Qunfuz is one of the blogs I enjoy reading regularly. In one of the most recent posts (entitled: “The end of the Arabs?“), the author speaks about the different visions behind (pan-) Arabism and why almost all of them have failed. What I like most about this analysis is the persistent optimism that Arabism may still work but it will demand a radical change in perspective. In fact, it will demand such a radical change that it will not be Arabism anymore – not as we have always been lectured on it anyway. Some quotes from the blog:
The definition of ‘Arab’ has expanded over the last hundred and fifty years from describing tribal nomads as opposed to townsmen, to describing the people of the Arabian peninsula, and then to describe all from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf who share the heritage of the Arabic language.
The Ba’ath Party went so far as to find religious significance in ‘Arab,’ as is evident from the slogan ‘One Arab Nation bearing an Eternal Message.’ The ‘risala’ or message is what Arabs would previously have assumed to be the revelation of the Prophet (more often called Messenger in Arabic) Muhammad. The word used for ‘nation’ is ‘umma’ – a word previously used to denote the international Muslim community. In fact, Ba’athism should be seen as one of the twentieth century’s many attempts to compensate for the collapse of traditional religion (Nazism, Zionism, Stalinism, contemporary Wahhabism and hedonist consumerism are others).
In its effort to spiritualise and mythologise Arabism Ba’athism surely takes nationalism to absurd extremes, but it is significant that the Ba’ath Party was founded by a Damascene Christian, and that it appealed in the main to minority communities. Arab nationalism’s potential strength was its inclusive nature, the possibility that Sunni and Shia, Christians and Muslims, urban and rural populations would all identify together as members of the Arab nation. Sadly, it is precisely this inclusiveness that has failed.
If nationalism’s definition of ‘Arab’ had been the widest possible – to engage all those who share the common heritage of the Arabic language in a cooperative enterprise – the Arabs could perhaps have overcome their underdevelopment and imposed borders more easily. They would have had increased political weight for a start, and would not have wasted so much blood and treasure on intra-Arab fighting (or rather, fighting on behalf of the little ruling classes of each state). Given that some Arab countries are blessed with fertile land but not with oil, others with educated people but not with sea ports, an intelligent sharing of resources would have been mutually beneficial.
Nations (as opposed to states) are imaginary structures. Their borders are porous and membership in them is not exclusive. You can feel allegiance to the Arabs and also to Islam, or Africa, or Christianity, or Shi’ism. Variety and diversity should be the strength and richness of the Arabs, but many Arabs are ill with the centralised state disease, the rage for conformity which made Saddam Hussain brutalise the majority of Iraq’s people. When we replace humane, inclusive nationalism with exclusive totalitarian police states, we have lost nationalism as a positive force.
There are still glimmers of light. Important sections of Sunni Iraqi opinion have turned decisively against both Wahhabism and Ba’athism. The vast majority of Shia feel both Iraqi and Arab. But the Iraqis and other Arabs will be unable to work cooperatively until they honestly confront sectarianism and the class oppression which it usually masks, until they are able to sympathise with the history of the other, until they can think beyond the imported nation state.