Future historians might find it far easier navigating through this post-Cold War era to explain the Muslim predicament. Since 1990 or so, one sturdy Muslim state after another has bitten the bullet, to put it bluntly, devastated for good: Iraq, twice over (1991 with Operation Desert Storm for invading Kuwait, then the 2003 war for allegedly possessing weapons of mass destruction); Libya, simply because of the dramatic collapse of one person, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011; Syria, remnant of an ancient civilisation yet in complete ruin since war began in 2011, and only because of a minority group suppressing all else; Afghanistan, like Iraq, twice over, first through the December 1979 Soviet invasion, then the 9/11 reprisal; and Yemen, a civil war from 2015 converting Aden into a graveyard, yet still bombarding Islam's holiest arena, Saudi Arabia.
Without hindsight, we cannot but struggle to connect these dots. The list includes one Soviet invasion, at least two US invasions in Iraq, but since the Soviet Union and the United States were not acting in conjunction or competition with each other, conspiracy theories litter the air: the US military-industrial complex instigating war, prompted allegedly by the arms industry; or a “workers of the world unite” argument to install raw Soviet power worldwide; or even a Jewish plot to undermine Muslim countries one by one, from the most threatening to the least, through its own civilian spies, intelligence networks, and plain military braggadocio.
Perhaps there may be a grain or two of truth in these: some will spend a lifetime either believing it or attempting to make it more plausible. More likely, local forces played both causal and circumstantial roles. Authoritarianism, for example, was common in all these countries, swelling the opposition until the grievance balloon burst. Yet, connecting dots with this does not get too far: Libya's case, for example, was as remotely comparable to the Afghani case, just as the Soviet Afghani invasion differed fundamentally from that of its US counterparts.
Nationalism does better. None of these countries were nation-states: that is, a single nationality dominant enough to build statehood. All were state-nations: the state being created, often with outside parties such as a colonising country, out of multiple nationalities, hoping a composite nationality would evolve over time (as has been the case with India). In addition, multi-nation-states could be partial-national-states where one nationality is split across multiple states, as for example, Kurds and Palestinians.
Once we get into this familiar West European explanatory framework, then intellectual curiosity must kill the blind-sighted, one-track-minded proverbial cat: still without any definitive answer, more comparable cases help explain Christianity's rendezvous with nationalism.
Not only did the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia end the Thirty Years War, based on the split between mainstream/fundamentalist and reformist Christians—to wit, the Catholics and Protestants (Lutherans, Calvinists, and so forth)—it also provided the secular state with a few other distinctive features: sovereign rights within fixed territorial boundaries and a legitimate military to replace fanatics and mercenaries. It took a long time to evolve, but by World War II—that is, three centuries later—West Europe could boast not only of a peaceful nation-state comity but also the most peaceful region, so much so that looking “beyond the state” into regional integration became the norm and reality.
Could that be the Muslim plight that began roughly with the 1978-79 Khomeini revolution, creating distinctive boundaries for dominant nationality groups? In other words, could the inherited “state” and imposed boundaries be redrawn along more nationalistic lines? If, for example, the Kurds were allowed to do so, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey would lose some territory. If they did not allow Israel to establish itself in the first instance, will Arab states allow any viable future Palestine state? How can the Sunni-Shia divide within the artificial Iraq state be ironed out?
Though they demand research, but mostly lots and lots of comprehension time, for some “wisdom” to sink in (or enough people killed that fighting ceases to be an option), these questions at least get the juices flowing to explain our own Muslim predicament during our own lifetimes. At some point we will confront the obvious question that if Westphalia was all about nationality-driven statehood, how come unrelated foreign power (such as those that were colonising countries) played so central a role?
That is a question the Christian Westphalia did not have to address since Europe was, for all practical purposes, the world. With global powers sprouting outside Europe after World War II, they aligned with Muslim national movements for both reasons: competition between themselves, but to also assail European imperialism.
No wonder the Muslim Westphalia may take as many centuries to peter out as the Christian one in Europe. Technology compresses many factors but the national mood or instinct cannot, has not, and is unlikely to ever be so abruptly ironed out. That opens space for yet other explanations.
Dr Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).