Nationalism and Ethnicity: Pan-Arabism

views updated

Nationalism and Ethnicity: Pan-Arabism

The central premise of Arab nationalism is the idea that the Arab people are linked by special bonds of language and history (and, some would add, religion) and that their political structures should reflect in some sense this reality. Pan-Arabism, the desire or drive for Arab political unity through a unitary Arab state, is a corollary of Arab nationalism. Some scholars argue that it is possible to be an Arab nationalist and not a pan-Arabist, but others contend the two are inseparable, with unity an essential component of Arab nationalist ideology.

Differing concepts of nationalism are at the heart of the distinction between Arab nationalism and pan-Arab-ism, with the essential debate centered on whether nationalism is defined solely in cultural terms or includes a practical political dimension. Defined in cultural terms, nationalism is grounded in a common language and a shared history and destiny. With the addition of political terms, it goes beyond shared cultural elements to include the notion of sovereign independence. Discounting the ethnic, religious, and political divisions that have long existed in the Arab world, pan-Arabists argue that the political institutions of the region should reflect what they view as an indivisible Arab community.


Pan-Arabism as an ideology and political movement of Arab unity is grounded in the Arab nationalist ideology that began to develop in the Arab world in the second half of the nineteenth century. In this period, a tendency known as Arabism, to distinguish Arab nationalism from Ottomanism, emerged and began to spread across the Arab world. It stressed the ethnic identity of the Arabs, together with their common cultural roots, and called for the equality of Arabs with other national groups in the Ottoman Empire.

The Arabist tendency built on the work of a wide variety of individuals and movements. One of these was a group called the Nahda, Arabic for renaissance or awakening. Its members pioneered a cultural renaissance of the Arabic language that began in Egypt and later spread to other Arabic-speaking countries. Prominent members of the movement included the Egyptian Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi (1801–1873); Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897), who was born either in Afghanistan or Iran; and the Egyptian Muhammd Abduh (1849–1905). Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the Nahda produced new editions of the classics of Arabic literature, along with dictionaries, encyclopedias, and histories, mainly in Beirut and Cairo.

Islamic reformers known as the Salafis constituted a second influential group. This school of thought surfaced in the second half of the nineteenth century as a reaction to the spread of European ideas and worked to expose the roots of modernity within Muslim civilization. Originating largely in Lebanon and Syria, the members of this group argued for a return to the practices of the earliest days of Islam, emphasizing in the process the period of history in which the Arabs were dominant. While not always uniform in thought, the Syrians Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935), “Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1849–1902), Tahir al-Jaza'iri (1852–1920), and Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi (1866–1914) were among the more important representatives of this group.

In addition, almost every region and many districts in the Arab world had their own distinctive mix of journalists, pamphleteers, and preachers with their own conceptions of justice and order. The works of these lesser-known writers often mattered as much as those of well-to-do politicians and better-known intellectuals. In addition, there were thinkers and writers who migrated to Egypt to escape the censorship that increasingly throttled the Ottoman Empire after 1876 and then stayed on to publish newspapers, journals, and books. All of these

individuals and groups contributed to the growth of the Arabist idea.

As the Arabs organized to resist foreign occupation in the early twentieth century, a debate developed over which elements of the Arab heritage could best be employed as symbols around which to shape the image of Arab states. Some Arab writers continued to assert the primacy of Islamic bonds, while others, like the Syrian thinker and educator Sati' al-Husri (1880–1967), rejected Islamic sentiments in favor of a unified Arab nation bound by ties of Arab culture. For Husri, the Arab nation consisted of all who spoke Arabic as their mother tongue, no more and no less. Emphasizing secular components of the Arab heritage, he envisioned an Arab nation, unified politically and similar to European states.


Before World War I (1914–1918), the aging Ottoman Empire encompassed a large part of the Arab world. With the end of the war and the subsequent collapse of the empire, the League of Nations awarded much of the Arab world to France and Great Britain in the form of mandates. Aspiring to an independent Arab state or a federation of states from the Arabian Peninsula to the Fertile Crescent, pan-Arabist ambitions conflicted directly with the postwar policies of the European powers. Nascent movements supporting Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism existed well before the conclusion of World War I, and they became important considerations in the postwar peace talks on the future disposition of the former Ottoman territories. In this sense, the evolution of Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism as related movements was to some degree, albeit not entirely, a product of World War I and the subsequent dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

The period between the Young Turk revolt in 1908 and the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 was decisive for pan-Arabism. Arabist ideologies were the product of small numbers of people with diverse backgrounds and competing goals, with diversity more than continuity often characterizing their content and emphasis. After 1908, Arabist elements tended to identify with the liberal opposition to the ruling Committee for Union and Progress (CUP); nevertheless, most Arabs remained Ottomanists until after World War I, with Arab nationalism directed against Ottoman Arabs as much as it was against Ottoman Turks.


Arab attention in the ensuing two decades focused on obtaining political independence from European control as opposed to broader discussions of social reform or the adoption of a particular political system. In the process, budding Arab nationalism and vague formulations of Arab unity became increasingly interwoven with support for Palestinian Arabs in their opposition to Jewish land purchase and immigration. Syria became a center of Palestinian insurgent activity during the Arab revolts that began in 1936, protesting Zionism and Jewish settlement in Palestine. In September 1937, for example, the pan-Arab movement made itself known at a congress that met in Bludan, Syria, to deal with the problem of Palestine. At the conference, some four hundred nonofficial representatives of all the Arab countries met in an abortive attempt to create an Arab state allied with Great Britain.

As late as World War II (1939–1945), pan-Arabism in the sense of a political movement aimed at unifying the Arab nation remained centered on Iraq, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), founded in Beirut in 1932 by Antun Khalil Sa'ada (1904–1949), a Greek Orthodox intellectual, called for the creation of a Greater Syria, encompassing Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. Essentially a Syrian nationalist at the outset, Sa'ada was later compelled to widen the horizons of his nationalism to emphasize its Arab qualities.

In turn, the Arab Socialist Resurrection (Ba'th) Party, officially founded in Syria in 1947, called for comprehensive Arab unity in the form of a single Arab state stretching from the Arabian Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. While the three founders of the Ba'th Party—Michel Aflaq (1910–1989), a Greek Orthodox Christian from Damascus; Salah al-Din Bitar (1912–1980), a Sunni Muslim also from Damascus; and Zaki Arsuzi (1900–1968), an Alawi Muslim from Alexandretta—seemed an unlikely trio to effect revolutionary change in society and politics, they shared a belief in Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism, defining the latter as a unitary Arab state. Over much of the next three decades, Ba'thism flourished in Syria, and Ba'thist ideology also enjoyed some prominence in Iraq in the 1950s and 1960s. Following his rise to power in November 1970, Syrian President Hafez al-Asad (1930–2000) co-opted pan-Syrianism into what has been characterized as Syro-centric Arabism, and the Ba'th Party, together with the SSNP, cooperated as never before.

In contrast to these pan-Arab movements in the Fertile Crescent, neither Egypt nor the Maghrib, the western Arab world, played a significant role in the development of pan-Arabism until the end of World War II. In Egypt, attention in the interwar period focused on the creation of Egyptian nationalism. In the Maghrib, evidence of nationalist feeling was visible, especially in Tunisia, where the Neo-Destour Party was created in 1934 with future president Habib Bourguiba (1903–2000) a prominent member of its political bureau; however, nascent nationalist

movements across North Africa generally lacked unity and direction. At the same time, events in Palestine were as troubling to Arabs along the southern shore of the Mediterranean as they were to their compatriots elsewhere in the Middle East. Unable to express their growing anger over events in Palestine directly against the distant Jewish community in Palestine, Arabs from Egypt to Morocco often vented it locally against Jews who in most cases had little or no connection to Zionism.


After World War II, with the League of Nations mandates revoked, many Arab nations achieved independence. In Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970) and the Free Officers movement seized power in 1952. While they inherited the nationalist ideology that had developed in the interwar period, the ideology behind the Egyptian nation-building process had become outmoded in terms of mid-twentieth-century political and social conditions. Instead, Nasser argued that the Arab nations enjoyed a unity of language, religion, history, and culture, which they should build on to create their own system of cooperation and defense.

Nasser began to assume the role of all-Arab leader as early as the spring of 1955, when he launched a concerted diplomatic offensive against the Baghdad Pact, a regional defense body sponsored by the West to counter Soviet military threats. His trip to the Bandung Afro-Asian conference in April 1955, a large arms deal with Czechoslovakia in September 1955, and his nationalization of the Suez Canal in July 1956 constituted further steps on the road to pan-Arabism. By the end of 1956, his pan-Arab policy was fully crystallized, and Nasser was universally recognized as the leader of pan-Arabism.

The peak of both Nasser's popularity and pan-Arab-ism as a political movement occurred between the July 1956 Suez crisis and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. In February 1958, Egypt and Syria proclaimed the United Arab Republic (UAR), a formal union that appeared a precursor to wider Arab unity. Backward Yemen soon associated with the fledgling organization, and following the July 1958 revolution in Iraq, the latter was also expected to join. In the end, Iraq failed to associate, and the early momentum in support of formal Arab unity was soon lost. In September 1961, Syria seceded from the union, and ties with Yemen were cut in 1962.

Following Syria's withdrawal from the UAR in September 1961, Nasser introduced Arab socialism into Egyptian revolutionary ideology. Thereafter, the Nasse-rists viewed a socialist revolution as a prerequisite to Arab unity. As a result, a core premise of Arab nationalism, unification of all Arab states from the Arabian Peninsula to the Atlantic Ocean, lost its primacy and became condi-tional on the success of a socialist revolution in each Arab state. This shift in policy was fully visible by 1962 when Nasser replaced the National Union, formally established in May 1957, with the Arab Socialist Union as Egypt's sole political party. The socialist trend in the Arab world was further strengthened by the subsequent declaration of a socialist state in an independent Algeria.

The Arab defeat in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War dealt a severe psychological blow to the prestige of Arab leaders and the confidence of the Arab people. The defeat undermined the legitimacy of key revolutionary regimes, especially the pan-Arabists in Cairo and Damascus, and in particular, it discredited the Nasser regime, devaluing its policies. In the wake of the disaster, many observers viewed the June 1967 war as the Waterloo of pan-Arabism.

Several post-1967 political events in the Arab world combined to highlight the change that had taken place. With the death of Nasser in 1970, Anwar Sadat moved Egyptian foreign policy in an increasingly independent direction in which pan-Arabism was subordinated to Egyptian concerns and interests. In Syria, the elevation of Hafez al-Assad (1930–2000) in 1970 saw the Ba'thist commitment to Arab unity decline in favor of a more pragmatic ideology. In Palestine, the failure of conventional Arab armies to destroy Israel led Palestinians to resolve to do more for themselves in the guise of Palestinian nationalism. Elsewhere, nation-state nationalism and Islamist radicalism gradually supplanted whatever pan-Arabist spirit remained in the Arab world.

While on the ropes after 1967, reports of the death of pan-Arabism proved somewhat premature. The Free Unionist Officers, led by Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi (b. 1942), overthrew the Libyan monarchy on September 1, 1969, and at his first press conference in February 1970, Qaddafi produced a formula for a joint Arab politics. Thereafter, the Libyan leader repeatedly described the unification of Arab governments into a single state as an absolute necessity. Over the next two decades, he persisted in pursuing practical attempts at Arab unity even though the idea had been widely discredited elsewhere in the Arab world. From 1970 to 1974, for example, Libya engaged in serious, often prolonged, union discussions with Egypt (twice), Syria, Sudan, and Tunisia (twice).

After 1974, Qaddafi continued to promote Arab unity, but it was now more of a long-term goal as opposed to an immediately recognizable objective. The late 1970s was a period in which Qaddafi appeared to recognize more clearly the ethnic, political, and other divisions in the path of pan-Arabism, although he still refused to accept them. In September 1980, Libya and Syria proclaimed a merger, declaring their determination to form a unified government; however, the obstacles they faced in doing so were not so surprising. In 1984, Libya and Morocco announced

a federation, known as the Arab-African Union, in which both parties retained their sovereignty. This new organization provided for considerably less that Qaddafi's oft-stated goal of full and integral Arab unity and lasted less than two years. Five years later, Libya joined Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia in creating the Arab Maghrib Union, a regional organization modeled after the European Community and intended to promote economic cooperation, not political union. Frustrated with numerous failed attempts to promote pan-Arabism in terms of practical political union, Qaddafi later turned his attention to African unity, calling as early as 1999 for a United States of Africa.


Since the death of Egyptian president Nasser in 1970, no Arab leader has enjoyed significant, prolonged political support outside his own country. In part for this reason, various attempts over the years to unite different Arab countries have succeeded in only one case, the union of North and South Yemen in 1990, and pan-Arabism as an ideology played little or no role in that instance. Loyalty to contemporary Arab regimes is more often based on ethnic, tribal, or regional grounds, for example the monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula and Morocco, or on repression and coercion, as in Libya and Syria.

On the other hand, issues of national identity have become increasingly important in many parts of the Arab and Islamic world. Non-Arab ethnic minorities, which historically posed no serious threat to established governments, have assumed new political roles with often-divisive national and international overtones. Examples include the Kurds in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey; Berber minorities in North Africa; and the Tuareg in particular in the Sahel regions of Algeria, Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger.

By the 1990s, Islamist political movements, inspired in part by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, were also growing in popularity and strength throughout the Arab world, often supplanting the earlier enthusiasm for pan-Arabism. These movements promoted conflict between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds and often also led to clashes between Sunni and Sh'ia factions, notably in Iraq. Finally, the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio, once a powerful motivator for pan-Arabism, increasingly became a source of discontent and disunion as the Arab world divided between rejectionists and those states willing to seek accommodation with Israel. In consequence, the time of pan-Arabism as a widely accepted doctrine and political movement appeared to have passed by the end of the twentieth century. While pan-Arabism was not dead, it was mostly a spent force.


Ajami, Fouad. 1992. The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice since 1967. Updated ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Choueiri, Youssef M. 2000. Arab Nationalism: A History: Nation and State in the Arab World. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

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

Dawn, C. Ernest. 1973. From Ottomanism to Arabism: Essays on the Origins of Arab Nationalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Doran, Michael. 1999. Pan-Arabism before Nasser: Egyptian Power Politics and the Palestine Question. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Farah, Tawfic E., ed. 1987. Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism: The Continuing Debate. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Haim, Sylvia, ed. 1962. Arab Nationalism: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hourani, Albert. 1962. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kayali, Hasan. 1997. Arabs and Young Turks: Ottomanism, Arabism, and Islamism in the Ottoman Empire, 1908–1918. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

Khoury, Philip S. 1983. Urban Notables and Arab Nationalism: The Politics of Damascus, 1860–1920. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Mufti, Malik. 1996. Sovereign Creations: Pan-Arabism and Political Order in Syria and Iraq. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Provence, Michael. 2005. The Great Syrian Revolt and the Rise of Arab Nationalism. Austin: University of Texas Press.

St John, Ronald Bruce. 1987. Qaddafi's World Design: Libyan Foreign Policy, 1969–1987. London: Saqi.

Ronald Bruce St John

About this article

Nationalism and Ethnicity: Pan-Arabism

Updated About content Print Article


Nationalism and Ethnicity: Pan-Arabism