In Imagined Communities, Anderson (New York: Verso, 1983, p. 40) maintains that a national community capable of fomenting political change that could lead to democratic governance is only possible if there is: 1) a written language that created a ‘truth’ of fellow feeling in society; 2) a society organized around and under high centres; and 3) a belief that the world began with man at its centre with the capability of changing the world around him. If there was a printed local vernacular, then communities could share ideas, engage one another, and build a new political space where ‘imagined’ communities can push for real political change. Hobsbawm and Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983) complements Anderson’s notion of nationalism. Nationalism or mass-generated traditions established bonds of loyalty among citizens and their rulers. In light of the European experience leading up to World War I, European leaders created a secular national glue in which the state became the framework for citizens’ actions, and loyalty to the state above all else was reinforced. It seemed the European state building experience conformed to nationalist experiments. Do these same nationalist projects lend themselves to Muslim communities? Or is there something ‘exceptional’ about Muslim communities that limits the power of ethnonationalism and consequently the possibility of democratic governance? In Nationalism, Language and Muslim Exceptionalism, Mabry eloquently enters the debate on the links between nationalism, Islam, and the possibility for democratic change by examining six Muslim separatist groups across the world. He empirically assesses if there is something about the religious bonds of Islam that make Muslim communities ‘exceptionally resistant to ethnonationalism’ (2). He astutely points out that if one can solve the nationalist puzzle then one can make better policy prescriptions for how to craft liberal democracies among Muslim communities. Based on extensive fieldwork, qualitative interviews, and comparative case studies, his book fills a critical gap in the study of Middle East politics, Islamic studies, and more broadly, debates on nationalism. He does so by identifying why Muslim political communities are more or less likely to gravitate toward secular ethnonationalist identities or Islamic fundamentalist/jihadi rhetoric. He carefully selects six separatist groups to understand if the basis of their self-identified political platform is informed by secular ethnonational identities or if they are more influenced by Islamic jihadi identities. He avoids common case selection traps by pushing his examination of the Muslim world beyond the Arab Middle East to include cases in Central Eurasia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. He finds that the Xinjiang, Sindh, and Iraqi Kurdistan separatist groups adopted secular ethnonationalist platforms. For example, Atkin Alptekin, former president of the World Uyghur Congress asserts, ‘I tell you frankly, among the Turkic peoples, we have some fundamentalists … there’s no doubt about that, but in the Turkic world, we have a different way of thinking than in the Arab world … In the Turkic world, we have our Turkic-ness first. I am a Uyghur, Uyghurs are Turkic’ (p. 120). Furthermore, Alptekin says the Uyghur language is, ‘the fountain of the nation—if that fountain dries out, we think that the people will cease to exist’ (p. 120). In contrast, separatist groups in Kashmir, Aceh, and Mindanao spoke very differently about the connections between Islam, language, and identity. These groups had a greater affinity for Islamic fundamentalist ideology. In Kashmir, there was no clear print language binding people (p. 155). It could be Persian, Urdu, or English. Instead, Islam is the all-encompassing identity that binds the community. In Kashmir, Syed Ali Salah Geelani, the former chairman of the APHC and current leader of a fundamentalist faction (Jamat-e-Islami) maintains, ‘We are Muslims and all affairs of our individual, our collective life, are guided by Islamic principles. So there is no difference on the basis of language’ (p. 156). What explains the variation in separatist identity? Mabry finds that the presence of a shared local vernacular and strong print culture correlates with a strong ethnonational identity and an absence of Islamic fundamentalism. He concludes that there is an inverse relationship between Islamic fundamentalism and secular ethnolinguistic nationalism. Astoundingly, his findings demonstrate that Islamic fundamentalist ideology is not a stronger political force among Muslim communities than any other ideology, rather it is an opportunistic parasite. In effect, communities are infected by fundamentalist Islamic rhetoric when there is not a strong local print culture that helps develop an ethnonational bond. This finding helps scholars of the region explain the political instability in many Arab Muslim countries in ways other than the common trope that, ‘there is a clash of civilizations’ between Islam and democracy. His book helps the field move beyond Muslim exceptionalism and suggests that the absence of print culture, and subsequently ethnonationalism, is the culprit in explaining the conspicuous absence of a push for liberal democracy among some Muslim separatist groups. In summary, this book is a wonderful addition to both undergraduate and graduate syllabi on Islam, Middle East politics, and nationalism. In my undergraduate course on Middle East politics it generated vibrant classroom debate on the comparative nationalist experiences of European and Muslim communities. This excellent contribution to the field will certainly be on my syllabus this fall. © The Author (2017). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Journal of Islamic Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Jan 1, 2018
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