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Not to be confused with Pan-Arabism

Arab nationalism (Arabic: القومية العربيةal-qawmiyya al-`arabiyya) is a nationalist ideology which rose to prominence fummongst Arabs from the early 20th century onwards.[1] It started in West Asia & spread to North Africa to form the Arab League. Its central premise is that the peoples and countries of the Arab World, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian Sea, constitute one nation and are bound together by their common linguistic, cultural, religious, and historical heritage.[2][3] Their use for Modern Standard Arabic as the main written language & the Islamic faith predominance, consequently meant for the ideology that they have a common culture. One of the primary goals of Arab nationalism is the end, or at least the minimization, of direct Western influence in the, so called, Arab World, and the removal of those Arab governments considered to be dependent upon acquiescence to Western interests to the detriment of their people. Pan-Arabism is a related concept, which not only asserts the singularity of the "Arab Nation", but calls for the creation of a single Arab state. Thus, whilst all Pan-Arabists are Arab nationalists, not all Arab nationalists are Pan-Arabists.



Arab nationalists believe that the Arab nation had existed as a historical entity prior to the rise of nationalism in the 19th-20th century. The Arab nation was formed through the gradual establishment of Arabic as the language of communication and with the advent of Islam as a religion and culture in the region. Both Arabic and Islam served as the pillars of the nation. According to writer Youssef Choueiri, Arab nationalism represents the "Arabs' consciousness of their specific characteristics as well as their endeavor to build a modern state capable of representing the common will of the nation and all its constituent parts."[4]

Within the Arab nationalist movement are three differentiations: the Arab nation, Arab nationalism, and pan-Arab unity. Jamil al-Sayyid, a founder of the Arab nationalist Ba'ath party, claims the nation is the group of people who speak Arabic, inhabit the Arab world, and who have a feeling of belonging to the same nation. Nationalism is the "sum total" of the characteristics and qualities exclusive to the Arab nation, whereas pan-Arab unity is the modern idea which stipulates that the separate Arab countries should unify to form a single state under one political system.[5]

Local patriotism centered on individual Arab countries was incorporated into the framework of Arab nationalism starting in the 1920s. This was done by positioning the Arabian Peninsula as the homeland of the Semitic peoples (the Canaanites and Syriacs of the Levant and the Assyrians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia) who migrated throughout the Middle East in ancient times or by associating the other pre-Islamic cultures, such as those of Egypt and North Africa, into an evolving Arab identity.[6]

The modern Arabic language actually has two distinct words which can be translated into English as "nationalism": qawmiyya قومية, derived from the word qawm (meaning "tribe, ethnic nationality"), and wataniyya وطنية, derived from the word watan (meaning "homeland, native country"). The word qawmiyya has been used to refer to pan-Arab nationalism, while wataniyya has been used to refer to patriotism at a more local level (sometimes disparaged as "regionalism" by those who consider pan-Arabism the only true form of Arab nationalism).[7]

In the post-World War years, the concept of qawmiyya "gradually assumed a leftist coloration, calling for ... the creation of revolutionary Arab unity."[8] Groups who subscribed to this point of view advocated opposition, violent and non-violent, against Israel and against Arabs who did not subscribe to this point of view. The person most identified with qawmiyya was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who used both military and political power to spread his version of pan-Arab ideology throughout the Arab world. George Habash, the founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, influenced Palestinian Arabs to accept a Nasserist approach to politics. While qawmiyya still remains a potent political force today, the death of Nasser and the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War has weakened faith in this ideal. The current dominant ideology among Arab policy makers has shifted to wataniyya.[9]




Throughout the late 19th century, beginning in the 1860s, a sense of loyalty to the "Fatherland" developed in intellectual circles based in the Levant and Egypt, but not necessarily an "Arab Fatherland". It developed from observance of the technological successes of Western Europe which they attributed to the prevailing of patriotism in those countries.[10] During this period, a heavy influx of Christian missionaries and educators from Western countries the provided what was termed the "Arab political revival", resulting in the establishment of secret societies within the empire.[11][3]

In the 1860s, literature produced in the Mashreq (the Levant and Mesopotamia) which was under Ottoman control at the time, contained emotional intensity and strongly condemned the Ottoman Turks for "betraying Islam" and the Fatherland to the Christian West. In the view of Arab patriots, Islam had not always been in a "sorry state" and attributed the military triumphs and cultural glories of the Arabs to the advent of the religion, insisting that European modernism itself was of Islamic origin. The Arabs, on the other hand, had deviated from true Islam and thus suffered decline. The reforming Ottoman and Egyptian governments were blamed for the situation because they attempted to borrow Western practices from the Europeans that were seen as unnatural and corrupt. The Arab patriots' view was that the Islamic governments should revive true Islam that would in turn, pave way for the establishment of constitutional representative government and freedom which, though Islamic in origin, was manifested in the West at the time.[12]

Arabism and regional patriotism (such as in Egypt or in the Levant) mixed and gained predominance over Ottomanism by some Arabs in Syria and Lebanon. Ibrahim al-Yazigi, a Lebanese Christian philosopher, called for the Arabs to "recover their lost ancient vitality and throw off the yoke of the Turks" in 1868. A secret society promoting this goal was formed in the late 1870s, with al-Yazigi as a member. The group placed placards in Beirut calling for a rebellion against the Ottomans. Meanwhile, other Lebanese and Damascus-based notables, mostly Muslims, formed similar secret movements, although they differed as some Christian Arab groups called for a completely independent Lebanon while the Muslim Arab societies generally promoted an autonomous Greater Syria still under Ottoman rule.[13]

By the beginning of the 20th century, groups of Muslim Arabs embraced an Arab nationalist "self-view" that would provide as the basis of the Arab nationalist ideology of the 20th century. This new version of Arab patriotism was directly influenced by the Islamic modernism and revivalism of Muhammad Abduh, the Egyptian Muslim scholar. Abduh believed the Arabs' Muslim ancestors bestowed "rationality on mankind and created the essentials of modernity," borrowed by the West. Thus, while Europe advanced from adopting the modernist ideals of true Islam, the Muslims failed, corrupting and abandoning true Islam.[13] Abduh influenced modern Arab nationalism in particular, because the revival of true Islam's ancestors (who were Arabs) would also become the revival of Arab culture and the restoration of the Arab position as the leaders of the Islamic world. One of Abduh's followers, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, openly declared that the Ottoman Empire should be both Turkish and Arab, with the latter exercising religious and cultural leadership.[14]

Rise of modern Arab nationalism

The members of al-Fatat at a resort near Damascus. Bottom row (left to right): Tawfiq al-Hayyani, Fayez al-Shihabi, Rafiq al-Tamimi, Awni Abd al-Hadi, Ahmad Qadri, Mu'in al-Madi, Tawfiq al-Yazagi, and Sa'id Talab. Middle row (L to R): Wasfi al-Atassi, Ahmad Muraywed, Shukri al-Quwatli, Bahjat al-Shihabi, Saleem al-Attar, Zaki al-Tamimi, Husni al-Barazi. Top Row (L to R): Adil al-Azma, Rushdi al-Husami, Riad as-Solh, Saadallah al-Jabiri, Afif as-Solh, Izzat Darwaza.

In 1911, Muslim intellectuals and politicians from throughout the Levant formed al-Fatat ("the Young Arab Society"), a small Arab nationalist club, in Paris. Its stated aim was "raising the level of the Arab nation to the level of modern nations." In the first few years of its existence, al-Fatat called for greater autonomy within a unified Ottoman state rather than Arab independence from the empire. They also requested that Arab conscripts to the Ottoman army not be required to serve in non-Arab regions except in time of war. However, as the Ottoman authorities cracked down on the organization's activities and members, al-Fatat went underground and demanded the complete independence and unity of the Arab provinces.[15]

The Flag of the Great Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. These pan-Arab colors would later be used in the flags of many Arab states.

Nationalist individuals became more prominent during the waning years of Ottoman authority, but the idea of Arab nationalism had virtually no impact on the majority of Arabs as they considered themselves loyal subjects of the Ottoman Empire.[16] The British, for their part, incited the Sharif of Mecca to launch the Arab Revolt during the First World War.[17] The Ottomans were defeated and the rebel forces, loyal to the Sharif's son Faysal ibn al-Husayn entered Damascus in 1918. By now, Faysal along with many Iraqi intellectuals and military officers had joined al-Fatat which would form the backbone of the newly-created Arab state that consisted of much of the Levant and the Hejaz.[15]

Damascus became the coordinating center of the Arab nationalist movement as it was seen as the birthplace of the ideology, the seat of Faysal—the first Arab "sovereign" after nearly 400 years of Turkish suzerainty—and because the nationalists of the entire Mashreq region were familiar with it. Nonetheless, Jerusalem, Beirut, and Baghdad remained significant bases of support. Following the creation of Faysal's state, a serious tension within the Arab nationalist movement became visible; the conflict between the ideology's highest ideal of forming a single independent unit comprising all countries that shared the Arabic language and heritage, and the tendency to give precedence to local ambitions.[18]

To further tensions, a rift formed between the older nationalist members of various Syrian urban-class families and the generally younger nationalists who became close to Faysal—his Hejazi troops, Iraqi and Syrian military officers, and Palestinian and Syrian intellectuals. The older guard was mainly represented by Rida Pasha al-Rikabi, who served as the Faysal's prime minister, while the younger guard did not have a single representative leader.[18] However, the youth within al-Fatat founded the Arab Independence Party ("al-Istiqlal") in February 1919. Its goal was to achieve unity and complete Arab independence. Prominent members included Izzat Darwaza and Shukri al-Quwatli. Centered in Damascus with branches in various cities throughout the Levant, al-Istiqlal received political and financial support from Faysal, but relied on the inner circle of al-Fatat to survive.[19]

During the war the British had been a major sponsor of Arab nationalist thought and ideology, as a weapon to use against the power of the Ottoman Empire. However, the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France provided for the division of the much of the Arab Mashreq between the two imperial powers. During the inter-war years and the British Mandate period, when Arab lands were under French and British control, Arab nationalism became an important anti-imperial opposition movement against European rule.[11]

Important Arab nationalist thinkers in the inter-war period included Amin al-Rihani, Constantin Zureiq, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Michel Aflaq and Sati' al-Husri. Competing ideologies included Islamism and local nationalism, notably the Lebanese nationalism promoted by various, predominantly Christian, thinkers and politicians in that country. Greater Syrian nationalism developed most notably by Antun Saadeh, a Lebanese Christian (Orthodox), also gained a certain adherence in Syria and Lebanon. Communism became a significant ideological force, first and most notably in Iraq, but later in Syria and to a certain extent in Egypt. However, while generally hostile for pragmatic reasons to specific pan-Arab political projects, Arab communism was not altogether incompatible with the general demands of nationalism.

Post-World War II

Gamal Abdel Nasser returns to cheering crowds in Cairo after announcing the nationalization of the Suez Canal Company, August 1956.

After the Second World War, Gamal Abdel Nasser, the leader of Egypt, was a significant player in the rise of Arab nationalism.[7] Opposed to the British control of the Suez Canal Zone and concerned at Egypt becoming a Cold War battleground Nasser pushed for a collective Arab security pact within the framework of the Arab League. A key aspect of this was the need for economic aid that was not dependent on peace with Israel and the establishment of U.S. or British military bases within Arab countries. Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal and directly challenged the dominance of the Western powers in the region. At the same time he opened Egypt up as a Cold War zone by receiving aid and arms shipments from the Soviet Union that were not dependent on treaties, bases and peace accords. However, because of the connotations for Cold War dominance of the region, Egypt also received aid from the U.S.A., who sought to promote the emerging Arab nationalism as a barrier to communism.

The question of Palestine and opposition to Zionism became a rallying point for Arab nationalism from both a religious perspective and a military perspective. The fact that the Zionists were Jewish promoted a religious flavor to the xenophobic rhetoric and strengthened Islam as a defining feature of Arab nationalism. The humiliating defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War strengthened the Arabs' resolve to unite in favor of a pan-Arab nationalist ideal.[7] With the advent of Palestinian nationalism, a debate circled between those who believed that pan-Arab unity would bring about destruction of Israel (the view advocated by the Arab Nationalist Movement) or whether the destruction of Israel would bring about pan-Arab unity (the view advocated by Fatah).[20]

Michel Aflaq

Arab nationalists generally rejected religion as a main element in political identity, and promoted the unity of Arabs regardless of sectarian identity. However, the fact that most Arabs were Muslims was used by some as an important building block in creating a new Arab national identity. An example of this was Michel Aflaq, founder along with Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Zaki al-Arsuzi of the Ba'ath Party in Syria in the 1940s.[7] Aflaq, though himself a Christian, viewed Islam as a testament to the "Arab genius", and once said "Muhammed was the epitome of all the Arabs. So let all the Arabs today be Muhammed." Since the Arabs had reached their greatest glories through the expansion of Islam, Islam was seen as a universal message as well as an expression of secular genius on the part of the Arab peoples. Islam had given the Arabs a "glorious past", which was very different from the "shameful present". In effect, the troubles of the Arab presence were because the Arabs had diverged from their "eternal and perfect symbol", Islam. The Arabs needed to have a "resurrection" (ba'ath in Arabic). After the Ba'thist military coups in Iraq and Syria in the 1960s, the Ba'thists "contributed very little to the development of all-Arab nationalism, which was its original raison d'etre."[8]

Attempts at unity

Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser signing unity pact with Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli, forming the United Arab Republic, February 1958

In the 1940s, rulers such as Abdullah I of Jordan and Nuri as-Said of Iraq sought to create an expanded Arab empire constructed out of the smaller nation-states that had been created in the mandate period. Abdullah's dream was to be king of a Greater Syria while as-Said's dream was for a Fertile Crescent Federation. These aspirations, however, were unpopular and met with suspicion in the countries they sought to conquer. The creation of the Arab League and its insistence on the territorial integrity and respect for sovereignty of each member state, the assassination of Abdullah, and the 14 July Revolution weakened the political feasibility of these ideas.[7]

During much of the 20th century, the rivalry between Syria and Egypt for preeminence undermined the process of uniting the Arab world.[21] In 1958, Egypt and Syria temporarily joined to create the United Arab Republic. It was accompanied by attempts to include Iraq and North Yemen in the union. This very exercise, while fostering Egypt's position at the centre of Arab politics, led to the weakening of Syria. With the Iraqi revolution taking place in the same year, Western powers feared the fallouts of a powerful Arab nationalism in the region. Foreign powers were not only concerned about the possible spread of such revolutionary movements in other Arab states, but also worried about losing the control and monopoly over the region's natural oil resources. However, due to discontent over the hegemony of Egypt and after a coup in Syria that introduced a more radical government to power, the United Arab Republic collapsed in 1961. The term United Arab Republic continued to be used in Egypt until 1971, after the death of Nasser.

In 1972, Muammar al-Gaddafi attempted to unite Libya, Egypt and Syria to form the Federation of Arab Republics.[22] This loose union lasted until 1977 due to political and territorial disputes between the republics' leadership. In 1974, Muammar al-Qaddafi and Habib Bourgiba attempted their two nations of Libya and Tunisia to form the Arab Islamic Republic. The plan was rejected by Bourgiba due to his realization of unity of the Maghreb states. This would later become the Arab Maghreb Union.

Arab nationalist thinkers

Prominent Arab nationalist heads of state

See also

External links


  1. ^ Charles Smith,The Arab-Israeli Conflict,in International Relations in the Middle East by Louise Fawcett, p. 220.
  2. ^ Ibid.
  3. ^ a b Sela, 151
  4. ^ Choueri, p.23.
  5. ^ Choueri, p.25.
  6. ^ Choueiri, p.26.
  7. ^ a b c d e Sela, 153
  8. ^ a b Sela, 154
  9. ^ Sela, 154-155
  10. ^ Khalidi, p.6.
  11. ^ a b Hiro, 24
  12. ^ Khalidi, p.7.
  13. ^ a b Khalidi, p.8.
  14. ^ Khalidi, p.9.
  15. ^ a b Choueiri, pp.166-168.
  16. ^ Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, 229
  17. ^ Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, 8-9
  18. ^ a b Choueiri, pp.171-173.
  19. ^ Choueiri, pp.175-176.
  20. ^ Karsh, Arafat's War, 35-36
  21. ^ Charles Smith. "The Arab-Israeli Conflict". (International Relations of the Middle East by Louise Fawcett), p. 220.
  22. ^ Sela, 155



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