The nation-state project hasn't worked in the Middle East and is fragmenting across the world. Can it be salvaged?

It’s now been around 100 years since the notion of the modern ‘Middle East’ started to be shaped, following the collapse of the Ottoman domains due to the impact of World War I. The emergence of the nation-state as an alternative model was to herald a new era in human history. One which would reflect the pinnacle of human progress, the detachment of religious morality within the political system in the guise of secular politics - and an exclusive configuration of identity-based on language, ethnicity and the new borders within which the citizens of the nation-state lived.

Orientalist historians argued that due to Ottoman ‘decline’, the nation-state was the inevitable consequence to emerge from the ashes of the Ottoman world. Facilitated by the self-serving European powers the new states established a programme of nation-building in an attempt to emerge from the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Allied forces.

The importance of the ‘states’ and citizen’s religious identity as the main marker of one’s belonging was to be replaced by the newly constructed national imagined community within the borders and rules of the new secular nation-state. If the newly formed nations in the image of their victors were to successfully emulate the nation-states of the Western colonial nations, then a move away from the Ottoman domains was deemed necessary as the idea of empire was to be despised in favour of more manageable, smaller entities.

Inclusive empires (multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual) such as the Ottoman one, were to be replaced by exclusive states as the founders of the new nations, presenting progress as a central feature of modernity and using educational systems and the printing press to suggest that the new nations were here to stay forever as the zenith of human civilisation.  

But 100 years on, is this really the case? 

Commentators are now regularly asking whether the nation-state, in a region that rapidly rose from the ashes of the Ottoman domains, is now starting to show signs of decline or even combustion.

It is then worth asking, if so, what signs reflect such notions? And is it possible to think of an alternate future beyond the nation-state model?


As technology dictates our lives and access to resources and the ability to travel becomes easier, the identity of the global citizen has gradually started to replace that of the citizen of the nation.

In the semblance of empire, the United States has become the sole superpower in the world, its exportation of American ideals, culture, symbols and model of consumerism have started to create homogeneity in global patterns of being that go against the exclusivity of national identity. 

A by-product of global capitalism, which the USA tries to regulate in its image, and the impact of the Internet and social media have meant that much of the world has started to subscribe to identities based on practices as consumers rather than loyal citizens of any given state. In that sense, the uniqueness of the US is that it is not merely a nation but an idea.

Supranational tech companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple have largely managed to manoeuvre outside the jurisdiction of any given nation-state. On a state level and a human level, globalisation has gradually eroded at the exclusive identities that each nation-state had fashioned. The Americanisation of the world has rendered a global community of individuals who lack any real individuality, instead of exhibiting a global sameness in expense to the national self.  

With people losing trust in national politics and its institutions, be that the media, educational systems, and governments, it could be argued that the politics of a century ago are drowning in the rapid developments of the 21st Century.

Mass Migration

No doubt, trains, planes and automobiles have improved transportation for billions, with global tourism a reflection of the consumerist world. Travelling has left no stone unturned, as living cities become popular tourist destinations.

But travel of a different sort has had a greater impact on national identity and belonging – that of mass migration. If World War I was to be the war to end all wars, in 2018 one can safely argue that this has not been the case. Since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, its subsequent war on terror and then the so-called Arab spring, the region has gone through a crisis that has challenged the idea of the nation-state like no other in the region’s modern history.

The possible collapse of state structures and established networks in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen, and the resignation of the unlikelihood of a Palestinian state force one to ask the question: has the nation-state model in the region failed? 

As states in the Gulf and Egypt resorting to heavier centralisation in a region where people demand greater decentralisation, are we witnessing a turning point in the history of the nation-state in the region?

Mass migration has subsequently created blurred zones for frontier borders and peoples. The Syrian people have bled into Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Europe. In Pakistan, the Afghan war has done the same. Many states, may be forced to rethink their strategies regarding their border regions. 

While finite borders with finite resources may currently view migrants as liabilities to the states’ resources, in reality, the more significant problem is the dialectic struggle between peoples that share commonalities that will inevitably challenge national identity as imaginations of homeland and host nation become blurred for the next generation.

It’s a Muslim issue

While not exclusive, the global migration question has become viewed as a Muslim one. 

In the case of Europe, Muslim migration has proven to be equally problematic for the European nation-states but with different challenges. The more Muslim that Europe becomes, the more anti-Muslim it becomes.

With European nation-states unwilling to evolve from the imaginations of the two great wars of which they refashioned themselves, being a Muslim is perceived as outside of this orbit of restrictive state and social identification. That’s not to say that Muslims can not be a part of European society, but they are either being forced, coerced or are being 'civilised' into conforming to each nation-state's respective restraining identity.

As a result, the momentum of far-right populism is presented mainly in opposition to Islam and Muslims, as European Muslims become perceived as the internal other.

For Muslim nation-states, ‘Islamist’ ideologies created much discourse regarding the viability of the nation-state project with some outright rejection of the nation-state model, while others attempted to work within its parameters. 

Since the collapse of the Ottoman world, Islamic political discourse and intellectuality have found great difficulty in answering the nation-state question.

However, with the failure of ‘Islamists’ to gain much capital since the so-called Arab Spring, it could be assumed that in a post-Islamist world the nation-state can breath a sigh of relief, as the ‘eternal’ internal enemy has been banished for now. 

On closer inspection, the US invasion in Iraq has been the catalyst for decentralising the region, and awakening a sentiment of inquiring about possible alternatives. While modern religio-political parties in Muslim countries may be struggling, it would be naive to assume that discourse is restricted to the movements that propagated ideas of Islamic revivalism, as Muslims continue to seek answers in Islam regarding their identity and politics.

If we are witnessing a transmutation of the nation-state model, of which none of us is sure what that will be, does it make sense for new nation-states to be established? 

Furthermore, a more pertinent question is whether the region after 100 years is starting to display signs of fatigue regarding the inability to provide the security and stability nation-states have promised ever since the drawing of borders from Sykes and Picot?

Just as the nation-state rapidly rose from the collapse of the Ottoman domains are we witnessing the fall of nations? It is nothing new in human history. 

Could we be witnessing the inevitable decline of the nation-state model in the region?

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