In recent decades nationalism has largely been in decline in the Islamic world while political Islam has been on the rise. The success of nationalist movements in the Islamic world has been rather lackluster since the late 1970s. In contrast various strains of political Islam have seen several spectacular victories since that time. Both Shiite and Sunni Islamic parties have generally shown much more dynamism than nationalist ones in the Islamic world during the last two decades. The rise of political Islam has been largely to fill the vacuum left by the failure of nationalist orientated politics in many Muslim majority countries.
A key plank of both adherents to various nationalist visions and those advocating a political program based upon Islam in the Middle East, Africa and Asia is independence from foreigners. Although the opposition to foreign occupation is defined differently in both cases, the desire for self-rule is clearly articulated in both. Fifty years ago the nationalists clearly had the advantage in organizing effective resistance to foreign rule. Now it is clear that political Islam has the upper hand.
The most spectacular victory of the nationalists in the Islamic world in the years after World War II took place in Algeria. Here the nationalist FLN defeated the French at great cost and established an independent state. The FLN fought the Algerian Revolution to liberate the Arab population of the country from European colonial rule. The revolutionaries defined their struggle as one of national liberation not of overthrowing an un-Islamic government ruling over Muslims. The FLN established a secular nationalist Arab government upon achieving independence.
Almost as spectacular as the 1962 victory over the French in Algeria has been the failure of nationalists to liberate Palestine. Despite a great deal of rhetoric on the issue in the Islamic world in general and the Arab world in particular, the nationalists have failed to free the land and people of Palestine from foreign rule. The inability of the nationalists to reverse the 1948 and 1967 loss of Palestinian land to the Zionists represents a major failure on their part. Just as most of the rest of the Arab world as well as most of the Islamic world outside the communist bloc achieved independence, Palestine came under a new foreign occupation. Armed by the communist bloc, the Zionists not only seized 78% of the land of Palestine in 1948, but ethnically cleansed it of 80% of its native Arab population. Known in Arabic as Al-Nakba (The Catastrophe) this was a collective psychological blow to the entire Arab world. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s the main actors fighting on behalf of the Palestinian cause were nationalists of various stripes. Unlike the nationalists in Algeria they were not successful in creating an independent Palestinian Arab state in the lands of the former British Mandate of Palestine.
In contrast to the nationalist failure in Palestine, the forces of political Islam can claim two major victories over foreign powers since the late 1980s. In Afghanistan, the proponents of Islamic jihad lay claim to victory over the Soviet Union, a superpower that no longer exists in part due to this defeat. Granted the struggle against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and its puppet regime had a large number of factions, some more nationalist and less Islamic than others. But, the Afghan national struggle became entwined with global Islamic jihad through the efforts not only of native movements, but more crucially elements in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. The consequences of the involvement of these elements in the war against the Soviet Union include the Taliban take over of Afghanistan, the formation of Al-Qaeda and the proliferation of the idea throughout the Islamic world that Muslim jihadis can succeed where nationalists have failed.
The other military victory of political Islam against foreigners has been the success of Hizbollah against the Israeli army in Lebanon. Although a Shiite rather than Sunni movement, Hizbollah accomplished what many observers thought impossible not once, but twice. They forced the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanese territory. Given the overall history of military conflict between the Israelis and various Arab forces since 1948 this is an incredible victory for political Islam. Over half a century of nationalist resistance to Israel by the Arabs failed to defeat the Israelis. In contrast the Islamic orientated Hizbollah won twice on the battlefield against the Israelis in less than a decade.
One crucial reason for the recent rise of Islamic based political movements is that unlike the previous ascendant nationalists they have successfully delivered on the promise to roll back foreign rule over Muslim majority countries. This gives them a definite edge over the competing nationalist visions in the region. Much of the popular appeal of political Islam is the result of this success.