Nationalism, Language, and Muslim Exceptionalism

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Tristan James Mabry
Haney Foundation Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , February
     264 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Nationalism, Language, and Muslim Exceptionalism, Tristan James Mabry aims to invalidate the claim that Islamic peoples are inherently nationalistic. He first problematizes the widely accepted notion that the Muslim world is synonymous with the Arab world, revealing that most Muslims are Asian (9). Mabry then draws his set of examples concerning nationalism solely from Asian countries, focusing on ethnonationalism along linguistic lines.

Mabry distinguishes between two environments in which the formation of nationalism occurs in Asia: ethnic minorities in states that are majority Muslim, and ethnic minorities in states where Muslims are not the majority (13). Mabry classifies these nationalisms using the presence or absence of print culture, suggesting that separatist movements concerning Muslim ethnic minorities that have a strong print culture manifest themselves as nationalist, while those separatist movements concerning a Muslim minority population who do not have a strong print culture manifest as Islamist, a form of nationalism characterized by its goal of implementing Islam into every aspect of daily life. In other words, Mabry argues that there is an inverse relationship between Islamism and secular ethnolinguistic nationalism (4).

Mabry’s argument is developed in three main parts. He first sets up his argument by providing significant background information regarding Muslim nations, national languages, highlighting Arabic, and Arab states. He then provides six case studies in a variety of Asian countries with varied forms of separatist movements. He concludes his work with a discussion of how these case studies prove that Islamism and ethnolinguistic nationalism are inversely related, and explains how this study could be useful regarding policies in Afghanistan.

In chapter 2, “Muslim Nations,” Mabry discusses the work of Ernest Gellner, focusing on his emphasis concerning how language manifests as high and low cultures, the elite and the lower classes. Gellner suggests that a shared language is a requirement for social mobility. While Mabry notes problems with Gellner’s treatment of the Islamic world, he demonstrates that, contrary to some arguments, Islamic peoples are not resistant to entholinguistic nationalism..

In chapter 3, “National Tongues,” Mabry discusses the importance of national languages when considering national identities in a state, particularly in terms of language, dialect, and the vernacular. He examines differences in dialect, asserting that ethnolinguistic identity determines whether dialects are of the same language or of different languages. Mabry emphasizes here the importance of print culture and print capital in formulating an ethnolinguistic identity, and the importance of print culture in politics. Mabry argues that print culture can be used to include and exclude certain members of a community; and the development of vernacular literacy alongside a print culture is important in developing a national identity.

Mabry demonstrates the utility of speaking in terms of high and low linguistic cultures in chapter 4, “Modern Standard Arabs.” Mabry discusses the difference in print culture in the specifically Arab Islamic world versus the Islamic world outside of Arabia, namely in the realm of education. In the Arab world—that is, where Arabic is generally considered the national language—almost all dialects are mutually unintelligible. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the language of the elite only, as it is the sacred language of Islam and the Qur’an. Therefore most of the Arab world is considered illiterate. While many schools teach MSA, it is difficult for students to become fluent. This is not the case, however, in non-Arab countries. In the Asian countries that Mabry discusses, Arabic education is synonymous with religious education; non-Arabic languages are used in daily life.

Chapters 5 through 10 are extensive case studies of six Asian separatist movements in three different areas: the Chinese Uyghurs and Iraqi Kurds in Central Eurasia; the Indian Kashmiris and Pakistani Sindhis in South Asia; and the Filipino Moros and Indonesian Acehnese in Southeast Asia. All of these groups speak different languages from the majority populations in their home countries. Mabry concludes that the Kurds, Ughurs, and Sindhis manifest as “ethnonational struggles for self-determination” (198), while among the Kashmiris, Moros, and Achenese, Islamic politics often dominate nationalist movements. Mabry boils this down to the presence of a strong vernacular print culture in those cases where ethnonational struggles occur, versus the absence of a vernacular print culture in those nationalist movements that express themselves as Islamist. Mabry then suggests that in order to defeat fundamentalist radical Islam, nations should encourage nationalism by supporting literacy in the vernacular.

Mabry’s argument is well researched and based on extensive fieldwork in each country included. He makes a sound argument by providing elaborate information concerning the role of language in nationalism, and he convincingly proves that commonly held views notwithstanding, Islam is not exceptionally resistant to nationalism. Mabry’s chapter “Modern Standard Arabs,” while useful and interesting, is a bit lengthy, and there is confusion as to its relevance to the argument concerning Asian Muslim ethnonationalism. In addition, while Mabry adequately addresses the perceived problem of Muslim exceptionalism regarding nationalism, he does not address the concern of democracy, which are often paired as equally integral aspects in the concept of Muslim exceptionalism.

Mabry’s work is commendable as it demonstrates the crucial nature of language in nationalism and dispels stereotypes regarding various Muslim populations of the world. He provides all of the necessary information to assure the accessibility of his argument and his extensively researched case studies effectively demonstrate his points concerning print culture and national identity. His work is useful for those attempting to understand conflicts affecting Islamic peoples, as well as for policy makers in countries with Muslim populations, and students of Islam in general.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Katie Houser is a graduate student in History at Utah State University.

Date of Review: 
December 14, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Tristan James Mabry is Lecturer in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School.


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