State, Nation, and Religion in the Muslim World
A research network coordinated by Professor Elisabeth Özdalga
The guiding idea behind this research network has been that Islamism and nationalism should not be conceptualized as each other’s opposites (as if one would be fundamentally religious and the other fundamentally secular), but that much of recent Islamic ideologies/discourses had better be analyzed as expressions of nationalism.
The notion that there is a special incompatibility – antagonism even - between Islam and liberal democracy has proved to be exceptionally unwavering. In spite of extensive and scathing criticisms it has received this conception seems as powerful as ever, and continues to be so on both sides of the ideological divide: among Islamist hardliners as well as Islam’s most fierce adversaries among secularists and/or Westerners. As such this fallacy continues to hamper the understanding of the social and political developments in today’s Middle East. It does so in a double respect as it impedes both analyses of problems underlying the democratic deficiencies, and efforts to grasp the general meaning of various Islamic movements. An important part of the problem is that, when linked up, these two notions – Islam and democracy – are conceptualized in very general and, consequently, essentialist terms. It is the aim of this research network to force that deadlock in order to contribute to the opening up of new perspectives in the study of religious, ethnic and national identities and their relations to political institutions, especially at the national level.
Nationalism is double-faced: it contains an external, easily visible (over-communicated); and, an inner, less explicit dimension (under-communicated). For the external, often also authoritarian form of nationalism Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities, 1983) has used the concept of “official nationalism.”
For a long time nationalism has been identified with “official nationalism.” However, this image is insufficient, since it overlooks the inner, less explicit dimensions of nationalism, as they make themselves felt through religion – in a Middle Eastern context mainly Islam – and other discourses and/or narratives, like fictional literature.
So far three conferences have been organized by the network acting within the framework of this project:
- Islamism, the State and the Quest for Community
Venue: Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University, 21-24 May, 2008 (Organizer: Docent Leif Stenberg).
- Islamism and Nationalism: Competing, converging or overlapping ideologies?
Venue: CIDOB Foundation, Barcelona 4-5 June, 2009 (Organizers: Professor Fred Halliday and Dr. Eduard Soler).
- The Uses of History and the Politics of Memory
Venue: The Danish Institute in Damascus, 14-17 October 2010 (Organizer: Professor Catharina Raudvere).
On the initiative of Professor Umut Özkirimli (Istanbul Bilgi University/London School of Economics) and Dr. Spyros A. Sofos (Kingston University, London), the network has made an agreement with Palgrave for a book series edition entitled Engaging Islam and Nationalism: State, Community and Religion in the West and the Muslim World. Three volumes are presently under preparation.
The fourth and final conference, organized by Professor Elisabeth Özdalga and Dr. Daniella Kuzmanovic, will be held on 12–14 October, 2012, at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul under the title of Literary Constructions of Nation and Religion: Insights from the Muslim World.
This conference aims at exploring the multitude of ways in which literary narratives and national identity formations are intertwined in order to better comprehend the complex role of fictional literature as representation as well as agent in the constructions of national identities. How do these issues emerge in the modern Middle East and/or Muslim world?
Despite the profound impact of mass media like TV and internet, the role of fictional literature in the formation of identities, particularly national identities, must not be forgotten. Literary narratives offer insights into the complexities of social and political power relationships, illustrating how relations between state, nation, religion and identity are forged and how various authentic and imagined communities are constructed and reconstructed.