Arab Nationalism

Ilan Pappe. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Two conflicting narratives compete in the historiography of Arab nationalism. Each is worthy of our attention as together they form a comprehensive perspective on the complex subject this chapter seeks to introduce. The two points of view are reflected in the first of the three paradoxes Benedict Anderson relates to nationalism: ‘the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eyes vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of the nationalists’ (Anderson 1991: 5).

The first narrative was told from within the movement and it is a simple tale of the awakening of a dormant primordial ethnic beauty by princes, some of them foreign, in the late nineteenth-century Arab world. The second narrative is mainly academic and it challenged, from within and without, the national narrative. In this version, nationalism in general appears as a pure modern phenomenon and one that was activated in the Arab world by the growing involvement of European powers in the past two centuries.

The two views—discussed in the first part of this chapter—had two features in common. First, they attempted to present nationalism in the Arab world as an emotional expression of identity and a common political aspiration of exclusiveness. And secondly, they described it as a foreign commodity bought by the local elite and disseminated later to the society as a whole. In recent years both these assertions were questioned and novel approaches to the subject developed. The fresh research—to which we devote the last part of this chapter—pointed to a profusion of ‘national’ manifestations in the Arab world, almost to the point of defeating the attempt here to include within one general category all these complex revelations of what passes for Arab nationalism.’ The contemporary research is equally doubtful about the ‘Western’ nature of the phenomenon and attributes to it originality and uniqueness that fitted the world in which it was born. The debate thus is still open and the spectacle of nationalism in the world at large and in the Middle East in particular still eludes those of us insisting on finding out what it is all about.

The Conventional Tale: A Sleeping Beauty and a Foreign Prince

The first encounters of the Arab world with Europe varied in time and place, but one particular engagement stands out as more traumatic than others: Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. In the hegemonic narratives of Middle Eastern historiographies—appearing as late as the 1960s—the French landing marked the beginning of the modern era in the Arab world. The contact exposed Europe as a superior political and economic power and it sent the local elite into an almost perpetual search for the ample response to this formidable threat and challenge.

The French bridgehead expanded and as a result new realities unfolded on the ground throughout the nineteenth century. The area as a whole was now caught in a transitional phase between a disappearing old Ottoman world and an emerging new European one. Soon after Napoleon’s arrival, North Africa was devoured by greedy European powers, hungry for markets and territories, whereas the Eastern Middle East remained still within the realm of Ottoman rule; but there too the Arab territories were gradually exposed to the growing political, economic and cultural involvement of the ambitious European states and interests.

Nationalism came at this meeting point between East and West. It was a primordial ethnic sense of identity that was awakened by modernity and its agents in the area. Until the second half of the twentieth century one particular narrative of this tale predominated the scene. It was written in the 1930s by a senior official in the Educational Department in Mandatory Palestine, George Antonious, and appeared in his book entitled The Arab Awakening (Antonious 1945). His version fitted the conventional narratives of nationalism in nineteenth-century Europe, attributing the existence of national identities to ancient roots. Modern nationalism was thus the revival of an antique ethnic identicalness and the reformulation of past affiliations as a powerful political force able to liberate people and build states. Antonious’s narrative is still the one used in many textbooks even today, although it has been altered through criticism and additional historical revelations (some of which are discussed later in this chapter).

It is through Antonious that English readers learned that Arab nationalism was an ideological movement engulfing the Arab world as a whole: calling for the creation of one Arab polity from the western end of North Africa to the eastern borders of Iraq, and from the southern Turkish borders to the southern tip of the Sudan. This aspiration was voiced by intellectuals and activists for the first time in the second half of the nineteenth century. At that time in history, both European colonialism and Ottoman imperialism shared control over the Arab lands (the former ruling North Africa, the latter the Middle East). Realization of that dream meant therefore liberation from both. Nationalism consequently was articulated as an anti-colonialist dream, as well as an anti-Ottoman sentiment.

Not surprisingly, in the eastern Middle East, the orientation was anti-Ottomanist, more than anti-European. In Antonious’s version, the leaders of the movement were in fact seeking a strategic alliance with the anti-Ottoman powers of Europe, notably Britain and Russia. There were several power bases for this ideological innovation. The most important one was the hub of Protestant and Catholic institutions of higher education that became the Alma Mater for the first generation of Arab nationalists. In these institutions the notion of nationalism was preached by Western missionaries, who acted as college teachers, stressing in their curriculum the bondage between the Arabic language and the collective identity. Among these teachers one group is outstanding: American Protestant missionaries who founded among other establishments the two American universities in Beirut and Cairo. They will continue to star as the princes who had awoken the sleeping national beauty: they appear as such in Antonious’s work of course, but also in the writings of professional historians who accepted the pivotal role he accorded to them (Hourani 1962; Tibi 1997: 110-30). Another more marginal group is that of Russian Orthodox missionaries who also helped to Arabize’ the Christian communities in the Arab world in order to weaken the hold of the Greek churches in the area (Hopwood 1969). It is interesting that Antonious did not attribute such sinister motives to the American missionaries—in his tale, they were genuinely helping the Arabs in the cause of self-determination and in the name of liberation.

The missionaries’ role in the midst of a basically Muslim society accorded to the formative stages of Arab nationalism, in Antonious’s narrative, a very secular flavour. Not surprisingly in this version, nationalism attracted first and foremost the Christian minorities; but the Muslim elite soon joined in. The tyranny of the last effective Ottoman Sultan (Abdul Hamid II, 1876-1908) brought both sects together in an anti-Ottoman struggle. This process was intensified after the Young Turks revolution in 1908/9. The new rulers in Istanbul wished to Turkify all the inhabitants of the Empire, the majority of which were Arabs, annulling the previous Ottoman pretence to unite Arabs and Turks under the banner of Islam. Arab nationalism emerged as a reasonable response to the challenge of Turkification.

In the wake of the missionary work, secret national Arab societies came forth after the revolution in Istanbul. Their earlier demands were quite modest: they wished Turkey to share their enthusiasm for the revitalized role they found for the teaching of Arabic. They called for a comprehensive educational reform, with a strong linguistic stress on Arabic—one which was partially accepted by the government in Istanbul, hoping to control what it could not defeat. But soon more ambitious claims were voiced: introducing a vision of fuller Arab autonomy and later on, even independence. In 1913, the first Arab national conference, convening in Paris (for fear of Turkish persecution), tried in vain to negotiate some sort of an Austro-Hungarian model with the Turkish government. After these manoeuvres failed, the road was opened for a tacit alliance between the Arab national societies and Turkey’s enemies in the impending world war, namely Britain and Russia.

Britain had already been involved in the second power base of Arab nationalism: the Hejaz. There, the leading notable family of the holiest city, Mecca, the Hashemites, revolted too against the secular Turkifying new government. For that purpose, they enlisted the assistance of the legendary T. E. Lawrence who brought them in touch with the British legation in Egypt (under British control since 1882).

Egypt, our third centre of activity, was crucial not only because the British were there as potential allies, but also since their presence in the land of the Nile generated a local national movement that contributed to the overall rise of nationalism in the Arab world. Although the Egyptian movement centred more on liberating Egypt, rather then uniting the Arab world, it was similar enough to empower the pan-Arabist movement elsewhere.

North Africa as a whole should have been the fourth power base, but Antonious did not cover that area. There, Algerian nationalism was in the making ever since the country was occupied by France in 1830. As in Egypt, the focus was not on pan-Arabism, but the leaders of the movement cherished in public the clarion call for Arab unity in a political form that was yet to be decided: a kingdom, as the Hejazi people wanted it, or a republic, which better fitted the Algerian aspirations.

In between the wars, and particularly after World War II, the difference between the Algerian variant and the rest of the Arab world became starker. The assimilationist policies of the French in Algeria, especially during the reign of Jacque Soustelle as Governor-General, necessitated a forceful anti-colonialist response. The British Empire in the Middle East, on the other hand, was not based on assimilation and hence it provoked a different variation of nationalism: contemplative, cooperative to a point and seeking all the time the golden mean between the more militant elements from within and the colonialists from without (Thomas 2000).

Therefore, when Britain did not deliver independence the disappointment was momentous. The British promised much, but gave very little in Antonious’s estimation. The fact that Arab nationalist groups such as the Hashemites and others helped the Allies in World War I against Turkey was rewarded only by semi-independence in some parts of the Arab world (Iraq and Jordan) while others were given to the French (such as Syria and Lebanon, in addition to the North African colonies). But for Antonious, writing from Jerusalem, Albion became outrightly perfidious in its policy in Palestine. It crossed the line with the Balfour Declaration made in November 1917. Antonious predicted, and in hindsight quite rightly so, that opposition to Zionism, no less then colonialism and Turkish secularism, would become a rallying force among those with a vision of pan-Arabism. Antonious’s book leaves the impression that without Zionism, greedy French colonialism and British opportunism, a liberal democratic nationalism could have developed in the Arab world.

The Arab Awakening Reconsidered

Antonious’s tale, much as other formative official narratives, came under the scrutiny of a more cynical, at times even hostile, research. The historiography of Arab nationalism was radically transformed, with the rest of Middle Eastern studies, and became academic and professionalized. This was also true about the general inquiry into the nature and development of nationalism (Smith 2001). Already in the mid-twentieth century, critical voices were heard against the association of nationalism with primordial roots and simple processes of modernization. The fresh approach conceptualized nationalism as an inevitable historical elitist expression of modernization. Nationalism was an instrument in the hands of a political elite and a functional substitute for pre-modern categories. Max Weber, the first of those theorists, contexualized nationalism within a specific period of time: a historical event with clear beginnings, and maybe even a predictable end. Within this span of time, it was a theory that served the ideological and material interests of a political and intellectual elite, which was fully cognizant of the artificial nature of the new dogma they invented for their benefit (Weber 1948: 171-80).

Others followed suit. Eli Kedourie, for example, credited this elite not only with the inception of a theory but also with the making of states. In his view the formation of new states constructed national identities, and not vice versa as the national narratives themselves argued. Not only was it not an organic process, it was a cruel, at times manipulative, case of imposing on a given society a hegemonic identity—obliterating on the way particularistic identities—which served best the elite’s interests. His most famous example was the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose primary asset, its strong political structure, was only subsequently supplemented with invented Austrian and Hungarian nationalisms, as part of a larger strategy of state control. In short, for Kedourie, nationalism, an elite affair superimposed from above, was closely connected to an oppressive modern state apparatus (Kedourie 1960).

Ernest Gellner went even further in his critique, brushing aside any talk of national awakenings. He stated: ‘Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist’ (Gellner 1983: 48). National ‘awakening’—a totally fictional version of history in his eyes—was possible only with the progress attributed to education and industrialization. Critical to this process was the modernization and sys-temization of language, the basis for constructing new geopolitical realities from which national movements rose. He too recognized the utility of the concept in abolishing old forces—such as the European aristocracy—and in building new ones—such as the urban middle class.

In the wake of this critical inquiry, historians of the area adopted a culinary view towards the making of national identities in the Arab world: nationalism became a dish cooked at a certain period and the research could determine which ingredients were included and which were not, and why. Antonious’s work itself was scrutinized in such a manner, enabling the historians to reveal how his tale was concocted. They felt Antonious exaggerated intentionally the anti-Ottoman nature of Arab nationalism and its pro-European inclination. It seemed that the first generation of Arab nationalist thinkers and activists wished in fact to operate within the pax Ottomana they knew and respected; indeed, they seemed to be more Ottomanist reformers than Arabists (al-Azmeh 2000: 73). They sought more autonomy but not full cession from the Ottoman world. Even the Turkification enterprise of the Young Turks was slow in stirring a desire in them for total independence.

As for the early nationalist thought and its relationship with European sources, here an intrigue ensued over the ideological origins of the dogma that is still relevant today. Antonious was suspected as overemphasizing the liberal democratic character in order to legitimize Arab nationalism in the eyes of Britain and France, and to a certain extent he succeeded in doing so. It is possible therefore that he ignored certain features and over-stressed others. While, the historians who viewed the subject 30 years later concurred that the ideas were borrowed from Europe, many of them felt it was rather a romantic variant of European nationalism—authoritarian and illiberal—that appealed to the early generation of Arab nationalist thinkers. This ideological inclination led eventually to the rise of non-democratic and despotic regimes in the Arab world (the late Eli Kedourie leading the way in this direction).

This view was challenged by historians who attempted a less reductionist approach to the subject. These historians rejected the exclusive role accorded to romantic nationalism in the making of the present political set-up in the Arab world. They pointed to additional, more important, factors such as the Western economic exploitation of the local economy and the political suppression of liberal nationalism by the European powers. The wider perspective also revealed a far more complex web of influences on the local national thinkers, not all of them European or Western, and yet many of them humanist and modern. The European sources were digested locally and in many ways became original contributions and what they indicated was great respect for Europe’s liberal philosophies and democratic inclinations, but abhorrence of its repressive policies in the Arab world. These policies empowered those who coveted power at all cost, nepotism, corruption and tyranny, and this is where we are today. However, the more promising past could still return (American policies, replacing Europe and the Soviet Union ever since the early 1970s, seemed from this perspective to play a similar role in pushing the area away from democratic nationalism for the sake of imperialism—even it is done in the name of democracy—the late Albert Hourani best representing this orientation).

How far the local version was loyal to the original was a subject for scholarly debate. The discussion focused on the writing of the Syrian philosopher and educator Sati al-Husri—one of the movement’s founding fathers at the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact, most scholars attribute to him the inception of the idea and he appears to be the first coherent articulator of the ideology.

Al-Husri made a distinction between German (that is romantic) and French (that is liberal) nationalisms. He rejected the latter variant and derided it as void of any historical and cultural references, but was intrigued enough by it to conduct an imaginary dialogue with Ernest Renan, negating the Frenchman’s wish to include in the nation anyone who shared the same civic obligations and social solidarity. The German version, in his view, was preferable since it located at the centre of the identity a collective cultural past and a shared classical language.

Al-Husri accepted the Germanic perception of the nation as a predetermined entity but discarded race as a unifying factor. For him, the core identity of the nation was social and dynamic; constantly changing with time and place. Two social forces played the crucial role in shaping the collective identity of the people who lived in the Middle East ever since the seventh century: Arab civilization and Islam. They were bonded together by the sacredness of the Arabic language in the Islamic religion. It was in fact the language even more than the religion that moulded the national identity of the Arabs (Suleiman 2003). Was this interpretation a mere variant of the Germanic version of nationalism or was it an original thought that proved the authentic nature of Arab nationalism? Questions of this kind were now occupying the scholarly agenda in the generation that followed Antonious’s pioneering work (Naffa 1987; Choueiri 2000: 120-5).

On the sidelines of this debate, other historians noted additional influences such as those of Communist and Socialist political thought. Here too the debate was intriguingly the same: was the Arab left mirroring European radicalism or did it construct its own brands of socialism and communism (Halliday 1999)? Some historians found the Gramscian prism the most useful one for explaining the interplay between class and nationalism in the Arab world; others viewed the process by relying on the energetic field of political economy and development studies (Beinin and Lockman 1988; Davis 2004; Owen 2004). Maybe quite understandably, the outstanding case study for many was Mandatory Palestine (1920-48), where Communism was in vain nourished as a viable alternative to national interpretation of reality and was preached as a vehicle for peace and reconciliation.

The Litmus Paper of Arab Nationalism: The Palestine Question

One of the less debatable points in the historiography of Arab nationalism is the centrality of the Palestine question within the pan-Arabist agenda, however its roots are described or evaluated. This was not originally so, but developed incrementally with the ongoing conflict in Palestine. The significant turning point was the 1936 rebellion which transformed pan-Arabist sentiment from an intellectual and political position into a popular, at times populist, movement. But the genuine solidarity movement was expropriated by more cynical politicians, mainly ambitious military officers, who attempted to take over nation-states and succeeded in doing so in several Arab countries. It began with Baqr Sidqi in Iraq in 1936 who was followed by Husni Zaim in 1949 Syria and culminated in the 1952 Egyptian Free officers’ revolution. All these groups, and those who followed in Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and the Sudan, were attracted to the pan-Arabist ideology, calling for the unification of all the Arab states within one united, socialist, secular and authoritarian state. The principal means, indeed the litmus paper, for examining the commitment of the many contenders to lead this historical move was the question of Palestine. More traditional Arab states were also drawn to the Palestine pan-Arabist arena and the result was a dangerous illusion that developed in Palestine that the Arab world in its entirety was standing behind the Palestinian struggle and would save the people in the Holy Land from the Zionist threat. The issue of Palestine was so powerful that it served as a catalyst for the formation of a pan-Arabist regional organization in 1944, the Arab League. This outfit promised to enrol the Arab world as a whole to the last battles in the war against colonialism in Algeria and Palestine. It was less needed in the former case, but it was badly wanted in the latter. The League promised the Palestinians it would master the military might of the Arab world, in the name of pan-Arabism, to prevent a Jewish takeover.

Disillusionment came tragically and bitterly in 1948 when the Palestinians were expelled from their lands, their villages and towns were destroyed and the people dispersed into diasporic communities and refugee camps. The Palestinian movement rose from the ashes with the formation of the Palestine Liberation Organization and infused the pan-Arabist rhetoric with new life, and with it the commitment to the Palestinian cause. But it was more than just a discursive feature: it became a vital force that induced Egypt and Syria to embark unwittingly on an brinkmanship policy vis-à-vis Israel that ended in their defeat in June 1967, which put an end to any such attempts in the future.

A real anti-colonialist war of course was fought only in North Africa, and particularly in Algeria. The different colonial experience vis-à-vis a settler community of Europeans was parallel to the Palestinian case. Both situations nurtured the Arab imagination and painted the discourses of nationalism with radical language and images. But the inertia on the ground was not favouring pan movements of any kind. Within the nation-states developed in the aftermath of World War II the local national identity solidified at the expanse of the regional one.

Wataniyya versus Qawmiyya

In between the two world wars the national workshop produced all kinds of possible variations on the theme of nationalism. Socialist thinkers were moving in one direction, Islamists in another and in the middle liberal and less democratic groups and personalities were struggling for dominance. With the end of World War II, many of these groups fused together into liberation movements that hastened the withdrawal of the European powers from the Middle East. The question was now not how to defeat the common enemy but who would succeed him.

The post-colonial era began with the consolidation of individual Arab nation-states replacing the old Ottoman and colonial regimes. Within this new set up, pan-Arabism was reconstructed. It was no more a cradle ideology but rather an alternative vision for the post-World War II reality. Those who subscribed to the ideology claimed now that Arab societies would benefit and thrive if their dreams of independence were to transcend the borders of individual nation-states. Some of the new elites employed the renovated version of pan-Arabism as a means for safeguarding their rule, others wished to distance themselves from it, fearing it would be used to destabilize their hold over their countries.

A very dramatic manifestation of the pan-Arabist aspiration was the creation of the Arab League, mentioned earlier, a regional organization founded by Egypt’s and Iraq’s leaders at the end of 1944, admittedly for more mundane and pragmatic reasons, but nonetheless one that planted (in retrospect false) hopes of unity and progress. The two leading countries were still part of pax-Britannica in the area, and it stands to reason that the respective prime ministers believed, erroneously, that they could build on British aid to implement the dream of Arab unity, even in a federated loose form (Dawn 2000: 41-62).

The Arab League was considered the ultimate symbol of Arab nationalism but 60 years later no one inside or outside the Arab world claimed it succeeded even modestly in implementing or fulfilling the pan-Arabist aspirations. It nonetheless remained the principal stage for voicing the rhetoric of pan-Arabism and will probably continue to be so, at least as long as the Palestine question persists in dominating the regional agenda. In the formal realms of life, in this period, Arab nationalism as a modern ideology slowly disintegrated into local national ideologies, although well into the 1960s the discourse of pan-Arabism was heard loud and clear in Cairo and Damascus (Dawisha 2002).

The two competing affiliations—the regional versus the local—produced two very different terms in Arabic for nationalism: qawmiyya, representing the pan-Arabist identity, and wataniyya, the local one. One way for the more radical and committed pan-Arabists to deal with the schism of qawmiyya-wataniyya was to accord to their own country a leading role in bringing about Arab unity.

The most interesting protagonist of this kind of pan-Arabism was Gamal Abd al-Nasser. Before 1956 he showed limited interest in the topic. After the Suez Crisis, he advocated a unity under his leadership based on a socialist and secularist ideology coupled with a strong commitment to advance the cause of Palestine and the struggle against Western imperialism and its allies in the area (whom he named ‘reactionary regimes’). The endeavour was short-lived and ended with defeat on the battlefield against Israel in 1967. Until this policy collapsed, Nasser inspired many in the Arab world to follow suit. In some cases, such as Jordan in 1957 and Lebanon in 1958, Nasser’s radicalism was thwarted by direct Western military intervention. In others, coups and revolutions brought to power equally committed pan-Arabists, in Syria and Iraq in 1958, in the newly liberated ex-colonies in the Maghreb through the 1950s and 1960s, and finally in the Yemen in the 1970s.

This kind of struggle necessitated an alliance between radical Arab nationalism and the Soviet Union, embroiling the area in the Cold War. Nonetheless, Nasser insisted, and obtained, ideological independence despite the strategic alliance. Thus came into play his Arab Socialism,’ a brand of pan-Arabism based on a local variant of socialism, a unity around Egypt and assuming a significant role in the Asian-African bloc of states; its closest potential ideological allies were also bitter enemies: communism, political Islam and the Ba’ath party in Syria and Iraq.

The latter was probably the most significant contender. The Ba’ath party—formerly the Ba’ath Arab socialist party—was founded by middle-class educators in the early 1940s. Two of them, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Michel Aflaq, chose Damascus as the centre for their political activity. By 1947, they convened their first official congress and promulgated a constitution. A year later the Ba’ath had branches all over the Eastern Middle East, but it was mainly in Syria and Iraq that they became a force to reckon with.

Ideologically, the Ba’ath was quite close to Nasser’s kind of nationalism. It also had a socialist orientation (in fact it merged with the Syrian socialist party in 1952) and placed Arab unity as a primary objective. It was therefore natural that the two rivals/partners to the idea would attempt to work together and thus emerged the United Arab Republic—a union between Syria and Egypt—that lasted for three years (1958-61). Egyptian dominance in that unity was not just ideological, but also political and economic and hence this was a short-lived experience. It was followed by less promising developments when in Syria and Iraq local nationalist orientations, in the guise of pan-Arabist ideologies, brought to power an authoritarian president, Hafiz al-Asad, in Syria, and a tyrannical ruler, Saddam Husayn, in Iraq.

Nasser was better in rousing the masses than building political institutions. And yet the nationalism that enveloped him led to land reform for the peasantry, women’s rights polices, better trade unionism and social welfare. One can also credit him, if one is so inclined, with resisting religious influence in the legal system and shunning dogmatic communism (Aburish 2005).

The discourse of pan-Arabism lingered on until 1967, when Nasser’s Egyptian army was defeated with other Arab armies by Israel in the June war. But its demise was already in the making before this calamity, due to inter-Arab cold and actual wars. The concept of a single Arab state stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf as the best means of struggling against colonialism, imperialism and Zionism, attracted the more radical states but was deemed as a threat by the conservative ones. Probably more important was the noticeable failure of leaders to translate rhetoric on the only issue of pan-Arab consensus—the need to liberate Palestine—with action. This failure was already evident in 1948 and once again in the 1967 defeat (Khalidi et al. 1993).

In the aftermath of the 1967 defeat—a blow not only to Nasser’s prestige, but also to his prophecy of pan-Arabism—the notion of qawmiyya was losing ground. It still appeared in the rhetoric of Iraq and Syria’s leaders, who found it useful in cementing with Ba’athi ideology their authoritarian regimes. Competing political forces which themselves were pushing for a pan-Arabist vision, such as the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party, were banned and outlawed. In other places, the idea was reduced to attempts, most of which were abortive, to create federations and co-federations. The more successful ones were economic and reflected commercial strategies more than a shared ideology.

In the less pragmatic spheres, the intellectual and ideological debates about nationalism continued also in the post-1967 period. But the focus moved from the axis of wataniyya-qawmiyya to the more complex and confusing impact political Islam had on the lives of many people in the Arab world.

Political Islam and Nationalism

As long as nationalism was researched within the framework of a modernization process, secularization and nationalization seemed to go hand in hand. This is probably why George Antonious tended to sideline the role played by Muslim thinkers in his narrative. This under-emphasis was reversed by a later generation of historians who stressed the importance of reformist Islamists in propagating the notion of an Arab nation going back to the seventh century, when a new Islamic polity emerged in the Arabian peninsula. The polity became successive empires in the name of Islam which were for most of the time predominantly Arab in their ethnicity. The way forward for Arab prosperity was thus through the revival of the old bond between religion and ethnicity.

A central figure among these thinkers was the Egyptian religious reformer Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), who together with his teacher and associate Jamal al-Din al-Afghani clarified from their position in the university of al-Azhar the need to reform Islam so as to make it both a compass to a modern society and an effective tool in the struggle against colonialism. They had colleagues and followers sharing similar views around the Sunni Arab world at that time. They were what Sami Zubaida calls ‘cosmopolitans’: namely, an elite circle of intellectuals, aristocrats and politicians who directed their efforts very much within these milieus (Zubaida 1999: 15-33), dreaming of a pristine Muslim and Arab past and its revival as superior to the West and yet willing to borrow from the European market of ideas.

When Christian and Muslim endeavours fused into a joint enterprise of forming a pan-Arabist consciousness and movement, great care was taken not to use Islam as the signifier of Arabism so as not to prejudice the non-Muslim minorities in the Arab world. The common base lay in a shared cultural heritage centred around the language and dating back to pre-Islamic Arabism.

This all changed when in the 1970s political Islam rose as a significant actor on the regional scene. It is beyond the scope of this chapter to discuss the origins of the phenomenon, suffice it to say that this, very generally speaking, was both a personal and a collective response to the failure of secular nationalism to deliver any of its promises for social welfare and economic prosperity. Politically too the balance sheet of secular nationalism was not very impressive but the failure here was attributed to the overwhelming Western, and mainly American, aggression and interventionist policies (and particularly, the US support for Israel and the conservative absolute Arab monarchies).

From within the perspective of political Islam, Arab nationalism turned from a project of modernization into a movement trying to redeem the Arab world from the evils of such a project. But that proved quite impossible in the globalized world of the end of the previous century. The wish of political Islamic movements to show resilience against invasion by foreign ideas and norms has, in a way, also transformed into a national variant of nationalism. The agenda from left and right (Islamic) polars of the political fields was much more national than religious. The power of nationalism is such that even the most phenomenal Islamic party in the Arab world, the Hizbullah in Lebanon, has been Lebanonized and is propagating less an Islamic ideology and much more the old list of aspirations and dreams of the early pan-Arabists (Wain 1999). At the end of the twentieth century, nationalism became the language of opposition, religious or not, to the ruling elites and their supporters in the West.

The one case which may not fit the above assertion is North Africa, where there seems to be a clearer transition from the nationalist discourse to the Islamist one (unlike the case of Hizbullah). The realization of leading figures in the nationalist movement there that nationalism was after all a Western-inspired ideology and at heart anti-Islamic, formulated a view that located Islam as an authentic holistic framework within which the society can act. And thus many who were mesmerized in North Africa by the nationalist fervour of Nasser and the Ba’ath, turned to this more pure form of Islamism in the 1970s. Time will tell whether they have indeed constructed an a-national identity for people in North Africa and beyond (Burgat 1997).

Present and Future Agendas of Research

The new realities on the ground dictated different interests in, and a different understanding of the essence of, nationalism in the Arab world. Nationalism was still very much alive, although much less clearer as subject matter for scholarly research. No less important in transforming the perception of the phenomenon was a new wave of critical deconstruction in the 1980s of nationalism in general.

We learned from the previous critique that nationalism was an ideological construct that could push tyranny as much as it propelled democracy. This cognition was expanded by a more Marxist point of view. Eric Hobsbawm combined a Marxist outlook with Weberian functionalism and explained the birth of nations as a direct outcome of capitalist ambitions in European societies to control units, large enough to secure the financial gains of its bourgeois elite. In the process this elite engaged in the ‘human engineering of the society,’ which required complimentary self-images and degrading images of the other in order to nationalize past and present realities (Hobsbawm 1990: 14-25). From this perspective, according to Hobsbawm, national historiography is thus emplotted, in the words of Hayden White (White 1974: 277-303). The plot is spun with selection and re-composition of past events and symbols, as new ‘national’ traditions are ‘invented.’

A very original contribution to our understanding of what nationalism can be all about was its association to human imaginings, as proposed by Benedict Anderson. His notion of ‘imagined communities’ directed attention to the discursive forms through which nations imagine themselves rather than the structural and objective constituents of the nation. In his eyes nationalism was a product that was sold not as a whole, but as a modular commodity that would fit different geographical locations and historical periods. But like all the other modernists, Anderson remarks that when this product was disseminated it was done with engineering, manipulation and the invention of historical stories to serve the few in the name of the many. However, by suggesting that nations, nationness and nationalism were ‘cultural artifacts of a particular kind,’ Anderson sought to repudiate previous objectivist conceptions of the nation, thus emphasizing its universality as a phenomenon and the ‘irremediable particularity of its concrete manifestation’ (Anderson 1991: 8). This last reference in particular appealed to two historians who looked at Egypt in between the two world wars and reconstructed what they felt was the developing national imagination of certain classes in the society: an imagination that fluctuated between wataniyya and qawmiyya identifications (Gershoni and Jankowski 1986).

This discussion around the constructedness of national identity has been further explored by Edward Said, Homi Bhaba, Partha Chaterji and other members of the subaltern postcolonial school of inquiry, questioning not only the ‘invented traditions’ of national identity but the very systems of cultural representation involved in producing them. In all of their works they have sought to identify the exclusionary practices endemic to the formation of national identity (Said 1983; Chartaji 1986; Bhabha 1990). Like Anderson, they moved the discussion away from the socio-historical and political roots of nationalism to its discursive contours, especially the heterogeneity that nationalism tries to subsume. As we shall see, this too had an impact on the historiography of Arab nationalism towards the end of the twentieth century.

To some, national identity whether imagined, engineered or manipulated, is a recent human invention born out of the integration of conflicting ethnic or cultural identities or the disintegration of such identities. It is a modern invention of an axis of inclusion and exclusion that is not organic or natural thus requiring the artificial identification of those who belong to the nation and, more importantly, those who are excluded from it. In the process, constituting an ‘other’ of this national identity becomes critical for the formation of the national self. It demands the subordination of other identities—communal, religious, ethnic and so forth. This subjection defines the parameters of ‘otherness’ and the degree to which it is constituted as a source of menace to the prevalent or hegemonic identity. In this context and as Michel Foucault argues, in the field of knowledge constructed by nationalism the ‘other,’ the ‘enemy’ occupies exclusively the negative pole of that field (Foucault 1980). With the passage of time this part of the theoretical input was much more relevant for understanding the making of the Jewish identity in Israel than for explaining the formations of such identities in the Arab world, but this too, as is demonstrated towards the end of the article, enriched the historiography of the local cases.

Various anthologies and collections of recent years on Arab nationalism reflected the theoretical shifts and new orientations (Gershoni and Jankowski 1997). I will touch upon only some of the new themes explored in these works. The first is a recognition of the modular and dynamic nature of the national identity. Arab nationalism seemed to resolve not only into wattaniyya constituents but also to even smaller particularistic elements. These reformulations were not linear and were often affected by regional, sectarian and religious impacts; defeating the attempt from above to create a cohesive national identity. Iraq is the most known and recent case, but also in more homogeneous countries such as Palestine similar processes took place. The dispersion, occupation and exile in 1948 produced a multiplicity of experiences that prevented the national cohesiveness so needed for survival (Budeiri 1997; Simon 1997).

The second feature of the updated research, in the wake of the subaltern and postcolonial school, is the perception of nationalism in the Arab world as an identity forged not only by external factors but also by internal dynamics; nationalism in the Arab world as not just a Western phenomenon but rather as a local form of identification with distinct characteristics, dating back to the pre-Westernization period. Here too some promising beginnings were made in the case study of Palestine—understandably so, for as the only Arab national movement still struggling for independence and self-determination it provided a kind of laboratory in the making of nationalism in pre-state conditions. As a recent historical survey into the making of Palestinian identity shows, the initial need to identify nationally was motivated by the challenge of external attempts to conquer the land and colonize it (a very frequent phenomenon in modern times); however, in more tranquil times, such a pressure to identify or to rally around a collective identity was not called for, and the communal energy was channelled into building local solidarity often accompanied by a sense of pride in a history of a continuous presence on such a coveted land. This too could be defined as nationalism, or at least proto-nationalism (Pappe 2003: 31-62).

Thirdly, the forces that shaped and reshaped a national identification and imagination thus were recent and distant, foreign and local. But moreover they were expressed in a geographical and chronological variety. Their manifestations differed also from one group to another and thus developed a recognition of the need to delve deeper into the reception of nationalism among the non-elite groups and not just be content with the chattering classes’ articulation of the sentiment and ideology.

Such a perspective produced intriguing research into the trajectory of the ideas in the formative years of Arab nationalism from the thinkers through the officials and officers into the common people during the time of World War I (Haddad 1994: 201-22).

Within this orientation, feminist historiography developed as well trying to fathom how women reacted and acted toward the new ideology. In Egypt, for instance, as Beth Baron has shown, nationalism was symbolized as a feminine figure which catered to the wider public in Egypt, but also served a feminist agenda. Women in the 1930s unveiled themselves and demanded ‘modernization’ as part of the overall national objective of independence from British occupation (Baron 1991: 275-91); 50 years later women would veil themselves as part of a demand to liberate Egypt from Americanism and its cultural invasion.

Feminist perspectives on nationalism are one item on the future agenda to be further explored. Others are the more discursive analyses of what Homi Bhabah called the power of the nation to narrate, where national amnesia in the Arab world, especially about the Ottoman times, seems to be a favourite topic (Piterberg 1997: 104-24).

And finally, a very recent avenue was attempted by research echoing interdisciplinary studies elsewhere: a thorough examination of the way nationalism appears within popular and official cultures. National anthems, novels and poems, and lately films and TV series, were deconstructed as forms of indoctrination, representation or manipulation by the powers that be in their attempt to sustain the nation as an imaginary father or mother of the society.

Quite naturally, much attention has been devoted to television and its relationship with nationalism. Seen from this perspective, television is the great national educator and homogenizer. Egyptian TV in particular, seen all over the Arab world, has undergone intriguing changes of emphasis in this respect. In the 1980s it reflected, even battled against, Islamic fanaticism and dogmatism. And yet this agenda failed to reflect the wide support for political Islam within the society at large. The dialectical relationship between the society and its electronic media produced, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a more mixed agenda—infused with religious texts and sensitivities, affecting significantly the line-ups in the local and regional television shows and programs (Abu-Lughod 1996: 269-82).

Indeed, nationalism in the Arab world became more than just a cultural fact but a mass cultural signifier of the public space through the printed press and much more so through electronic media. To such an extent that we may witness the resurrection of the dying notion of pan-Arab nationalism through the satellite networks; most notably through al-Jazeera—the self declared symbol of Arab nationalism (Deen 2004).

We began with pan-Arabism as an intellectual exercise for few a officials and thinkers and we ended with the possible return of pan-Arabism either through political Islam or supranational communicational giants such as al-Jazeera. The American occupation of Iraq, the continued conflict in Palestine, the fluctuating power of political Islam and the socio-economic predicament that refuses to disappear, promise that the national interpretation of reality will continue to dominate life in the Arab world. As before, the research on nationalism in general and the developments on the ground will continue to affect the dynamic and uncertain field of historiographical inquiry in the future.