Tracing the history (and decline) of Arab nationalism

Developing Just Leadership

Laila Juma

Muharram 02, 1423 2002-01-16

Book Review

by Laila Juma (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 22, Muharram, 1423)

ARAB NATIONALISM – A HISTORY by Youssef M. Choueiri. Pub: Blackwell Publishers, London, 2000. Pp: 267 pages. Pbk: £14.99.

Arab nationalism is a political creed that has played a crucial role in Arab affairs throughout the last hundred years, without ever achieving anything of note. It has been associated at different times with three major political objectives, and failed to achieve its stated objectives in any of them. The first of these was Arab independence from foreign domination; although early Arab nationalism has been seen, in hindsight, as an anti-Ottoman movement, this is not accurate. The main anti-imperialism element of Arab nationalism was against the West’s domination of the Middle East, and the fact is that every Arab country in the world (bar Iraq) remains to a greater or lesser extent beholden to the West, despite political changes in the relationship.

The second has been Arab unity, either through union or, when that failed, through collective action through multilateral state institutions. In this too, the political project failed, the West having successfully kept the Arab states divided and forced to focus on their own interests, usually against each other, rather than on the things they have in common. The third is the Palestinian cause, which was repeatedly hailed between 1948 and 1973 as an Arab issue. The Arab states’ abject failure to address the problem of Israel was highlighted by the relative success of the Palestinian people when they were inspired and mobilised by Islam rather than nationalism.

This book, by Youssef Choueiri, an academic at Exeter University, Britain, traces the emergence and development of Arab nationalism rather more sympathetically than most people would. Choueiri highlights three phases: a cultural phase from approximately 1800 to 1900; an anti-imperialist phase from 1900 to 1945; and a phase of power from 1945 to 1973, in which it "succeeded in implementing its own radical programme" through socialist one-party regimes in countries such as Egypt, Algeria, Iraq and Syria. Choueiri’s approach is to look at Arab nationalism through the writings of major Arab nationalist intellectuals, rather than at the politics and histories of Arab movements, political parties or regimes.

The inescapable decline of Arab nationalism, due partly to its own failures and partly also to the emergence of the Islamic movement as the dominant political trend in the Arab world, is highlighted by Choueiri’s argument that the Arab world now "stands at the threshold of a fourth phase" — more than a quarter of a century after the end of his third phase. This fourth phase he links to secular democracy and civil society; but it is in truth more a hope than a reality. In tracing the brief history of Arab nationalism, Choueiri effectively also records its death.

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