Nationalism: Arab

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Ideals of Arab nationalism were extremely influential in the Middle East in the twentieth century. Emerging from nineteenth-century debates about the role of Islam in the modern world and crystallized by anti-imperialist movements after the First World War, Arab nationalists shaped the political ideologies of newly independent nations as they struggled to forge a postcolonial identity for the Middle East.

Pan-Islamic thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839–1897) and Muhammad ˓Abduh (1849–1905) were early inspirations for the emergent Arab nationalist ideology. Al-Afghani despaired at the increased dominance of European empires in the Muslim world, but believed that Islamic governments could counteract Western influence if it was stripped of corruption and instilled with the values of Muslim unity, using the early caliphate as a model of success. ˓Abduh, al-Afghani's most famous student, furthered his mentor's ideas with his book Risalah al-tawhid (A treatise on the oneness of God), asserting the compatibility of Islam with the modern world. By founding the Salifiyya movement and reopening the doors of ijtihad, ˓Abduh challenged Muslims to stand up to their governments if they believed the values of Islam were being crushed. At the same time, modern technologies and Western-style reforms were acceptable if interpreted as benefiting Muslim society.

These pan-Islamic thinkers inspired others to think in more local terms. ˓Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1854–1902), the author of The Nature of Despotism and The Mother of Cities, Mecca, was a Syrian journalist and student of ˓Abduh who believed that the decline of the Middle East to the West was due to the Ottoman Empire and the fact that non-Arabs had taken control of the region. Because Islam was reveled to the Arabs in the Arabic language, al-Kawakibi saw the Middle East as being at its zenith when Arabs ruled. He promoted the idea that Arab leadership was perfect and argued that, if it were to be restored, the region would revive morally and politically. This became the basis of several independence movements, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War.

Faced with the end of Turkish rule but the continuance of French and British rule in the Arab world, many Arab thinkers formulated programs for nationalist liberation based on ethnic identity. One of the most important was the Syrian Sati˓ al-Husri (1880–1968). Al-Husri wrote three influential tracts: Arabism First, On Arab Nationalism, and What is Nationalism? These pamphlets asked all Arabs—both Muslim and Christian—to unite under one state, privileging shared language and culture as the bond between them all. Al-Husri hoped that by focusing on the great past of the Arab world rather than only Islam, Christian and Muslim Arabs would join together to fight against foreign imperialism.

Fellow Syrians Michel ˓Aflaq (1912–1989) and Salah al-Din al-Bitar (1911–1980) followed al-Husri's lead by merging socialist anti-imperialist thought with pan-Arabist ideals. Founders of the Ba˓th ("resurrection") movement in the 1940s, ˓Aflaq and al-Bitar drew on the past of the Arabs as leaders of the Islamic world and called for a revival of unity to overthrow foreign oppression and implement social justice. Two major events concurrent with the establishment of the Ba˓th movement—the creation of Israel and the subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and the emergence of a fully independent Egypt in the 1950s—catapulted the ideals of Arab nationalism into political reality.

Devastated by the losses of the Arab forces to Israel and the massive crisis of Palestinian refugees, members of the Arab League (founded in 1945) looked to Egypt to lead the Arab world to greatness. With the successful 1952 revolution against the monarchy led by Jamal ˓Abd al-Nasser (1918–1970), Egypt did become the center of Arab nationalist rhetoric and action. Nasser's leadership in the nonalignment movement against the Baghdad Pact of 1954 and his successful nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 made the world take notice of the ideals of Arab strength and national unity. In the 1960s, the Ba˓th movement came to power and ruled in Syria and Iraq through Revolutionary Command Councils.

However, the failed union between Egypt and Syria as the United Arab Republic (1958–1961), the humiliating defeat of the Arab armies against the Israelis in the war of 1967, and the split between the Ba˓th regimes in Syria and Iraq underscored the real difficulties of creating a gigantic Arab super-state. Although leaders in the 1970s and 1980s tried to rally their populations behind Arab nationalist rhetoric, the Gulf War of 1991, which pitted Arab nations against each other, destroyed the dreams of Arab nationalists. This left the people of the Arab world searching for viable alternatives to the ideals that had seemed so promising earlier in the century.

See also˓Abd al-Nasser, Jamal ; ˓Abd al-Rahman Kawakibi ; ˓Abduh, Muhammad ; Afghani, Jamal al-Din ; Arab League ; Ba˓th Party ; Nationalism: Iranian ; Nationalism: Turkish ; Pan-Arabism ; Pan-Islam ; Reform: Arab Middle East and North Africa .


Cleveland, William L. A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.

Khalidi, Rashid; Anderson, Lisa; and Simon, Reeva, eds. TheOrigins of Arab Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Nancy L. Stockdale

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Nationalism: Arab

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Nationalism: Arab