on others.’”
— from Bernard Lewis, The Shaping of the Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press, 1994)