The Collapse of Arab Nationalism

Are there many countries country in the Arab world today that really want to be countries? By that I mean where the population by a bare majority, would say, “Yes, I’m proud to be a Syrian/Iraqi/Jordanian/Lebanese/Saudi/Yemeni/Libyan, etc.”  If you look around the Arab world it doesn’t seem that way.  Large portions of the Arab world are in complete turmoil. 

To a great degree that unrest arose because no modern Arab country (with the possible exception of Egypt) is really a country at all, in that it defines and provides an outlet for a particular nationalism.  And yet, the world is gearing up to add a new state to the disgruntled Arab slate – Palestine -- although the Palestinian Arabs have proved no more desirous of a modern state than any of their ethnic brothers, turning down every opportunity for statehood since 1948, and persisting in claiming that one polity they completely run – Gaza -- is “occupied” by Israel. 

The modern countries of the Arab Middle East were mostly carved out of the former Ottoman empire, a matter of drawing straight lines, combined with nods to tribal/sectarian differences and old Turkish, Roman, Persian and imperial Arab provinces. Much the same thing was done in North Africa.  But none arose naturally, deriving from a particular national identity (Egypt again perhaps a partial exception.)  Rather, collective identities among Arab populations at the time these modern states were formed were based on a broad cultural “Arab” characteristics (language, religion and customs), and narrower tribal identities (based on kinship.) 

This is plainly seen in the current turmoil wracking the Levant, the Arabian Peninsula, and North Africa, as well as in the rise of ISIS.  Arab countries are coming apart at the seams in large part because their populations don’t share a collective national identity.  This is particularly evident in Iraq and Syria.  Iraqi troops won’t fight for Iraq because they do not believe in the idea of Iraq.  The Syrian army is hardly better, a kernel of its former self, based around the Alawite Syrian sub-group that nominally controls the government, though it would likely collapse if it weren’t for the support of Lebanese Hezb’allah, and Persian Iran.

The wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq, and the instability that festers in Libya, Lebanon and even so-called stable states like Jordan, are generated by religious and tribal loyalties that easily trump concepts of modern nationalism, and which make the modern Arab national states flimsy constructs.

To the extent there is an authentic Arab national movement it is a pan-Arab one.  This movement originated early in the 20th Century, with a strong Islamic element, then waned. It was briefly and ineffectually resurrected in the 1950s and ‘60s by socialist dictators like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser.  That movement did not, and does not seek individual states based on former colonies or imperial provinces. Rather its objective is creating a broad Arab empire, like those that arose after the birth of Islam. 

However, the pan-Arab movement has been unsuccessful.  After World War I, dominant clans generally in cahoots with European colonial powers, established local kingdoms, e.g., Saudi Arabia.  Other states were carved out of former colonies or mandated territories (Algeria an example of the former, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon the latter.)   The leaders of these new nations, regardless of their legitimacy, mostly resisted the siren song of Arab empire.  When Nasser and others tried to hijack it for their own aggrandizement, they failed miserably. 

Nonetheless, ISIS wins battles and popularity in part because it represents the pan-Arab idea, even though the movement is not a purely Arab one.  ISIS claims to have reestablished a pan-Arab Islamic caliphate, which is the only kind of indigenous Arab polity that was ever really authentic, and at least in the distant past, somewhat successful. 

Yet even the Arab imperial states did not long thrive. The first Arab empire, the Umayyad, lasted less than a century before it succumbed, in part due to internecine clan rivalries.  Its successor, the Abbasid, like ISIS, was a not even truly Arab.  It was largely controlled and administered by leaders from diverse factions including both Sunni and Shia Islam, and ethnicities (Arab, Turk, Berber, Kurd and Persian.) 

Although like the Abbasid empire, ISIS is a polyglot Islamic entity, it still appears to represent a cause that many Arabs identify with better than the “national” Arab governments of Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan opposing it.  Certainly Arabs seem to fight a lot harder for ISIS than their opponents do for the “national” states of Iraq or Syria. 

One ISIS opponent that does fight hard is the Kurds.  The Kurds are not Arab, and fight the way they do because they are part of an authentic national movement. Which makes the Kurds far different than the Palestinian Arabs, who like their brethren in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere, demonstrate almost no actual desire to carve out a nation called Palestine.  It’s a measure of the world’s hypocrisy that nations are not lining up to establish the nation of Kurdistan, which would be a legitimate cause.  Instead, the United Nations, at the urging of supposed Palestinian nationalists, may (without opposition from the Obama administration) soon declare an independent Palestinian Arab state in Gaza and the West Bank.  In addition to the U.N.’s hypocrisy, this Palestinian effort is also highly ironic, since the Palestinians were previously offered such a state at various times by the United Nations, the United States and Israel, and always refused.

The fact is the Palestinian Arabs, like other Arabs, have no true national movement.  Palestinian Arabs in particular, have always seen themselves as the vanguard of pan-Arab nationalism, and are loath to give up that high ideal (or more recently the pan-Islamic ideal represented by the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS) in exchange for what they know will be one more misruled, oppressive and unstable Arab polity.  Consequently, the Palestinian Arabs prefer play to the roles of victim and martyr.  That way they can live on Israeli and international handouts, and also escape the dull and difficult responsibility for running a country, for which there is no historical basis anyway.   

The real mystery is that with the Middle East embroiled in war and instability, and Arab polities falling apart across a broad swath of the “Arab world,” that the international community supports adding yet another poor, autocratic, unstable nation to the foundering Arab fold.  By any rational evaluation, creating a new Arab state is about the stupidest thing to do, at least if the international goal (and America’s goal) is to promote peace and stability in the Middle East and North Africa. 

But of course, establishing one more Arab state would harm -- and maybe help destroy -- the Jewish one (not to mention immediately make life difficult for its democratically elected, Westernized, and clever Prime Minister.)  And that’s something that the international community (and President Obama) can really get behind, rather than the difficult task of managing the Arab national problem.