Middle Eastern history is consumed with the struggle between ideals and differences. Ranging from civil wars deciding territorial lands and leadership to internal struggles between religious sects, the Middle East is plagued by splits and shifts. This also applies to the Middle Eastern plight of Arab Nationalism. While it began as a moral agenda to bond the whole of the Middle East into one united front, it crumbled decades later under the leadership of an unjust dictator. To grasp the impact that Arab Nationalism played in the Middle East, including its rise and its fall, one should dive closer into the its leaders: Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasir and Saddam Hussein.
To better understand Arab Nationalism and its rise and fall, one must understand what this means. Arab is a term that arrived in the twentieth century to define people of the Middle East. However, not all Middle Easterns agree with this term nor identify with it. The term and identity of Arab is most associated with people living in the Middle East who speak Arabic. While some Middle Easterns are considered Arab by outsiders, many who are labeled Arab do not see themselves as such. Some examples include Egyptians, Israelites, and Lebanese people. Although this identity is used loosely and its definition changes from one group or region to another, Arab leaders define it best: “Whoever lives in our country, speaks our language, is reared in our culture, and takes pride in our glory is one of us” (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). Keeping this definition in mind, being an Arab entails much more than speaking the language, it relates to one’s culture and way of life. Consequently, not all Middle Easterns are Arabs and likewise not all Arabs are Muslim (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013).
Pan Arabism or Arab Nationalism was born in 20th Century Egypt. Although others tried to unite the various countries years prior, it did not reach its rise in popularity and zest until the 1950’s under the leadership of Colonel Gamal Abd al-Nasir. He was the president of Egypt for 16 years. Pushing Arab Nationalism throughout the region, starting in Egypt, he was able encourage other regions to unite including Syria and Saudi Arabia. In this way he aroused a following of Arab nationalist who supported his cause. Nasir created innovative policies that would reach out to different people throughout the Middle East. He adopted “positive neutralism” and later “Arab socialism”. In an era when women had limited rights not only in the Middle East but across the globe, Nasir attempted to stimulate the economy as well as national identity. He provided women leadership roles and gave commoners and tradesmen titles and positions of authority. In this way, the Middle East would not be split along lines of values, ideals, and differences. Instead, Nasir promoted unity all the while carrying the banner of Arab Nationalism.
Nasir’s position as Egyptian president gave him a unique advantage for the fight of Arab nationalism. “Egypt [was] the largest Arab country and the one linking North Africa Arabs with those of South West Asia”, (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). As a result, Nasir became the bridge of nationalism between two continents and surrounding Middle Eastern boarders. Furthermore, many not only agreed with Nasir’s vision for Arab nationalism, they also agreed with his defiance of Western Imperialism. This was because Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations were plagued by Western Powers which came with it Western ideals including culture, socialism, and control over Middle Eastern nations for trade routes and oil. With his leadership, “Nasirism” was created that accumulated all of these things. Nasirism represented Arab nationalism, positive neutralism, and Arab socialism, (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). Nasir was a great example of leadership when it came to Arab nationalism. As president of a large country, he understood the dynamics of politics and what unity could do for the Middle East. As such, “Pan Arabism is Arab nationalism with a stress on political unification… political unification would increase the wealth and power of the Arab world” (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). This was something that the Middle East was struggling with as the Western world continued to interfere. With his help and push for Arab nationalism, Nasir was able to get another country to join Arab Nationalism ban wagon, Iraq.
One concept that did not enter into Arab nationalism was religion and religious identity. This is because “Arab nationalism spread among both Muslim and Christian speakers of Arabic” (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). The concept of Arab nationalism was unique. It did not divide the nation by religion, tribes, or sect. Its primary goal was unity and it crossed not only boarder lines but religious lines as well. As such, Arab nationalism was indistinguishable from the Muslim World. There are limited references linking Muslims with the fight for Arab nationalism. Many Arabs during this time did not care who ruled over them weather it was a Muslim government or an Arab one. The one thing that mattered was protection against nomads, imperialism, Zionist, and the Western Powers. Despite this, Arab nationalism was not free from minority groups and prejudice among different sects. The majority of Arab nationalist was known to be Muslims. This often created some ethnic minorities and religious groups to be alienated from the party. The goal of Arab nationalism was to unite the different countries together, not to push religious difference or convert others to Islam. Consequently, “no new Arab leader came forth to recharge these batteries, to enlist the people’s minds and muscles to rebuild the umma, to harness the tools and techniques of modern industry to create an egalitarian society and to make Islam a guide for humane thoughts and actions in the Modern world”, (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013).
When Saddam Hussein came into power in 1979, the ideals and push for Arab nationalism changed dramatically. Over the course of 30 years, he would inevitably become the fall of Arab nationalism. His dictatorship changed Arab nationalism from a fight for peace in the Middle East into power, wealth, and control over not only Arabic countries but the Western ones as well. Saddam Hussein was the president of Iraq for decades. It is a country which neighbors Iran and Israel with the majority of its citizens being Muslim. However, there was internal turmoil within this country between the Shiite and the Sunni. While the Shiite made up more than 50% of its population, the Sunni became the underwhelming minority in addition to Assyrians and Jews. Saddam in Iraq was able to turn the tides of Arab nationalism once Nasir left his presidency. Iraq went to war with Iran and later Kuwait and Israel. Instead of its united neighbor, “Iraq viewed itself as the real leader of Arab nationalism, a rival to Egypt” (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). This occurred despite the fact the Iraq maintained a pact towards Arab nationalism with Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. Following this pact, Saddam continued to fight against Zionism as well as Imperialism. The only difference is that Saddam evoked fear by committing mass murders and bullying enemies into submission. Although this was a common tactic that worked most of the time, it did not work all the time.
Both Arabs and Americans agree that Saddam was the pitfall of Arab nationalism. As such “secularism, Arab unity, the promise of a new center of Arab power, the atavistic sprint of the folk, and the prerogatives of the dominate Sunni stratum- all these were Saddam’s to manipulate” (Fouad, 1991). He proved this to the world when he went to war with Kuwait in 1990. Going against the goal of unity, he continued to alienate and even refused to accommodate Sunni Muslims. He pushed independent states against each other along religion and tribal lines. This created a secular movement of Arab nationalism much different from its original intent. As dictator he condoned terrorism and killed anyone against him and his leadership. At the time, just as many Arabs adored him as those who despised him. Some looked up to him for his power. He was undaunted by Western Powers and unafraid to confront neighbors such as Iran who went against him. By bullying his enemies into submission, he was able to remain in leadership all the while hiding behind the label of Arab nationalism. Some Americans go as far to believe that, “secular Arab nationalism will exit the state revealed for what it always was: a despotic perversion of the Western nation state”, (Kaplan, 2007).
It must be noted that, “not since Muhammad’s day had large numbers of Arabic-speaking people mobilized politically to gain unity and freedom”, (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2013). It was a great and grandiose movement to empower the Middle East and further separate themselves from the Western world and Imperialism. With the notion of a United Middle East, they would not be subjected to the will and help of the United Nations or aid from America to do such things like build canals or war aid when in conflict. Instead, the Middle East would have the ability to rely on itself for help ranging from social equality, minority powerlessness, and Israel. However, no matter how hard leaders such as Nasir tried, he was unable to get the Middle East to work together. This was a grand idea with shoes too large to fill. As such, “no matter what claim to unity may have been made by Arab nationalist, there were several Arab states, many leaders, and various policies”, (Goldschimdt & Davidson, 2013). The end result remains the same, a call for peace in the Middle East.
Fouad, A. (1991, July 12). The end of arab nationalism.New Republic, 91(365), Retrieved fromhttp://www.newrepublic.com/article/91635/the-end-arab-nationalism
Goldschmidt Jr., A., Davidson, L. (2013). A Concise History of the Middle East. 10th Ed. WestView Press. Perseus Academic. Print.
Kaplan, R. (2007, January 07). Arab nationalism’s last gasp. LA Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/2007/jan/07/opinion/op-kaplan7/2