Islam and the Modern Nation State

Battle of Identities

"Islam and the modern nation state" was the title of a conference held in Berlin, Germany. Experts and academics there discussed the significance of the concept of secularism for Muslim societies. Felix Engelhardt and Hicham Boutouil were among the attendees

Sheikh Lotf Allah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran (photo: dpa)
Are Islam and the nation state two irreconcilable concepts? This question is one of the most significant issues of our time

​​"Islam and the modern nation state" was the title of a conference that was organized by the Institute for Diaspora and Genocide Research in Bochum and the Gerda Henkel Foundation and held in the North Rhine-Westphalia State Mission in Berlin. The two terms – Islam and the nation state – tend to evoke claims of the irreconcilability of political and religious ideas or, likewise, of the democratic dictates of the West and the inability of the Islamic world to establish itself in modernity.

The event provided proof to the contrary. According to the invited experts, the link between Islam and the nation state is merely a question of self-image or identity for Islamic countries. Pursuing various points of view, the scholars raised the question of how Muslim societies can define themselves in a national context.

Plea for the equal treatment of religions

Lucian Hölscher, historian at Bochum University, quoted Lessing's Ring Parable and thereby managed to capture the whole range of religious and political differences from the very start of the event. A father gives his three sons identical rings and assures each of them that their ring is the one that makes its bearer "pleasing to both God and man."

In the ensuing quarrel over who has the true ring, a judge invoked to settle the matter recommends that each son should use the power of the ring with meekness and devotion to God. It is a plea for the equal treatment of religions, through which Hölscher critically examines the concept of secularism.

Although secularism may indeed have tamed the battle between religions, secular states have always shown a preference to a particular community of faith, claims the historian. This allows for the establishment of a "basic consensus of its citizens" and provides society with orientation.

Muslims in Germany and historical identity

Such a concept of civic religion has not been able to develop in Germany because of continuous religious conflicts. Instead, according to discussions that followed, a societal identity was established in Germany after 1945 that, to a great extent, based itself upon an avowal of secularism and a sense of responsibility arising from the Second World War and the Holocaust.

How Muslims in Germany, whose family histories do not reach back to the time of the Third Reich, are to share in this identity was an issue that could not be answered at this conference.

Questions of identity and self-image continued to be raised throughout the event. On the basis of his research into the expression of religious and national identities, Volkhard Krech, professor for religious studies at Bochum University, has come to the conclusion that some religious traditions, such as Judaism and Protestantism, represent "secularization factors."

Other faiths, such as Islam and evangelical churches, on the other hand, have a tendency to combine a strong sense of both national and religious identity, mixing politics with religion. This political religiosity can be particularly observed in countries characterized by extreme economic disparity.

Secularization as a "hostile takeover"

Continuing with this theme, the Berlin Islamic scholar Gudrun Krämer made clear in her excellent lecture that a "massive rejection" of secularism prevails in most Muslim countries. In Islamic discourse, secularization is regarded as a "hostile takeover" of Muslim society. Instead of the notion of the separation of religion and state, the idea of "empowerment" is stressed. Islam calls for believers to actively participate in the power structures of the state.

As a mixture of nationalism and Islamism, the so-called "national Jihad" is pushing its way into the political arena and, by advocating the feeding of the poor and its conviction that property entails responsibility, it has given birth to the notion of the "Islamic welfare state."

Arab nationalism and Islamism

Alexander Flores from the University of Bremen offered a closer look at the intersection of Arab nationalism and Islamism. And once again, Lessing's sons reappeared with their promise of salvation – on the one hand, the Arab nation, and on the other, Islamic society.

Udo Steinbach (photo: dpa)
Udo Steinbach described the Islamic Revolution of 1979 as a historical event of the highest order, comparing it to the 1789 French Revolution

​​In the competition between the two, as Flores pointedly explained, Islamism has fought off nationalism's central "motive of political action" and reinterpreted it. Instead of anti-imperialism, the fight is now against the "Crusaders," and the Arab identity has been transformed into an Islamic one.

The theme of multi-identity continued. Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Ambassador to Britain and himself of Armenian descent, demanded political pressure by Germany on the Israeli government. The Palestinians need political stability, not developmental aid, claims Hassassian. Upon request, he moderated his demand with a wink of his eye.

The construction of an Iranian-Islamic identity

Anja Pistor-Hatam from the University of Kiel dealt with the construction of an Iranian-Islamic identity. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the combination of the Persian language and the Twelve-Imam Shiite faith have helped to form a national identity. Other ethnic and religious groups, such as Jews and Baha'is, have found no place in this conception, which, on the contrary, serves to shunt them aside.

In her informative lecture, the Islamic scholar contrasted two identity-constructing concepts in Iran – the "myth of the golden age of Iran's pre-Islamic past," maintained and glorified during the Pahlavi era, and, with the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the myth of the "pre-Islamic time of ignorance" that replaced it, resulting in the fusion of the notions of Islam and Iran.

Udo Steinbach described the Islamic Revolution of 1979 as a historical event of the highest order. It is an event, like that of the French Revolution, whose consequences will only be recognized after the passing of many generations. In the current nuclear conflict with the West, Steinbach sees a merging of the themes of "trauma and status" in the Iranian identity.

The possibilities of constructing identities are many, as was made evident at the conference. Which concepts will emerge triumphant remains to be seen. What is clear is that the competition among identities continues, and scholars will also continue to closely follow events.

Felix Engelhardt, Hicham Boutouil

© 2008

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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