By Albadr SS Alshateri
The question of the “nation-state” is a crucial issue in the developing world. It is highly disputed, and no region saw such debates as the Middle East where it has been a place of contested ideologies and identities. The region is home to ancient civilizations, and the birthplace of all Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Moreover, the religions of the region are not one stripe or hue. Each main religion of the Middle East contains a multitude of denominations and sects. As the late Iraq monarch, Feisal I had lamented in the 1930s:
In this regard and with sadness, I have to say that it is my belief there is still no Iraqi people but unimaginable masses of human beings, devoid of any patriotic idea, imbued with religious traditions and absurdities, connected by no common tie, giving ear to evil, prone to anarchy, and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever. Out of these masses we want to fashion a people which we would train, educate, and refine….The circumstances, being what they are, the immenseness of the efforts needed for this [can be imagined].
Addressing these and other issues, Ali Rashid Al Nuaimi, a high-ranking UAE official and a public intellectual, wrote a book in 2021 titled National State: Imagining a World without Narrow Nation States. The book could be read as a reflection of the thinking of UAE political elites. The author himself is a product of multiple identities. He was born and raised in the UAE and from an upper class whose father served as the UAE’s foreign minister. He was educated in the US, Portland State University, in Oregon, which he wrongly identifies as a Bible belt state. Then earned a Ph.D. from Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, once a bedrock of religious fundamentalism. He had a run-in with the Muslim Brotherhood who tried to block his appointment as a professor at the UAE University; but triumphed, eventually, to be a chancellor of the same university.
The book is the product of all these experiences, and seeks to show that what Arab and Muslim societies “need is to institutionalise and instill the concept of the ‘national state’”. The national state the author advocates for is not the western type, however. He advances a new concept of “state of citizenship”. A “state of a legal contract or social contract between the subject and the state; the state that serves its people and realises their ambitions and aspirations regardless of their background and the state that rules by law”. If it sounds like the western concept of social contract, a la Locke and Hobbes, it does because it is akin to that concept.
The author delves into the subject from the get-go. His is a highly subjective analysis of what has occurred in the Arab world, and he does not hide behind a scholarly façade. The problem is personal and national, and he pursues it with passion. The Arab World was rocked by sociopolitical disturbances in the past decade, otherwise known as the ‘Arab Spring’. The states of the Arab spring were shattered beyond recognition, which serves as the backdrop of this book.
The author defines the national state that he terms as a bright idea in contrast to other prototypes of states. The varieties of states throughout Muslim history are dismissed as anachronisms. The state in the modern sense is nothing like the religious states that existed. The caliphate is an amalgam of political entities whose sole purpose was to line up the coffers of the central authority, and according to the author has no place in modern society. A theocracy like Iran cannot be a country of all its peoples. It has to discriminate against adherents of other religious beliefs.
The nation-state that saw its roots in the Peace of Westphalia has outlived its use. What is needed today is what the author calls the national state. The nation-state is a European construct that lacks empirical reality; in a globalized world, there is hardly a state that is coterminous with a nation or an ethnic identity. Even in Europe, the author argues, many states have multiple ethnic groups. Further, ethnic groups are scattered throughout several states.
The idea of a nation-state that was imposed by European colonial powers on the Middle East ignored the realities of much of the Middle East. Countries of the Levant, for example, have numerous sectarian groups. Nearby Iraq, has a multitude of ethnic and sectarian groups. As the previous quote by King Feisal has shown, Iraq cannot constitute a nation. Conversely, the national state is an all-encompassing structure that accommodates pluralities of identities. The common denominator between the hodge-podge of peoples is the concept of citizenship—citizens of equal rights and obligations that are loyal to their national states even against their country of origin, ethnicity, sect, or tribal allegiance. The author cites the American patriots revolting against their mother country, Britain, as a case in point.
The problem as the author sees it is history. History is the culprit in preventing the emergence of the national state. Muslims and Arabs look to their history and pine to its past glories. The author enjoins the people of the Middle East to do what others have done. See history as the source of inspiration not as a diktat for the future. “This is not going to happen unless we think of and deal with history as a repository of experiences, values, and practices that require positive and successful selection” The negative parts of history have to be redacted and completely forgotten! In other words, history should be rescued from traditions and submitted to the service of the national state.
The model the author admires is South Korea. Accordingly, Korea adopted a ‘cultural refinery model’. A select committee classified Korean ideas and values into three categories: functional, non-functional, and mixed of the two. The first which contributes to the well-being of individuals and is compatible with modernity was incorporated into the educational curricula. The non-functional was concealed from the public view. The mixed was sieved: the positive was emphasized and the negative was suppressed.
The author unleashes his criticism against political Islam; and takes no prisoner. Political Islam is deemed a menace to the national state because it calls for a universal allegiance that transcends the national state that the author vehemently advocates for. There is no other place that this manifests itself than the Muslim diaspora in the West. The Muslims, according to the author, reject their adopted country and profess fidelity to their religion, worse yet, they want to reproduce the societies they left in their new area of residence. In extreme cases, Muslims were “hostile to the larger society and hated the local residents who hosted them”!
Political Islam takes advantage of such communities in the West to shore up its political power and pressures the host governments to back the Islamic movements back home. Al Nuaimi gives the example of the Islamist Turkish Justice and Development Party, which exploits the Turkish communities in Europe for its advantage—even when “the interests of the Turkish immigrants in Europe are far from the interests of the political party.” His recommendation is a clear call for these communities to integrate with their adopted societies and abandon any nostalgia for the ways of life they left behind. Assimilation, not multiculturalism, is the panacea for the ills of the Muslims in the diaspora. All the same, attachment to a foreign country by ex-pats is not peculiar to Muslim communities. Other communities have shown similar proclivities. Take Jews for example and their lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel. Greek and Armenian-Americans’ campaigns in the interest of their former countries. Africans also do the same.
Al Nuaimi, however, reserves his ire for the Muslim Brothers—the quintessential political Islam. The Muslim Brothers that he knows from the inside is the antithesis of the national state. He argues that MB does not believe in a state or a homeland. It is patrimony is an imagined nation with extraterritorial claims. Sayyid Qutb, the preeminent theoretician of the MB, once averred that the homeland “is a handful of rotten dirt.” According to the author, for the MB anyone outside their orbit is existing in the dark ages, or jahiliyyah, an allusion to the pre-Islamic times.
What is to be done, to borrow Lenin’s words? For Al Nuaimi education is the key. He laments the educational system in the Arab and Muslim Worlds for being based on rote learning. Information trumps analysis and critical thinking. Ideas, values, and skills must drive the learning process. “This tripartite focus is the basis upon which modern societies depend in order to adopt creative ideas, civilisational values, and innovative skills.” Nothing requires reform and restructuring, from the author’s perspective, like religious education. The protection of future generations depends on carrying such transubstantiation. Muslims have to reconcile their beliefs with their time and place, and not engross themselves in an unattainable past.
For all his advocacy and pleas, the author does not call for a liberal order. That is a blind spot in the book. The sum parts of his call, however, looks and sounds like liberalism writ large. Why he does not utter the word is a mystery to me.
About the author:
Dr. Albadr Alshateri is an Adjunct Professor at the UAE National Defense College in Abu Dhabi. He earned a Ph.D from the University of Michigan in comparative politics, international relations and political economy as well as two masters degrees in political science and in Middle Eastern and North African Studies. He holds a BA from Indiana University, where he studied political science and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, as well as a certificate in African studies.
Dr. Alshateri has received numerous awards, including a prize for his dissertation entitled “The Political Economy of State Formation: The United Arab Emirates in Comparative Perspective”, from the Society for Arab Gulf Studies (USA). Dr. Alshateri has contributed articles to Al Ittihad Newspaper (Abu Dhabi), Al Khaleej Newspaper (Sharjah), The National (Abu Dhabi), American Diplomacy, and Gulf News (Dubai)