Dialogue Series, Race & Society, Regional Studies

Brothers Behind Borders: Islamism and Nationalism in the Middle East


Abdullah Al-Arian asked his audience to reflect back six years, to the hopefulness that emerged in spring 2011, when decades-old authoritarian regimes were on the brink of collapse. Leaders of Tunisia and Egypt had been overthrown by mass uprisings in their respective countries; the regimes in Yemen and Libya were on the verge of collapse; Bashar Al-Assad was facing the largest threat to his rule in the form of a largely peaceful protest movement in Syria; and the monarchical rulers of Jordan, Morocco, and Bahrain had similarly witnessed popular mobilizations in the form of citizens demanding the recognition of their collective rights.

People across the world were witnessing what many believed to be the dawn of a new era in the Middle East, Al-Arian said, “one signified by an end of dictatorship and the rise of representative governments, equal citizenship, and respect for the rule of law.” But no sooner had the discussions about the post-authoritarian transition to democracy emerged, he said, than the conversation shifted to the question of what role Islamist movements would play in nation–states freed from the top-down imposition of secularism.

Al-Arian, professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar, presented his talk, “Brothers Behind Borders: Islamism and Nationalism in the Middle East,” at CIRS on April 18, 2017. The topic is from Al-Arian’s research for a book in progress, where he is exploring the role of Islamist movements in large parts of the Arab region currently undergoing great societal change.

During the 2011 uprisings, he said, “some critics warned that the vacuum left by secular authoritarian rulers would simply be filled by a new tyranny in the form of political Islam.” As political parties representing the Muslim Brotherhood’s school of thought emerged across the region and proved to be the social movement most capable of exploiting the nascent political openings, Al-Arian said, “it was speculated that the Arab Spring would give way to an Islamist Winter, where the parties would undermine notions of national citizenship and erode state borders, culminating in the unification of Muslim Brotherhood movements from Morocco to Yemen, and perhaps even bringing about the restoration of the caliphate.”

“Of course, anyone who closely followed the post-uprising developments in places like Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen knew this to be a complete fallacy,” he said. These political parties were far more focused on their respective domestic affairs than on fulfilling the goals of some abstract transnational ideological and political project, he said. “In fact, the posture of these parties over the course of the past several years has only confirmed what has been plain to see for some time: traditional Islamist groups that emerged out of the Muslim Brotherhood school of thought have adapted their missions to their local political and socio-economic contexts.”

Al-Arian suggested revisiting our understanding of Islamism with an eye toward its nationalist inclinations, which is the core of his research. “If we look back at the history of a transnational movement on the order of the Muslim Brotherhood, recognized by most as the prototypical representative of the phenomenon of political Islam, what would its relationship be to its respective national contexts in every place that it appeared?” he asked. “Is there one version of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, or are there many? If there are indeed many ikhwanisms, as it were, how does the national context determine what shape they have taken through the years?”

Al-Arian said there are several reasons why it is critical to reassess our understanding of Islamist movements. First, he said, by looking at the past through a fresh lens, we come away with a different image of the historical legacy of political Islam; one that would draw a vastly different conclusion about the ability or even desire of Islamist movements to form transnational bonds in a post-authoritarian order. And, in the face of a growing regional and global insurgency by groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, Al-Arian said, it is perhaps more important now than ever before to distinguish between different strands of political Islam: those that have largely remained within the modernist Islamic tradition with its acceptance of nation–states, and those that have categorically rejected the designation of states in favor of a radically different political order. 

Lastly, he said, it worth reexamining the role of Islamist movements now because of the continuing possibilities they hold for the future of a region that is in one of its most turbulent eras in modern history. A starkly different picture emerges, depending on whether we examine the role of these movements in contexts like Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and Tunisia, or their more highly contentious role in countries like Libya, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, he said. “This is particularly crucial in light of the blanket designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization by several regional powers; a position that has been openly lauded by the current US administration.”

In light of the chronic lack of contextualization that dominates much of the policy debate around the question of Islamism, Al-Arian said, “I would argue that the Muslim Brotherhood, as a specific brand of Islamism with roots in the early twentieth-century Islamic modernist tradition, should be viewed as a nationalist force whose mobilization campaigns cannot be viewed in isolation from the broader developments within the state-building projects of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the Middle East. What I’m suggesting, essentially, is to write Islamists back into the nationalist histories of Arab states.”

There are several reasons why expressions of political Islam have been largely excluded from nationalist narratives, Al-Arian said. For one, scholars defining nationalism have tended to exclude any movements or ideologies that placed religious identity at the core of their program. Also, the historiography of Arab societies has privileged state-centered narratives. And, he said, “one can look at the posture of the movements themselves, which have historically disavowed any relationship to the nationalist movement and developed an ideological program that was committed to countering the dominant nationalist paradigms in their respective contexts.”

The debate around Islam and politics has come full circle, Al-Arian said. Over the course of the past decade, Islamist groups have abandoned “Islam is the solution” as a simplistic catchphrase in favor of an emphasis on particular values that their evolving interpretation of Islam promotes. “Indeed, the challenges that the latest iteration of Islamist activism faces are the same ones that confront political parties of all ideological stripes, namely, how to ensure that governments represent the interests of the majority of their citizens at a time when more people face the dangers of vast economic inequality and lack basic rights of freedom and security than at any other time in the recent past,” said Al-Arian.


Abdullah Al-Arian is Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar. He is co-editor of the Critical Currents in Islam page on the Jadaliyya e-zine. He is also a frequent contributor to the Al-Jazeera English network and website. His first book, Answering the Call: Popular Islamic Activism in Sadat’s Egypt, was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.


Article by Jackie Starbird, Publications and Projects Assistant at CIRS.