How Colonization Changed Islamic Societies into Nation States

There are today more than fifty Muslim states, extending from the Atlas Mountains in the West to the Malay Archipelago in the East, and from Sub-Saharan Africa to the steppes of Central Asia. They include some of the most populous countries in the world, such as Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, as well as some of the smallest, such as the Maldives and the Comoros. Some are strong states with effective government institutions; others, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, enjoy only a precarious existence. Some, like Mali and Bangladesh, are poor; others, like Libya, Brunei, Turkmenistan, and Saudi Arabia, are endowed with great natural wealth; still others, like Malaysia—the world’s seventh most exporting country in 1997—owe their wealth to successful industrialization. Some Muslim states are ethnically uniform; others include sizable ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities. Nearly the entire spectrum of social, economic, ideological, institutional, and political expressions are represented in these states. From the Islamic Republic of Iran to secular republics in the Arab world or Indonesia, from monarchies in the Arab world, Malaysia, Nigeria (where monarchies rule over provinces), and Brunei, to democracies in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, Muslim states include great diversity in politics and the workings of governments.

Despite this diversity, a common thread also exists in the politics of Muslim states. The most obvious is Islam, not only as a faith but also as a source of identity and an important factor in social relations and politics. Islam has long been important to Muslim politics. It has played a role in the struggles for liberation from colonialism in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. In various stages of the colonial era, Islamic forces, thinkers, and political leaders have played an important part in shaping Muslim politics. Liberation from colonialism was elaborated as an Islamic movement, from Sayyid Ahmad Shahid’s (1786–1831) uprising in India in 1826 to the anti-imperialist undertakings of Iran’s Mirza Hasan Shirazi (1815–94) and Shaykh Fadlullah Nuri (1843–1909) or Central Asia’s Imam Shamil (1796–1871), Algeria’s Amir Abd al-Qadir (1808–83), Somaliland’s Muhammad ibn Abdille Hasan (1864–1920), Sudan’s Mahdi (d. 1885), Iran’s Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–87), or the Tijani jihads (holy wars) in West Africa between the 1780s and the 1880s (the Sokoto caliphate of Uthman dan Fodio [c. 1754–1817] and the revolt of al-Hajj Umar Tal of Futa Toro [c. 1794–1864]). Other “Islamic” movements have included Malaya’s Hizbul Islam (Islamic Party), India’s Jamiat-i Ulama-i Hind (Party of Ulama), Iran’s Shiite ulama in the 1920s, Libya’s Sanusiyyah (led by Umar Mukhtar, 1858–1931), or Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim leaders of various intellectual endeavors during the colonial period have included Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938), Abul-Kalam Azad (1888–1958), and India’s Mawlana Husain Ahmad Madani (1879–1957) and Mawlana Abul-Ala Mawdudi (1903–79), later of Pakistan. These movements and thinkers were among the first to organize an indiginous anticolonial movement. They articulated anticolonialism in the language of the jihad, relating struggles for liberation to Islam—a powerful paradigm that continues today to be relevant to Muslim struggles against imperialism, most lately in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and Chechnya’s war of liberation against Russia in 1996. In this the Islamic movements were the precursors to the later nationalist uprisings. In Indonesia the efforts of Masjumi (Majlis Sjuro Muslimin Indonesia, the consultative council of Indonesian Muslims) would play an important role in nationalist anticolonialism efforts and early state formation in Indonesia.

Later, Islam influenced the values and the goals of politics, and in recent years Islamist movements have redefined the nature of politics and laid claim to control of the state. The continued political importance of Islam, its relevance to the struggle against colonialism in particular, has prevented secular nationalism from completely dominating politics in the Muslim world. This has in turn made state formation, and its relation to precolonial and colonial eras, complex and at times problematic. Another feature that Muslim states share is the fact that without exception, they are developing states; namely, for the most part they have emerged during the course of the twentieth century and have been closely tied to the efforts of their societies to advance and industrialize. In so doing, they share in the historical legacy, cultural milieu, and often the political and social problems that confront development in the Third World. Muslim states have responded to the challenges before them differently, just as size, geographic location, and economic endowment have also meant different patterns of development.

The legacy of colonialism is key in explaining both the diversity and the unity of different experiments with state formation in the Muslim world. Just as Islam, ethnic identity, social characteristics, and other indigenous religious and cultural factors can explain the commonalities between Muslim states—and conversely, economics, ideology, and leadership can explain divergences—colonialism too can explain the points of convergence and divergence in experiences with state formation across the Muslim world. Muslim have lived with nearly all the colonial powers. In much of Africa, Asia, and the Arab world, the British and the French ruled over vast Muslim territories. The Dutch ruled over territories that later became Indonesia, and the Germans, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russians held Muslim territories in East Africa, the Philippines, Malaya (what is now known as Malaysia), the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Israel’s control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip may be seen as the last and only ongoing colonial relationship in Muslim lands. Although the defining characteristics of colonialism were at work in all of these locales, there were differences in how colonial powers approached their colonial mandates, even differences in how the same colonial powers exerted power and influence in different territories. There are thus fundamental similarities between various Muslim polities as there are particularities, which have their roots in history, and more important, with the experience of each colonial territory.

This chapter identifies colonialism’s legacy for the development of the Muslim states in the twentieth century. It discusses the common legacy that Muslim states share as a result of their experiences with colonialism and explains how colonization also accounts for differing patterns of development by looking at individual experiences with colonialism. The colonial era lasted less than a century, but it forever changed all aspects of geography, the economy, social relations, and politics in the areas that it ruled.

Shaping the Modern Muslim World: Colonialism and State Boundaries

The colonization of Muslim territories began with the rise of European empires, the conquest of India, and the scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century. Its last phase included the division of the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The colonial era ended after World War II, when Britain and then France withdrew from the majority of their colonial territories. Muslim states began to emerge in earnest from 1947 on—although some, such as Iran or Afghanistan, had always remained independent, albeit nominally. The emergence of Muslim states involved negotiated withdrawals of colonial powers, as was the case in Malaya, India, and the Persian Gulf emirates, as well as brutal and bloody wars of independence, as in Algeria. The decolonization also occurred in spurts, as European powers sought to protect their economic interests following their political and military withdrawals in a changing global environment. Iran in 1953 and Egypt in 1956 were examples of the reassertion of colonialism, which nevertheless marked the gradual yet effective end of direct European rule over Muslims.

By the mid-1970s most Muslim territories, from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia, had gained independence from colonialism and constituted either independent Muslim states or parts of independent non-Muslim states. Still, the legacy of colonialism continued to shape and reshape their polities, economies, and societies. The impact of colonialism went far beyond the relationships of economic and political imperialism that theorists of the Left have amply elaborated upon. Colonialism also survived in the forms that state ideologies, political visions, and institutions of the new states took. The impact of colonialism was circumspect, but it was nevertheless pervasive. It was a manifestation of the historical continuity between a past from which the new states sought to distance themselves and their independent existences.

The Muslim world today is a collection of nation-states. Although Islamic unity continues to animate politics across the Muslim world and has been a central demand of Islamic movements, the unity of Muslim states does not extend beyond the limited mandate of the Organization of Islamic Conference, an international organization of Muslim states that is modeled after the United Nations. The concept of a territorial state is of relatively recent origin in the Muslim world. In the premodern era Muslims were conscious of ethnic, linguistic, and regional differences among them, but politically they were united under first the caliphate and later empires and sultanates, whose shifting boundaries represented not the borders of nation-states as the term is understood today, but the writ of rulers who ruled in the name of Islam. The idea of a Muslim territorial state, much like the idea of nationalism, is thus an import from the West. The inclusion of the concept of the territorial state into Muslim politics and the actual boundaries of Muslim states are both products of colonialism.

This is not to say that ethnic affiliations and national identities were absent in the Muslim world before the advent of colonialism. Such sentiments were always strong. For instance, Iranians from early on viewed themselves as distinct from Arabs and Turks, and Shiism in Iran in many ways became a mark of its national identity, separating Iranians from the Sunni Turks, Arabs, and Türkmen around it. Similar distinctions between Arabs and Berbers, Arabs and Turks, or Malays and Javanese have also been prominent. Ethnic nationalism and its association with a nation-state, however, is new to the Muslim world and has its origins in the colonial era. It was then that nationalism as a primary form of political identity—one that is not subservient to Islamic identity but supersedes it absolutely and is associated with a territorial state modeled after those in the West—grew roots and became a part of Muslim political consciousness.

For this reason tensions have existed across the Muslim world between conceptions of the nation-state—associated with the relatively more recent nationalist political ideal—and the Islamic ideal of the ummah (holy community), which continues to undergird the Muslim political ideal. The concept of the ummah calls Muslims not only to unite across national boundaries but to place Islam above all other political allegiances in their everyday lives. The scope of tensions between the state and its citizens over this issue has depended on the extent to which the state has been willing to accommodate Islamic consciousness. Whereas Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Malaysia have sought to bring about harmony between nationhood and the ideal of the ummah, Turkey, Pahlavi Iran, Tunisia, Algeria, and Indonesia have consciously sought to assert the primacy of the nation-state over the ummah. Also important in this regard is how strong the notion of nationalism is. In states with strong national identities, such as Turkey, Iran, and Egypt, the state has asserted its prerogatives more forcefully, as is also the case where large non-Muslim minorities reside, such as Malaysia or Nigeria. Conversely, in places such as Pakistan, where national identity is weak, the ideal of the ummah holds greater sway.

Muslim states gained independence in territories that were delineated by the colonial powers. They largely accepted the shapes in which they were born as well as the fact that states would be bound by international borders into distinct sovereign entities. Expansionism did occur, however: Morocco’s claim to Western Sahara, Indonesia’s to East Timor, Turkey’s to northern Cyprus, Iran’s to Bahrain until the mid-1970s, Syria’s to Lebanon, and Iraq’s to Kuwait. These claims were put forward in the name of nationalism and on behalf of a nation-state, as defined and legitimated by international norms. Muslim states, by and large, have not challenged the division of the territories of the Islamic empires, and by implication, the Islamic world by colonial powers or the criteria used by those powers in determining new borders. Muslim states have not sought to reconstruct the ummah but only to expand the boundaries of nation-states. The reality of those borders have been accepted, although where they lie has on occasion been contested.

The only exceptions to this general rule have been the ideologies of Arab nationalism and Islamism. Arab nationalism, which was a widely popular political ideal in the 1960s and has been a general political and cultural thrust since then, has in principle questioned the division of the Arab world into twenty-two states. Even in this case, though, the rhetoric of unity, beyond yielding a number of symbolic unification pacts—most notably the United Arab Republic, consisting of Egypt and Syria between 1958 and 1961 and the Arab League—never effectively undermined the division of Arab lands by colonialism. Only North and South Yemen successfully united and then not in the name of Islam or Arab nationalism but of Yemeni nationalism. Even Jordan, a state that was created arbitrarily by England when Amir Abdullah, its first king, was given a fixed stipend and six months to see if the idea worked, has stood the test of time. Furthermore, Arab nationalism was not an Islamic ideology, and in that sense it did not seek to reverse the division of Muslim lands so much as it did the division of Arab ones. Islamist movements too have argued for the unity of all Muslims above and beyond their national identities and to accept the reality of the ummah in lieu of nation-states. In practice, however, Islamist movements have conducted their politics in accordance with the territorial reality of the Muslim world. The Islamic Party (Jamaat-i Islami) organizations of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are thus independent of one another, as are the Muslim Brotherhood organizations from Nigeria and Senegal to Sudan, Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine.

If and when state boundaries have given way, it has not been because of lack of resolve in statehood, but rather because of the ability of a larger expansionist state to overwhelm a smaller neighbor. Kuwait has remained independent owing to outside assistance; others have not been as fortunate. For example, Western Sahara was forcibly united with Morocco, as was East Timor with Indonesia. Iran annexed some small islands in the Persian Gulf that it took from the United Arab Emirates in the 1970s. The emirates continue to demand the return of the islands, and the struggle for independence from Morocco, led by the Polisario movement, has been waged unabated; the chapter on an independent Western Sahara is far from closed.

Consequently, the colonial division of Muslim territories, in principle as well as along the lines that were initially introduced, have been largely accepted by the successor Muslim states and have been instituted into the international system. The legacy of colonialism here has not been free of tensions, however. First, many of the divisions were problematic. Some were carried out arbitrarily to accommodate local colonial officials without regard to their impact on peoples and resources. Other divisions reflected the needs of colonial powers to resolve diplomatic tensions among themselves. In many cases colonies were thus created to satisfy disgruntled European allies or to serve as buffers against expansionist ones. The post-World War I plans for the division of the Ottoman Empire were made to appease France, Italy, and Greece. The need to protect India from Russia meanwhile led to the creation of Afghanistan, as similar concerns about France after 1798 led to British occupation of Egypt, which in turn warranted British control of Palestine after World War I. Strategic decisions and economic interests finally led to the creation of new colonial territories, which more often than not became the bases for future states. British interests in Persian Gulf oil led to the creation of Kuwait and a similar attempt at creating “Arabistan” out of Iran’s Khuzestan province in the early twentieth century. Decades later, similar economic considerations led Britain to encourage Brunei not to join Malaysia. Local political considerations led to further divisions. France created Lebanon out of Syria to fulfill its desire to create a Christian-Arab state; and Britain created Jordan to accommodate Amir Abdullah, who had fought on the side of the British in World War I and whose family felt betrayed by the division of the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire between European powers.

How colonialism actually worked and what its imprints were have shaped Muslims’ perception of their identities and politics and separated the path that various Muslim states have taken since independence. Early on, through the aspiring new elite that the colonial rulers trained in European languages and ways to create a machinery of government, the division of Muslim territories took shape. As perceptions of whom the elite would control and what the possibilities and limits before them were became entrenched, commitments to borders took form. These commitments built on existing ethnic identities, articulating visions of nationalism that would give greater meaning to those boundaries. A bureaucrat in Kuala Lumpur or Damascus eventually developed a vested interest in “Malaysianness” or “Syrianness,” for example, lest his power remain limited as that of a provincial functionary in a larger Malay or Arab entity. It was such feelings that in later years doomed the Egyptian-Syrian unity pact of 1958–61. Iraqi and Syrian bureaucrats, who under the Ottomans would operate in the same ambient political, social, and literary culture, now developed ties to different European traditions and languages and helped to finalize their “separateness.” The varied administrative and political experiences thus helped to consolidate parochial nationalisms at the cost of more universal ones. The colonial experience, and the arenas of operation that it presented the new elite, ultimately laid the foundations of states where none had existed before.

In the Malay world the same process forced a separation between Malaysian and Indonesian identities and between Muslim Malay and non-Muslim Malay identities as well. Bureaucrats and politicians in British Malay and the Dutch Indies came to view the diverse cultural, linguistic, and religious arena of respective British and Dutch territories as their political and administrative arena, whereas the possibility of a Malay arena including the Malay parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, or a Muslim-Pattani region in Thailand and Mindanao in the Philippines, and excluding the non-Muslim and non-Malay parts of both became an unworkable idea. Boundaries of colonialism and the differences in cultural and historical experiences and developments that it engendered determined the shape of future states and polities. A united Islamic Malaya would not emerge because its peoples were ruled by different colonial authorities. Conversely, Borneo, and briefly Singapore, would become part of Malaysia because all were ruled by the same British colonial administration. Colonialism thus helped to define the borders of states and their realities in contradistinction to other conceptions of independence and statehood.

New states often appropriated existing ethnic identities or semblances thereof, such as “Iraqiness” or “Syrianness,” and at other times contrived nationhood, as in the cases of Jordan or Malaysia, to produce nationalist ideologies that could sustain state formation. The process also entailed sublimating competing ethnic identities and preventing them from developing into nationalisms. Iran, Iraq, and Turkey have sought to prevent Kurdish identity from asserting itself as a nationalism. Iran sought to integrate Kurds into an Iranian nationalist identity, and Turkey depicted them as “Mountain Turks.” The success of experiments with state formation often depended on how successful the development of national consciousness was. That, in turn, depended on the strength of the ethnic identity that formed the basis of nationalism. Over time, ethnic and territorial definitions became the boundaries for national identity formations; they grew roots and developed as a secular and dominant form of political identity in lieu of memories of a united Islamic world in history. Colonial powers had perhaps never meant for the territorial demarcations to have the lasting effects that they had, but in reality these boundaries became embedded in the future states.

Territorial divisions have also been a source of tension between various Muslim states that claim mutually exclusive rights to the same territories. Jordan and Syria, for example, early after independence both set their eyes on reconstituting larger Syria, while Jordan also maintained a claim to Palestine and Morocco to Mauritania and parts of Algeria; Syria and Turkey have contested sovereignty over Alexandretta (Iskenderun); Iran and Iraq over the Shatt al Arab channel; Egypt and Sudan over waters of the Nile; Pakistan and Afghanistan over the Durrand line; Pakistan and India over Kashmir; Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, over borderline oases and oil fields; Libya and Chad over their border regions; and Iran and the United Arab Emirates over the Tunbs and Abu Musa islands. In some cases the very existence of some Muslim states have been challenged by neighbors that view the Muslim states as artificial constructions of colonialism. Syria’s claims to Lebanon, Malaysia’s to Brunei (until recently), Iraq’s to Kuwait, and Morocco’s to Western Sahara are examples. Borders produced the shape of the states but did not guarantee their viability. Colonial authorities drew boundaries but did little to unify the peoples that fell within those boundaries into a national culture. At times they did exactly the opposite; namely, the colonial powers sought to maintain control by encouraging competition between ethnic, linguistic, religious, or tribal groupings. The territorial division of Muslim lands thus remained unchallenged, but it went hand in hand with national confusion and the fracturing of the future national society.

Unresolved tensions between peoples and regions that were included within the same state, but never consolidated into one nation, have resulted in challenges to state boundaries. Confessional tensions in Lebanon; ethnic and religious clashes in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Malaysia; and the Kurdish plight in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are examples of the many problems inherent in state formation on the basis of colonial territorial demarcation. Still, none of these problems has been a result of attempts to reconstitute “Islamdom.” In fact, the preponderance of nationalism in Muslim political consciousness is so pervasive that Pakistan, which was created in the name of Islam, divided along ethnic lines in 1971 into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Although fraught with problems, the territorial conception and reality of Muslim states continues today in the colonial mold.


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