At present, many Arabs have suspended their belief in the Arab nation, and now openly doubt whether there is a collective Arab mission. Those recently swept up by Islamic activism prefer to think of themselves first and foremost as Muslims, and do so without apology. Other Arabs plainly prefer to be known as Egyptians, Syrians, Jordanians, Moroccans etc. A few intellectuals keep the Arab flame alive. Yet they are most often abroad.
A sense of “Arabness” still persists. It has existed for as long as the Arabs have walked the stage of history, and it has been subject to negotiation by every generation for nearly a millennium and a half. But whatever the prospects of Arab nationalism, its history to this point represents one of the most remarkable instances of the rapid birth, rise, and decline of any modern nationalism.
Arabism first arose in the nineteenth century not as a direct reaction to Western rule, but as a critique of the state of the Ottoman Empire, whose reach had extended over most of the Arabic-speaking peoples since the early sixteenth century. Those Muslims who spoke Arabic retained a pride in their language: God revealed the Qur’an in Arabic to an Arab prophet in the seventh century. But with the relative decline in Ottoman power, especially in the nineteenth century, the foundations of this symbiosis began to weaken. As the Empire dwindled, so did the confidence of its remaining subjects, and some discontent even appeared in the remaining Arabic-speaking provinces of the Empire, in Arabia and the Fertile Crescent ââ‚¬” a discontent that would come to be known as the Arab “awakening.”7
This “Arab awakening,” Christian and Muslim, failed to produce a trenchant social criticism or a truly modern language of politics. Yet by the eve of World War I, Arabism did begin to take a more palpable form against the two challenges of Turkification and Zionism. Turkification threatened the cultural status quo. Zionist settlement in Palestine threatened the political status quo.
Arabism thus arose from a growing unease about the pace and direction of change. Yet, while the Ottoman Empire lasted, this Arabism did not develop into full-fledged nationalism. World War I forced a choice upon the adherents of Arabism.
The Arab Revolt that began in Arabia had little to do with the Arabism that had emerged in the Fertile Crescent. However, in 1918, as the Ottomans retreated before British arms in Palestine, the Arab Revolt culminated in triumph when Faysal led his followers into Damascus and there formed an “Arab Government.” An Arab nation had entered the game of nations, and from the outset, its members made far-reaching claims that ran up against other claims. Increasingly, Arab nationalists charged that Ottoman rule had been replaced by British and French imperialism, government even more alien than its Muslim predecessor. But the Arab nationalists now nursed a deep grievance against Britain and France over the partition of the territories they wanted, and the denial of independence in Palestine and Syria.
But the idea of an Arab nation seemed just as arbitrary to most of its supposed members. It satisfied the makers and backers of the Arab Revolt, who regrouped in Iraq after their flight from Syria, and there established another Arab nationalist state. At the time, the division of this world did not yet seem permanent, and the message of Arab nationalism, calling for the full independence and unity of all Arabs everywhere, did not seem completely contrived. But these plans quickly ran aground. By now each state possessed its own ruling elite, bureaucracy, flag, and anthem.
However, not all of these states and their rulers commanded the unencumbered allegiance of their citizens and subjects. They saw the Arab nationalism professed by rulers and states as posturing and began to argue the need for revolution. Their moment came when the fragile Arab order stumbled over Israel. The rhetorical gap turned into a chasm in 1948, after the United Nations authorized the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. When the neighboring Arab states moved against Israel in 1948, they claimed to be fighting in concert, to uphold their brotherly commitment to the Arabs of Palestine. The events of 1948, like those of 1920, shifted the ground from beneath Arab nationalism. Arab nationalism, which became “anti-imperialist” after 1920, became “revolutionary” after 1948.
The new dispensation took two parallel forms, which became known as Nasserism and Ba’thism. Nasserism combined a program of socialist-like reform with the idea that Egypt under the charismatic Nasser constituted the very heart of the Arab world, and had the resources and will to lead all Arabs to unity. Ba’thism tended to be more ideologically stringent, if only because its founders were Sorbonne-schooled Syrians, mostly teachers hailing from minority sects, who had filled their spare time with academic debates and Nietzsche, Fichte, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Nasser and the Ba’th carried Arab nationalism to the summit of its achievements. But in the end, it was the United Arab Republic that succumbed. The marriage of Nasser and the Ba’th turned into a struggle for domination within the camp of Arab nationalism.
In retrospect, the collapse of the Egyptian-Syrian union in 1961 marked the beginning of the long slide of Arab nationalism. The crisis finally broke in 1967. The Arabs may well have blundered into war with Israel that June, but once they were in the thick of it, they expected more than in 1948. Most assumed that they had been strengthened, not weakened, by nearly two decades of Nasser and the Ba’th, social revolution, and the militarization of politics, all under the banner of Arab nationalism and the struggle against Israel. But as defeat worked its way deep into the collective psyche, two other voices would be raised in opposition to Arab nationalism. One spoke the language of allegiance to individual states. The other spoke of loyalty to a universalist Islam.
Since their creation, individual Arab states had never hesitated to give priority to their separate interests. This time Egypt led the way under Anwar Sadat. Sadat launched an attack against Israel in October 1973, but this time Egypt fought a strictly Egyptian war for the return of the Israeli-occupied Sinai. For the first time, it became possible to criticize the myths of Arabism, and to see the differences among Arabs not as “accidental” but as living realities, even deserving of respect. After 1967, this once-surreptitious view could be pronounced openly, and laid the intellectual foundation for the growing self-confidence of individual states.
By the time communism collapsed, the Arab lands had become the last preserve of protracted one-man rule, and so they remain today.
The voice of Islam also bid to fill the silence left by Arab nationalism. Arab nationalists had always regarded Islamic loyalty as a potential rival, and had tried to disarm it by incorporating Islam as a primary element in Arab nationalism. But many Muslim Arabs saw this as a confidence game, and regarded Islam and any form of nationalism as mutually exclusive.
In the void left by Arab nationalism after 1967, two ideas of community thus competed for primacy. On the one side stood those who argued that the inhabitants of any one state constituted a distinct people in a political sense. On the other side stood those who believed that all Muslims constituted a universal political community, standing above any narrower political authority.
Since the “defeat” of 1991, they have bid to stay in the contest by presenting Arab nationalism as the natural ally of democracy and Islam. In theory, Arab nationalism never required a commitment to either, and in practice it showed a strong preference for revolutionary dictators and a strong aversion to Islamic movements.
It would be interesting to compare Arabism and Communism ( in practice, not the theory itself). Even though one might say, it is incomparable, because Arab Nationalism is the idea that a number of Arab countries share a common culture and communism is a system of governance designed to make all citizens equal as well as incapable of amassing a disproportionate amount of power.
Both have no scruple out killing people.
Communism seeks to unite the working class internationally – horizontal solidarity might be said. Arab nationalism, in fact any nationalism, is vertical – the aim is to unite all people of a particular national community.
Communism defined itself as against a still evolving nationalism. Arab nationalism defined itself against religious solidarity – the idea was that an Arab Christian and an Arab Muslim had more in common than an Arab Muslim and, for example, Turkish Muslim. Non-Muslim Arabs actually founded Arab nationalism. In fact, it is very distinct from the ideology of Al-Qaida.
Just as communism had to borrow from nationalism to survive, however, so did Arab nationalism, it had to appeal to Islamic sentiment in the end.
What is Pan-Arabism? Is it a transition of Arab Nationalism in modern world?
Do you see Arabism as some kind of racism ââ‚¬” it oppresses Africans – Jews – Kurds – Berbers – Persians etc?
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