In modern times, a person is seen to have a sense of belonging and identity to their nation. However, the rise of globalisation is said to shape belonging and identity that transcends our geographical boundaries so much so, we are rendered the question of – can one profess such a belonging while remaining loyal to their country?  According to Netusha Naidu, Pan Islamism in the nineteenth century is a real example of such identity. The historical events surrounding Pan-Islamism display how Islam promoted a sense of belonging in a wider region while being the driving force of nationalism and socio-political empowerment. Up to this date, the legacy of Pan Islamism is echoed in the form of contemporary global politics. Netusha presents and analyses the case for Pan-Islamism by investigating its possible origins, the history of its mobilization for these struggles through the intellectual legacies of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and his successor, Muhammad Abduh, the left-leaning nationalist politics in Malaya-Indonesia and how the Adaletve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) domestic and foreign policy serves as memory of Pan-Islamic values in contemporary Turkish politics.

Origins of Pan-Islamism: A Brief History

While it has been difficult to locate the origin of the Greco-Arabic word “Pan-Islamism”, the motive behind it has been known as an effort to revive the spiritual dimension of Islam which calls for the camaraderie of Muslims across the world by educating themselves about their past history and “bringing into play the mighty force of the Pen”, as written by the late S. M. H. Kidwai, honorary secretary of the Pan-Islamic Society in London. Kidwai suggests Pan-Islamism as a collective initiative to promote the moral, intellectual and social advancement of Islam as a counter-hegemonic discourse against “the force of blood thirsty weapons of warfare and other modern instruments of destruction” (Kidwai, 1908:1-4). It is important to highlight that in this period of time, Western imperialism was strongly developing in most parts of the East. This fundamental fear for the Islamic world that sees itself unprepared to resist an era of Western modernization would be the driving force of the Pan-Islamic movement.

The Mobilization of Pan-Islamism: The Intellectual Legacies of al-Afghānī and Abduh

Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī  played a vital role in formulating Pan-Islamism as an ideology that advocates rationalism, inherently demanding the people of the East to persistently express a sense of self-determination. Historian Nikki R. Keddie regarded him more of a secularist and rationalist who employed religious rhetoric (Olomi, 2014:6).  However, this myopic view excludes his philosophical undertakings that mobilize principles in Islam, setting up for modernization and unification of the Islamic world as a formidable resistance in a time of immense power struggle with Western nations.

Al-Afghānī reinterpreted two major concepts that would contribute to Pan-Islamism: taqlid and watan. He perceived taqlid (blind submission) as the heart of the plague in Islamic practices. He suggests that the Islamic world would be able to draw inspiration from its rich history and intellectual tradition which prioritized reason, while acknowledging it cannot hope to merely re-enact a once glorious empire (Olomi, 2014:30).  In addition to that, he often referred to watan. Traditionally, it meant one’s birthplace, but he eventually re-imagines it as motherland – a feminine counterpart to the French secular state, la patrie (Olomi, 2014:43).  Evidently, this would serve as an alternative, indigenous model to the nation-state. As al-Afghānī and other reformists like Midhat Pasha in the Tanzimat era would pursue, the Ottoman sultan was established as a strong caliph to not only protect the religion, but all oppressed Muslims in as far as India and Indonesia (Mishra, 2012:103; Keddie, 1969: 26-27; Lee, 1942: 282-3). The recognition of a supreme caliph would signify as a compass for the Muslim brotherhood in their national ambitions while following the current of Islamic discourse that were in vogue. Thus, it facilitated a mutually supporting power-relation between nationalist ambitions and regional empowerment for the East.

This philosophy would be continued by one of his followers, Muhammad Abduh who became a pioneer for Islamic reform in Egypt. His main aspiration was to challenge the rigid structures of Islamic culture (Amir, Shuriye and Ismail, 2012:169).  Abduh set the precedent on “a reformulation of systematic theology and doctrine with a gradual reintroduction of historical criticism into the study of tradition” (Vatikiotis, 1957:148).  In other words, Abduh’s sense of reformism aimed to destabilize Islam’s own discursive structure to enable the entrance of progressive ideas, promoting self-strengthening of both the religion and the anticolonial struggle. This would become highly relevant to the rest of the Islamic world as we will see in former Malaya.

The push for Islamic reformism had become widely accepted, aiding the construction of an imagined sovereignty among Muslims with a shared aspiration of self-determination. Pan-Islamism gave hopes of constructing a modern polity that would sufficiently compete with the Western imperialists (Olomi, 2014:44). It could not be that the “proto-nationalist” and anti-imperialist features that largely kept these ideas relevant (Keddie, 1969:26). Rather, it was the sense of permanence and universality in the appreciation of intellectual reasoning, drawing inspiration from Islamic culture that showcased an inherent spirit of collective effort and solidarity beyond a national agenda.

Islamic Socialism and the Quest of “Melayu Raya”

On the other hand, Islam in British Malaya was deliberately declining in influence, in spite of being a central element of the Malay identity. The colonial government had relegated Islam and Malay cultural affairs as secondary concerns to the traditional sultans and ulama whom were complicit with the degeneration of Islam in Malay public life. By 1925, these restrictions would reduce the role of Islam in Malay identity and governance to mere symbols and ceremony (Noor, 2014: 19-20). However, it was this very dismissal of Islam in Malay public life that would invent its own reactivation in politics.

Pan-Islamic revivalism would be seen more clearly when the Malayan-Islamic reform movement Kaum Muda’s left leaning thinker, Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy led the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) in 1956. Influenced by Kaum Muda‘s philosophy, Burhanuddin embarked on refining his own take of Islamic thought and was celebrated for it, transforming PAS into a “full-fledged Islamist-nationalist anti-colonial party”. He was one of the only leaders of that time to speak of “Islamic socialism” which was highly influenced by Sukarno’s NASAKOM coalition (nationalism-Islamism-socialism) (Noor, 2014:47 and Noor, 2009:200). Furthermore, he lauded Sukarno’s grand project of a united Melayu-Raya, encompassing of modern day Malaysia and Indonesia.

In this instance, “Islamic socialism” and Melayu-Raya would display how the representation of Islam in Malay society was salvaged by political action.  Islam, from being deemed the cause of backwardness had now become the path to salvation (Noor, 2014:24). The colonial experience of domination and servitude among Muslim subjects formed a universal, socio-cultural bond amongst them due to its equalised nature. It was upon this basis that Burhanuddin could merge Islam with socialism, permitting values propagated by Pan Islamism to be legitimized (Noor, 2014:50-51).

The Melayu-Raya project signified the plan for Islam to be source of reunion for the Malay diaspora which has been divided by colonial powers into rigid borders. His vision of an Islamic state was “modern and dynamic” and he viewed this struggle as that of a Muslim patriot (Noor, 2009:208-9). By basing the national liberation movement on the “high principles of Islamism”, this Pan-Islamic Malay bloc could have regained a sense of identity and actualization to reclaim Malay political participation (Noor, 2014:51-52).

Pan-Islamism’s history of reform and modernism provided a language for the radical left to articulate and convey their aspirations for the broader Malay-Muslim world. By attempting to explain the dilemma of Malayan society in terms of class struggle and Islamic reform, PAS under Burhanuddin’s leadership had gained strength and resilience to contest the neocolonial nature of the Alliance in the late 1950s. In other words, it was the legacy of Pan-Islamism that inspired the politicization of Islam, giving the Malay non-elites an opportunity to be socially and politically empowered to provide alternative, inclusive discourses in addressing the plight of the Malay community and at the same time, promoting a larger cultural and political entity reminiscent of pre-colonial times.

Pan-Islamism in 20th century Kemalism: The case of the AKP

When the young Ottoman Turks led by Mustafa Kemal abolished the Islamic caliphate and renounced their leadership of the ummah, the Ottoman Empire and its inhabitants were shocked into becoming part of a modern nation-state. Kemalism and its assertive secularism had replaced the Islamic kingdom as the new political order of Turkey. To Kemal, this was necessary as the caliphate was “an anachronism in a world of nation-states” (Sayyid, 1997:59). This episode is highly significant for the history of Pan-Islamism as its abolishment had completely disrupted the caliphate as the centre of the Muslim political life and the relationship of Islam to the State authority (Sayyid, 1997: 63).

By removing Islam from the centre of constructing Turkey’s socio-political order, Kemalism had “politicized it: unsettling it and disseminating it into general culture, where it became available for re-inscription”. The resurgence of Islamism found itself being articulated as a counter-hegemonic discourse to Kemalism due to the fact that the social order of Muslim societies had been so destabilized that Islam was needed to return it to equilibrium (Sayyid, 1997:73). This process would manifest itself in the rise of the AKP in its political agenda and foreign policy that contradicts and problematizes Turkish secularism.

For example, Ahmet Davutoğlu, former leader of the AKP was the first scholar to establish an Islamist foreign policy for Turkey. “You cannot build a future based on these states, which are at enmity with each other due to nationalism. We shall break the mould shaped for us by Sykes-Picot.”, he said in hopes of achieving Islamic unity with his doctrine of ‘stratejik derinlik’ (strategic depth).  He suggested that Turkey should adopt an “expansionist, Pan-Islamist stance” based on Western imperial geopolitical theories so that it could spearhead political transformation in the region (Ozkan, 2014:120-121). However, this was met with much dismay, given that his strategy was more inclined towards the likes of Lebensraum than the defensive front of the Ottoman Empire (Ozkan, 2014:126). It contradicted the idea of Pan-Islamism as a benign force that united the ummah.

The AKP described itself as ‘conservative democratic’ party and refrained from using the term ‘Muslim democrat’, as it was cautious of being banned for anti-secular activities like its predecessor, the Refah Partisi (RP) (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:20).  The party became known for “its sensitivity to the religiously inspired conservative demands” of its voters such as on issues like the banning of the headscarf and improving the status of religious schools (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:70-71) as well as for appreciating the ‘richness’ of cultural differences besides Turkish (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:76).

The rise in popularity of Islamist parties has been attributed to the “culturally homogenizing effects of globalisation” but beyond this, it would seem that the AKP’s influence is drawn from the vacuum of Islamic narratives left by Kemalism (Ozbudun and Hale, 2010:20). As Turkey’s pre-modern political history is deeply intertwined with the progressiveness of Pan-Islamism, the political discourse of Islamism itself, takes on the availability of the religion to undermine the Kemalist ancien regime (Sayyid, 1997:76-77). This sporadic, uneven nature of Islamic discourse reflects on the power struggle between the modern nation-state and a not-too-distant caliphate past in contesting and negotiating the political identity of the Turkish people. Hence, these incidents serve as a testament that the sentiments of Pan-Islamism are a dominant memory in contemporary Turkish politics.


As we have seen, a similar pattern and characteristics of the emergence of Islamic discourse in these nations can be observed. Pan-Islamism was first mobilized as a political ideology by Sayyid Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī and Muhammad Abduh, transforming Islam from the reason of backwardness of the East, into a source of inspiration for the anticolonial struggle in the nineteenth century. By locating the centrality of the ummah, the common colonial experience of Muslim societies would become a universally binding force that simultaneously invoked solidarity that transcended geographical boundaries, and nationalistic self-determination against the widespread influence of Western imperialism. As seen in the reactions of Muslim societies in Malaya and Turkey, the legacy of Pan-Islamism had given birth to social, political and cultural empowerment that would provide a religious framework for universal human rights – allowing a formidable resistance to articulate its aspirations to the masses effectively.

Hence, we return to the question posed in the beginning of the essay: can one profess such a belonging while remaining loyal to their country? It is indeed so. As Pan-Islamism showcases, a strong streak of nationalism seems to blend with this ideology that has spread across a wide region. It is certain that this pattern in historical events reveal Islam functions as a master signifier. This is because it holds a community, the ummah, together for as long as the members of ummah believe in it. The attempt of proponents of Pan-Islamism to transform Islam “from a nodal point in a variety of discourses” are a testament to how religious political identity can co-exist with an individual’s sense of belonging and identity to the nation (Sayyid, 1997:46).



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