An Issue of Identity: Nationalism

Grade Level: 9 - 12

This lesson is from a curriculum guide entitled Spotlight on the Muslim Middle East: Issues of Identity, developed by Hazel Sara Greenberg of The American Forum for Global Education. Due to copyright laws, excerpted readings which were included with permission in the original printed version of the unit could not be uploaded to the Internet. All the resources are cited and may be obtained. If the complete guide with all excerpts is desired however, it may be purchased from the American Forum. Details can be accessed from our Publication Catalog.

Many thanks to the faculty members of The Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University for their aid in the development of Spotlight on the Muslim Middle East.


Why Spotlight on the Muslim Middle East?

Developing curriculum on the Muslim Middle East is a difficult and often controversial chore. The first decision revolves around the title. What do we mean by the Muslim Middle East? Why did we choose to only include the Muslim Middle East? Does this choice mean that the singular focus of the guide will be the question of religion?

The reason we selected the Muslim Middle East as our organizing center is quite basic. At the present time, the Middle East is often misunderstood. We unanimously determined that we were interested in presenting a multi-dimensional point of view for a study of the Middle East. In order to do this, we needed to scrap some of our stereotypes about the region as well as the concept of the Middle East as being "exotic." We are looking at a geographic region which extends as far north as Central Asia to as far south as the Emirates, east to India and west through North Africa. In this vast region, the overwhelming element which binds the people is Islam. However, it is not always the same aspects of Islam for all the people. It is the Muslim Middle East because over 90 percent of the population embraces Islam; it is the Middle East but also known as the Near East or Western Asia because of its geographic location between Europe, Asia and Africa as the juncture of the three continents.

The primary purpose of the curriculum we developed was to rethink the Middle East from different vantage points, using different themes. There have been many historical influences throughout the centuries and mass migrations of peoples have traveled through this region. Each of these groups, from Semitic to Caucasian to Turkic, has left a small part of their culture and their history. They have had religious influence as well as ethnic influence. There has been influence from the West also in the guise of nationalism. Since World War II, feminist thinking began to prevail among the upper classes, expressing their attitudes in their writings. As a result, when a Middle Easterner examines his or her "identity" they undergo a discovery of many ingredients and images.

Spotlight on the Muslim Middle East: Issues of Identity, examines the issues of religion, community, ethnicity, nationalism, and gender which combine to form the identity of the Muslim Middle Easterner. In investigating each theme, we have tried to accomplish the following: (a) multiple voices; (b) multiple perspectives; (c) multiple scenarios; (d) a sympathetic reading of the region and its inhabitants; (e) a deeper and more concerned approach to the study of the Middle East.

An Issue of Identity: Nationalism

Nationalism came to the Middle East as a result of the imperialistic ventures of European powers as well as a reaction to the Ottoman Empire. Through the 1950's, a map of the region would have indicated the presence of colonial powers in a number of the countries or the influence of colonial powers on the regime of other nations. Today it is a different story. There are very few, if any, remaining enclaves of colonialism.

Any national anthem gives us special insight into how people feel about their country. The Egyptian National Anthem, for example can be studied for similarities with other nationalistic songs. In all cases, the nation shines above the people who are described as "children" following the beacon of the nationhood.

Suggested Teaching Strategy

The development of the modern nation-state in the Middle East follows many of the same patterns as we see in other regions of the world. In so many cases, control is wrested from the imperialistic power, often causing death, especially among the more idealistic youth. In Naguib Mahfouz's, Palace Walk, the first novel of his famous trilogy about Egypt, he relates the story of Fahmy, the brilliant son who is caught in the nationalistic movement against Britain in the early 1920's. Fahmy is torn between the need to accede to his father's wishes and his own principles, principles which propel him to join the anti-British forces and lead a group of students in a march against the British. The students were unarmed and the demonstration was advertised as peaceful. But Fahmy becomes a victim of the nationalistic fervor and is killed by a British bullet. This is a touching account of a young man's desire for liberty and nationhood and his faith in the future, only to be stopped by a sniper's bullet. The tale Mahfouz presents can be replicated in other nations throughout the world as the powers of nationalism call to the people.

Television is an excellent forum for nationalistic preaching. TV is no longer foreign or unattainable throughout the Middle East. Middle Easterners, working abroad, send money home or bring back TV sets, once novelties in both cities and rural villages. Now TV is beamed into remote villages via satellite and plays a major role in determining how people feel, what they wear and eat, how they should think and their aspirations. Dramatic Reversals: Political Islam and Egyptian Television, looks at TV serials and their subliminal impact on the thinking of a nation. Although the Egyptian government espouses the secular state, the rise of militant Islam and some extremist groups, play disparate roles in Egyptian serials. Through the 1980's the serials (through the voices of their characters) did share the discussion about nationhood and downplayed the issue of the Islamist movement. Since the 1990's, the serials have tried to combat terrorism. They have tried to avoid overt signs of religion as the source of morality. Religious television exists independent of the serials and both the serials and the religious leaders deplore the corruption and consumerism of Egypt. However, the serials feel that Muslim discourse should not be part of dramatic television and the extremist is often portrayed in a negative fashion. This is consistent with the government's policy of protecting the neutrality of the television industry.

Poetry is highly effective as a genre to inspire nationalistic thinking. Poetry is also a natural outlet for Middle Easterners since much of their literary tradition is rooted in poetry. The poems cited here stir the nationalistic feelings of people in the region from the inspirational Knowledge and Teaching and the Teacher's Task through the Darwish liberation poetry, such as The Identity Card. The voices of the oppressed, disenfranchised, overlooked and undercounted are loudly stated in this collection.

Suggested Teaching Strategy

In 1948, as a result of the Arab-Israeli War, the United Nations partitioned the mandated territory of Palestine. Many of the former Palestinians became displaced persons, living in refugee camps or other lands. These people had their own story to tell, the story of the children who grew up without a homeland but longing for a nation. The selection cited from Palestine's Children tells what life was like during the time of the hostilities and the repercussions of that experience on a young boy and his family who had fled. The young boy's sense of belonging is lost and he reverts to living on an elemental level. His experiences as a child developed into the adult with strong nationalistic feelings for a homeland for Palestinian.

Suggested Teaching Strategy

Turkish Nationalism took a different form. The Turks, after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire, did not need to rebel against outside imperialistic forces. Instead, they had to create a strong state which exemplified the feelings of the people. Turkey had been referred to as "the sick man of Europe." Educated Turks saw alternatives. In the selection, Halide Edib Adivar: Turkish Nationalist, the reader meets a female Turkish nationalist who found the skills and poise to play a large role in the transformation of the Turkish state. She was a Muslim woman with a strong nationalistic point-of-view and developed the necessary power to convert people to her position.

Suggested Teaching Strategy

Arab Nationalism: An Anthology traces the course of modern Arab nationalism from 1952 onwards. We see the strong framework for political nationalism, which involved, for some Arabs, dissolution of their intellectual ties with the West. This meant re-examining their history and rethinking their past from the less skewed angle of imperialism. It also means a return to some traditional values, especially those espoused by Islam. When Nasser wrote of the philosophy of his revolution, he tied the Middle East into the Arab world, the African continent and the far-flung Islamic world. Arab nationalism was not restricted to the current political boundaries of the Middle East. Instead, the strongest factors in the nationalist movement were Arabness and then the extension of the bonds to all Islamic people around the world.

Suggested Teaching Strategy

Cited Readings for "Nationalism"

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