Notes politics

Chapter 4: Islamism, Nationalism (Introduction to Middle East Politics)

Political ideology, a consistent set of ideas and visions for how society should work, is a modern phenomenon born out of the French revolution.

To understand nationalism, it is important to understand the idea of nations. Nations are bound together by a shared language, culture, and history. Nationalism is an ideology which claims that supreme authority exists within the national community. Thus, every nation should have an independent political system, or state – hence the word ‘nation-state’.

Arab nationalism was based on ethnic unity, while the European union was based on political utility.

The Six-Day war had two symbolic consequences. One, that Israel could not be defeated. Two, it shattered the belief in Arab unity.


Hadith is a set of disputable claims about selected narratives from the Prophet’s actions. Shari-ah is the legal code of Islam. Principles from the Hadith and Qur’an that are interpreted by religious leaders, judges, and religious scholars, and determine Shari-ah.

The goal of Islamic movements is to apply Shari’ah as the state’s legal code. There are other movements that try to combine Shari-ah with civil law, but these are still controversial.

Sunni and Shi’a Islam

The central dispute between Sunnis and Shi’as is over the successor of Prophet Muhammad. The Sunni favored popular selection while the Shi’as believed the successor should be Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. The Shi’a have been marginalized throughout history, since the majority of Muslims are Sunni.

There is another key difference, in that the Shi’a believe that Muhammad possessed a divine light, while the Sunni do not think Muhammad was divine. The idea is controversial to Sunnis since it threatens their belief in the oneness of God.

There is also differences in their approaches to legal systems. Ulama is a broad term used for formally trained scholars who focus on jurisprudence and Islamic Law. There is no hierarchy among the Ulama, which leads to a diversity of opinion.

The Shi’a have a more formal structure. The Ayatollah represents the highest level of learning a scholar can receive within the Shi’a religious school. Iran has formalized this into their system of governance (vilayet-e-faqih). But the diversity of interpretations has been the defining feature of Islam, and this has allowed political leaders to control and contain the influence of Islam on political life.


Jihad is the most contested term in Islamic discourse. ‘Jihad’ means struggle, with it’s most common use in the struggle in the way of God. This specifically refers to the struggle for against temptation, and to live as a virtuous Muslim, and to Jihad of the tongue (to spread the word of Islam). A third use is for social responsibility. The fourth use is the most controversial, and it refers to the struggle of the sword, it is the requirement to defend the Muslim community when under threat.


Anwar Sadar, Egypt’s leader, attacked Israel in the six-day war in 1973. Egypt were eventually held back but because of their initial push, gained favourable peace terms. The conflict had a powerful effect on the world, when Gulf states imposed an oil embargo that threatened the world with a economic recession.


From exile, Ayatollah Khomeini confronted the regime in Iran. Through his writings, he was able to influence the revolution that led to the coup. His most important contribution was the volume Government of the Islamic Jurist (Vilayet-e-faqih). He not only argued for removing the regime, but he outlined how an Islamic regime should be structured and implemented. This included reliance on Islamic scholars (faqih).

After the revolution, two branches of government formed. One was led by Khomeini, while the other by Barzagan. Their relationship was dysfunctional, and Barzagan resigned by the end of 1979. The invasion of Iraq in 1980 and Iran’s international isolation and confrontation with the U.S led many to believe that the regime would not survive.

The conflict between the US and Iran has continued since the 1970’s and has its roots in the close relationship between the US and the Shah. The US installed the shah after they played a role in toppling of the 1953 Mossadeq government, and the US financed the SAVAK (an organization that repressed protests).

An Introduction to Middle East PoliticsChapter 4: Islamism, Nationalism (Introduction to Middle East Politics) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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