Arab Nationalism

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ideology that arabs are a nation.

The ideology that dominated the Arab world for most of the twentieth century, Arab nationalism, evolved, much as did other nationalisms in the developing world, out of a reaction to the prospect (and later the reality) of European domination and under the influence of European ideas about nationalism. The emerging ideology, whose core premise was that the Arabs are and have been a nation unified by language and a shared sense of history, but long divided and dominated by outside powers, drew on elements of the Arab and Islamic heritages. It incorporated them into a new narrative of Arab history and pride in the Arab past that was disseminated through the press and in novels, poetry, and popular histories.

By the 1920s, Arab nationalism was the hegemonic ideology of the eastern Arab worldthe mashriq and its influence continued to spread in succeeding decades. By the 1950s and 1960s, thanks to the espousal of Arab nationalism by the charismatic Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the capacities for mobilization, organization, and clandestine action of parties such as the Baʿth and the Movement of Arab Nationalists, it appeared to be ascendant throughout most of the more than twenty independent states of the Arab world. Its decline in succeeding decades has been just as rapid, with nation-state nationalist tendencies and Islamic radicalism filling the apparent vacuum.

The first stirrings of Arab nationalism have been detected by some historians as early as the 1860s, but it is more commonly accepted that as a sustained political movement it began early in the twentieth century. This followed the reimposition of the Ottoman constitution in 1908, and the greater freedom of the press and of political expression that resulted throughout the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A tendency that has since come to be known as "Arabism" rapidly appeared: It stressed the ethnic identity of the Arabs and emphasized their common cultural roots. It also called for equality for Arabs with other national groups within the empire. As well as being influenced by European models and by reinterpretations of the Arab and Islamic past, Arabism was strongly affected by the rise of nationalism among the Turks, Armenians, and other peoples of the Ottoman Empire at this time.

The Arabist tendency built on the work of several groups of writers and thinkers, including the pioneers of the renaissance of the Arabic language, the Nahda. Starting in the mid-nineteenth century, this group produced new printed editions of the classics of Arabic literature, as well as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and works of history and literature, mainly in Beirut and Cairo. Another group, whose work was influential in a different way, was the Islamic reformers known as salafis, most of them from Syria and Lebanon, who argued for a return to the practices of the earliest days of Islam, and thus emphasized the period of Islamic history when the Arabs were dominant. Among them were the writers Rashid Rida, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, Tahir al-Jaza'iri, Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi, and Abd al-Razzaq al-Bitar. In addition, there were authors and publishers who traveled to Egypt to escape the censorship that increasingly afflicted the rest of the Ottoman Empire after 1876, and remained to publish newspapers, journals, and books. All these groups contributed to the growth of the Arabist idea.

The Arabist tendency identified politically with the liberal opposition to the ruling Committee for Union and Progress (CUP) in the Ottoman Empire. This was partly a response to strong Turkish nationalist tendencies in the CUP, and partly to its policy of tight centralization, which infringed on the autonomy of the Arab provinces. Although this ArabTurkish tension did not erupt into open conflict until World War I, when the British helped to foment an Arab revolt in the Hijaz against the Ottoman state, it did have a lasting impact on the historiography of this and later periods. Some Arab writers reacted strongly against what they saw as Turkish suppression of Arab rights before the war, and the execution of some of the most prominent Arabist leaders during the war. This reaction engendered a version of Arab history that rendered the four centuries of Ottoman rule very negatively, in black and white, obliterating the nuancesand with them any understanding of the fruitful political and cultural symbiosis that characterized this lengthy period. This chauvinist version of modern Arab historywhich ascribed the "backwardness" that afflicted the Arabs throughout much of their history to outsidersis still influential in Arab schoolbooks and in much writing both within the Arab world and outside it.

In the wake of World War I, the Arabist aspiration to see an independent Arab state or federation of states stretching across the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian Peninsula was frustrated by Britain and France, which carved up the region into a series of mandates, protectorates, and nominally independent states, all of which were under the strong influence of their foreign patrons. The postwar response to European rule was a sequence of revolts in several Arab countries that impelled the granting of a measure of self-rule, and sometimes nominal independence, as in Egypt in 1922 and Iraq in 1932. The end result, however, was the perpetuation of the divisions that the European powers had imposed. Thereafter, within these new borders there gradually developed both a strong de facto attachment to the new states and the interests they represented, and a powerful, unrealized, and somewhat utopian aspiration for unity among them. Although these sentiments originated during the interwar years mainly in the newly created states of the Fertile CrescentSyria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraqthey were mirrored in other Arab regions in succeeding years, even in areas where the existing states had much older and more historically rooted foundations, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen, and Oman.

The tension between the contradictory sentiments of pan-Arabism and nation-state nationalism has characterized Arab politics since about 1945. On the one hand, most Arabs recognized that they had a common language, history, and culture, and that if these commonalities could find proper political expression, the Arab peoples might be able to rise above the fragmentation and weakness that have characterized their modern history. Such ideas were particularly appealing at the mass level, and long aroused the enthusiasm of the publics in many Arab countries. On the other hand, the states that existed in the Arab world for most of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first century are in some cases rooted in long-standing entities with a strong, independent administrative tradition, have all engendered a powerful network of vested interests, and in recent decades have taken on an aura of permanence. The existence of these separate Arab states was reinforced by the Charter of the League of Arab States, established in March 1945, which reaffirmed the independence of the signatory states, provided that decisions had to be made unanimously in order to be binding, and forbade interference in the internal affairs of any Arab state by others.

In practice, most Arab governments have at most times been motivated by pragmatic varieties of raison d'état rather than any ideological vision. At the same time, their leaders have often clothed their actions in visionary Arabist rhetoric. Such ideological motivations were never entirely absent from the actions of most governments, if only because their respective public opinions resonated to such ideas. The result appeared to be hypocrisy, whereby governments did things for one reason while claiming an entirely different one as their real motivation. The paradoxical effect of all this was to discredit Arabism as an ideology when the failures of the various nominally Arab nationalist regimes finally exasperated their citizens and Arab public opinion generally. The ensuing bankruptcy of Arab nationalism as an ideology, and of the parties and regimes that still espouse it, would appear to be among the enduring features of modern Arab politics.

see also armenians in the middle east; baʿth, al-; committee for union and progress; fertile crescent; kawakibi, abd al-rahman al-; league of arab states; nahda, al-; nasser, gamal abdel; rida, rashid; turks.


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Rashid Khalidi

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Arab Nationalism

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