In What Ways Did Arab Nationalism Change Over Time?

Subject: Politics & Government
Pages: 12
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Study level: PhD


Arab nationalism has been one of the most famous and influential movements in the history of the Arab people. The initial goal of this effort was to unify Arabs and create a pure nation with one common Arabic language and Islam as the only approved religion. In the 19th century, many countries recognized Western impact as a primary threat to their own ideologies and traditions and had to take certain steps to prove themselves separate nations with their own rights and freedoms (Beinin & Hajjar 2014). Arab communities also believed that the influence of the West could result in the development of new conflicts and concerns. Therefore, it was necessary to resist new ideas and gain control over people’s minds and intentions. In such an intensely political environment, Arab nationalism was promoted as ‘a movement of separation and unification’ with the elements of a secular lifestyle in the early 20th century (Choueiri 2005). It had certain positive and negative outcomes in terms of the development of a nation, and an understanding of each result is an obligatory task in the discussion of how Arab nationalism has changed over time.

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In this paper, an evaluation of Arab nationalism will be developed in three main stages in order to prove that ideals and motivators for this movement have undergone dramatic changes over time, from the struggle for cultural revival to strong immunity to political threats and international disorder. The first stage will involve an investigation of the roots of Arab nationalism, its development including rises and falls, and its main characteristics. Next, nationalism will be defined as a positive force for an Arab nation to underline the value of emancipation and self-determination. Finally, the negative side of Arab nationalism must be considered, including the destruction of human, social and international relationships and an observable lack of control. Despite these sobering side effects, in total, it is important to admit that Arab nationalism must neither be ignored nor misconstrued because this movement has provided some of the strongest opposition to the West and Europe as well as a bright example of the necessity of encouraging a sense of solidarity for Arabs.

Main Waves of Arab Nationalism and Its Causes

Arab nationalism is known as an ideology characterized by the concepts of freedom and the unity of Arabs as a nation. This notion proclaims that people living in the territory between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian Ocean form a civilization with the same language, literature, traditions, history, and culture. During the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Western hegemony (a form of cultural leadership) began to lose its domination in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and colonialism, as well as imperialism, pursued the creation of new liberal policies (Owen 2004; Said 1977). The new movement’s first traits were discovered during the First World War when some nationalists, ready to resist the power of the Ottoman Empire, were supported by the British Empire, which did not want to lose its power and reputation in Europe. Thus, nationalism in Arab countries became a trait of anti-colonial struggle when the Arab world tried to gain political unity and demonstrate solidarity in terms of people and their interests.

Multiple revolts occurred, removing existing rulers and proving the Middle East ready for changes and improvements. At the time the change began, the Ottoman Empire was the major colonizer for Arab people. As the position of the regime in power weakened in several countries, the local Arab elite, having received modern education, noticed the changes and were able to determine new ideas that rejected dependence and subordination. However, even the most highly educated individuals were not prepared to deal with the requirements for an international system after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the 1910s (Mchugo 2014). While the Arabs had specific experience in statehood, diplomacy was their weak point. The first official attempt to demonstrate how Arab nationalism worked in the region was made during the Versailles Peace Conference during the First World War when several Arab delegations sought to define essential attributes of independence and equality with other states (Rogan 2016). However, almost every decade brought new facets to an understanding of Arab nationalism and its impact on the population along with its readiness to fight for Arab people’s rights and freedoms.

To comprehend the changes of the chosen ideology in the region, it is necessary to divide the history of the movement into several periods:

  • The pre-world period (the time when the Ottoman Empire ruled Arab land);
  • The WWI period (when Arab states defined themselves and declared strong leaders in such countries as Syria and Iraq);
  • New waves of religious nationalism (when Zionism determined the relationship between religious beliefs and secular concepts and Pan-Islamism was promoted);
  • The WWII period (the creation of the Arab League and the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party);
  • The post-WWII period (the promotion of Pan-Arabism and the establishment of the United Arab Republic);
  • The Arab-Israeli War (the defeat in the Six-Day War that led to the decline of Arab nationalism).

During each of these periods, Arab nationalism gained particular qualities and had its own impact on ordinary people, current leaders, and other countries that had some connection with the Arab world. For example, during the pre-world period, the Arab population was prepared for some changes while at the same time gathering enough material to take action. Existing colonialism had a serious impact on Arab ideology, including the development of economic and social conditions (Halliday 2011). On the one hand, the colonial experience challenged many Arabs because of the inability to be involved in practices and relationships that interested them. On the other hand, this condition strengthened the Ottoman Empire as well as such countries as Iran and Egypt against Europe and its rules, establishing methods and goals of resistance around the whole globe (Halliday 2011). Globalization and different religious movements provoked cultural aggression and demonstrated how the rejection of colonizers could be developed. In other words, between the 18th century and the beginning of World War I, Arab nationalism was treated as something cherished but hardly achievable for most Arab countries.

The events before and after World War First considerably changed attitudes towards Arab nationalism. Britain and France found themselves surrounded by enemies and developed strategic alliances to avoid new dictators and outside control on their land (Milton-Edwards & Hinchcliffe 2001). Therefore, it seemed reasonable for the two European nations to obtain territorial control over land in the Middle East. The idea to organize a revolutionary movement was born, and the first Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire and European control was made in the name of Islam. Western states treated this idea with caution because they believed that it ‘is somehow inherently political, and perhaps inherently violent’ (Teti & Mura 2016, p. 83). The connection between Islamist movements, politics, and religion led to a new concept – a politicization of religion – when the rejection of the status quo as unjust was developed (Teti & Mura 2016). Arabs were inspired by the possibility to resist the control under which their foreign rulers had required them to live for a number of years. The British supported the attempts of Arabs fighting against the Ottoman Empire and incited leaders by sponsoring and talking about independence.

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Cooperation between the British and Sharif Hussein of Mecca turned out to be a critical point in promoting Arab nationalism. Their correspondence served as the best evidence of how wartime agreements worked. Between July 1915 and March 1916, the ‘British High Commissioner for Egypt Sir Henry McMahon and the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali of the Hashemite family, negotiated the terms for an Arab revolt against Ottoman rule (Rogan 2016, p. 44). This alliance resulted in the Arab Revolt, a powerful symbol of Arab nationalism that helped to define the national consciousness of Arab people in different regions (Milton-Edwards 2011). Thousands of Bedouins were organized into troops to protect the peninsula and proclaim their freedom. Arab nationalism was officially identified as a strength without boundaries and with unpredictable outcomes.

At the same time, it is necessary to admit that nationalism was not the only movement on Arab land or neighboring territories. Many representatives of local nationalist groups could also be identified, such as liberals, socialists, and radicals as well as transnational ethical organizations and religious groups that supported Zionism and Islamic nationalism. According to Halliday (2000), Arab nationalism gained two forms: one introduced Arabs as a whole, and the second pictured an Arab world in which people were divided between the states (Egypt, Jordan, and Iran). The term qaumi describes the first, national type, and qutrit is used for a local understanding of nationalism (Halliday 2000). The same dual attitude towards nationalism can be perceived in terms of personal intentions and aspirations versus actual reality. Again, the investigations of Halliday (2000) prove that ‘there are always different levels, and the definition for any individual or group changes over time’, depending on ‘the needs of the moment’ (p. 48). As soon as Arab nationalism was completely formed and explained, revolts across the spectrum of Arab countries began, provoking new ideals as local authorities established new rules.

As a result of these developments, Zionism in Palestine, as well as Pan-Arabism, were created, challenging the idea of Arab nationalism for the first time. Zionism was introduced as a form of political nationalism and portrayed Jewish religious life as the core idea of emancipation (Cleveland 2016). Palestine’s transformation into a home for Jewish people provoked a change in the balance between the Arab elite and the Jewish minority (Robinson 2017). The population and the territory of Israel included representatives of the Zionist movement who were obsessed with the necessity to occupy as much land as possible, believing that Zionism was no longer secular but a movement supported by heaven and guided by God (Sucharov & Mousavi 2017). It became difficult to propose one national idea and ensure universal cooperation. Nationalism as the only concept that united people and made them independent was questioned.

The changes associated with World War II, its aftermath, and the Arab-Israeli conflict also contributed to an understanding and perception of Arab nationalism in the chosen region and around the globe. After the defeat of Turkey in World War I, Arab countries sought to strengthen their ties and created the Arab League, which first included six countries (Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Syria) (Rogan 2016). With time, Yemen, Palestine, Somalia, Tunisia, and other Arab countries joined the League in search of solutions to questions of national security. Nationalism was the core of this union as its aim was to coordinate the cooperation of Arab countries and promote their sovereignty regardless of the intentions of other countries to gain control.

The Palestinian conflict that took place in the latter half of the 1930s led to the creation of the Ba’ath Party during the late 1940s in Iraq and Syria, which still supported nationalism, considering the Arab nation as a group of people with the same language, traditions, and intentions. The new organizations promoted Pan-Arabism as the strongest form of nationalism, characterized by strong political ideologies, cultural unity, and the removal of geographical barriers. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian President, played a crucial role in the development of this Arab nationalist movement. He wanted to modernize the country and remove any vestige of monarchy and colonization.

Another of his achievements was the creation of the United Arab Republic (UAR). Despite existing benefits like the unity of two nations (Egypt and Syria), the UAR revealed a number of concerns that also arose during the Palestinian conflict in Israel and the later Arab-Israeli conflict in the 1960s. Regardless of political improvements and superstructures, ethnonational minorities were not able to solve their problems and find support from the government, which meant that peace and order were not achievable (Beblawi 1987; Rouhana & Ghanem 1998; Smith 2016). In less than half a century, the ideas of Arab nationalism were destroyed and spoiled. In this case, it was not colonizers and foreign rulers but regional leaders and citizens whose voices remained unrecognized for a considerable period of time. Their desire for independent power and control to Arab nationalism being changed into a new, unpredictable force.

Nationalism and Its Positive Effects on the Population

Over the last century, as Arab nationalism became a considerable part of everyday life, many people have continued to label it as a greater benefit for the whole Aran nation. Its achievement has been to unite countries and encourage them to speak the same language, follow the same traditions and set the same goals for future development. However, linguistic independence is not the only positive issue in the discussion about the value nationalism brings to the Gulf. This movement was formed during a specific period in history, focusing on the personal and public needs, evaluations, and abilities of Arabs. It provided the possibility for change as soon as goals were established and instruments for struggle were chosen.

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In other words, a good plan was created to strive for personal freedoms. This plan defined the options for different groups of people, including women and their right to emancipation. According to Sjoberg and Whooley (2013), women became emotional leaders during many uprisings in Arab countries, including the protests known as the Arab Spring. The peculiar feature of Arab nationalism is that despite intentions of becoming free and independent, the Arab nation continues to question the role and rights of women in society. It is difficult to accept a woman as a national fighter who can break the barrier of fear and dependence on a man. Women’s rights were altered during revolutions, revolts, and protests, and their opinions became valuable because they were able to speak, work and seek to improve living conditions from a different perspective (Abu-Lughod & El-Mahdi 2011). The empowerment of women was arguably one of the brightest achievements of Arab nationalism in terms of the necessity to effect change to create a better life.

Another important benefit of nationalism for Arabs was the establishment of international relationships and the choice of new partners. The Gulf was recognized as a natural source of oil. Therefore, such countries as the United States and Britain were ready to cooperate with local leaders under different conditions. The emergence of the oil industry and the power of Arab nationalism shaped the region’s economic development and facilitated its integration into the international system. Each country wanted to offer the best options for its potential partners. For example, Saudi Arabia found it effective to ally with the United States and establish stable long-term relationships, identifying American forces as their main security guarantors (Legrenzi & Gause 2016). Nationalism helped Arabs recognize their worth and introduce their own conditions for new partnerships and business relationships. In addition, motivation and inspiration were promoted, increasing the population’s potential and desire to develop. People realized what they could do and recognized which methods were more effective for their region.

Finally, nationalism made it possible for each country to develop its own traditions and establish fashions. For example, Iraq combined the ideas of nationalism with those of socialism. Religion and national identity did not play a crucial role as in Egypt. The latter country was introduced as the land of pharaohs, invoking ideas of magnificence and richness. Palestinian nationalism, in comparison, was complicated because people wanted to support different nationalistic sentiments. For example, in terms of Israel’s security, nationalism for Palestinians was defined as a threat, necessitating the regulation of Palestinian life and strengthening of Israeli administration (Beinin & Hajjar 2014). Although Arabs were free from foreign colonizers and rulers as in any other free country, this region faced a number of new problems and concerns at the local level.

Nationalism and Its Negative Outcomes in the Gulf

Arab nationalism also constitutes a strong destructive power for Arabs, involving the inability to control all opportunities and inspirations. As soon as people were open to the idea of democracy and the possibility of expressing their desires and needs, the Gulf was revealed to be under the power of ethnic nationalism where ‘the state is identified with a core ethnic nation, not with its citizens’ (Sa’di 2000, p. 30). This means that Arab countries were developed in the interest of a particular ethnic nation but never for all people, regardless of their status, income, and other personal characteristics. As a result, Smooha admitted that minorities were treated as second-class citizens with a possibility to continue their democratic but peaceful struggle’ (as cited in Sa’di 2000). On the one hand, Arabs were able to achieve certain positive outcomes and goals. They gained power and proved their rights in the face of Westernisation and colonization. On the other hand, people could hardly expect to gain such power, leading to gaps in understanding the essence of nationalism and its possible development.

The growth of nationalism provoked the growth of personal ambitions that were hard to predict or understand at the national level. In her investigation of the connection between realism and Arab nationalism, Elgawly (2017) relied on conclusions made by Kenneth Walts about the elements of survival under the rules of nationalist ideology, including the necessity to deal with power obtained by others, cope with wide ranges of action, identify available margins and use power for personal benefit and for national wealth. The more control and power people could obtain, the more chances to be seduced and spoiled appeared.

Arab nationalism was also influenced by such concepts as political Islam, radicalism, and such national movements as Zionism. As Western domination was removed, Arab people chose their leaders and trusted their future to the hands of certain groups without considering the possibility of promoting new reasons for inequality. Neglecting sovereignty and democracy, Arab nations began wars to find new land, promote their own rule and control each other’s lives. The results of Arab nationalism could be observed in the Six-Day War, part of the Arab-Israeli conflict when Jordan, Syrian, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia attacked Israel. Arab nationalism was seriously damaged when powers were shifted and certain states were identified as leaders in the region (Teti & Mura 2016). When Egypt attacked Israel for its own purposes, the role of Arab nationalism came into question.

Even civil wars proved that people were not only not ready to deal with the options that had become available to them, but they had to resolve conflicts stemming from social and religious aspects. In Lebanon, the conflict between Christians and Muslims precluded distributing their powers and roles in society, dividing the land according to their religious preferences. In Iran, the revolution was organized to change the government and build a new model of rule. Finally, the Gulf Wars and the assumption by the United States of the role of defender of Iraq introduced conclusive evidence that Arab nationalism was over. Nationalists could no longer support the ideas of freedom and civil rights, and Arabism became a new threat to local people as well as to the citizens of other countries worldwide.

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Arab nationalism provides a good example of how people can change their lives and countries may proclaim their rights and freedoms. Over the course of more than a century, this ideology served as an influential political tool in the Middle East that helped to remove colonization and Westernisation. The decline of the Ottoman Empire, the achievements during World War I, the development of new types of nationalism, and the creation of strong organizations and leagues during World War II underpinned the purposes of Arab nationalism. Pan-Arabic enthusiasm, globalization, industrialization, and the discovery of oil contributed to the growth and prosperity of many Arab states. Although the movements towards Palestinian and Israeli nationalism were not as simple and successful as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Libya, their roles and impacts could not be ignored or misconstrued. When Arab states became independent, Arab nationalism was dramatically changed. Instead of forming one nation with one language and one culture, Arabs could not deal with existing social concerns. Because of the Arab-Israeli conflict, regional revolutions, and civil wars, Arab nationalism changed, and the attitudes towards this ideology became a threat for many countries.

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