The International Politics of the Middle East

By Raymond Hinnebusch | Go to book overview

3

Identity and sovereignty in the regional system

The divergence of identity and territory: retarded nation-building?

In the Westphalian model that European expansion ostensibly globalised, a relative congruence between identity and sovereignty, between nation and state, endows states and the states system with legitimacy. Social mobilisation creates, in modernising societies, receptivity to identification with larger communities — nations — potentially coterminous with a state; in an age of nationalism, such identity communities seek a state and state leaders seek to forge a common national identity among their populations. Where the drive to bring state and nation into correspondence is obstructed, irredentist conflicts tend to destabilise regimes and foster inter-state conflict. Nowhere is the divergence of identity and state sharper than in the Middle East. There popular identification with many individual states has been contested by strong sub- and supra-state identities, diluting and limiting the mass loyalty to the state typical where it corresponds to a recognised nation (Ayoob 1995: 47—70; Hudson 1977: 33—55).

Historically, identification with the territorial state has been weak, with popular identify tending to focus on the sub-state unit — the city, the tribe, the religious sect — or on the larger Islamic umma (Weulersse 1946: 79—83). This is because states, the product of outside conquerors, imported slave-soldiers without local roots, or religio-tribal movements, typically disintegrated after a few generations and when a new wave of state-building came along the states' boundaries were often radically different. Moreover, in an arid environment of trading cities and nomadic tribes, peoples, notably the Arabs, lacked the defined sense of territorial identity and attachment

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