Secular Nationalisms, Middle East

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Secular Nationalisms, Middle East

Prior to World War I (1914–1918), secular nationalism in the Middle East was largely confined to military and administrative elites with Western educations. In the Islamic and multiethnic Ottoman Empire, such elites established Turkish and Arab cultural associations and secret nationalist societies after the constitutional revolutions of 1908 and 1909. Of the Middle Eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire, only in Egypt did nationalism emerge as something approaching a popular movement before World War I. The country had become almost independent under a dynasty of governors established by the ethnic Albanian, Mehmet Ali (1770–1849).

By the end of the 1870s, bureaucrats, journalists, military officers, and landowners had begun to protest intensive political and economic intervention in Egyptian affairs by European powers. The protests were expressed in terms of Ottoman and Islamic identity as well as Egyptian territorial nationalism. A broadly based movement against European intervention and for constitutional government coalesced around Ahmad 'Urābī (1839–1911), a military officer and minister of war. In 1882 a British invasion force suppressed his movement and thus began the occupation of the country. Until after World War I, the Egyptian independence movement remained primarily one of Western-oriented landowners, journalists, and lawyers, exemplified by Mustafa Kamil (1874–1908) and his National Party.

World War I brought the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Soon after, ethnic Turks in Anatolia fought a two-year war of independence against Greek and Allied invaders. The leader of the independence movement, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938), along with other former Ottoman officers and officials, established the Turkish Republic in 1923 in the reconquered areas. The new state's ideology, known as Kemalism, emphasized secularism, Turkish nationalism, and republicanism as the basis of political identity. These ideas were inculcated with remarkable rapidity through the school system and the conscript army.

Egyptians resumed their struggle against British control after World War I with a popular revolt in 1919. The country gradually gained independence through a series of treaties signed with Great Britain in 1922, 1936, and 1954. The most influential party in this period was the secular, nationalist Wafd (Delegation) Party, led first by Sa'd Zaghlūl, (1857–1927), another landowning lawyer. The Wafd's influence peaked in the 1930s, while in the same period the Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a popular movement and a critic of the secularism of the Egyptian elite.

Egyptian nationalism was initially distinct from Arab nationalism, which became predominant in the Arab Levant and Fertile Crescent after World War I. During the war, in 1916, Sharif Husayn (1835–1931) of Mecca had launched a British-supported Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Although some members of the prewar secret Arab nationalist societies joined his revolt, most of his followers were motivated by tribal loyalties and British subsidies, rather than by nationalist ideals. Following the war, the Arab Levant and Fertile Crescent were divided into four League of Nations mandates. These were Iraq, Syria (including Lebanon), Palestine, and Transjordan, each of which was promised eventual independence as a nation-state. Iraq, established as a monarchy under British supervision, gained independence in 1932. Iraqi Arab nationalism, with strong overtones of Pan-Arab nationalism, was inculcated through the newly established school system, youth organizations, and the conscript army. Army officers in particular resented continued British influence in Iraqi affairs. The mandate for Syria, under French tutelage, was constituted as two republics, Syria and Lebanon, both of which gained independence in 1946.

After an anti-French revolt lasting from 1925 to 1927, leading Syrian politicians formed the National Bloc as the principal association working for independence. The Bloc's supporters spread Syrian Arab and Pan-Arab nationalism through the school system, Boy Scout troops, and athletic clubs. Syrian and Pan-Arab nationalism expanded similarly in Lebanon, but they competed with a specifically Lebanese nationalism that was strong especially among Maronite Christians, who were traditionally close to the French. The most significant political party expressing Lebanese nationalism was the Phalange, established in 1936 by Pierre Gemayel (1905–1984).

Palestine, under British control, also saw the spread of Arab nationalism in much the same manner as Syria. However, the Zionist movement, benefiting by British protection, made the quest for Palestinian independence even more difficult. By 1935, five Arab nationalist political parties had been established in the country, though some had no popular followings. Palestinians launched an uprising against Great Britain and the Zionists in 1936, which the British put down by 1939.

The Arab world in the 1940s experienced the intensification of Pan-Arab nationalism. This was true even in Egypt, where the League of Arab States was headquartered after its creation in 1945. Widespread support in the Arab world for the struggle of the Palestinian Arabs against Zionist colonization further magnified Pan-Arab sentiments, although allied Arab armies were defeated by the new state of Israel in the 1948 Palestine War.

Outside of the former Ottoman Empire, Iran also experienced secular nationalism after World War I. There, as in Turkey, the emergence of secular nationalism was a state-led development. In 1926, the army's commander in chief, Reza Khan (1878–1944), brought an end to the ruling Qajar dynasty and established himself as shah, taking the name of Pahlavi for his dynasty. Modeling his program on that of Atatürk, Reza Shah strove to inculcate in the Iranian people a secular Persian identity drawing on Iran's pre-Islamic traditions.

With considerably less success than Atatürk, Reza Shah advanced these ideas especially through a new secular school system and the military, and he created a secular legal system intended to replace Islamic courts. He abdicated and was replaced by his son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980), in 1941, early in the British-Soviet occupation of the country. In the same year, the Iran Party was formed as a secular nationalist party opposed to the authoritarianism of the shah and to foreign interventionism. The Iran Party joined Islamist and leftist parties in the National Front, established in 1949 and led by the democratic reformer Muhammad Musaddiq (1881–1967). The National Front government of 1951–1953 was overthrown in a military coup supported by the United States and Great Britain, thus restoring effective authority to the shah.

see also Empire, Ottoman.


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Diekhoff, Alain. Invention of a Nation: Zionist Thought and the Making of Modern Israel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Khalidi, Rashid, Lisa Anderson, Muhammad Muslih, and Reeva S. Simon, eds. The Origins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Khalidi, Rashid. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Lewis, Bernard. The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Massad, Joseph A. Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Salibi, Kamal. A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Simon, Reeva S. Iraq Between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, updated edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

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