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The Death (for Now) of Arab Nationalism

As Arab leaders sip tea and discuss what to do about Syria in the heavily guarded (yet still vulnerable) compounds of Baghdad, one thing is clear: No one cares about Arab nationalism anymore.

The leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman refused to attend the summit. The predominately Sunni Arab countries in the Gulf are not comfortable with how cozy the Shia-led government in Baghdad is with Iran these days. Iraq’s new leaders wanted to use the summit to show how stable Iraq had become, to reassert Iraq’s position as a leader in the Arab and Gulf worlds, and to proclaim it, at long last, open for business. Instead, it seemed to signal the death of Arab nationalism and cement, for now at least, the Sunni-Shia divide within the Muslim world.

Arab nationalism is now largely a vanished cause. Once it aspired to unite Sunni, Shi’a, and Christian Arabs under a secular banner. It is the official ideology of the Ba’ath party in Syria and the outlawed Ba’ath Party in Iraq, and it was once touted by Nasser as well. But now it is pretty much dead. Sectarian differences between Arabs are seen as more important than common language and culture. Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, ignoring the snubs from the Gulf Arab countries, tried and failed to proclaim the triumph of the new camaraderie in the Arab world: “The summit results, in which Iraq and Arab countries have resumed relations, represents a new turning point in the relations among Arab countries,” he said. Take a look around, Mr. Maliki.

One day the pendulum might swing back. In some future world, Egyptian, Saudi, and Iraqi Arabs might cross the sectarian divide as they once did, seeking common bonds instead of emphasizing, often violently, their many differences. But that day is not today. Iraq may be finally emerging from the shadow of Saddam’s isolation, but for now Arab nationalism is dead.

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  • J R Yankovic

    Now that we’re all – or at least so I hope – celebrating the natural death of pan-Arabism, do you think we might find someone willing to dig a grave wide and deep enough for its illegitimate brother, pan-Islamism? Not that the latter is as yet anywhere near the interment site. But just to sort of ease its passage along?

    And since human politics seems to abhor an ideological vacuum, may I submit a few suggestions hopefully more embracing of the natural DIVERSITY of the region: Pan-Egyptianism for the Egyptians, pan-Syrianism for the Syrians, pan-Iraqism for the Iraqis, etc.

    No doubt these ideas will sound utopian to many. But would they necessarily produce utopias more lunatic than the ones that have been attempted so far? Imagine an “Iraqism,” if you will, that doesn’t denounce or even dislike you for being Sunni, Shiite, Kurd, Turcoman, Assyrian, Yezidhi, etc – but that also invites you to become or embrace SOMETHING ELSE. Something more “neutral,” if you will. And not just for the sake of your immediate (though culturally different) neighbors’ peace and prosperity, but for your own.

    As in most things I’m an infant in these matters. Still, I can’t see how a leader whose official job is to love his COUNTRY could be a worse SOB than the parade of impassioned Arab- and Muslim-lovers who’ve been strutting across the Middle Eastern political stage for the better part of 60 years.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting ALL of our various corporations and other global interested parties would necessarily be too thrilled to see a country-based nationalism take root. After all, if there’s one thing the pan-Arabists and -Islamists succeeded in doing, it was in preventing a native entrepreneurial class from emerging in their various countries. But I can imagine a lot more people ON THE GROUND over there being grateful for both the greater local security and the greater regional prosperity. And maybe, eventually, not a few of us Westerners too.

    Now I realize what I’m about to close with is the cheapest of cheap shots (but then I don’t think I could ever resist a bad paraphrase of Churchill). So how does this sound:

    There is no sentiment or ideology by which a Middle Eastern country could be governed that is worse than territorial patriotism. Except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.

  • ari

    i don’t think it has ever died, but it has only changed in its degree. it is now being replaced by religion, which is the root of
    arab nationalism. arab nationalism always conflicted with tribal and arab divisions.

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