Arab nationalism

Arab nationalism

Arab nationalism (Arabic: القومية العربية) is a nationalist ideology which rose to prominence amongst Arabs from the early 20th century onwards. [Charles Smith,The Arab-Israeli Conflict,in "International Relations in the Middle East" by Louise Fawcett,p22O] Its central premise is that the peoples and countries of the Arab World, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, constitute one nation and are bound together by their common linguistic, cultural, and historical heritage. [Ibid.] One of the primary goals of Arab nationalism is the end, or at least the minimization, of direct Western influence in the Arab World, and the removal of those Arab governments considered to be dependent upon acquiescence to Western interests to the detriment of their people. Pan-Arabism is a related concept, which not only asserts the singularity of the "Arab Nation", but calls for the creation of a single Arab state. Thus, whilst all Pan-Arabists are Arab nationalists, not all Arab nationalists are Pan-Arabists.

The rise of modern Arab nationalism

Modern Arab nationalism has its roots in the Mashreq (the Arabs lands east of Egypt), particularly in countries of Sham (the Levant), all of which were part of the Ottoman Empire until the First World War. The political orientation of Arab nationalists in the years prior to the war was generally moderate. Their demands were of a reformist nature, limited in general to autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, greater use of Arabic in education, and local service in peacetime for Arab conscripts to the Ottoman army. Some radicalisation followed the 1908 Ottoman revolution and the Turkicisation programme imposed by the new Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, often known as the "Young Turks") government. However, Arab nationalism was not yet a mass movement, even in Syria where it was strongest. One of the key elements of early Arab nationalism was the desire for an united and independent Sham incorporating Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Many Arabs gave their primary loyalty to their religion or sect, their tribe, or their own particular governments. The ideologies of Ottomanism and Pan-Islamism were strong competitors of Arab nationalism.

In 1913, intellectuals and politicians from the Arab Mashreq met in Paris at the first Arab Congress. They produced a set of demands for greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. They also requested that Arab conscripts to the Ottoman army not be required to serve in other regions except in time of war.

Nationalist sentiments became more prominent during the collapse of Ottoman authority. The brutal repression of the secret societies in Damascus and Beirut by Jamal Pasha, who executed patriotic intellectuals in 1915 and 1916, strengthened anti-Ottoman feeling, while the British, for their part, incited the Sharif of Mecca to launch the Arab Revolt during the First World War. The Ottomans were defeated and the rebel forces, loyal to the Sharif's son Faysal ibn al-Husayn entered Damascus in 1918. Arab unity then saw its first failed attempt with the establishment of the short-lived Kingdom of Syria under Faysal.

During the war the British had been a major sponsor of Arab nationalist thought and ideology, as a weapon to use against the power of the Ottoman Empire. However, the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France provided for the division of the much of the Arab Mashreq between the two imperial powers. During the inter-war years and the British Mandate period, when Arab lands were under French and British control, Arab nationalism became an important anti-imperial opposition movement against British rule.

Important Arab nationalist thinkers in the inter-war period included Amin al-Rihani, Constantin Zureiq, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Michel Aflaq and Sati' al-Husri. Competing ideologies included Islamism and local nationalism, notably the Lebanese nationalism promoted by various, predominantly Christian, thinkers and politicians in that country, and the Greater Syrian nationalism developed most notably by Antun Saadeh, which gained a certain adherence in Syria and Lebanon. Communism also became a significant ideological force, first and most notably in Iraq, but later also in Syria and to a certain extent in Egypt. However, while generally hostile for pragmatic reasons to specific pan-Arab political projects, Arab communism was not altogether incompatible with the general demands of nationalism.

After the Second World War, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt, was a significant player in the rise of Arab nationalism. Opposed to the British control of the Suez Canal Zone and concerned at Egypt becoming a Cold War battleground Nasser pushed for a collective Arab security pact within the framework of the Arab League. A key aspect of this was the need for economic aid that was not dependent on peace with Israel and the establishment of U.S. or British military bases within Arab countries.

Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal and directly challenged the dominance of the Western powers in the region. At the same time he opened Egypt up as a Cold War zone by receiving aid and arms shipments from the Soviet Union that were not dependent on treaties, bases and peace accords. However, because of the connotations for Cold War dominance of the region, Egypt also received aid from the U.S.A., who sought to promote the emerging Arab nationalism as a barrier to communism.

Attempts for State Unity

During the 20th century, the rivalry between Syria and Egypt for preeminence undermined the process of uniting the Arab world. [Charles Smith. "The Arab-Israeli Conflict". ("International Relations of the Middle East" by Louise Fawcett), p. 220.] In 1958, Egypt and Syria temporarily joined to create the United Arab Republic. It was accompanied by attempts to include Iraq and North Yemen in the union. This very exercise, while fostering Egypt's position at the centre of Arab politics, led to the weakening of Syria. With the Iraqi revolution taking place in the same year, Western powers feared the fallouts of a powerful Arab nationalism in the region. Foreign powers were not only concerned about the possible spread of such revolutionary movements in other Arab states, but also worried about losing the control and monopoly over the region's natural oil resources. However, due to discontent over the hegemony of Egypt and after a coup in Syria that introduced a more radical government to power, the United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961. The term "United Arab Republic" continued to be used in Egypt until 1971, after the death of Nasser.

In 1972, Muammar al-Gaddafi attempted to unite Libya, Egypt and Syria to form the Federation of Arab Republics. This loose union lasted until 1977 due to political and territorial disputes between the republics' leadership. In 1974, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Habib Bourgiba attempted their two nations of Libya and Tunisia to form the Arab Islamic Republic. The plan was rejected by Bourgiba due to his realization of unity of the Maghreb states. This would later become the Arab Maghreb Union.


Arab nationalists generally rejected religion as a main element in political identity, and promoted the unity of Arabs regardless of sectarian identity. However, the fact that most Arabs were Muslims was used by some as an important building block in creating a new Arab national identity.

An example of this was Michel Aflaq, founder along with Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Zaki al-Arsuzi of the Ba'ath Party. Aflaq, though himself a Christian, viewed Islam as a testament to the "Arab genius", and once said "Muhammed was the epitome of all the Arabs. So let all the Arabs today be Muhammed." Since the Arabs had reached their greatest glories through the expansion of Islam, Islam was seen as a universal message as well as an expression of secular genius on the part of the Arab peoples. Islam had given the Arabs a "glorious past", which was very different from the "shameful present". In effect the troubles of the Arab present were because the Arabs had diverged from their "eternal and perfect symbol", Islam. The Arabs needed to have a "resurrection": the meaning of the word "ba'ath".

Throughout the Arab World, regional nationalisms and allegiances to the post-First World War states such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq partly compete and partly coexist with broader Arab nationalism. In Lebanon, for instance, where some 40% of the population is Christian, the identity of "Arab" is rejected by some Lebanese groups, especially amongst the Maronite community. Definitions of "Arab" sometimes vary; see Arab.

Arab nationalist thinkers

*Gamal Abdel Nasser
*Michel Aflaq
*George Antonius
*Shakib Arslan
*Zaki al-Arsuzi
*Ma'an Bashour
*George Habash
*Sati' al-Husri
*Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi
*Amin al-Rihani
*Constantin Zureiq

Prominent Arab nationalist heads of state

*Hafiz al-Assad
*Ahmed Ben Bella
*Saddam Hussein
*Gamal Abdel Nasser
*Muammar al-Gaddafi
*Shukri al-Quwatli

See also

*Arab League
*Gulf Cooperation Council
*Arab Socialism

Further reading

* [ Islamic critique of Arab Nationalism]
* [ Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity] by Martin Kramer



*cite book
last = Hinnebusch
first = Raymond
title = The International Politics of the Middle East
publisher = Manchester University Press
date = 2003

*cite book
last = Humphreys
first = R. Stephen
title = Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age
publisher = University of California Press
date = 2005

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