Avi Berkowitz
Avi Berkowitz

All Nations Are Artificial Constructs

In a remarkable and riveting essay published in the New York Times, Scott Anderson exposes the horrific immiseration which the still unfolding collapse of the Arab world is inflicting upon the people of our region.

Anderson portrays the wretched consequences of the spoiled Arab Spring, the miserable distress which currently defines Arab life, through the eyes of six of its victims, five of whom live in the ruined Arab States of Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  And he spices his narrative with just enough graphic detail to make his readers recoil in horror but not resign in disgust.  By so doing, Anderson entangles his readers in the sad and sorry lives of his six characters, compelling us to read through the entire story until its bitter end.

Anderson achieves this remarkable balance between insidious voyeurism and legitimate curiosity if not genuine concern, by leavening his relentlessly depressing human saga, his story of rape and rage and outrage, with thoughtful political commentary and sensitive social analysis which he sustains with his repeated references to the endemic fragility of the three ruined Arab States.

Anderson blames this fragility on the heterogeneous make up of each of these three States, the plural identities of their citizens, reminding us at every turn in his narrative that Iraq, Syria, and Libya are not real nations but only artificial constructs.  And he insists that each of these three States failed precisely because of their artificiality.

Created by the writ of European Imperialism in thorough disregard of the natural affinities of their native populations, Anderson contends that Iraq, Syria, and Libya could not develop a common political culture, or even a viable civil society, within its territorial boundary lines.  Sovereignty and independence could not override the ancient social order of tribes and sub-tribes and clans within any of these three territorially bounded States.  Because of their artificiality, each of these three States failed to transform their people into citizens of the nation.

And yet, Anderson’s contention regarding the frailties of artificial nationhood is contradicted throughout by the words and deeds of each and every one of his protagonists, with the exception, perhaps, of his exponent of Kurdish nationalism.  Thus, Anderson tells us of the ongoing loyalties of all of his other protagonists to their artificial nations, including, most poignantly, Majidi el-Mangoush of Libya, who now supports the restoration of the Libyan Monarchy which was toppled in 1969.  Says Majidid, “when we had a King, we were a nation.”

Scott Anderson is surely aware that Monarchical nations are exactly like territorial nations:  They too are utterly artificial constructs.  The loyalty which His Royal Highness may command from His Royal subjects is completely exogenous to the political legitimacy which a King derives from the Royal blood coursing through his veins.  The King may have received His Royal blood from his progenitors.  And He may well transmit that blood to His Royal off springs.  But He surely does not share that blood with His Royal subjects, which is why Monarchical nations are every bit as contrived and artificial as modern territorial nations.

In the West, in the world of Christendom, Monarchical nationhood, which lasted for a bit more than one century, was the intermediary step between the failed illusion of a United Christian Republic which was an imaginary world State organized around the authority and legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church and structured by the ridiculous chivalry of the medieval manor, and the modern secular territorially bounded nation-state.  As Max Weber demonstrated long ago, this transition from the medieval world to the modern world was mediated by the Protestant Reformation which first granted legitimacy to Monarchical authority in the Treaty of Augsburg when it decreed “he the prince; his the religion,” and then withdrew that legitimacy in the Treaty of Westphalia when it replaced the authority of Royalty with the rule of secular territorial boundary lines.

To be sure, this transition was complex and uneven.  In Europe, it was expressed by the French Revolution which, at the end of the day, failed to liberate the nations of Europe from the wicked grip of their Monarchical masters.  In the new world of America however, the transition was complete and remarkable.  It culminated in the establishment of a thoroughly artificial nation defined exclusively by the territorial boundary lines which delimit and demarcate the sovereign authority of the American State.  Today, anyone residing legally within those territorial boundary lines is a full member of the American nation, without regard to his or her racial, cultural, or even linguistic affinities.

In other words, and in an utterly unwitting manner, Scott Anderson’s remarkable and riveting essay compels us to ask the most critical question confronting our region:  Why did Islam fail to generate a religious Reformation capable of mediating the transition of the faith and faithful from the darkness of medieval magic to the liberation of secular modernity, keyed, of course, to the fact that nationhood, like everything else in the modern world, is nothing more and nothing less than an utterly artificial construct.

Why did the reform of Christianity produce the miracle of American nationhood, the model for progress and enlightenment which has already been adopted by most of the nations of the modern world, including the Jewish nation, while the reform of Islam only produced Saudi Wahhabism, which may well have spawned the brutality of al-Qaida and the murderousness of ISIS?

The time has come for the people of our region to address this critical question.

About the Author
Avi Berkowitz teaches history at the Rothberg International School at the Hebrew University, and serves as the Rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He holds a PhD from Columbia University in International Relations, with a specialty in Middle East studies and received his Rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchick. Prior to coming on aliyah, he served as the rabbi of the Community Synagogue in Manhattan's East Village, taught history at the Ramaz Upper School, and was an adjunct Assistant Professor of political science and Middle East studies at CUNY