Citation for Nationalism

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Gelvin, James L. . "Nationalism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. May 19, 2022. <>.


Gelvin, James L. . "Nationalism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 19, 2022).


Nationalism is a distinctly modern ethos that comprises five assumptions: All humanity is naturally divided into unified societies (nations), each of which has a discrete identity; nations can be identified by certain characteristics (religion, language, common history), which all its members share; only national sovereignty can ensure that the interests of the nation and its citizens are protected; nations enjoy a special relationship with a particular territory which is the repository for that nation's history and memory; and nations retain their essential characteristics as they travel through time. Although historians differ about the initial site and time of nationalism's appearance in history, many, if not most, trace its origins to eighteenth-century Europe. Nationalism probably originated as a result of efforts made by rulers and statesmen to strengthen their states in the highly competitive European environment by making the state and sovereign the focal points of their subjects’ loyalty and by mobilizing and harnessing the energies of those subjects in common endeavors and for the common interest. Hence, conscript armies, standardized educational and legal institutions, and “national” economic planning emerged, and the institutions and social groups that blocked the central government's direct access to its population were eradicated. Over time, in those places where the new conception of state was imposed by government, populations internalized the notion that they were part of unified societies that had identities of their own and for whose benefit those populations had to direct their efforts.

In general, what might be called the “culture of nationalism”—the tendency for populations to view the aforementioned assumptions as self-evident and part of the natural order—spread to the Islamic world because, in a world in which the nation-state was increasingly the norm, there remained few other options for organizing sovereign political communities. Thus, even though the Ottoman Empire, for example, continued to call itself an empire, it increasingly took on the characteristics of a nation-state, and governing elites even promoted their own doctrines of Ottoman nationalism (osmanlilik). More specifically, however, it might be said that the culture of nationalism spread to the Islamic world in two ways. Sometimes, the imperialist powers of Europe established institutions there and engaged their subject populations in activities apposite to disseminating the culture of nationalism. Such was the case with the British in India and the French in Algeria. At other times, indigenous rulers directly borrowed eurogenic practices to strengthen state power and protect the domains they governed from outside interference. Such was the case in the Egypt of Muḥammad ʿAlī Pasha (r. 1805–1848), the Tunisia of Ahmad Bey (r. 1837–1855), and the Ottoman Empire during and subsequent to the Tanzimat period (1839–1878).

Nationalist movements are distinct political movements that draw from the assumptions of nationalism and thrive in an environment in which the culture of nationalism has taken root. By constructing a national narrative that privileges one or more characteristics its advocates claim to be intrinsic to the nation, nationalist movements create those nations, endow them with identities and histories, and define their rules for membership. Nationalist movements began to emerge in the Islamic world in the nineteenth century in four ways. In some cases, they were founded by social and cultural elites who had been exposed to the political culture of Europe through travel abroad, the proselytizing of foreign missionaries, or residence in cities (i.e., Beirut, Alexandria, Istanbul, and Algiers) in which a cultural cosmopolitanism flourished. Others—such as the previously mentioned osmanlilik and more recent “official nationalisms” such as Kemalism in Turkey—have enjoyed state support. Still others emerged in opposition to colonial powers (i.e., Egyptian and Indian nationalist movements) or rule by imperial elites whom nationalists identified as alien oppressors (i.e., the Balkan and Armenian nationalist movements in the case of the Ottoman Empire). Finally, there were nationalist movements that spread where a culture of nationalism had taken root but where a lack of state structure had created a political vacuum. Such was the case in the Asiatic provinces of the Ottoman Empire where a host of nationalist movements—including Arab and Greater Syrian nationalist movements—competed for support in the wake of the dismantling of that empire after World War I.

All nationalist movements are equivalent in form, and while the particular national characteristics and historical artifacts each nationalist movement uses to define the nature, reach, and boundaries of the national community are unique, the doctrines associated with nationalist movements that have emerged in the Islamic world commonly resemble those of contemporaneous movements that have emerged elsewhere. This was particularly true during the two-decade period of decolonization that followed World War II, when anti-colonial struggles and the forging of new nations necessitated the construction of broad-based nationalist coalitions throughout the developing world and when the colonial legacy prompted nationalist elites to place rapid modernization and (frequently) economic populism at the center of their political platforms. Hence, the secular, modernizing nationalist movements that dominated the Islamic world of the time—movements identified with such anti-colonial figures as Sukarno in Indonesia and Nasser in Egypt, with such anti-colonial resistance movements as the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Palestine, and with Bathism and Nasserism throughout the Arab world—were hardly unique to the Islamic world.

The one doctrinal innovation unique to the Islamic world might be found in those nationalist movements that give the Islamic nature of the nation pride of place in their nationalist narrative and seek to reconstruct the state according to what they define as Islamic principles (although, of course, nationalist movements outside the Islamic world have used religion as a national marker as well). The “Islamic nationalism” associated with such movements as Ḥamās in Palestine and the Ṭaliban in Afghanistan is hardly new to the Islamic world; during the final quarter of the nineteenth century the Ottoman sultan Abdülhamid II sought to disseminate an Islamic osmanlilik, and a semi-official journal in the empire once explained “Islam is not just a religion—it is a nationality.” But the recent revitalization of “Islamic nationalist movements” might be attributed to a number of factors, including the failure of secular nationalist movements to deliver on their promises, the “demonstration effect” of the Iranian revolutionary model, and the support they have received from conservative oil-rich states like Saudi Arabia. For the most part, these movements work within the parameters of the international state system; the Ṭaliban, for example, sought to represent Afghanistan at the United Nations. Although they privilege Islam as a national marker and base social reconstruction on so-called Islamic principles, they are consistent with the general prototype nationalist movements.



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  • Malley, Robert. The Call from Algeria: Third Worldism, Revolution, and the Turn to Islam. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

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