By S. Farah*
“Nationalism is a great danger for Europe, for all the European countries. In the history of Europe, nationalism has always meant wars, and the last great war started right in the heart of Europe… The real breakthrough, made at the end of World War II is leaving behind nationalism and national egotisms.” This is how Professor Valerio Onida, the former president of Italy’s constitutional court expressed his concern about rising nationalism in Europe in a televised interview. While nationalism as a cause of war in European history has been well established, it has been overlooked when politicians and pundits discuss the Middle East.
What is Nationalism
Nationalism is the political movement that rose in Europe in the 18th century that led to the emergence of the nation-state. Before nationalism people did not give their loyalty to the nation-state but to other, different forms of political organization: the city-state, the feudal fief and its lord, the dynastic empire, or the religious group.
Broadly speaking, two types of nationalism emerged from Europe – propositional nationalism in Western Europe and ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe. Propositional nationalism, also referred to as civic nationalism, is an inclusive form of nationalism based on individual rights and the values of freedom, liberty and equality. The oldest form of propositional nationalism is French nationalism, which is rooted in the French republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. The French model of citizenship is linked to belonging to universal republican institutions, not to a specific identity or religion. When granting full citizenship to Jews during the French Revolution, the Count of Clermont Tonnerre told the National Assembly, “We should grant everything to Jews as individuals and nothing as a nation.” Classifying people by their ethnicity is illegal in France; no direct census questions can be asked that would determine the exact ethnic, racial or religious makeup of the society. The nation of “liberty, equality, fraternity” treats all people equally with no differentiation.
The other form of nationalism that emerged in Eastern Europe is ethnic nationalism; it mines race and history to create politics that sacrifice individual liberty to the will of the majority. An example of this type of nationalism is German nationalism, which claims that the true essence of a nation emerges from history, culture, and ultimately, race.
While forced resettlement and mass killing has happened throughout human history, the emergence of the ethnic nation-state and the attempt to create ethnically homogenous geographic areas in Europe in the 20th century led to ethnic cleansing and genocide—most notably the Holocaust—but additionally, the expulsion of Germans from Polish and Czechoslovak territory, the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Serbs in Croatia, and the Albanians, and later, Serbians in Kosovo.
Embedded in each national movement is a national myth: it might over-dramatize true incidents, omit important historical details, or add details for which there is no evidence. These legends and constructed narratives create imagined communities that give rise to a sense of delusional, inflated self-worth—what Professor Valerio Onida referred to in the opening quote of this article as “national egotism.” The English Nationalists argued that England was the kingdom that, of all the kingdoms in the world, was the most like the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the French believed that France had a special mission as representative of the most advanced form of western culture. And almost always in every national myth there are stories of victimhood, aggrievement, and a sense of superiority. These national myths, along with irredentism, led Europe into endless wars, culminating in WWII.
Nationalism Arrives in the Middle East
For two thousand years, the Middle East had been ruled by empires: the Roman, the Byzantine, and the successive Islamic empires, all culminating in 400 years of Ottoman rule. A multitude of cultures lived side by side, while people and ideas traveled freely across these vast polyglot empires. By the 19th century, European ideas of nationalism began to spread across the Middle East.
The First Genocide
Turkish ethnic nationalism came from central and eastern Europe through various channels. Émigré and refugees from Hungry and Poland (as well as Tartar exiles) brought this chauvinistic and illiberal nationalism into the seat of the Ottoman empire. The Armenians and Assyrians were its first victims. The Young Turks, a nationalist movement, in an effort to ‘Turkify’ the new republic, executed a systematic campaign to exterminate the Assyrians and Armenians from eastern Turkey, a plateau they had inhabited for 3,000 years. As many as 1.5 million people were killed in what is today known as the Armenian Genocide.
Turkey has since been locked into never-ending wars with Kurdish nationalists who themselves aspire to create their own ethno-nationalist state on part of the Turkish state.
Arab Nationalism Usurps Syrian Patriotism and leads Syria Into Multiple Wars and Economic Sanctions
Arab nationalism drew inspiration from 19th-century Western ideas. In 1911, intellectuals from throughout the Levant formed an Arab nationalist club in Paris where the first Arab congress took place. Later, Damascus became the coordinating center of the Arab nationalist movement. While the idea did spread to other places like Beirut, Cairo, and Baghdad, nowhere did Arab nationalism inspire so much passion as it did in Syria, which Nasser of Egypt would later refer to as “the beating heart of Arab nationalism.” As Arab nationalists took control of the Syrian government, they preoccupied themselves with the greater Arab cause. In schools across all of Syria, children stood every morning and saluted the Arab nation, and the green map of the vast Arab nation replaced the Syrian map in every classroom. Arab nationalists in Syria were aggrieved and felt betrayed by the West for dividing their nation with the Sykes-Picot Agreement. But the greatest affront to Arab nationalists was the creation of the state of Israel that they viewed as another Western betrayal. Syrians took the mantle of destroying Israel and resisting the Western plots in the region. This overarching goal led Syria into multiple wars and economic sanctions, which they wore as a badge of honor.
Arab nationalism asserts that the Arab nation is the group of people who speak Arabic, inhabit the “Arab World,” and who aspire to belong to the same nation. Arabs, Phoenicians, Copts, Assyrians, Berbers, Jews, and all those who live in the designated Arab world and speak Arabic are the people of this great nation. But this diverse group of people and cultures, from the depths of Arabia to the far reaches of North Africa, dress differently, eat different cuisine, and do not share the same history. The purist Arab nationalists insist, however, that language is the strongest foundation for a nation, arguing that the varied languages spoken in the Arabic peninsula, the Levant, and in north Africa, are dialects of the same language. But the looser definition of a dialect states that a dialect should be understood by speakers of other dialects of the same language without formal training, a test that would be difficult to pass for someone in the Levant listening to a person from Morocco. Many successful countries are multilingual, like Switzerland and Singapore, each with four official languages. And despite the fact that all the contiguous countries of Central and South America—with the exception of Brazil—speak the same language, and even share a similar history and religion, none of these countries aspire to be one nation.
While Egyptians flirted with Arab nationalism during the Nasser era, they had a deep sense of self as a separate entity, and their loyalty was to Egypt first. The Egyptian flirtation with Arab nationalism came to an end with the Camp David accord. Syrians, indoctrinated with Arab nationalism, viewed the actions of the Egyptian leadership as treasonous and short-sighted. This view of other Arab leaders as stooges of their Western masters was a common theme amongst Arab nationalists in Syria. These nationalists thought that they were the representatives of the pulse and aspiration of the Arab street. This delusion, however, came crashing down during the past eight years of war in Syria: that Arab street was pulseless while Syrians were being killed and their cities destroyed as a part of a brutal regime change operation to punish Syria for its decades of opposing the West’s grand plans and defending the honor of their imagined nation.
Another brand of nationalism, Jewish nationalism or Zionism, began in Eastern Europe; it aimed to establish a homeland for the Jewish people, with its sights set on historic Palestine. As of 1920, a British report showed that there were just over seventy thousand Jewish persons living in British Mandated Palestine, many of whom had arrived in the preceding 30 years. Jewish emigration and colonization of historic Palestine continued primarily by unassimilated Eastern European Jews. In 1948, as Israel declared its independence, Egypt, Jordan and Syria attacked Israel, and in the 10 months of fighting that followed, Israel occupied 60% of Palestinian areas—including West Jerusalem—far beyond the Jewish state allowance proposed by the 1948 Partition Plan.
This conflict triggered significant demographic change throughout the Middle East. Around 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes in the areas that became Israel and have never been allowed to return. Over the next several decades, Israel occupied more land from its neighbors and continued the colonization of Palestinian land. And almost all the Jewish communities that have colored and enriched much of the Middle East for centuries in cities like Aleppo, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo vanished, with many emigrating to Israel or the U.S.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence speaks of equal rights for all its citizens; Israeli human rights groups have, however, documented several laws that discriminate against its Palestinian population, which largely still live separately from its Jewish population. Recently, Israel’s legislators passed the Nation State law that says that only Jewish Israelis have the right of self-determination in Israel, ignoring the rights of its Palestinian citizens. The Knesset also voted down the Basic Law Equality bill which proposed that “The State of Israel shall maintain equal political rights amongst all its citizens, without any difference between religions, race and sex”. While many of Israel’s founding fathers were secular, the messianic dimensions of a Jewish state on biblical land was inescapable. Today, the strongest support for Israel in the West comes from Evangelical Christians who believe that for the rapture to occur, the Jews must return to the promised land.
The Way Forward
After WWII, Europeans realized the ills of nationalism and moved to create a new political structure for the continent. They deemphasized borders between their states, allowing for the free movement of people, workers, goods and services, and created supra-national institutions that service the entire European community. The global financial collapse of 2008, however, exposed serious flaws in the structures of the Euro and other weaknesses in the new post- nationalist European project. The Middle East also has to find its way past nationalism to create stability and bring peace to the region. If not in a union similar to the one being attempted in Europe, then perhaps the answer lies in what Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan and Anti Fragile calls ‘fractal localism.’
The Rapture is but one of many biblical prophecies. Ammiel Alcalay, a poet, in After Jews and Arabs, Remaking Levantine Culture, examines the long and rich relationship between Arabs and Jews, and between the three monotheistic religions in the Levant that predated nationalism. He ends his work by quoting Shmuel Trigano:
When Isaiah announced “In that day shall Israel be a third with Egypt and with Syria, a blessing in the midst of the land…Blessed be Egypt my people, and Syria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance” he was certainly not predicating a union or a fusion into a state, an empire, but the opening into a space for three people passing beyond a stage of belligerency, of the state, the leaping beyond formal boundaries.
Mr. Alcalay continues:
Somewhere between visions based on the old prophecies and the need for a new covenant, between closed doors and full streets, the magic of old places and the locked rooms without song, a space remains, a space for a poetics and a politics of the possible.
*This article was published at Syria Comment and republished with permission