Islamists and Arab Nationalists: A Short history of a Troubled Relationship

Understanding the relationship between Islamism and Arab nationalism has always been problematic. The separation between Islamists and Arab nationalists, and political conflict between them is a relatively late development in modern Arab history. From the early 1950s, a series of military coups brought young Arab nationalist military officers to power in many Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Algeria. Arab nationalism, expressed in exclusive, radical and even socialist discourse, became the official ideology of these Arab states. The military background of the ruling forces, their fragile base of legitimacy, and the sweeping programs of modernization and centralization they pursued, turned most of their republican, nationalist countries into authoritarian states. One of the major results of this development was the eruption of a series of confrontations between Arab nationalist regimes and Islamic political forces, in which questions of power, identity and legitimacy were intertwined.

Understanding the relationship between Islamism and Arab nationalism has always been problematic. The separation between Islamists and Arab nationalists, and political conflict between them is a relatively late development in modern Arab history. From the early 1950s, a series of military coups brought young Arab nationalist military officers to power in many Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Algeria. Arab nationalism, expressed in exclusive, radical and even socialist discourse, became the official ideology of these Arab states. The military background of the ruling forces, their fragile base of legitimacy, and the sweeping programs of modernization and centralization they pursued, turned most of their republican, nationalist countries into authoritarian states. One of the major results of this development was the eruption of a series of confrontations between Arab nationalist regimes and Islamic political forces, in which questions of power, identity and legitimacy were intertwined.

Beginning with Egypt in 1954, the Arab state embarked on a desperate drive to destroy its Islamist opponents. Thousands of Muslim activists were jailed, often without trial, and subjected to East German methods of torture and psychological destruction, while eminent Muslim intellectuals and ‘ulama were executed or forced into exile. Supported by scores of nationalist intellectuals, and brandishing a utopian project of socialist development enveloped in anti-imperialist rhetoric, the Arab nationalist state accused its Islamic opponents of being reactionary, employing religion for political purposes and serving the interests of foreign powers. The Islamists, in turn, depicted the Arab radical regime and its supporters in a monochromatic picture of a war against Islam and the Islamic identity of the Arab peoples. Both views were essentially self-serving, ahistorical and captive to the contingencies of political conflict. But memory is often made of the legendary as much as of the real.

For a long period of time, The Arab Awakening by George Antonius (1938) represented the dominant paradigm in understanding the formative stages of Arab nationalism, not only in academic circles but also within the ranks of Arab nationalists. Followed by Albert Hourani’s Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (1962) and Hisham Sharabi’s The Arab Intellectuals and the West (1970), Antonius underlined the secular nature of Arab nationalism, while giving little consideration to the role played by the Muslim intellectuals in shaping the early Arabist vision. Later works have, however, shattered the dominance of the “secular version” and illustrated the close relationship between the rise of the Arab-Islamic reform movement and the emergence of Arabism in the early decades of the twentieth century. Arabism, as a milder, more inclusive form of nationalism, was the political expression of the reformist discourse of Rashid Rida, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakbi, Tahir al-Jaza’iri, Abd al-Hamid al-Zahrawi, and their students. For the Arab-Islamic reformists, Arabism was meant to reassert the Arab identity, and was seen as the answer to the Ottoman failure to defend Islam and protect Arab and Muslim land. In this sense, Arabism was not only defined in Islamic terms, but was also envisioned as inseparable from Islamic revival.

During the interwar period, although students of the Arab-Islamic reform movement continued to play a major role in the Arab anti-imperialist struggle, the gradual transformation of the social and intellectual backgrounds of Arab elites contributed to the evolution of an exclusive, ethnically based Arabist narrative. In the face of the Arabs’ failure to establish a united and independent state after World War I, young Arab nationalists like Darwish al-Miqdadi, Zaki al-Arsuzi, Edmond Rabat and Qunstantin Zurayq, who were graduates of the American University of Beirut, French and British universities, sought to re-emphasize the project of Arab unity by employing the power of an imagined ethnic essence. The French bombardment of Damascus in the mid-1920s, the British disregard of Arab opposition to Jewish immigration into Palestine, and the brutal crushing of the Palestinian revolt of 1936-39, as well as imperialist divisive policies in Morocco, all contributed to intensifying Arab feelings of defeat, and thus to the radicalization of Arab nationalist discourse. In the face of what appeared to represent the destruction of the Arab nation and preclude its revival at the hands of the colonial administrations, Arab intellectuals of the 1930s and 1940s responded by laying the foundations for an exclusive Arab nationalist ideology.

The inclusive outlook of the early generation of Arabists, which allowed Arabized Kurds, such as Muhammad Kurd Ali and Khayr al-Din al-Zirikli, to carry the banners of the Arab movement, was replaced with newly-constructed linguistic, ethnic and geographical borders. And while Islam had been the ultimate goal of the Arab-Islamic reformists, Islam was now conceived by Sati‘ al-Husry and Zaki al-Arsuzi, and many others of their generation, as a mere validating element of Arab nationalism.

But since the top priority for all shades of Arab political forces during the interwar period was national liberation and independence, it was not until the early 1950s that a divisive political climate would develop. Even the Islamic vision of the Young Muslim Men Society and the Muslim Brothers was colored with the embrace of Arab unity and Arab identity. With the rise of the Ba‘th Party, the Arab Nationalist Movement (Harakat al-Qawmiyyin al-‘Arab), and Arab-nationalist military officers, the divorce between Arab nationalists and Arab Islamists reached a critical stage. Years of inter-Arab conflicts re-enforced the political division and laid heavy layers of amnesia over the formative period of Arabism and its association with the Arab-Islamic reform movement. Both the Arab Islamists and Arab nationalists moved to legitimize their existence by rewriting their own history in isolation from the other’s history, or even by delegitimizing the other.

The defeat of June 1967 was a turning point in Arab political and cultural configurations. The defeat was not only seen as the ultimate failure of the Arab state, but also signaled the beginning of the end for the alliance between Arab nationalist intellectuals and the ruling clique. For the great majority of Arab intellectuals, disengagement from the state looked like the only means of survival. While nationalist intellectuals joined the opposition camp of Arab politics, the state entered a post-nationalist age, in which crude ideological control and authoritarian policies were replaced with a limited political and economic openness, anti-imperialism turned into various degrees of association with western powers, and the Arab-Israeli conflict into Arab-Israeli negotiations and peace treaties. And as the Arab intellectual moved away from the state, his discourse grew more and more to resemble that of his Islamist counterpart.

The holding of the first Arab Nationalist-Islamist Conference in 1994 was partly the result of this key shift in the position of the Arab nationalist intellectual vis-à-vis the state. It was also born out of a growing realization on the part of a great section of the Arab Islamists that the optimism of the late 1970s and 1980s was largely premature. Throughout the Arab world, the spectacular rise of Islamic political forces was adding a new dimension to the Arab political and intellectual divisions; yet, the 1979 victory of the Islamic revolution in Iran had proved difficult to repeat. Equally important was the fact that although the Islamists had the masses on their side, they lacked the necessary influence in the Arab elite circles, and were seemingly unable on their own to break the political impasse impeding the process of democratic transformation in most Arab countries. On both sides, many started to believe that an Islamic-nationalist convergence could bolster the legitimacy of the movement for political reform and democratization, and broaden its base of representation.

Both sides were also aware of the formidable challenges facing Arab societies as a consequence of the Middle East peace process, the increasing integration of Arab markets in the world economy, and rising tensions in Arab-Western relations. Although the bitter legacy of the years of inner conflict was almost totally avoided, a deep but an unacknowledged sense of suspicion was still lingering on the horizon of Arab political and intellectual life. Equally significant was the absence of any serious attempt to (re-)define the relationship between Islam and Arab nationalism, or to formulate a theoretical framework for a common agenda, especially in regard to the state question, democracy and the place of religion in Arab society and politics.

Yet, the meeting of Arab nationalists and Arab Islamists opened a new chapter in modern Arab history. In many respects, Islamism and Arab nationalism have been the most powerful movements in Arab political and cultural life. For the entire post-Ottoman period, the Arabs lacked a solid, durable level of consensus, a middle ground, around which the political process normally revolves and in which political stability is anchored. The Islamist-nationalist convergence seemed to carry great potential for the development of such a consensus.

Yet, the 1990s project of convergence was soon to unravel as the Arab World came to experience its most unsettling period of upheaval since the First World War. Although Arab nationalist intellectuals and political outfits assumed a leading position in the Arab struggle for democracy during the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, the outbreak of Arab revolutions in 2011 precipitated a great deal of confusion on the nationalist side of the Arab political arena. Although Arab nationalist circles initially welcomed the removal of Mubarak’s and Ben Ali’s regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, their position on the Libyan and Yemeni revolutions was largely unclear. In Syria, they sided with Assad’s regime, one of the most repressive and ruthless regimes that ever existed in the Middle East. Later, most Arab nationalists could not hide their joy at the fall of the Nahdah-led government in Tunisia and the military coup against Mursi’s rule in Egypt. Four years after the winds of freedom and democracy first blew across the Arab world, the great majority of Arab nationalist intellectuals and political figures are no longer speaking the language of freedom and democracy; they are formally siding with the Arab counter-revolutionary movement.

The post-2011 rupture in the Islamist-Arab nationalist relationship is a complex development that cannot be attributed to one single explanation. Generally speaking, despite the political distance that came to separate the Arab nationalists from the ruling classes of the late 20th century Arab states, they both belonged to similar cultural background, were inspired by similar values and fundamentally internalized a similar intellectual frame of references. The Arab nationalists, therefore, always believed that they were the rightful successors to the corrupt ruling classes in holding the power of the state. In other words, the modern Arab state is theirs, and theirs alone. But since Arab nationalism had long lost its mass following, and as the Arab revolutions and the process of democratization favored the Islamists, it was bound that the Arab nationalists would feel marginalized. Ultimately, and unable to reconcile this with the will of the majority, the Arab nationalists fell victim to their self-perceived sense of entitlement.

It is no longer possible to speak with certainty about the direction in which the Arab world will move next. However, if the Arab revolutions are seen as representing a historical development, propelled by historical forces, and not just a transitory political event, it is clear that the struggle for freedom and democracy in the Arab world has just begun. In this struggle over the soul of the Arabs and the mashriq, it seems, only the Islamists are leading the way.

 

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