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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  Diversity and Pluralism

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Framing the Issues

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Religious and National Identity

The nation-states that emerged in the Middle East following the destruction of the Ottoman Empire adopted various models with respect to Islam. The Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s had elected a secular pattern. The republican elite enforced unveiling, reformed the Turkish language so that Persian and Arabic words were replaced by European or Turkish words, and replaced the Arabic script, in which Turkish was written, with the Latin alphabet. The community's national identity was constructed upon Turkic, Hittite, and secular, rather than Islamic, traditions. Iran followed a similar pattern, emphasizing Iran's glorious pre-Islamic past and espousing secular reform.

The Arab model offered a different course. Many of the Arab nationalists looked at Islam as an important component in their identity. Thus, Muslim heroes, like the generals that carried out the wars which led to the Arabization and the Islamization of the Middle East, Saladin, and/or Baybars, were perceived as mythical figures, fighting to protect the sanctity of the Arab nation. The Ba‘th Party, a political organization that emerged in mid-1940s Syria and spread in the Middle East, championed such ideas and called to foster the unity of the Arab peoples based on their common linguistic and cultural heritage. Its founder, Christian intellectual Michel ‘Aflaq, appreciated the Prophet Muhammad as a hero of the Arab nation since Muhammad was the founder of the most successful Arab state and the man affiliated with the masterwork of the Arabic language, the Qur'an. These Arab nationalists, however, advocated a secular legislation that would grant equal citizenship rights to all members of the nation.

After 1967, groups that called for the increasing role of Islam in Middle Eastern states became significant factors in Middle Eastern politics. Such groups were displeased with the Western culture that influenced large segments of the youth, were disappointed from the Arab failures in the war with Israel, and were displeased with the socialist and secularist models spreading in the Middle East, especially with the personality cult symptomatic of certain officers’ regimes. These groups varied in their political programs and disagreed as to the right course suitable for the materialization of their goals (ranging from participation in elections and activities in the public sphere, to militant actions and terrorism). However, most of them agreed that in the wake of Westernization and globalization, with the growth of socioeconomic gaps within each nation state, a return to Islamic principles, Islamic law, and Islamic cultural and social norms (defined differently by different Islamist activists) was highly necessary.       

Supporting Links:

Dawisha, Adeed. “Requiem for Arab Nationalism.” Middle East Forum. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 4, 2010).

Nafi, Basheer.  “Nationalism v. Islam.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 4, 2010).

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