Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2702

Arab nationalism at cross roads

By Prof J. P. Sharma - Syndicate Features

Arab nationalism refers to a common nationalist ideology in wider Arab-African world. It is a concept based primarily on emotional and sentimental attachment to a nationalist entity called ‘the Arab Nation’ which doesn’t exit though all Arabs are united by a shared history, culture, religion and language. Arabism, as Arab nationalism is also called often, is an attitude of mind which almost all Arabs share. It is unique. It is linked to memories of a glorious past. It is a pan-Arab aspiration.

The kinship Arabs feel from the Arab-Persian Gulf to the Atlantic is far stronger than that among English speakers of North America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand or the Spanish speakers of Middle and South America. That is why many scholars conceive of the Arab world as a single homogeneous whole and of the Arab people as a single nation “qawm” bound by common ties. Today, the term “Arab” generally designates the Arabs as a cultural entity.

The cultural evolution which the Arabs had set in motion was the result of religious and social processes. The first was the process of Islamisation where by the new faith preached by Prophet Muhammad, transformed their spiritual life. It is essential to consider Islam which had outgrown its Arab origin and spread far beyond the Arab peoples. The fact that God chose, to reveal His most perfect word to Arabs, in Arabic, and that by God’s will or historical circumstances it was the Arabs who spread Islam throughout the world is of great significance to the Arabs.

A contributory factor to Arabisation in the social field was Arabic becoming ‘mother tongue’ in the conquered areas (linguistic Arabisation) and mass migration of pure Arab stock to the new territories and their absorption in local societies (racial Arabisation).Another most important factor is the historical tradition or what is euphemistically called the living memory of the nation. The unity of Arab history generates uniform sympathies, leads to a sharing of pride in the glories of past and creates identity of aspirations for the future.

The major ideological currents during the early phase of Arab Nationalism (1800-1945) were Westernisation, Islamic revivalism, combining nationalism, reformism, revolutionary activism and constitutionalism inspired by the winds blowing from Europe. From the nineteenth century onward, western concepts have been incorporated into Arab nationalist thought. The conquest of Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte (1789) initiated a chain of events, the first and foremost being the general Arab awakening. A second result was the introduction of the printing press, which gave impetus to Arab classics and hence to national consciousness. A final result was the introduction of the European idea of nationality, which led to the reaction against Ottoman tyranny.

Mehmet Ali (1805-1849) was instrumental in sowing the seeds of intellectual awareness, and the belief in the freedom of all peoples, and their right to national self-determination. His conquest of Egypt (1805), strove to serve his own ends by building up a strong modern army on the lines of Napoleon’s. Having learnt from his French advisers that he would ultimately have to rely on Egyptian recruits, Mehmet Ali turned his energies to an educational movement designed to provide the military institutions with the educated Egyptians. He had sent a number of Egyptians to further their education in France, to assimilate western ideas, and to master the French language. But neither he nor his successors could realise the dream of carving out an Arab empire. British hostility, contemporary economic crisis, moral decline and above all the absence of Arab national consciousness made their plans flounder.

The story of the rise of a specifically Arab national movement, writes George Antonius, “opens in Syria in 1847”, with the foundation in Beirut of a modest literary society under the American patronage. This was followed by launching of the Arab newspaper Nafir Suria (1860) in Syria by Boutres al-Boustani who had called for separation of state and religion. Fifteen years later five young men, who studied at the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, formed a secret society to kick start formally the Arab national movement. Their society soon opened branches in Damascus, Tripoli and Sidon. Their talking points were (i) the grant of independence to Syria in union with the Lebanon; (ii) the recognition of Arabic as an official language; (iii) the removal of censorship; (iv) employment of local recruited units on local military service only. The immigration of numerous Syrian Christian intellectuals to Egypt where they enjoyed greater freedom of expression facilitated the spread of nationalist discourse.

One of the earliest representatives of Islamic revivalism was Jamal al-Din al- Afghani to whom goes great credit for disseminating a new and vigorous nationalist spirit. He was the founder of the modern Pan-Islamic movement combining a nationalist interpretation of Islam with modernism and reformism. Muhammad Rashid Rida (Syrian author of the book, ‘The Caliphate’) and Abdul Rahman al-Kawakabi contributed no less to Islamic revivalism, Arab nationalism, westernisation and constitutionalism.

Modern Arab nationalism started as a protest against centralisation and as a plea for the introduction of democratic processes. Adib Ishaq (1856-1885), a Christian born in Damascus, Mustafa Kamel and Sheikh Mohammed Abdou of Egypt pioneered the cause which received an impetus with the British occupation of Egypt (1882). Abdou believed in reform as the ideal method to achieve national aspiration whereas the Kamel line was out with occupying forces and a prerequisite to progress was participation of the people in their own government.

Balfour Declaration of November 2,1917, which called for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine, created frustration and dismay among the Arabs. In the 1930s Arab nationalism had taken the shape of a secular movement. The Arab leaders wished to state their opposition to Zionism in national terms, i.e. in terms of Christian and Muslim Palestinians alike. In the 1940s, political changes in the Arab world took place, which were more radical than those occurring after the end of the First World War. The result was creation of the Arab League in 1945 to work out a joint response to the Zionist colonisation of Palestine. Arab Nationalism which has more or less dominated a major part of this century revolving around the question of Palestine.

In 1990s the tide of radical Arab nationalism espoused by President Saddam Hussein or President Yasser Arafat of Palestine was rolled back by the muscular and economic diplomacy of United States and its direct intervention in the Gulf. The eyes of the world are now focused on what sort of peace will emerge from the debris of the recently destroyed Iraq. Will it be one whose modalities have been worked out carefully and impartially by the UN Security Council – already suspected of being influenced by the UN’s financial contributor, the US – or will it be one imposed on a toothless Iraq directly by the US?

The present Gulf crisis and the Intifedah have been linked with each other as manifestation of Arab nationalism. The recent developments highlight the need for active Arab-African cooperation and intervention to solve the problem of the dynamic region.

- Syndicate Features -

Share this