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ARAB NATIONALISM. Like other strands of third-world nationalism, qawmiyah `arabiyah or Arab nationalism cannot be understood apart from its anticolonial ethos and its glorification of the collectivity’s origins and history in the face of Western dominance. These general components of nationalist doctrine raise, however, important issues in the case of Arab nationalism. For instance, can anticolonial movements based on Islamic reformism (like those of al-Afghani or Abduh) or regional empire-builders (Egypt’s nineteenth-century ruler Muhammad ‘Ali and his son Ibrahim) be considered precursors of the doctrine? Some have looked even further back to emphasize the role of eighteenth-century Salafiyah Islamic movements, such as Wahhabism that preached a pure, “uncontaminated” Islam.

The view adopted here is that Arab nationalism as a political movement is essentially a twentieth-century product. Its bases and components may, however, originate with the presence of the Arabic language itself or with the Arabs’ social, intellectual, and political culture. Arab nationalism has been centered on “Arabness” and hence on the important question “Who is an Arab.” At present there is consensus around the view of Sati` alHusri (1882-1962) that Arabs are identified by their language, having Arabic as their mother tongue and consciously identifying with it. Indeed, al-Husri defined nationalism as love of the nation and organic identification with it, and the bases of such a national collectivity are language and common history. To these bases some have added common traditions and interests as well as common culture shaped by the same environment. In its most modern form (with Nasser, the Bath, or Mu`ammar al-Qadhdhafi), Arab nationalism aims at the political reunification of all Arabic-speaking states from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean, and their transformation from a Kulturnation into a Staatnation. [See the biography of Husri.]

This interplay between the doctrine’s cultural and political phases attracts attention to the sequences in its evolution, for the movement acquired its present form only gradually. Its vicissitudes are a function of various factors: intervention of external powers in the region; defining events or political upheavals that shook the area; the type of leadership at the head of the movement; and its competition with two other loci of people’s loyalty-the territorial state and Pan-Islamism. The movement’s evolution may be divided into four phases.

Nineteenth Century to World War I. Ottomanism and Islamic solidarity were challenged by modernizing forces at the empire’s center and by the provinces’ demand for Arab distinctiveness. Though interest in Western science and technology united the Young Turks and many Arabs, the drive of the Committee of Union and Progress for turkification alienated the Arabs and accelerated their demand for autonomy. Cultural clubs-organized by Lebanese Christians in collaboration with American missionaries-proliferated (alYaziji, 1819-1871; al-Shidyaq, 1805-1887). When the Syrian Butrus al-Bustani (1819-i883) pleaded for girls’ education or the Egyptian Rifa’ah Rafi` al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) emphasized watan (fatherland), they constituted secularist challenges to the Islamic establishment of the Turkish caliph. `Abd al-Rahman alKawakibi (1848-1902) tried to find a compromise and suggested in his Umm al-Qurd the return of the caliphate to its originators, the Arabs. The first Arab nationalist conference, limited to Asian Arabs, was held in Paris in 1913. World War I marked the beginning of an explicitly political phase. Sharif Husayn and his sons, in collaboration with Britain and France and with the active help of T. E. Lawrence, revolted against the empire to establish a single Arab kingdom in its Arab provinces. [See Young Turks; Watan; Congresses; and the biographies of Kawdkibi and Husayn.]

Interwar Period to the Establishment of Israel. Rather than forming a unified Arab kingdom, however, the Arab provinces were divided between France and Britain according to the secret 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. In November 1917 as well, Lord Balfour promised Palestine as a national home for the Jews. Directed against European domination (rather than as before against Muslim authority), the basic We/They dichotomy of nationalism facilitated the movement’s politicization. African Arabs were still excluded (as Najib Azouri shows in Le riveil de la nation arabe dans l’Asie turque, Paris, 1905). Given the predominantly hereditary leadership at the time and the increasing imposition of European-type administrative divisions, Arab nationalism was locally rather than regionally oriented. Pan-Arab writings such as al-Husri’s, with their secularist orientation and objective of a unified Arab state, compensated for this localism.

Revisionist and Mass-Oriented Movements, 19451967. Increasingly dominated by a new middle class (military or otherwise), this period was dense with major political events including the establishment of the Arab League in 1945, which, with its exclusive Arab membership, institutionalized the Arab/non-Arab distinction in the region. In addition, the disastrous end of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war made Palestine a core issue in inter-Arab politics and in the Arabs’ relations with outside powers. Moreover, disillusioned young officers soon toppled corrupt civilian regimes (three coups in Syria alone in 1949) and came to be the region’s new leaders as Gamal Abdel Nasser did after the 1952 Egyptian coup. Nasserist charisma, whether or not in alliance with the Bath, aimed at the establishment of a unified Arab state, nonaligned and with its own development model of Arab socialism. This “third road” policy represented a consensus among different nationalist forces, from revolutionary Algeria to opposition forces in the Gulf. [See Bath Parties and the biography of Nasser. ]

Another, more activist conceptualization, distinct from that of Michel `Aflaq and the Bath establishment, was also in the making. Its reading of unification experiences in history resulted in the distinction between secondary and primary determinants. Secondary determinants such as language and history are necessary but not sufficient, whereas primary determinants are both necessary and sufficient. The latter include a base-region or pole of attraction (e.g., Egypt), and a transnational charismatic leadership (e.g., Nasser), and an external threat (e.g., Israel and Western encroachment.). Unity between Egypt and Syria, which produced the United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961, seemed to confirm this theory. But its dissolution and the failure of unity negotiations in 1963, which also included Ba’thi Iraq, cast doubt on the theory’s immediate applicability. A protracted civil war in Yemen following Imam Badr’s overthrow, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia championing opposite camps, deepened Arab divisions. Regionally, opposition intensified between radical Arab nationalism and a conservative Pan-Islamic strategy that emphasized the convening of Islamic conferences promoted by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco. In this context, the region was shaken to its roots in 1967 by the third ArabIsraeli war. The magnitude of Arab defeat restructured regional leadership, culminating in the decline of revisionist forces and the rise of the oil-producing powers. The Khartoum Arab Summit of August 1967 sealed the withdrawal of Egyptian forces from Yemen and resulted in Egyptian dependency on oil-state subsidies.

Arab Territorial State and Militant Pan-Islam, 1968-1992. Influential leadership bases shifted from thawrah (revolution) to tharwah (wealth), from ideologists and officers to rich royalty and “wealthy merchants who flitted between East and West, between royal palaces and the offices of oil companies (examples are Kamal Adham, Mahdi al-Tajir, and Adnan Khashoggi).” The public was more tempted by the riches of the oilfields than by the hardships of the battlefields.

Neither the 1969 coup of the young and fiery alQadhdhafi nor the revolutionary but stateless Palestinians could stop the decline of the radical pole. Quantitative indicators confirm this. By 1979, 55 percent of the capital of inter-Arab economic joint ventures was contributed by oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Libya. The country that contributes the most capital is usually the host country for the project’s headquarters; thus the oil states were becoming the locale of an increasing number of new Arab organizations. In 1970 Cairo was host to twenty-nine, or 65 percent, of these organizations, Iraq hosted none, and Saudi Arabia only one. Eight years later, Baghdad had become the locale for twelve organizations, thereby occupying the second place after Egypt. Saudi Arabia was in third place with eight organizations. In addition, fewer Arab League meetings were held in Egypt and more in the oil states. The proportion of meetings held in Cairo decreased from 70.5 percent in 1977 to 42.2 percent in 1978. Egypt’s share in the Arab League budget also dropped; it was above 40 percent until the late 1950s but declined until 1978-the year the Arab League moved to Tunis when it was only 13.7 percent, equivalent to that of Kuwait.

It might be supposed that the movement of migrant labor from densely populated Egypt or the West Bank to the Gulf, and the transfer of capital in the form of remittances and investments in the opposite direction, would promote Arab integration. Economic activities, however, are usually pragmatic and hence may serve to dampen and subordinate the revolutionary ethos, promoting stability rather than revolutionary change. Nasser’s death in 1970 amid the ashes of the Jordanian-Palestinian civil war concretized the change by eliminating one of the postulated primary determinants of political unification-charismatic leadership. Egyptian rapprochement with Israel, culminating in the 1978 Camp David Accords, seemed to take away the second primary determinant, the existence of a threat. This rise of independent diplomacy concerning one of the most sacred causes of the Pan-Arab ideal confirmed-if the need existed-the primacy of raison d’etat over raison de la nation. Moreover, hindsight tells us, it presaged the integration of Israel as a member of the regional system. This diluted Arab regional exclusiveness and promoted an enlarged Middle East. Ironically, the radical pole was engaged from quite a different direction in an equally diluting process when, in the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Syria, Libya, and Algeria sided with non-Arab revolutionary Islamic Iran against Arab Iraq. Harassed on two fronts by territorial raison d’etat and revolutionary Islamism, Arab nationalism was wounded but not dead. Its troubles still reflect both its own weakness as a political program and the disappearance of the simple world of heroic politics and categorical formulas.

To acquire control over a complex situation, Arabs tried subregional groupings: the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman) in the early 1980s, the Union du Maghreb Arabe (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania), and the Arab Cooperation Council (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Yemen) in the late I98os. This was a way of escaping the double bind of nation versus state and replacing it with a sequential logic. But this etapiste strategy (with the exception of the GCC) did not survive the political upheaval of the second Gulf War following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In its discourse Iraq appealed to the opposition of many Arabs to artificial colonial frontiers and the division of the Arab nation, and to their demand for a fairer redistribution of Arab wealth between haves and have-nots. Though tempted, many Arabs also mistrusted Saddam Hussein’s cynical exploitation of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism. Arabs both at the state level and in the transnational civil society were seriously divided and traumatized, with the Arab League (now back in Cairo) paralyzed and foreign troops stationed around their holy places in Saudi Arabia poised to decide the issue for them.

By invoking a jihad against the presence of foreign troops in the area of the Muslim holy places, Iraqi strategy was to show that Arab nationalism and revolutionary Islam could be united in their opposition to the status quo and outside powers. In fact, the two movements are overlapping rather than identical, hence their occasional mutual tension. Increased dialogue between the representatives of the two show both the potential and the difficulty of consensus on such issues as the bases of citizenship in an Arab-Islamic polity. Accumulated state, regional, and world complexities have dwarfed Arab nationalism’s Ottoman legacy. Indeed, this dizzying complexity stirs nostalgia for the simplicity of Arab nationalism as the counterforce to Ottomanism of a century earlier.

[See also Arab League; Pan-Islam.]


Despite the ubiquity of Arab nationalism, many essential aspects of its analysis are lacking. For instance, the debate is still unsettled about the relative importance to the rise of Arab nationalism of such external factors as the role of the European powers in weakening the Ottoman empire and such internal factors as increasing Ottoman decline, growing social change, and modernization within the Arab provinces. Concentration on the caliphate system or alternatively on the territorial state (a Kuwait, a Morocco, or an Egypt) has drawn energies away from more focused analysis of Arab nationalism.

Another characteristic of the existing literature is the scarcity of social science conceptualization. We do not know whether the rise of Arab nationalism is best explained by Karl Deutsch’s social communication theory, Michael Hechter’s theory of internal colonialism (e.g., by Turks over Arabs), Stein Rokkan’s theory of regionalism (increasing politicization of the Arab periphery against the Turkish center), Ernest Gellner’s industrialization thesis of nationalism as part of modernization and the drive for a nation-state Benedict Anderson’s theory of nationalism’s psychological appeal (e.g., “what makes people love and die for nations, as well as hate and kill in their name”?), or Anthony Smith’s ethnic origin of nationalism thesis. We also need a classification of the mode of nationalist expression in different subregions. For instance, in the Fertile Crescent Ottoman rule was direct and centralized, but much less so in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Tunisia. In the last two countries opposition was mainly to European imperial authority, whether British or French.

The basic works on Arab nationalism have been dominated until now by historians. The few political scientists who have ventured into the field have dealt with Arab nationalism as part of the evolution of Arab political thought rather than applying empirical political science methods. The Centre for Arab Unity Studies in Beirut has pioneered the empirical approach by commissioning two sociological research teams. One team applied content analysis to the study of historical material of Arab ideologues to dissect the emergence, evolution, and components of Arab nationalism. The second team applied survey methods and interviews to measure the state of public opinion toward Arab nationalism and unity in at least ten Arab countries.

Literature in Arabic

What characterizes the present literature is the growing number of studies in Arabic, not limited to historical analyses. The basic studies-from the works of Sati` al-Husri to various primary sourcescome from the Centre of Arab Unity Studies. In addition to its monthly periodical Al-mustaqbal al-`Arabi (The Arabic Future), a sample of its most notable publications follows. Bibliyugrafiya alwahdah al-`Arabiyah, 1908-1980 (Bibliography of Arab Unity, 1908-1980; Beirut, 1983), a two-volume, 2,300-page listing of books and articles; volume 1 concentrates on Arabic sources, and volume 2 on English and French, each with a detailed index. Yawmiyat wawatha’iq al-wahdah al-`Arabiyah (Chronology of Arab Unity; yearly); chronicles both Pan-Arab organizations and the different Arab countries. Al-qawmiyah al-`Arabiyah ft al -fikr wa-al-mumarasah (Arab Nationalism: Thought and Practice; Beirut, 1980); the fifteen chapters deal with historical and social science aspects by established authorities. Includes a summary of the two projects (mentioned above) by S. Ibrahim and S. Yasin, using survey research and content analysis, dissecting the historical evolution of Arab nationalism and its status at the end of the 1970s. Al-qawmiyah al-`Arabiyah wa-al-Islam (Arab Nationalism and Islam; Beirut, 1981) and Al-hiwdr al-qawmi al-dini (The Nationalist-Religious Dialogue; Beirut, 1989). Thirteen scholars in the first and eight in the second (including five of the first meeting) try to achieve consensus in this open-ended discussion. The 1989 volume is much more of a dialogue, and faces up to such thorny issues as the bases of citizenship, the application of shari ah and the status of non-Muslims. The Centre is in the process of completing the publication of a multivolume collection of al-Husri’s dispersed writings.

Western Literature

Antonius, George. The Arab Awakening. London, 1938. Early and detailed analysis of the origins of the movement in the Fertile Crescent. Almost a primary source.

Cleveland, William L. The Making of an Arab Nationalist. Princeton, 1971. Exhaustive analysis of the life, works, and ideas of al-Hush, considered the father of the movement.

Farah, Tawfic E., ed. Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism. Boulder, 1987. Except for a previously unpublished postscript by Fouad Ajami (pp. 192-201), the book republishes nine articles announcing, or contesting, the end of Pan-Arabism, beginning with a very useful bibliographic essay by E. Chalala (also previously unpublished).

Flory, Maurice, and Pierre-Sateh Agate, eds. Le systeme regional arabe. Paris, 1989. Based on a joint French-North African research project, authors accept Arab specificity as the basis of an identifiable regional system. A happy marriage of legal, economic, and political science approaches.

Haseeb, Khair el-Din, et al. The Future of the Arab Nation: Challenges and Options. London and Beirut, 1991. Synthesis of a five-year, multivolume investigation of the different scenarios of evolution of the “Arab homeland.” At one point, the project involved as many as two hundred Arab scholars and assistants. A mine of data.

Kerr, Malcolm H. The Arab Cold War. 3d ed. London and New York, 1971. Detailed analysis of the unity negotiations between Nasserist Egypt and Ba’thist Iraq and Syria, situating the differences within the context of the 1960s.

Kerr, Malcolm H., and El Sayed Yassin, eds. Rich and Poor States in the Middle East. Boulder, 1982. Analysis of different facets of regional restructuring in the 1970s, based on a collaborative research project between Arabs and Americans.

Khalidi, Rashid, et al., eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York, 1991. The most recent and complete guide to the state of (historical) research on Arab nationalism. Its thirteen chapters include analysis of some neglected regions (e.g., Libya, Saudi Arabia).

Korany, Bahgat, et al. The Foreign Policies of Arab States: The Challenge of Change. 2d ed. Boulder, 1991. Since an identifiable foreign policy is the criterion of state sovereignty, the analysis concentrates on the multiplicity of state roles at the regional and international levels. While Arab states converge on some core issues in their foreign policy conceptions, they have shown diversity in foreign policy practice and concrete decisions.

Piscatori, J. P. Islam in a World of Nation-States. Cambridge, 1986. Faces up to a controversial issue: does Islam adapt to a multistate world? Demonstrates systematically that both Muslims’ doctrinal evolution and their practice indicate that the answer is yes. Ddr alIsldm is increasingly-and will continue to be-part of the postWestphalian interstate system.

Porath, Yehoshua. In Search of Arab Unity, 1930-1945. London, 1986. Analytical history of the bases of Arab nationalism in different countries of the Mashreq, with discussion of the British role and the influence of the Palestinian problem. Devotes almost sixty pages to the establishment of the Arab League.

Salame, Ghassan, ed. The Foundations of the Arab States. London, 1987. First of a four-volume international project on “Nation, State, and Integration in the Arab World.” Its eight chapters show clearly the challenge represented by the existence and persistence of the territorial state in the face of Pan-Arabism, both in the recent past and at present.

Tibi, Bassam. Arab Nationalism: A Critical Enquiry. Edited and translated by Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett. London and New York, 1981. The most thorough analysis of al-Husn’s views, tracing their German origins.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/arab-nationalism/

  • writerPosted On: October 11, 2012
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