The Complex Nature of Arab Nationalism and Islamism in the Arab World

While the concepts of the “nation” and the “state” have long been present, the “nation-state”, is broadly agreed upon within International Relations community to have been “codified”  by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia.[1] Regardless of whether non-Western polities would have adapted the nation-state concept themselves in time, colonial powers crudely instilled the concept in the Middle East, with much of the Middle Eastern map drawn by Great Britain and France as part of the Sykes-Picot agreement after Ottoman rule of the Middle East.[2] Therefore, Arab nationalism has been a force of unity for the Arab people, from opposition to the Ottoman Empire, then to the colonial powers of Europe, and then to US hegemony. As “nationalism” is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the “loyalty or devotion to a nation,” [3] “Arab nationalism”, then, is not quite the same as the nationalism one might think of in the West. The nation Arab nationalists are devoting to has historical, political, cultural, and socio-economic differences than the nation of Western nationalists, and therefore, will be, according to Anderson, imagined in different ways.

The school of thought that sees Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate, mutually exclusive identities and phenomena identifies the perceived failure of Arab nationalism with the devastating Arab defeat by Israel in the June 1967 war. In this case, the nationalist projects that were rampant in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and across the Arab world in the early 1950s, were overtaken by a surge in Islamic sentiment.[4] The collapse of the United Arab Republic in 1961 that caused Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser to suffer, as the leader of the “Arab nationalist march,”[5] is seen as another turning point from a nationalist era to an Islamist era in the Arab world.

Here it is viewed that the dwindling of Arab nationalism with its strong rhetoric in anti-imperialist sentiment is believed to be due to Britain’s departure from Egypt and Iraq, the Arab states who had “espoused the ideas of Arab nationalism” suffering the humiliation of ’67, and the gradual shift in power to the more conservative states, which has resulted in an era where “Islam became a way for people to address their grievances from an authentic, respected viewpoint.”[6] The “sun set on nationalism” and “rose on Islamic militancy”, as radical Islamists challenged governments throughout the region, such as the Baathist Iraqi government in the 1970s, the Baathists in Syria in the 1980s and the secular Algerian leaderships in the 1990s.[7]

Yet the idea that Arab nationalism died and was replaced by Islamism relies on the assumption that Arab nationalism and Islamism are merely contradictory, and is a fallacy that suffers from oversimplification. It neglects the history of Islam, the Islamic movements that helped shape the political discourse and Arab society much before the 1960s, the decline of Ottoman and Persian power and how this affected the role of Islam in the Arab world, and so on. Instead, understanding Islamism as a part of the wider “Islamic phenomenon” allows one to acknowledge the deeply complex nature of it, with expressions such as al-ba’th al-islami (Islamic resurrection), al-ittijah al-islami (Islamic tendency) and al-sahwah al-islamiyyah (Islamic awakening); commonly used to refer to the Islamic phenomenon and portraying the cyclical nature of it.[8] The Islamic phenomenon is an intrinsic part of Arab society, thereby inevitably intertwined with each part of Arab society, including Arab nationalism.

Chouraqui uses Descartes’ Discourse on the Method to argue understanding Arab nationalism and Islamism as separate and opposing ideologies confuses the concept of origin with foundation.[9] In this sense, the origin of both these movements have similarities: an anti-West dynamic against the colonial European powers and then US hegemony, while the foundation of these movements, in other words, what these movements consists of, differs – as, while Arab nationalism embraces Western ideas, Islamism fundamentally rejects Western ideas and values.[10] Historically, the two have co-existed, overlapping, and been used by the other for their own aims. Islamism has been used to strengthen nationalist sentiment, such as through Al-Azhar as a unifying ideological tool.[11] Another instance of the two overlapping are the Iraqi Baathists, a nationalist force who held a deeply complex relationship with Islamic forces – in 1993 beginning to embark on a Return to Faith Campaign (which ultimately aimed to emphasis Islamic identity) and in 2003 collaborating with Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which would later on become Islamic State, and thus, “by 2014, the Baathists and the jihadists were back to being allies.”[12]

The Egyptian Arab Spring witnessed Islamists, liberals, conservatives, all united in overthrowing the Mubarak regime. Tahrir Square was not split by sectarianism nor by ideology, as “inside the field no one asked about religion, no one cared. All Egyptians…all protesting, all united.”[13] Despite this unity disintegrating after the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, the unity during the revolutions and uprisings prove the two may work together in ways nationalism in the West and Islamism have not. The widespread suspicion that Nasser had approached the Muslim Brotherhood at some point in his life for a national cause further shows a larger phenomenon whereby Islamist and nationalist groups in the Arab world hold the potential to aid each other.

As Arab nationalism and Islamism are not mutually exclusive, then the argument that rising nationalism has a purely fundamentally contradictory relationship with jihadi terrorists as Islamist forces is faulty and proves oversimplified. The relationship between rising nationalism and Islamist fundamentalism is not necessarily purely fundamentally contradictory. While ideologically Arab nationalism and Islamism seem to be contradictory, with one rooted in transnational goals and the other in national, in practice this has not been the case. Therefore, the relationship between the two entities are deeply complex in the Arab world.

[1] Benno Teschke, “Theorizing the Westphalian System of States: International Relations from Absolutism to Capitalism”, European Journal of International Relations 8 No. 1 (2002), 6, https://doi.org/10.1177/1354066102008001001.

[2] Tarek Osman, “Why Border Lines Drawn with a Ruler in WWI Still Rock the Middle East,” BBC, December 14, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-25299553.

[3] Merriam-Webster, s.v. “Nationality,” accessed July 23, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism.

[4] Dorothy Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism as a Unifying Factor in the Middle East,” (Dissertation, Boston College, 2007).

[5] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2003), 167.

[6] Zirkle, “Arab Nationalism Versus Islamic Fundamentalism,” 88, 98.

[7] Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, 296.

[8] R. Hrair Dekmejian, Islam in Revolution: Fundamentalism in the Arab World (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1985), 4.

[9] Nathanael Chouraqui, “Are Arab Nationalism & Islamism Two Sides of the Same Coin?” E-international Relations Students (2016). Received from: http://www.e-ir.info/2016/09/02/are-arab-nationalism-and-islamism-two-sides-of-the-same-coin/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Isabel Coles and Ned Parker, “The Baathists: How Saddam’s Men Helped Islamic State Rule,” Reuters, December 11, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/mideast-crisis-iraq-islamicstate/.

[13] Nermeen Edrees, “Egypt: Inside Tahrir Square,” Global Voices February 4, 2011, Accessed July 23, 2018, https://globalvoices.org/2011/02/04/egypt-inside-tahrir-square/.