The Moribund Legacy Of Arab Nationalism – Analysis


The ideational base out of which Arab nationalism grew had its earliest expression in the thoughts articulated by Muslim intellectual activists in response to their growing awareness of the weakness of Arab Muslim society to Europe’s composite threat. These intellectuals opposed European political, military and cultural encroachment upon the Arab world, which was under Ottoman rule. These intellectuals, including Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-97), Muhammad Abdu (1849-1905), Rashid Rida (1865-1935), and Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849-1902), emphasized, in slightly different versions, the importance of revitalizing an Islamic consciousness and solidarity grounded in pan-Arabism against foreign domination.

This revitalized Islamic movement planted the seeds of pan-Arabist thought. Nevertheless, its role crumbled before the rising tide of Arab secular nationalism, inaugurated by the Lebanese Christians’ national literary renaissance, which ushered the second and more explicit phase in the development of the Arab nationalist idea. The Arabic literary awakening was the consequence of two related factors: Missionary activities and the reforms of Muhammad Ali. As European Powers continued to make political and economic inroads in the Ottoman Empire particularly in the nineteenth century, they supported their penetration with missionary activities in the Arab Middle East. The cultural and political ideas spread by these missionaries appealed to many in the multi-national and multi-religious Ottoman Empire, especially to the Lebanese Christians.

The political climate under which the Christian missions operated improved drastically when the reforms of Muhammad Ali emancipated the Christians in Lebanon and Syria (1831-40). The emancipation changed the social structure of Lebanon and Syria and significantly opened them up to Western influence.

The Americans and French led the missionary activities. But whereas the French pursued a colonialist policy, the Americans, who entertained no colonial ideas, were more interested in revitalizing the Arabic language as a means both to disseminate American universal values and to popularize their religious proselytizing activities among Catholics.

An unintended consequence of revitalizing the Arabic language was the inauguration of a national literary awakening. It was the literary work of Christian scholars, such as Nasif al-Yaziji (1800-1871), Faris al-Shidyaq (1805-87) and Butrus al-Bustani (1819-83), that revived the Arab national culture, thereby arousing national consciousness. According to George Antonius, Ibrahim al-Yaziji (1847-1905), the son of Nasif, was the first Arab nationalist author to compose a poem, eulogizing Arab achievements, denouncing sectarian strife and inciting Arab insurgency against the Turks.

This trend of cultural nationalism was reinforced by the establishment of the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut in 1866 (later the American University of Beirut), which graduated the first generation of secular Arab nationalists. Although cultural nationalism emphasized the existence of an Arab “nation,” it did not call for an independent state. For the Christians, Arab cultural nationalism served as the best means to transcend their minority status, and at the same time to undermine Arab loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, which was predicated on a religious (Muslim) identity.

This set in motion a growing desire for articulating pan-Arab and anti-Ottoman sentiments. Negib Azoury, a Christian Arab, founded a secret society called La Ligue de la Patrie Arabe in Paris in 1904; then a year later published his book Le Reveil de la Nation Arabe dans L’Asie Turque. Much in the same vein as Nasif al-Yaziji, Azoury declared the existence of an Arab nation and called for the creation of an Arab empire in the Middle East.

This paved the way, during WWI, for the Arabs, led by Sherif Hussein of Mecca and his sons Faisal and Abdullah, to fight alongside the British against the Ottomans. In exchange, the British promised to support the founding of an Arab nation, with some qualifications, once the Ottoman Empire was defeated. This promise was avariciously breached by the Sykes-Picot agreement (1916) when the British schemed with the French to divide the Middle East into spheres of influence. More so, the British and French came to colonize the Middle East under the League of Nation’s mandate system, whose borders were virtually in line with Sykes-Picot’s drawing map. Not only did the British and French demarcate the borders of the newly artificial states born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, but also came to rule them. It was against this background that the most strident, pan-Arab, anti-colonialist Ba’th party was founded during French occupation of Syria in the 1940s.

Influenced by Germanophile nationalist ideas, based in the German volk (people sharing common history, language and culture), the founders of the Ba’th party, Michel Aflaq, a Christian, and Salah al-Din Bitar, a Sunni, reinforced the ideological direction of the Arab nationalist ideas toward Germanophilia. Notwithstanding the cultural and geographical diversity of the Arab world, they provided the theoretical and practical foundation to underscore the existence of the Arab nation through language and history.

Aflaq and Bitar, especially the first, formulated the doctrine of the Ba’th party, emphasizing three secular tenets- Arab unity, freedom and socialism. Aflaq’s message centered fundamentally on Arab nationalism, which is the essential instrument for achieving his primary goal, namely Arab unity. Aflaq wrote in 1940: “The nationalism for which we call…is the same sentiment that binds the individual to his family, because the fatherland is only a large household and the nation a large family.” However, the struggle for Arab unity was not conceived only in pan-Arab nationalistic terms. It was also seen as a regenerative process leading to the reform of Arab character and society. This revitalization was at the heart of the Ba’th party nationalist doctrine, as expressed in the risallah khalida (eternal mission) of the party.

Herein, it’s noteworthy that Aflaq’s party is not divorced from Islam. In fact, Aflaq’s nationalism and its mission are ontologically wedded to Islam. Islam, according to Aflaq, provided the Arabs with “the most brilliant picture of their language and literature, and the grandest part of their national history.” More specifically, Islam was the regenerative fuel of Arab society. Aflaq emphasized that Islam is the clearest expression of the Arab nation’s quest for eternal and universal values. Islam is Arab in its reality, and universal in its ideals and goals. The Arabs are unique in that their nationalist awakening was intertwined with a religious message. Or, in more concise terms, this message was a manifestation of their national awakening.

At the same time, the Ba’th party did not believe that its objectives can be achieved by gradual or piecemeal reform. It advocated an Inqilab, an overturn, more in line with an organic, radical transformation of Arab society on all levels.

Significantly, the Suez Crisis and war of 1956 substantially boosted the cause of Arab unity, and transformed Egyptian president Jamal abd al-Nasser into the champion of Arab nationalism. The Ba’th party sought the unity of Syria and Egypt. In 1958, the much drummed up goal of Arab unity was partially achieved when Egypt and Syria merged under the name of the United Arab Republic. But Egypt’s assent to the union came only after it secured Syria’s political subordination and the dismantling of all political parties, including the Ba’th. Before long, chafing under Egyptian lordship, a group of Damascene officers staged a coup d’etat and broke up the union in 1961. The collapse of the union constituted a severe blow to the Ba’thists, who sought to redress and prevent such a calamity in the future.

After much ideological self-criticism, the Ba’thist ideologues issued a document adopted at the Sixth National Congress in October 1963. The document called “Some Theoretical Propositions” reformulated the doctrine of the Ba’th party in line with the Marxist concepts of the “vanguard party” and “popular struggle.” The parliamentary system was no longer accepted as a basis for political action. Whereas power would rest with the toiling classes, liberty would require a popular democracy, led by a vanguard party that would limit the political freedom of the bourgeoisie. The Congress emphasized the military’s involvement in politics to help bring about popular democracy, stressing the ideological indoctrination of the armed forces. The Congress also emphasized that the liberation of Palestine depended on the unity and growth of Arab progressive forces. The Marxist notion of “popular struggle” and when referring to Israel, “people’s war of liberation” entered the lexicon of Ba’thi discourse. The radical Ba’thists (or the neo-Ba’thists) came to see “popular struggle” as the only means to combat Israel.

Soon enough, this radical ideology manifested itself by the Ba’th party carrying in 1963 two coup d’etat in Syria and Iraq (Ba’th seized power in 1968), and making sure no opposition to its rule emerged. Paradoxically, in as much the Arab defeat in the 1967 war underscored the failure of Arab nationalism as the Ba’th party sharpened its strategy to impose its radical transformational outlook on Arab society. The Ba’thi Syrian and Iraqi regimes forced an exclusive “Arabism” on their societies irrespective of their multi-ethnic and multi-religious backgrounds.

In fact, Arabism “popular struggle” served as a pretext to marshal support for the Ba’thi regimes and to become the all-inclusive slogan to silence opposition.

It is no coincidence that since their ascension to power in Syria and Iraq, Hafiz al-Assad and Saddam Hussein respectively, set about creating an authoritarian, security state centering on their leadership. In the name of popular struggle, both Assad and Hussein promoted their leadership cult and subordinated Ba’th ideology to their leadership. They imposed conformity and internal discipline on party members. Besides evolving into an instrument of control and mobilization, the Ba’th party became the bearer of the leadership personal qualities. Hanna Batatu emphasized that “the party’s cadres turned more and more into bureaucrats and careerists, and were no longer as vibrantly alive ideologically as in the 1950s and 1960s, unconditional fidelity to Asad having ultimately overridden fidelity to the old beliefs.”

State media pronounced the personal qualities of the leaders by appropriating the Ba’th party’s popular struggle’s slogans and symbols. The Iraqi and Syrian leaders personified the qualities of steadfastness (Sumud), willingness to struggle (Nidal), and sacrifice (Tadhiya). Portraits, pictures, and banners glorifying their qualities adorned almost all significant public spaces and busy junctures. One could not but feel their omnipresence and absorb the subliminal message that he/she should not only follow but also emulate the leader. In the name of Arab nationalism, Asad and Hussein aggrandized themselves as the modern-day Salah al-Din, who would liberate Jerusalem and protect Arab sanctities; yet both leaders had no qualm sacrificing Arab nationalism on the altar of regime security and survival.

Significantly, the more their regimes came under the duress of internal and external conflicts, the more the regimes embraced religion to legitimize their rule. Following the first Gulf War, Hussein emblazoned the religious words “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) on the Iraqi flag and launched al-Hamla al-Imaniyeh (religious campaign) to emphasize Islam’s unique and comprehensive role in society. Preceding Hussein, Asad had already sanctioned Islam’s paramount role in society following his deadly suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood revolt in 1982. But religiosity and religious activism and education were tolerated only in so long they did not pose a threat to the regime. In fact, state religion was supported as a means to legitimize their near failed states.

As a result, no public space was allowed for independent civil society organs to emerge between the state and state religion, a virtual appendage to the state. The only serious opposition to the state has been political Islam, led by Muslim Brothers and Salafists. In hindsight, when Arab society rebelled against the Arab regime’s tyranny, Islamists and Salafists gradually controlled the opposition. Lacking a legacy of political participation and frustrated by weak grassroots movements, the secular opposition succumbed to the power and butchery of both the regime and Islamism. Nowhere was this striking than the failed Syrian uprising that aspired for freedom from a tyrannical regime but devolved into the murderous realm of Salafi-jihadism.

Part of the problem has been Western, especially American, direct or indirect support of Arab regimes at the expense of that of civil society and human rights. In the name of regional stability, the West’s condemnation of tyranny and human rights violations was more a whimper than a bang. But a bigger part of the problem lay in the lack of public space in which democratic institutions and organizations can operate.

In hindsight, the crux of the problem lies in the historic inability of Arab society to separate religion from the state. Arab regimes and less so Arab societies are both at fault in perpetuating the matrimony of state and religion. Even the most purported secular Arab party, the Ba’th, has wedded its utopian societal outlook to Islam. Meanwhile, whereas Arab regimes used brute force to subordinate religion to the state, Arab secular intellectuals and activists subordinated their aspiration of democracy to fear and once they rebelled to Islamism. This failure to separate religion from the state across the Arab world has been perpetuated by the binary totalitarianism of Arab regimes and Islamism.

No one articulated this ongoing malady in the Arab world better than the Syrian poet Adonis. He emphasized that “The experiences in the various political ideologies failed in the Arab World to forming a modern citizen: they identified the citizen as related to his religious affiliation or tribal membership.” Speaking of Syrian culture and the legacy of the Ba’th, he asserted:

Syrian culture was rendered one of Arabist proselytism, publicity, and propaganda linked to a brutal security apparatus. And so, Syrian culture was entrapped between two closed cultic mentalities: one arguing in the name of religion, heritage, the past, and Salafism; the other, a Baathist creed, making the case for an oppressive Arab identity, in total contravention of freedom and basic human rights.

Today, Arabs have been left with little choice but to live either under authoritarian regimes or Islamism. This tragedy has been exacerbated by Washington’s reluctance to take Arab regimes to task for their flagrant violations of human rights. The recent death of ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi under suspicious circumstances in prison is yet another testimony of the Arab regimes’ disregard of human rights. Significantly, the Trump administration has not made human rights or support of Arab civil societies a priority. This is so despite the fact that some of its supporters and initial members have been vocal in underscoring the importance of Washington supporting human rights and civil society in the Arab world.

Dr. Walid Phares, retired colonel Rudy Attalah, and activist Toufic Baaklini, among other Arabic-speaking experts and activists, have been at the forefront of helping minorities, supporting civil society groups, and promoting human rights across the Middle East. The Administration could do well by building on their efforts and making support of civil society groups and human rights in the Middle East a pillar of its foreign policy. Otherwise, Washington would remain complicit in perpetuating this Arab tragedy.

*Robert G. Rabil is professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon (2003); Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016); and most recently White Heart (2018). The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of FAU. He can be reached @robertgrabil.

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