The 18th century was a pivotal moment in European and Western history. It saw the emergence of the modern nation-states. At the same time, several of these nation-states pursued colonialist expansion. Yet, by doing so, they were unknowingly introduced to places and they contacted a whole new concept of self-definition. The purpose of this essay is to present a sketch of how western colonialism is at the root of the modern nationalistic movements of the Middle East, and how it changed their conception of “nation” and of “state”.

While the classical definition of concepts such as “nation” and “state” have their origins in Latin, “natio” and “status”. “Natio” coming from the action of “birth” while “status” from being “fixed” or “static”, it helps us to understand the roots of European nationalism. One is born to a nation, and there is a fixed state that should govern this nation. You can’t become a member of the nation if you aren’t born to it. This is why, for instance, not a single non-European individual from any colony could aspire to be equal to the European colonizer, even though both of them are citizens of the state. An Algerian would be part of the French state, true, but never of the French nation. An Indian would be part of the British Empire, though never truly British. However, as the Western imperialists first contacted Egypt, during the late 18th century Napoleonic campaigns, the locals were addressed as “the Egyptian nation”. A new concept was introduced: nation under the Western model. The Arabic translation of “nation” is “أمة” (Umma) while “دولة” (Dawla) is translated as “state”. However, there is a significant difference of meaning. The umma has its roots in the wordimam” (إمام), which means “the guide”. Anyone can become a part of the Islamic umma simply by following the guide, the Quran and the teachings of Muhammad. Birth has nothing to do with it. At the same time, “dawla” has its origins in the act of changing and exchanging. It is the same verb used nowadays to describe money exchanges. The dawla would be implemented to take care of the Muslim umma’s affairs. Historically, there was different Muslim dawlas, such as the Umayyad and the Abbasid, though there was always a single Muslim umma. The contact with the modern colonialists from Europe changed this conception dramatically.

The contact with modern colonialists from Europe led to the development of local nationalistic aspirations where different groups started to see themselves not only as Arabs or Muslims, but as nationalists. Furthermore, a hybrid form of nationalism came to be. It tried to mix the Western conception of nationalism with the local one. On the one hand, Pan-Arabism and Arabic Nationalism started developing through public intellectuals such as the Lebanese journalist Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914). Later it became a huge movement lead by historical figures such as the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), and it was formed as an ideology such as Ba’athism, as developed by, among others, Michel Aflaq (1910-1989). On the other hand, the Islamic religion started gaining a nationalistic identity as well. Pan-Islamism was the driving force of political leaders such as King Faisal of Saudi Arabia (1906-1975) and the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran (1902-1989). Islamism was also the driving ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966). The entire goal of such movements was to become a force to fight the colonialist powers, if they were still present on the land, and/or to fight the international dominance of such Western powers.

Such hybrid forms of nationalism were, and still are, a key element in the relation between many locals and the Western powers. To truly understand how different ideologies in the Middle East exist today, we cannot separate them from the very first modern colonial contact. Also, we cannot understand any of the contemporary nationalistic views without a better understanding of what it is to be a nation. Even though this is not by any means a comprehensive survey of the nationalistic movements present in the region, it is a key introduction to understand such movements in the light of European colonialist intervention.


  • Tamim Al Barghouti, The Umma and The Dawla: The nation-state and the Arab Middle East, Pluto Press, 2008.
  • Ernest Gellner (2009), Nations and Nationalism, Cornell University Press, second edition, 2009.
  • Laurence Louer (2012). Transnational Shia Politics: Religious and Political Networks in The Gulf, Oxford University Press, Reprint Edition.
  • Michel Aflaq (1959). The Battle of One Destiny (معركة المصير الواحد), Dar Al Adaab.