The Rise and Fall of Arab Nationalism

Review of Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, by Adeed Dawisha. 340 pp., Princeton University Press, 2002.

Avi Shlaim

The Guardian (March 29, 2003)

Most  isms ultimately lead to war, and Arab nationalism is no exception.  Nationalist movements have an in-built tendency towards extremism and xenophobia, towards self-righteousness on the one hand and demonising the enemy on the other.  History is often falsified and even fabricated to serve a nationalist political agenda.  It is interesting to note how frequently the phrase ‘forging a nation’ is used because most nations are forgeries.  Indeed, some nations are based on little more than a mythological view of the past and hatred of foreigners. Arab nationalism shares some of these negative traits with other nationalist movements, but there is one basic difference: it is not the ideology of one nation-state but of the entire region.

Adeed Dawisha has given us a timely, illuminating, and highly readable overview of the history of the Arab national movement from its origins in the 19th century to the present.  His book combines an analysis of the ideas of Arab nationalism and their roots in European through with a fast-moving political narrative, full of dramatic ups and downs.  Dawisha is a Professor of Political Science at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio – the real Oxford!  He grew up in Iraq during the heyday of Arab nationalism and he brings to the task rare personal insight as well as mastery of the voluminous Arabic sources on the subject.  There is a great deal of new material here which not only brings events alive, but also leads to fresh assessments and a better informed, more critical understanding of the politics of one of the world’s most volatile and violent regions.

In the debate on the origins of Arab nationalism, Dawisha sides with the revisionist historians against the more conventional historians, led by George Antonius.  In The Arab Awakening Antonius articulated the conventional wisdom that during the 19th century a national identity took roots among the Arabic speaking populations of the Ottoman Empire and that in World War I this idea developed into a fully-fledged revolutionary movement.  Dawisha argues that the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire was originally proclaimed in the name of Islam, not in the name of Arabism or the Arab nation.  Religious identity was more important than national identity.  The Arab Revolt therefore ought to be excised from the chronicles of Arab nationalism.

It was only in the aftermath of World War I that the ‘Arab nation’ emerged as a pertinent concept and Arab nationalism gradually took the form of a political movement.  Education played a vital part in glorifying the past, in raising political consciousness, and in kindling a nationalist spirit in a generation of young Arabs.  Intellectuals rather than politicians were at the forefront of the movement.  They borrowed the nationalist idea from Europe and they used it to try to chart a new path for the Arab nation.

But the Arab national movement did not sweep all before it.  There were formidable obstacles along its path.  In the first place, there were conflicting identities and competing loyalties to tribe, sect, region, and religion.  Second, there was always tension between Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, and other regional identities and the larger, all-encompassing Arab identity.  The third, and perhaps most ironic, obstacle to the concept of a coherent Arab nation was the linguistic diversity in the land of Araby.  But the most powerful competing alternative to the idea of a secular Arab nation was the concept of a united Muslim Umma or community.  Islam was the other great supranational ideology with a claim to the allegiance of the great majority of Arabs.  Islam had a broader catchment area than Pan-Arabism because it did not differentiate between Arab and non-Arab.  The Muslim Umma was a unity in which ethnicity played no part.

Iraq in the inter-war era was in the vanguard of the movement towards Arab unity. Proponents of Pan-Arabism, like Sati’ al-Husri, hoped to turn Iraq into the Prussia of the Middle East, into a nationalist prototype for the rest of the Arab world.  Yet Iraq itself was a severely fragmented country.  It was an artificial state, cobbled together by Britain out of three ex-Ottoman provinces, and bereft of any ethnic or religious rationale.  Iraq lacked the essential underpinnings of a national bond.  The Kurds in the north aspired to political independence in Kurdistan. Being non-Semitic and speaking an Indo-European language, the Kurds had little in common with the Arabs of Iraq apart from their Sunni Muslim faith. It was impossible to bring them under the umbrella of ‘the Arab nation’ because they considered themselves ethnically distinct from the Arabs. In their struggle for independence, however, they were repeatedly frustrated because they had no friends but the mountains.  The Shiites in the south tended to view Arab nationalism as a Sunni project designed to reduce them to an insignificant minority in an expanded Sunni Arab domain.  Over half the population was Shiite, yet the politically dominant group were the Sunnis who constituted barely a third of the population.  Iraq  thus provided a foretaste o of the problems that were to dog the Arab national movement throughout its history.

In the face of such deep and pervasive divisions, it was a well-nigh impossible task to achieve the two basic objectives of the Arab national movement: unity and independence.  A third objective was added in the aftermath of World War II: to keep Palestine in Arab hands.  The first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 war was the crucial phase in the struggle for Palestine.  Arab unity, it was hoped, would be forged on the anvil of war against the common enemy.  It was the great test for the newly independent Arab states and they failed it miserably.  The inability of these states to coordinate their diplomatic and military moves was in itself a major factor in the loss of Palestine.  The hopes that shone so brightly when the Arabs embarked on this ‘battle of destiny’ against the Zionist intruders, gave way to disillusion and despair over the dismal wreckage of Arab Palestine.  It was the first time that the Arab states let down their Palestinian brothers, but it was by no means the last.

If 1948 was the nadir of Arab nationalism, in 1958 the movement reached its highest peak.  In February of that year the United Arab Republic was established by the merger of Syria and Egypt.  On 14 July, a bloody military coup destroyed the monarchy in Iraq and transformed the country into a radical republic.  Iraq was expected to join the UAR.  The pro-Western regimes in Jordan and Lebanon teetered on the brink of collapse.  For a brief moment the jubilant masses believed that those they considered to be the enemies of Arab nationalism were about to fall like a row of dominoes.  It was a revolutionary moment in the Middle East but the revolution did not spread.  With hindsight, 1958 was the great turning-point in Middle East history in which history failed to turn.  Since 1958 it has been downhill all the way. 

The power generating Arab nationalism was eventually turned off in June 1967.  The armies of the confrontation states were roundly defeated, their territory was occupied, their economies were in ruins, and the bluster of Arab nationalism was completely deflated. Thirty five years on, the Arabs have not yet fully recovered from the crushing defeat they suffered in the second ‘battle of destiny’.  Nor have the Israelis recovered from the spectacular military victory that launched them on a course of territorial expansion.  Hence the impasse on the Arab-Israeli front today.

After tracing the rise and fall of Arab nationalism in the 20th century, Dawisha passes his final verdict.  It is characteristically balanced and fair-minded. There are lights as well as shadows in the picture he paints.  On the one hand, he recognises the contribution that Pan-Arabism, in it heyday, made to the regeneration of Arab self-confidence and sense of dignity after long years of subjugation to colonial rule.  On the other hand, he notes that, by the end of the century, little was left of the goal of Arab unity but the debris of broken promises and shattered hopes.