Review of “Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies”

Review of “Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies” as Edited by Maya Shatzmiller

By Bradley Martin – Concordia University, Department of Religion Graduate Student

The book titled “Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies” by Maya Shatzmiller, presents a common thread in various Islamic countries where minority identities are radicalized in specific ways according to the methods of exclusion employed by the dominant culture. In doing so, the book presents an exceedingly detailed, informative as well as exceptionally relevant analysis which describes an important social occurrence found in various areas of the Middle East. The minorities discussed within this work comprise of Egyptian Coptic Christians, Christians in Lebanon and Egypt, Pakistani Christians, the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey, as well as the Baha’i of Iran. (Shatzmiller 2005: viii) The book contends that the process of secular nationalization brought about a remarkable yet dangerous social dynamic that often does not end well for distinctive minorities of Islamic societies which primarily define themselves on religion rather than ethnicity. (Shatzmiller 2005: 284-286) Shatzmiller outlines a mapping of State-minority relations in the Islamic world, with echoed parallels to the contemporary political scene, as well as the contextual definition for how minority identities are formed through differing circumstances of discrimination and reaction to such.

Richard C. Martin begins to engage the book’s theme of minority identity formation, through attempting to outline a proper definition of the term “minority” in an Islamic cultural context. In his essay, Martin proceeds to explain minority rights in an Islamic religious sense as outlined in the Qur’an. In the early Islamic worldview, there is a division between dar-al-islam, or the lands under Islamic rule, and dar-al-harb meaning lands actually or potentially in conflict with Muslim rulers. (Shatzmiller 2005: 4) Within dar-al-islam, a diversity of religious communities such as Christians and Jews were classified as “People of the Book” and allowed to operate in society, due to having what were deemed to be valid divine revelations in their religious doctrines. These groups would be offered the chance to accept Islam, and if they chose not to they would be permitted to take on dhimmi status and stay within the spiritual and religious confines of their respective community. They would however, need to pay a poll tax known as the jizya and another tax known as kharaj if they were landowners (Shatzmiller 2005: 5), thus demonstrating their subordinate status to Muslims. Those who were polytheists were not at all tolerated (Shatzmiller 2005: 4) while non-Arab converts suffered from discrimination due to their lack of “insider” status. It is important to note that while such categories are hardly egalitarian from a contemporary point of view, Martin remarks how successful they were in “maintaining a dynamic but stable social order” (Shatzmiller 2005: 7) in that there were still ways for minorities to be included within the broader social dynamic. One such example is the Ottoman millet system where minorities served as integral roles in governance. As later segments in the book demonstrate, this symbiotic relationship between minority peoples and their hosts in Islamic lands would be challenged due to the advent of modern Islamic-nationalist states with varying results according to circumstance. With regard to the various reasons for how and why they may have occurred, there would be clear societal breakdowns resulting in an exclusion of minority groups. Minorities would therefore return to a sort of primordial state in compensation for this social breakdown and in many ways, serve as a consequence and antithesis to modernism. (Shatzmiller 2005: 11)

The first essays of the book describe the status of Coptic Christians inside and outside of Egypt. Pieternella Van Doorn-Harder, in the second chapter, notes that “older generations of Muslims and Christians agree that relations between their religions used to be more relaxed before the 1960s.” It was during the rise of fanaticism in the 1940s, born in large part by the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood beforehand as well as the advent of the First and Second World Wars that brought about a change in communal religious dynamics. This process of nationalization had devastating effects for the Coptic community, such as an increase in attacks against them as well as a communal loss of 87% of their wealth. In many ways this was even propagated by the nationalist regime itself. In the 1970s, Islam was used as a social to infuse zeal among the Egyptian populace against the State of Israel, since Nasser’s socialism and Pan-Arabism failed to effectively spur the masses. (Shatzmiller 2005: 26-27) Indeed Mubarak’s hold on power at the time was in jeopardy as was that of Nasser, and it would have been highly likely that he would have followed similar courses of action set through his political predecessors. As such, the importance of this essay is made clear since the social causes and effects in Egyptian society are seemingly still in play today. Even if Mubarak, was not the direct cause, he would still have to accept indirect responsibility in that he continued policies of state-sponsored Islamic radicalization as well as anti-Coptic actions in the public sector and allowance of derogatory content to be played on state-run television (Shatzmiller 2005: 29-30) permitting such an attack to take place. Contemporary relevance of the historical patterns set forth by this work, serves as substantial evidence of its applicability in attempting to understand the various social complexities which make up the Middle East.

In the case of Egypt, the Coptic minority would undergo a process of radicalization as a result of such exclusionary tactics. With 9000 churches and 10% of the Egyptian population, it is clear that this community forms an integral part of Egyptian society by sheer numbers. Pope Shenouda III would be instrumental in causing the community to undergo various changes in terms of national identity as a response to such tension. Examples of such changes are to be found in popular music which detailed the lives of saints, as well as a robust religiosity among Copts. Another change in response to exclusion from the majority of the society was the development of the ideology that resistance to Islam would result in self-improvement. One way in which this change was manifested was in Bishop Mousa’s marriage counselling service which prevented dating between Muslim and Coptic Egyptians. (Shatzmiller 2005: 39) This resistance is defined by Doorn-Harder as peaceful, but not at all passive. The Egyptian lack of democracy is blamed by Doorn-Harder for a clear hindrance to possible Coptic integration. (Shatzmiller 2005: 52-54) However, what resulted in Egypt is rather unique in that the Copts did not seek separation in the way as is the reaction of most minorities to the exclusion from their majority community, but rather espoused a strong Egyptian nationalism. While there was a clear desire to resist Islam as a religion, allegiance to the state did not waver. This has even manifested itself to the point where Coptic Christians were at odds with other Christian communities on issues such as the State of Israel. While other Christian denominations allow for pilgrimages to Israel regardless of political affiliation, the official Coptic position is that such an action will result in excommunication. Also, there are various ways in which Copts could be considered more nationalistic than their Muslim hosts in that the Copts use a national calendar which predated the advent of Islam, while Muslims in Egypt use an international calendar. (Shatzmiller 2005: 33-35) Copts are also indistinguishable from their Muslim neighbours in many ways as evidenced by such practices as both communities praying five times a day as well as the following of various fasts on Saint Days that coincide with Ramadan. Such similarities bring to light the statement made by Charles D. Smith on how Egyptian Copts are “neither culturally nor ethnically distinctive” from Egyptian Muslims other than the fact that they are a religious minority. (Shatzmiller 2005: 59) It is clear that the Copts of Egypt radicalized in response to discrimination because their religion condones Islamic intolerance, as well as the primary form of Coptic identity which is centered on the Church. This is felt by Copts in spite of not visibly appearing different than the majority population. These first essays demonstrate that a significant amount of attention has been paid to explaining the complexities surrounding the particular case of Coptic minority populations.

In addition to the example of the Coptic Christians, Shatzmiller mentions other minorities that underwent a formation of radicalization of identity as a result of exclusion from the dominant social narratives. This is evidenced through other regional minorities which share a common identity yet display remarkable differences according to how the state has treated them. On the subject of Christian groups in Egypt and Lebanon, scholarly comparisons have noted how there have been strong distinctions between both groups according to social, historical, and political contexts. Non-Coptic Egyptian Christians have been noted for their passive and cooperative spirit, while Lebanese Christians have been noticed for their aggressive participation in militant sects. This is mainly because while the Copts possessed a level of “Eastern authenticity,” that is to say a sort of resignation to their status as dhimmis to an Islamic milieu, Lebanese Christians viewed such a status as degrading as well as dysfunctional and would not subject themselves to what was viewed as tyrannical rule. (Shatzmiller 2005: 85-87) These differences in viewpoints are clearly indicative of the different treatments received by both communities under Islamic rule as well as how they chose to respond to it. In the Indian Subcontinent, Presbyterian missionaries during the end of the nineteenth century enjoyed considerable success in spreading Christianity among members of the Untouchable caste in Colonial India. Members of this caste were considered inferior by both upper-caste Hindus and Muslims. (Shatzmiller 2005: 112) In Pakistani society, Christian communities have been marginalized through legal means such as blasphemy laws, which sentence those who “defile” the name of the Prophet Muhammed to death. Additionally, other discriminatory policies are propagated through the use of loudspeakers in mosques, which are employed to publically call for the exclusion of Christians from Muslim religious establishments during Ramadan. The result of such marginalization is such that Pakistani Christians, as well as the Sikh and other minorities, seek strength through other sources of identity other than Pakistani nationality in order to feel part of something larger than themselves. (Shatzmiller 2005: 119-122) The Iranian exclusion of the Baha’i, based on the idea that they were not a religion but rather a foreign political force serving American and Israeli interests, led to many leaving the faith and instead melding into secularist movements which opposed theocracy. (Shatzmiller 2005: 136) The Berbers of Morocco have been accepted into the majority society while those in Algeria are still seeking greater inclusion. It is of interest to note how the Kurds of Turkey, which have historically violently been supressed, display more signs of hostile separatism towards that country while in Iraq the institution of a no-fly zone by the United States has allowed for a federated “national” identity that a majority of Kurds seek to maintain, with more general inclusion into Iraqi society being a secondary goal. What can be observed in these examples is how different types of social exclusion take place under various circumstances, cause collective identities to form, and define how minorities view and react to the situation. Although there is diversity in the types of discrimination, and the responses to such discrimination, a common thread found in these examples is how a religious return to the primordial is found when inclusion is not an option.

In conclusion, Maya Shatzmiller’s “Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies” is a work that is quite informative on the dynamics that shape minority identity. The sheer scope of what this book tries to cover is quite large and may very well be an overwhelming read. At the same time, the main thesis and the specific cases allows the reader a greater understanding of the various forces at play in minority-majority identity relations in the Islamic world. Shatzmiller successfully demonstrates how exclusion by the dominant culture leads to a sort of radicalization of minority groups, although the ways in which this takes place varies according to the circumstances present as well as how people choose to respond to them. The most striking example of this is how Coptic Christians responded to circumstances in Egypt in a way that reaffirmed allegiance to their religion and subordinance to the State, while various Christian sects in Lebanon responded to exclusion through the push for political autonomy. This example demonstrated how even though the minorities in question were theoretically all Christian, hence supposedly having a set of similar core fundamentals of faith, the methods of exclusion as well as minority identity creation were very much varied to create different results. This book is quite important in order to understand how these historical factors are very much relevant in a contemporary sense, as evidenced through recent developments of the Arab Spring in Egypt. The mechanisms of discrimination in Muslim countries, and minority group reactions to them, provide a starting point to the development of effective solutions to inter-communal social conflict at a macro-level. For this reason, as well as the meticulous analysis of a broad array of groups in the region, this book a valuable addition to scholarship on the Middle East region.


Shatzmiller, Maya (ed.). Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2005.