The system of Arab states and the persistence of traditional social structures

The system of Arab states

The Syrian-born political scientist Bassam Tibi observes that nationalism is an ideology that Arabs and other Muslims acquired from the West and introduced into their own relations. Even the nation-state is a politico-institutional construct that originates out of European history (Tibi 1996, 50). It will therefore be necessary to investigate how the institutional makeup has changed as a result of transposing the ideology of nationalism and the form of the nation-state into the religious, social, and cultural relations by which the Arab world is structured.

As just suggested, the Western concept of the nation is foreign to the Muslim world. Indeed, its closest Islamic equivalent—the umma—is defined neither by ethnicity nor by nationality. As was discussed in the last chapter, it was through the anticolonial struggle that nationalism took hold in the Muslim world, and it was through colonialism that the model of the nation-state was imported into this world. This model was built around the institutional forms of the European world (ibid., 54). But these institutional forms were overlaid onto the social, cultural, and religious fabric of the Muslim world, whose organizational structure differed in profound ways from that of the European countries.

For a proper analysis of the nation-building process in the Arab world—and more specifically in the Maghreb, the main focus of this analysis—we need to turn to interpretive categories that make it possible to grasp the specificity of that geopolitical context and the peculiarities of its forms of nation-building. And the question that needs to be answered through that theoretical lens is the following: why is it that Maghrebi society, which did not lag behind Europe’s feudal society in the Middle Ages, did not manage in the Renaissance or in the modern age to break away from the structures of the medieval period and lay the groundwork for the birth of nations in the modern sense of the term? (Zghal 1971,467).

This question has been tackled from two different angles, with some authors taking an orientalist approach and others a Marxist one. The leading orientalist thinker until World War II was Emile-Félix Gautier (1952), according to whom the lack of state-making in the Maghreb is to be explained by pointing to the clash between sedentary and nomadic farmers. Only in the tenth century did an opportunity emerge for the Maghreb to form into a nation: this came with the rise of the Fatimid Caliphate, whose people were the Kitama, a tribe of sedentary farmers who had settled in Kabylie. But the Fatimid endeavour was cut short by the nomadic tribes of the Banu Hilal, who invaded from Egypt in the mid-eleventh century.

Marxists writers, for their part, have compared the social structures of medieval Maghreb to those of the European feudal system, arguing that the Maghrebi people’s state-making inability was owed to the economic decline the region entered into once it lost control of trade routes between Sudan and Egypt (Lacoste 1966).

But as Abdelkader Zghal argues, neither the Marxist approach nor the orientalist one hits the mark, for they both pretend to understand medieval Maghrebi society on the basis of (Western) interpretive categories that fail to take the specific features of that society into account. So it is a different set of categories that we need for a proper analysis of the problem.

 
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