‘Arab Nationalism’ in the Modern Context

‘Arab Nationalism’ was an important part of anti-colonial struggle. A generation on it has little meaning today. Discuss.

This essay will examine to what extent Arab nationalism as an ideology was of significance to the anti-colonial struggle and the influence of Arab nationalism in present times. A prominent question of interest in this study will be: was western domination eliminated due to the might of Arab nationalism? Certainly there has been a debate surrounding the significance of Arab nationalism today, this essay will highlight central issues surrounding the debate such as whether Arab nationalism has terminally declined or has just become a lessened force. A further question of concern will be: If Arab nationalism has gone into political remission could it be revived or gain appeal in present times? Furthermore this study will analyse when Arab nationalism was at its strongest and when the greatest expression of Arab nationalism were evident.

Arab nationalism is considered to be a nationalist ideology which objective is to achieve a unified Arab nation encompassing the entire territory which is categorised as “the Arab World” from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf (Karsh & Karsh, 1996). The assertion of Arab nationalism is that there should be political unity within the Arab world. Arab nationalism is an ideology that stresses solidarity of the Arab people which is entrenched in a common language, history and culture. The Arabic language is considered to play a significant unifying role. Certain scholars such as al-Hursi deem that the Arabic language is a central element of Arab nationalism (Suleiman, 1994). In addition, the end of Western hegemony and domination in the Middle East and North Africa region was a prominent objective of Arab nationalism. The notion of unity was believed to be a method that could be utilised to overcome colonisation. Arab nationalism was considered to be the sole vital method capable of providing an avenue away from colonialism and imperialism and a means to eliminate colonialism altogether. It was regarded to have the potential to provide larger regional unity as it offered the foundation of establishing an amalgamated nation that could be capable of resisting colonial powers and ultimately attaining independence.

Various forms of long lasting grievances were caused by colonial occupation such as political oppression and marginalisation plus excessive economic profits and resources were continuously seized and exploited by the colonial powers. Furthermore a foreign unfamiliar culture was forced upon the Arab populaces; Arab nationalism and the set of beliefs surrounding the ideology were believed to have the capability to dissolve such matters in order to redeem and revert back to an indigenous culture and heritage. Most of the Arab world experienced colonial suppression and were ruled by western powers such as Britain and France. Was Arab nationalism vital in the struggle against colonialism? It is deemed that “…through the imperial world during the decolonizing period, protest, resistance, and independence movements were fuelled by one or another nationalism” (Said, 1993).

The end of the Second World War caused vast political, social and economic transformations to the world order subsequently certain colonised nations gained their independence. In spite of this, the end of explicit or direct colonialism obviously did not equate to the termination of colonial dominance. European powers sought to retain their power across the Middle East and North Africa and colonialism still dominated large parts of the region. European imperialist presence was still evident as certain monarchies were under their rule and were still well disposed to them. For example, Egypt had been granted independence by the British in 1933 however Britain still played a direct role in Egyptian affairs and exercised a huge influence over the nation. It would be in this context that Arab nationalism would serve to provide a compelling set of beliefs and gain ground as a robust force in opposition to foreign occupation. Rafik Asha deemed that “(Arab) nationalism constitutes the vital soul-force of our people, the bloodstream of Arab life and political vitality, the spirit which guides a resurgent people towards freedom from domination, servitude and patronage” (Pfaff, 1970). The Arab nationalist movement was immensely advanced by Gamal Abdel Nasser whom attained power in Egypt and became the nation’s president. In 1956, Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal which had still been occupied by the British. Furthermore, he fought against British, French and Israeli hostility and attacks towards Egypt later on that year. Both these forms of action exhibited a defiant attitude towards the Western powers and inevitably forced them into submission. During this epoch, Arab nationalism gained immense support and popularity throughout the Middle East and North Africa due to Nasser’s leadership furthermore many people in other Arab nations believed that they shared a common struggle against colonial powers.

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Furthermore the establishment of the United Arab Republic in 1958, which was the fusion of Egypt and Syria into one nation, was a bold experiment of Arab unity. Arab unity is one of the principal goals of Arab nationalism and it had been finally achieved. Even though it was a short lived political union it was distinguished to be a significant triumph over Western imperialism and emphasised that Arab nationalism and Arab unity did have the potential to be a distinct reality instead of being a mere ideological dream.

The Arab defeat of the 1967 war had an implicit impact on Arab nationalism and led to the questioning of the secular ideology which had dominated Arab politics during the 1950s and 1960s. “It took some time for the light to go out on Arab nationalism, but its power generator went down in June 1967. After the Six-Day War, the slide of Arab nationalism toward political marginality became irreversible” (Dawisha, 2003). It is important to note that there was a considerable amount of other challenges which hindered the accomplishment of Arab unity, the principle goal of Arab nationalism. For instance there were evidently competing fidelities to tribes, sects region and religion “the Arabs were divided into sub-states identities such as tribe, religion and sect” (Dawisha, 2003). Furthermore there were different interpretations and clarifications of Arab nationalism. “Variations on Arab nationalism multiplied sometimes even inspiring separate classifications such as Nasserism and Ba’thism, and even more arcane subclassifications, such as neo-Ba’thism. Many of these became rivals, even to the point of bloodshed” (Kramer, 1993).

Certain scholars stress that nationalist sentiment in the Middle East has significantly declined as a consequence of contesting ideologies such as Islamism (Myhill, 2010). Since 1967, Islamism has increasingly been perceived as an alternative discourse to secular Arab nationalism. In particular, it is deemed by some to be a form of response to significant failures such as the defeat of 1967 and the failure of the Arab nations to unite politically. The dissatisfaction of the people permitted Islamist groups to mobilise further recruits. During the period in which Nasser’s Arab nationalism was in power, Islamist ideologies had been marginalised and had been repressed from the political arena. For instance Egypt and Syria constrained the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such circumstances as the defeat of 1967 and the on growing disillusionment of Arab nationalism led to the return of Islamist movements to the political field as such experiences of loss allowed Islam to offer a discourse that would provide the assurance of restoring the Arab region to a condition of fullness and glory. Therefore as an outcome of the decline of Arab nationalism, Islamist ideology began to fill the political void. It is claimed that Islam is the solely authentic ideology native to the Arab people, in particular Islamists contented that the secular nationalist phase was “untrue to Islam and lacking ‘authenticity’” (Fuller, 2004). In a similar vein it is argued that “Arab soldiers would have fought more bravely and effectively under the banner of Islam then they did under that of Arab nationalism”.

Taking all of this into consideration, it is noticeable that the notion of that Islamism has replaced secular Arab nationalism particularly since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is widely held. “In the 1980’s and 1990’s, radical Islam had become for the Arab regimes what Arab nationalism was in the 1950’s and 1960’s” (Dawisha, 2005). A question of relevance here is: Does Arab nationalism have any importance or significance today? It is evident that Arab nationalism went into decline following the 1967 War and that Islamist movements have been deemed as an alternative ideology however is it past the point of resuscitation? Some scholars advocate that Arab unification is completely over with and has no significance in any form (Ajami, 1978). However some judge that Arab nationalism is still in existence but will unlikely to be a potent influence. “But the Arab world today is so complex and fragmented, with such a maldistribution of population and resources (with a result that exploitation is also skewed in its local intensities) that it seems unlikely that Arab qawmiyya nationalism will survive as a major formative force” (Leiden, 1979). Arab nationalism can no longer hold the assertion that it retains an absolute grip in the mentality of the Arab people. All this, however, should not diminish the potential importance for the future course of Arab politics and culture. “Yet the idea is not dead; it still possesses force and it is possible that it can be resurrected at some later time” (Leiden, 1979). In a similar vein, it is deemed that “the fact of Arab nationalism cannot be argued away. It is a major political and social phenomenon as well as a mobilising ideology that has shaken the whole region since the last years of the nineteenth century” (Nafaa, 1983).

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It cannot be denied that attempts and experiments of Arab unity have been endeavoured and have not produced sincere effective outcomes. For instance notably the United Arab Republic highlighted the disagreements between Egypt and Syria. Furthermore in terms of carrying out collective aims the Arab League which was formed in 1945 was meant to bring into line meaningful cooperation plus social and economic unity. However the Arab League failed to achieve any substantial outcomes. “Arab nationalism as an ideology and political movement was meaningless if its ultimate goal, the organic unity of all Arabs was unrealisable” (Dawisha, 2005). On a more individual level, at present many Arabs doubt the certainty of the belief in an Arab nation and are significantly less confident on whether there now is an existing collective Arab pursuit or objective (Kramer, 1993). However, does the prosepect of attaining Arab untity really hold no weight in present times?

It is important to recognise that at present unities amongst certain nations in the world are prevailing and effective. Undoubtedly, nations gain more power in numbers and that a group of nations united will certainly be more potent than a group of nations separated and split. In recent times, some may deem that the Arab population strongly requires Arab nationalism in order to gain influence in international issues. Long lasting divisions and discords have caused certain Arab nations to be less prominent in international affairs even though the Arab populace represents a considerable amount of people in Middle East and North Africa. For instance, nation states such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are utterly reliant on the West (Khashan, 2000). From the time that they were established, individual Arab states have continuously given precedence to their individual interests.

In present times the notion of Arab unity which is the ultimate goal of Arab nationalism may not be as inadequate as many perceive it to be. Undeniably, the accepted wisdom and thinking surrounding Arab nationalism has be subjected to certain setbacks leading to a great sense of dissatisfaction and stunted ambitions. However the notion of Arab unity holds a certain weight and is still of relevance at the current moment in time. If one is to analyse this line of thought on a pragmatic level a coherent political community would stand to serve significant purposes. Some deem that Arab nations should in spite of everything still work towards unity in order to attain constructive entities. This could be regarded to be entities such as an economic market that guarantees free movement of trade, goods and labour, a cohesive stand when handling with foreign powers in concern with economic and political matters. Unity could also serve to provide rapid assistance to an Arab nation intimidated by a foreign power and to resolve internal Arab disagreements. Additionally an entirely Arab military authority could even be utilised to prevent potential foreign invasions (Khashan, 2000). An innovation Arab awareness should be established on the values of solidarity and constructive cooperation so that nations can associate with one another beneficially.

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Furthermore, some deem that the decline of Arab nationalism and its lack of influence now are due to the diminishment of imperialism as the perceived enemy. It must be recognised that by the 1960s the threat of imperialism had diminished and the issue had become less pertinent. In specific instances in Egypt and Iraq the British presence had been removed, Algeria had gained independence from the French colonial power; the Baghdad pact had been beaten (Dawisha, 2003). Without the significance of the “anti-imperialist” or “anti-colonial” resonance had Arab nationalism deteriorated to be nothing but a meaningless slogan which has run its course? Furthermore the opposition to western domination presented an opportunity and motive for unity, divisions intensified once Western imperialist domination had been removed. “So long as the greater part of the Arab polities were under the domination of their British, French or Italian overlords, the Arab nationalist could cooperate with those espousing a more parochial nationalism in a common effort to expel the colonial power. But once these fragmented parts attained their political independence, the efforts made to unite politically the several parts of the Arab world foundered on the shoals of parochial consideration” (Pfaff, 1970). However, undeniably in more recent times the Arab world has found itself struggling to resist foreign domination yet again in terms of international interference in the forms of Western militaries and United Nations sanctions particularly since after 1990s. On one hand this may be interpreted to have pushed Arab nationalism to retreat virtually to its state of origin however on the other hand this may be seen as to be a potential catalyst for a revival of Arab nationalism. For instance, the 2003 invasion of Iraq evoked a reaction of a certain Arab nationalist rhetoric (Taylor, 2003).

All of this points to the conclusion that even though in the present day the set of beliefs relating to Arab nationalism are not as widely held as they were in the epochs of the 1950s and 1960s furthermore many claimed that the Arab vision for unity was irrelevant and exhausted especially after the Arab defeat in 1967 and overshadowed by Islamist movements. In spite of this the existence of Arab nationalist ideas are still prevailing in the Arab world and unification and political amalgamation is still required. “Nationalism will always exist when one group feels exploited by another” (Leiden, 1979) therefore in the future Arab nationalism may become more appealing due to prevailing international interference in the region and western domination. It has become evident in this study that Arab nationalism was considered to be a force implemented against colonisation and imperialism in this line of thought Arab nationalist ideas could still be utilised today in order to attain solidarity to deter foreign intrusions.


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Said, E. (1993). Culture and imperialism. London: Random House LLC.

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Taylor, P. (2003, April 04). War Spawns New Arab Nationalist Mood, Pride. Retrieved April 04, 2014, from Arab news: http://www.arabnews.com/node/230249

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