Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Middle East

views updated

Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Middle East

The origin and evolution of Middle Eastern nationalism remains a controversial topic. In the traditional view, nationalism preceded and gave birth to the nation-states that evolved out of the Ottoman Empire (c. 1301–1922). Members of oppressed national groups, deprived of their cultural, economic, or political rights, demanded states independent of Ottoman domination. A more recent interpretation argues that the nation-state often preceded nationalism, with the latter only subsequently emerging. According to this line of thought, the new state, in order to prosper and preserve itself, created and promoted the growth of national identity within its borders. These two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, and because the Ottoman Empire was a highly diverse collection of ethnic and religious bodies, both find some support in the available evidence.


In parts of the Ottoman Empire, tendencies toward nationalism were clearly visible in the second half of the nineteenth century; however, most of them did not develop into sustained political movements until the early twentieth century. While the evidence of mounting discontent is clear, the motivations of the disparate separatist movements often remain in doubt. According to most contemporary observers, the Ottoman Empire was well intentioned in its reform efforts, but the incomplete nature of those reforms left many subjects discontented. For example, the state in the second half of the nineteenth century attempted to bring about some level of equality between Muslims and non-Muslims, as well as more equitable relations between elites and common citizens; however, the slow implementation of those steps resulted in mounting frustration and led to occasional revolts. Another school of thought, prominent in the first half of the twentieth century, is less kind to the Ottoman administration, emphasizing what many of the empire's subjects viewed as economic and political oppression. Deprived of political rights and driven by mounting poverty as a result of Ottoman maladministration, local leaders, according to this school of thought, inevitably developed nationalist sentiments that led to independence movements.

Armenian nationalism, for example, had its roots in the mid-sixteenth century, but it did not become a prominent issue in the Ottoman Empire until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Following the Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878), the ensuing Congress of Berlin (1878) mentioned the possibility of an autonomous Armenia, transforming the issue from an internal problem into an international one. Thereafter,

the Ottoman administration looked upon any expression of Armenian national identity as a possible precursor for the realization of an autonomous state. Unparalleled in ferocity and scope, Ottoman attacks against its Armenian population led to what many scholars have described as massacres in 1895 to 1896, 1908, 1909, 1912, and finally and most notably, 1915 to 1916. While this is the dominant view, a minority of observers, including some non-Turks, argue the number of Armenians killed in this period was exaggerated. Outside Armenia, manifestations of Armenian nationalism, marked by a strong component of a lost time and place, can still be found today within Armenian diasporic communities.

From at least the late nineteenth century, the Kurdish minority in the Ottoman Empire also made repeated efforts to achieve self-rule if not statehood. The Kurdish poet Haji Qadiri Koyi (1818–1897) was among the first to express modernist nationalist ideas, and a failed Kurdish revolt against the Ottoman Empire occurred as early as 1879 to 1880. The Constitutional Revolution in Iran from 1906 to 1911 and the Young Turk revolt in Turkey in 1908 later combined to deny the Kurds any degree of self-rule. The end of World War I (1914–1918) led to the redistribution of Ottoman Kurdistan among the newly formed states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Over the ensuing decades, repeated nationalist revolts took place in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, but none of them led to the creation of an independent Kurdistan. Kurdish nationalism remains a powerful force in parts of five modern states, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, which constitute a nominal Kurdistan; however, only one small province in Iran is officially named Kurdistan.

Tendencies toward Arab nationalism were visible as early as the 1860s, but they did not develop into a small but sustained political movement until the early twentieth century, following the Young Turk revolt and the subsequent restoration of the Ottoman constitution of 1876. These events led to greater freedom of the press and increased political expression throughout the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire. A tendency that came to be known as Arabism, a term used to describe early Arab nationalism and to differentiate it from Ottoman-ism, emerged at this time and began to spread throughout the Arab world. Stressing the ethnic identity of the Arabs and their common cultural roots, Arabism called for the equality of Arabs with other national groups within the empire. Influenced by European models of nationalism, Arabism was also influenced by reinterpre-tations of the Arab and Islamic past, as well as the rise of nationalism among other ethnic groups, like the Armenians and Kurds.

When considering the competing forms of nationalist expression present in the Middle East at the outset of the twentieth century, the divisive impact of local and regional attachments as well as the cultural pluralism of the region must be recognized. The incomplete and unsettled nature of political identity throughout the Ottoman Empire was an underlying but highly important cause of the turbulence that came to characterize twentieth-century Middle Eastern politics. The Muslim majority itself was never a unified entity, and the competition did not stop at the Sunni-Sh'ia divide. It extended to lesser sects, like the Zaydis of Yemen, the Alawites of Syria, and the Druze of Lebanon, often small in number but highly influential in a locality or region. In addition, there were non-Muslim Arabs, including Christians and Jews, and non-Arab Muslims, including Berbers and Kurds. This potpourri of peoples, races, and religions fostered a variety of competing nationalist movements, including Islamic nationalism and Zionism. As early as the Young Turk period, for example, increasingly visible Zionist activity in Palestine became a regional political issue with Arab nationalists who were becoming wary of the Zionist challenge, charging that the Young Turks supported Zionism.

As is evident from this discussion of Armenian, Kurdish, and Arab nationalism, the growth of nationalist movements played a role in the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, it would appear that the overwhelming majority of Ottoman subjects, as late as World War I, were seeking reform as opposed to separation and would have remained within an Ottoman state framework if that political entity had continued to exist. As late as the 1915–1916 period, for example, an Arab revolt in the Hijaz led by Sharif Husayn (1854–1931), the head of the Hashemite clan and the guardian of Mecca, was viewed with disfavor by many politically concerned Arabs in the Fertile Crescent.

With the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, there was no longer an established political order standing in the way of diverse nationalist movements. Turkish nationalism had roots in the mid-nineteenth century and was a motivating force during the Turkish war of independence (1919–1923). Mustafa Kemal AtatÜrk (1881–1938), the founder of the modern Turkish nation, later encouraged the inhabitants of Anatolia to embrace Kemalism, officially adopted as the ideology of the ruling party in 1931. Kemalism emphasized six themes: nationalism, republicanism, populism, statism, secularism, and devrimgilik, interpreted by moderates as reformism and by radicals as revolution. Confronted with a new nation with a wide variety of ethnicities, races, and religions, AtatÜrk advocated an inclusive form of nationalism in which a Turk was defined as anyone who spoke Turkish or called himself or herself a Turk.


After World War I, Arab nationalism began to take form as a wider political movement. In competition with Islam and nation-state nationalism as alternative political ideologies, the influence of Arab nationalism slowly spread throughout the Mashriq or eastern Arab world, and in succeeding decades, throughout the entire region. Aspiring to an independent Arab state or a federation of states from the Arabian Peninsula to the Fertile Crescent, Arabist ambitions conflicted with the postwar policies of France and Great Britain in the Middle East. Under the auspices of the League of Nations, the European powers had divided the region into mandates, protectorates, and nominally independent states, all of which were strongly influenced by their European patrons.

The perpetuation of these artificial political divisions imposed by the European powers encouraged the evolution of competing forms of nationalism. On the one hand, the citizens of the newly created nation-states naturally began to develop attachments to them and the interests they represented. On the other, there remained this powerful, unrealized, and somewhat utopian aspiration for unity among all the Arab peoples. These conflicting nationalist sentiments first surfaced during the interwar years in the newly created nation-states of the Fertile Crescent, namely, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria; however, they were mirrored in later years in other Arab lands, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Tunisia, and Yemen.

At the same time, the considerable variation in the origins and evolution of nationalism in the widely scattered areas of the Middle East must be acknowledged. The Arab revolt in the Hijaz (1916) was directed against centralization rather than foreign rule, and development of Arab nationalism in this area rested less on the revolt itself and more on the subsequent imposition of European mandates. In Iraq, nationalism was more anti-European than anti-Ottoman. In Libya, nationalism, anti-imperialism, and pan-Islamic loyalties were closely associated following the failure in 1923 of efforts to win political autonomy. In Egypt, the nationalist Wafd Party, with a goal of complete and total independence, was the governing party for much of the so-called liberal period, which ended with a military coup in 1952. The interwar period also witnessed the creation in Egypt of The Society of Muslim Brothers. Founded by Shayk Hasan al-Banna (1906–1949) in 1928, the Brotherhood advocated an orthodox Islamic view of society and politics. In contrast, Reza Pahlavi (1878–1944), who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in 1925, urged Iranian nationalism on the country's many ethnic minorities to facilitate the building of a modern state.

In the interwar period, Arab nationalism received its first major challenge in the form of Zionism, a competing ethnic nationalism. Created to foster the establishment of a Jewish state, Zionism was based on the idea that Jews, wherever they resided, constituted a single people. Early Zionists explored a variety of locations for a future Jewish state, including Uganda in East Africa and Cyrenaica in contemporary Libya; however, the first World Zionist Congress, organized by Theodore Herzl (1860–1904) in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, set its sights on Palestine. Impressed by the vigor of the challenger, Arab writers in the 1930s addressed the strengths of Zionism point by point in an effort to stimulate Arabism.

The tension between the conflicting sentiments of Arab and nation-state nationalism continued in the wake of World War II (1939–1945). On the one hand, there was widespread recognition throughout the Arab world that Arabs shared a culture, history, and language, commonalities that might be used to create a joint political expression and enable them to overcome the fragmentation and weakness that characterized their recent history. These ideas were especially appealing to the Arab masses, often referred to in contemporary times as the Arab street, and were skillfully exploited by politicians and publicists to generate enthusiasm within individual countries and throughout the region. On the other hand, the longer the post–World War I nation-states endured, the more they engendered a powerful network of vested interests and took on an aura of permanence.

The Charter of the League of Arab States, or the Arab League, established in March 1945, epitomized this growing paradox. An organization whose very creation was a function of Arab nationalism reaffirmed in its charter the independence of the signatory states, required decisions to be made unanimously and to be binding, and rejected interference in the internal affairs of any Arab state by others. The principal test of the Arab League came with the partition of Palestine in 1947 and the creation of Israel in 1948, events that traumatized the Arab body politic. The outcome of the Palestine war also challenged the validity of the concept of separate states aligned in a loose confederation, and in so doing, it put heightened emphasis on the need for unity among the Arabs.


The 1950s and 1960s proved to be the heyday of Arab nationalism, a time in which it was the predominant ideology in the Middle East. Thanks in large part to the charismatic Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970), together with the organization and mobilization skills of parties and movements like the Ba'th

(Arab Socialist Resurrection) Party in Syria and the Movement of Arab Nationalists in Palestine and elsewhere, Arab nationalism was on the ascent throughout the Arab world. In Egypt, Arab nationalism supplanted Egyptian nationalism following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. While the Suez crisis in 1956 confirmed Nasser in his role as an all-Arab leader, he had begun to assume the mantle in early 1955 when he launched a vigorous diplomatic offensive against the Baghdad Pact (a 1955 agreement guaranteeing its signatories' security: Great Britain, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Pakistan).Nasser's popularity and Arab nationalism both peaked in the long decade between the July 1956 Suez crisis and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The decline of Arab nationalism proved as rapid as its ascent. The Arab defeat in the June 1967 war dealt a severe blow to the prestige of Arab leaders and to the confidence of the Arab people, undermining the legitimacy of revolutionary regimes from Cairo to Damascus. Following the death of Nasser in 1970, Anwar Sadat (1918–1981) pursued an increasingly independent policy in which Arab nationalism was subordinated to Egyptian interests and concerns. In Syria, the rise to power of Hafez al-Assad (1930–2000) in 1970 marked the decline of the Ba'thist commitment to Arab nationalism and unity in favor of a more pragmatic ideology. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein (1937–2006) dominated the political scene after 1968 in a ruthless dictatorship marked less by nationalism and more by the use of violence on a scale unmatched in the country's history. In Iran, the overthrow of Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919–1980) in 1979 led to the proclamation of an Islamic republic. For the Palestinians, the lesson they took from the 1967 war was that they could not depend on Arab armies to defeat Israel; therefore, they resolved in the guise of Palestinian nationalism to do more in the future for themselves. As for Zionism, Israel's victory in the June 1967 war, accompanied as it was by an occupation of Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, strengthened the Zionist movement, which was galvanized by a new religious zealotry.

The Libyan leader, Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi (b. 1942), after his Free Unionist Officers movement ousted the Libyan monarchy on September 1, 1969, attempted to revive Arab nationalism through his Third Universal Theory and in the subsequent publication of his socio-economic and political manifesto, The Green Book (1974). Qaddafi embraced Arab nationalism, and the revolutionary ideology developed under its umbrella provided the framework for Libyan foreign policy after 1969; nevertheless, his approach to the subject added nothing new in terms of content or direction. Modeling his speeches on those delivered by Nasser some two decades earlier, Qaddafi's reiteration of tired, shopworn, and discredited ideas fell on deaf ears.


Nationalism and ethnicity remain important political forces in the contemporary Middle East. As the power of Arab nationalism declined, it was increasingly challenged by nation-state nationalism and the reemergence of Islamist ideologies that provided an alternate political discourse and social movement in the Muslim world. Even as they occasionally supported the wider concept of Arab unity, the leaders of nation-states from Syria to Egypt to Algeria have nurtured the growth of national identity as a means to promote nation-building and to generate political support for the domestic and foreign policies of standing governments. At the same time, ethnic identities and solidarities, like the aforementioned Kurds or the Tuareg in Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger, have continued to challenge national autonomy in many parts of the region, seeking socio-economic and political recognition across state or national boundaries. Finally, the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 gave rise to opposition movements throughout the Middle East critical of the adoption by Muslim elites of the Western ideologies of nationalism, secularism, and socialism, calling instead for the restoration of Islamic law.


Akçam, Taner. 2004. From Empire to Republic: Turkish Nationalism and the Armenian Genocide. London: Zed.

Anderson, Betty S. 2005. Nationalist Voices in Jordan: The Street and the State. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Cagaptay, Soner. 2006. Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is a Turk? London: Routledge.

Dawisha, Adeed. 2003. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gelvin, James L. 1998. Divided Loyalties: Nationalism and Mass Politics in Syria at the Close of Empire. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gershoni, Israel, and James Jankowski. 1986. Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900–1930. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gershoni, Israel, and James Jankowski. 1995. Redefining the Egyptian Nation, 1930–1945. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Gershoni, Israel, and James Jankowski, eds. 1997. Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hinnebusch, Raymond. 2001. Syria: Revolution from Above. London: Routledge.

Jabar, Faleh A., ed. 2006. The Kurds: Nationalism and Politics. London: Saqi.

Khalidi, Rashid. 1998. Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness. New York: Columbia University Press.

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

Laqueur, Walter. 2003. The History of Zionism. 3rd ed. London: Tauris.

McDowall, David. 2004. A Modern History of the Kurds. 3rd ed. London: Tauris.

Muslih, Muhammad. 1988. The Origins of Palestinian Nationalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Panossian, Razmik. 2006. The Armenians: From Kings and Priests to Merchants and Commissars. New York: Columbia University Press.

Poulton, Hugh. 1997. Top Hat, Grey Wolf, and Crescent: Turkish Nationalism and the Turkish Republic. New York: New York University Press.

Quataert, Donald. 2000. The Ottoman Empire, 1700–1922. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

St John, Ronald Bruce. 2008. Libya: From Colony to Independence. Oxford: Oneworld.

El-Solh, Raghid. 2003. Lebanon and Arabism: National Identity and State Formation. London: Tauris.

Takeyh, Ray. 2006. Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic. New York: Times Books.

Talhami, Ghada Hashem. 1992. Palestine and Egyptian National Identity. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Tripp, Charles. 2007. A History of Iraq. 3rd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Zoubir, Yahia, and Haizam Amirah-Fernández, eds. 2008. North Africa: Politics, Region, and the Limits of Transformation. London: Routledge.

Ronald Bruce St John

About this article

Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Middle East

Updated About content Print Article


Nationalism and Ethnicity: The Middle East