Under no circumstances should we say: “As long as [an Arab] does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabism, then he is not an Arab.” He is an Arab whether he wishes to be one or not. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without feelings or consciousness, and perhaps even without conscience.
Abu Khaldun Sati‘ al-Husri, Abhath Mukhtara fi al-Qawmiya al-‘Arabiya, Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wahda al-‘Arabiya, 1985, p. 80
I have started with the citation of Husri for the only reason that it is not people’s choice to be born Arab, and the greatest power that Arab people have is just to accept who they are and struggle for issues that do not depend on them for the prosperity of the nation that they should be proud of!
In order to make any statement about whether Arab nationalism being dead or not and whether it can be reignited by a strong Arab leader is it necessary to analyze and understand roots of Arab nationalism, or Arabism, follow all the stages of it development and try to figure out if it still exists. In the following paper I will present the full-range analysis of the whole Arabic experience starting with the tribal matters, influence of European cultures, important role of Islamism, and struggling nature of Arab language and culture. Understanding the role of leaders in all transformations and events- is the key to understanding the heart and purposes of Arab nationalism and analyzing the necessity of its restoration and speaking what would be that uniting force for it.
It is necessary to follow inner contradictions in the nation as well as Arab nationalist positions.
Each nationalistic idea always has its negative and positive sides; it has its advantages and disadvantages. Everything is relative and usually those sides can be easily transformed and treated the most convenient way. That is why, it order to be the most subjective as possible, it is useful to study the whole scale and to try to embrace the whole picture of the events to make up own opinion. It should not be influenced by some personal beliefs and dispositions.
To my opinion, a strong leader is primarily a person who has powerful mind and vision of future. Without that particular vision all attempts towards uniting the Arabs are meaningless. I mean the vision that was not influenced by political or religious authorities, probably the vision from God, which will definitely serve for the benefit and prosperity of the nation. That is why I am sure that it is not the question of the strong leader, but more that one of whether Arab nationalism was useful to the Arab world and what consequences it can have nowadays.
Returning back the primary purpose of the paper, I must say that in order the Arab world be united the leader should be charismatic enough for people to follow him. And I must say that I am sure that Arab world can be united be the strong leader. And if it is predestined, such leader will come and all Arab nations will be united.
Arab nationalism cannot be compared to any nationalistic experience of Europe. Historians usually use comparative approach in order to follow general streams of each event striving to analyze its reasons and predict its consequences. Arab nationalism was large, wide spread and very much fragmented. It was genuine by its nature and was not originated from Western imperial rules.
First, Arab nationalism appeared in the nineteenth century. It was transformed to other modes for several times, but primarily struggle for independence took nationalistic form. It was a struggle for uniting nations who spoke Arabic, and therefore the question of language was very sharp. Other great question was attachment to Islam.
During the World War I, Arab nationalism took more distinctive form upon influence of two streams- Turkification and Zionism. It was a direct threat to Arab culture and political independence. But still it was not Arabism in the full sense. It was a struggle more for administrative decentralization then for the total independence.
Arab nationalism after World War II, from being “anti-imperialist”, became “revolutionary”. It was because of Palestine war that showed to Arabs that although they were formally independent, they still remained politically not united and not enough economically developed. Arab nationalism from that time could not mean some cultural aspects, it transformed to being more aggressive. It already presumed land reforms, large-scale nationalization and in general more planned form of Arabism. It was done by two leaders – Gamal Abdul Nasser and Ba’th. They were carrying out two parallel programs- socialistic and direct struggle. They had different strategies, but still were rather successful in their attempts.
In early 60s in became evident that even though nationalistic theory was for unity of the Arab world and freedom from the influence of the foreigners, it became more establishing domination of one Arabs over other, positioning of one Arab nation over other. The independence and unity that was the core of the Arabism converted to the internal deciding which nation is better.
Kamal Salibi, a famous Lebanon historian, criticized Arabism for “deluding the general run of the Arabs into believing that the political unity they have once experienced under Islam was the fact an Arab national unity which they have subsequently lost, or of which they have been deliberately robbed”.
It is truly so. Nationalism cannot be the basis for political state, and cannot serve as an effective instrument for political organization of the society. From inside of the country it usually leads to anarchy. And it is therefore very difficult to governors to guarantee internal stability and keep balanced relationships with neighbor countries.
Two contradictions of Arab nationalism
Even though the idea of Arab nationalism presumed uniting people of the same language, blood and interests, they should be united politically, culturally and socially as well. Arab nationalists separated a section of “Arabized”- Muslims, from the other part of Arabs. In such a way aroused Islam conflict.
The second great contradiction was an attempt to implement Western ideology and mask it under term “Arab nationalism”. And as I have already stated Western and Eastern cultures cannot be even closely compared and therefore experience of one cannot be applied to the other.
Those two major contradictions can be viewed as an attempt just to spread the influence of Western nations and diminish influence of Islam. From this point of view the idea of Arab nationalism appears rather controversial and inadequate.
“Defeat” of Arab nationalism
Step by step it became evident that Arab nationalistic ideas seemed more like utopian ones. Nationalism, according to Benedict Anderson, can be defined as “an imagined political community”. Therefore nationalism in the pure form even cannot exist in the society. In case of Arab Middle East it was a successful mix of liberalism, socialism, radicalism and even fascism.
So, when it became evident Arab nationalism was already presented as striving for democracy and Islam. But it was not democratic for the very beginning.
Historical overview shows that situation in the country is very much dependant on the charismatic leader. Gradually, ideas of Arab nationalism, which were based upon viewing Arabs as a united nation and which were personified and connected with such leaders, as Nasser, Asad, Hussein, and their political course, lost their attractiveness among Arab population. It is especially obvious under condition of government interchange activation, struggle for leadership positions and repartition of property.
Nowadays, in Arabic world, or at least at those countries which geo-strategic situation makes others to count and listen to their leader, there is no charismatic internal leader of regional scale. Leader that could propose endogenous all-Arab project of social modernization content, which would take into consideration interests of Arab-Islam majority, wants and needs of national religious minorities and pull together representatives of religious elite and common population.
Strong Arab leaders are already old and have already experienced peak of their political career. In such unstable world situation, they think more to whom they could pass power in their own country. From one hand they want to secure continuation of their political discourse to guarantee safety of their own interests and interest of their parties after leaving leading posts. And from the other hand they are compelled to care that power transfer was carried out democratically, and legality of the results could not be questioned by the population and checked.
Young leaders, which came to power recently, face even more difficulties. Practically all of then received power not as the result of the struggle, but they have “inherited” it from their fathers. And now they appear not to have real authority, and they have to do what they are told and primarily think about creation of personal “power team” and to balance among different centers of power and from time to time show their ability to rule the country.
Therefore, I have to say that in the state of current situation and existing atomism in Arab world, a strong leader hypothetically could change the situation and reignite Arab nationalism, but on practice it would be impossible task.
Hinnebusch, Raymond, The International Politics of the Middle East. Manchester University Press, 2003.
Baram, Amatzia, “Neo-Tribalism in Iraq: Saddam Hussein’s Tribal Policies, 1991-96,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Feb. 1997, pp. 2-3.
R. Stephen Humphreys, Between Memory and Desire: The Middle East in a Troubled Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Ajami, Fouad, “The end of Arab nationalism”, The New Republic, 12 August 1991.
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