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Arab Nationalism

Into every society is woven tales and legends of history that depict the culture and fabric which help to form the narrative of what makes a people distinct, unique and special. These ideas and images are passed on from generation to generation and help to identify the components of what comprises a national identity. A nation, in its definition, does not necessarily have a formal political state, although it often does. Rather, a nation is also "A people who share common customs, origins, history, and frequently language; a nationality," (

Every people group seems to need to find a sense of belonging, and since the development of the state system, this has increasingly been seen in the form of nationalism. This helps to explain why nationalism as a political identity is not seen before the 18th century. As people groups were not constructed into cohesive political units, there was little need to identify a political group as distinct and separate from another political group. With the establishment of firm political boundaries, with languages being isolated within specific borders and history being recorded from the perspective of those who belong to a particular state unit, as Plamentz defines, "Nationalism…is the desire to preserve or enhance a people's national or cultural identity when that identity is threatened, or the desire to transform or even create it where it is felt to be inadequate or lacking," (Kamenka, 1973, p. 24).

Every people group seems to need to find a sense of belonging, and since the development of the state system, this has increasingly been seen in the form of nationalism. This helps to explain why nationalism as a political identity is not seen before the 18th century. As people groups were not constructed into cohesive political units, there was little need to identify a political group as distinct and separate from another political group. With the establishment of firm political boundaries, with languages being isolated within specific borders and history being recorded from the perspective of those who belong to a particular state unit, as Plamentz defines, "Nationalism…is the desire to preserve or enhance a people's national or cultural identity when that identity is threatened, or the desire to transform or even create it where it is felt to be inadequate or lacking," (Kamenka, 1973, p. 24).

The existence of nationalism as a prominent concept of modern society and being used as a method of retaining political cohesiveness is the main focus of this essay in discussing the role of narratives in Arab nationalism and whether or not Arab nationalism has failed.
With the development of nationalism, and the narratives that concretise its rise and continuance, there has been research which has established that nationalism occurs for different purposes. However it is generally accepted that nationalism "arises when peoples are aware, not only of cultural diversity, but of cultural change and share some idea of progress which moves them to compare their own achievements and capacities with those of others," (Plamenatz in Kamenka, 1973, p. 24). In an environment of global competition and exchange it is becoming easier for others to identify themselves based upon their perspective of what they are in comparison to how others are not like them.
This is essentially the use philosophical idea discussed by Hegel called 'othering'. 'Othering' is the "practice of comparing ourselves to others and at the same time distancing ourselves from them…positing that humans and societies whose life and historical experiences vary from your own are 'different' and not understandable,  [implementing] use of the distance and difference to re-confirm one's own 'normalcy'," (UofTA). The use of 'othering' has become an important narrative in the development of nationalism as all societies though out the ages have used the construction of identity to see themselves as distinct and special.  This notion is discussed widely by Edward Said in his work on Orientalism, the academic study of the East by the Occident. Said claims that this use of the 'other' has led to the creation of a false and erroneous impression of the Western world upon the Arabic world. Said believed that this practice of 'othering' was essential for the preservation of a particular nation.  "This happens because the development and maintenance of every culture requires the existence of another different and competing alter-ego. Orientalism, led the West to see Islamic culture as static in time and place, as "eternal, uniform, and incapable of defining itself." This gave Europe a sense of its own cultural and intellectual superiority. The West consequently saw itself as a dynamic, innovative, expanding culture as well as 'the spectator, the judge and jury of every facet of Oriental behavior'," (Windschuttle, K.)
This division between the East and the West is not an uncommon discourse in the study of nationalism. Plamenatz claims that there are two types of nationalism, which he labels 'Eastern' and 'Western'. Western nationalism is the nationalism "of peoples who for some reason feel themselves at a disadvantage but who are nevertheless culturally equipped in ways that favour success and excellence measured by standards which are widely accepted and fast spreading, and which first arose among them and other peoples culturally akin to them," (Plamenatz in Kamenka, 1973, p. 25). Eastern nationalism is described as "the nationalism of peoples recently drawn into civilisation hitherto alien to them, and whose ancestral cultures are not adapted to success and excellence by these cosmopolitan and increasingly dominant standards,"  (Plamenatz in Kamenka, 1973, p. 25). This is not an exact example of the divisions between the East and the West as purported by Edward Said, although there is some continuity.
Said's claim is more relevant in establishing the importance of narratives and their role in the development and maintenance of nationalism. This is because he borrows from Foucault's idea that discourse generated knowledge. It is through the continuance of narrative ideas that a sense of knowledge is gained about the role of individual and national identity. Foucault claims that "True discourse, liberated by the nature of its form from desire and power, is incapable of recognising the will to truth which pervades it; and the will to truth, having imposed itself upon us for so long, is such that the truth it seeks to reveal cannot fail to mask it," (Foucault, 1969).
The development of this concept by Foucault is essential for understanding the role of narratives within a society. As narratives are passed from generation to generation and become solidified within the traditions and identity of a society they provide the foundation against which a society can measure themselves to all other societies. This is in line with Rousseau, a forerunner of nationalism, who believed that "members of a political community, if that community is to be united and strong, must share the same fundamental values", however he did not assert that all individuals who held similar cultural traits should be united into a singular political community, (Plamenatz in Kamenka, 1973, p. 24). It is common threads of culture, language and traditions which serve to unite individual members of a community into a national entity, each inextricably tied to the other by their common characteristics. This use of common threads to bind is what Herder, another forerunner to nationalistic thought believed,  that whatever makes any people "culturally distinct from other peoples, whatever they cherish as peculiarly their own, should be preserved and developed," (Plamenatz in Kamenka, 1973, p. 24).
Nationalism has also been used in the pursuit of sovereign self-determination. Kedourie says that "nationalism is sometimes described as a new tribalism," (Kedourie, E. p.69). In a tribe, the members are suspicious of outsiders, preferring to associate and trust only those who share common interests and values. "What remains in the doctrine is an affirmation that men have the right to stand on their differences from others, be these differences what they may, fancied or real, important or not, and to make these differences their first political principle," (Kedourie, E. p. 74). Suspicious of those who are different, many societies will seek to establish political organisation that is based upon the common elements of a people group.
In analysing the nationalistic attitudes of different societies, it is important to note that "nationalism is a reaction of peoples who feel culturally disadvantaged," (Plamenatz in Kamenka, 1973, p. 25). This is opposed to exceptionalistic attitudes which purport that something is set apart due to its departure from the norm, setting it aside as something special and unique. Nationalism is the often the approach of Arab societies as a response to the exceptionalist attitudes of the West. In modern days, there seems to be a great deal of friction between Eastern and Western societies. Current examples of this are seen in the wars occurring over political control of natural resources, and the extremist movements bent on destroying the infrastructure and cultural cohesion of Western societies. This is due to the discontent among political movements with a nationalist attitude that their society is being affected by the West.  
This ideology stems from several sources. There is the obviously differences between the East and West in terms of religion. It is a well known fact that the largest divisors of society are language and religion. Languages can be learned and shared amongst different nations, but the transfer of religion is not so easily achieved. Both Eastern and Western religions demand absolute loyalty to their foundational tenets. To betray them is to commit the ultimate sin, and acceptance of another religion is included among the list of 'thou shalt nots'. Pluralism is simply not accepted in religion, and proselytising is common in both Protestantism and Islam. This is a cause of a great deal of friction.
With the Western world has been seen as a viable force, in terms of military, economics, and culture. In light of the increasing rates of globalisation, many societies in the Arab world are threatened with the expansion of Western morals, ideals and culture as they are often in direct opposition to their own and the acceptance of modernisation of brings with it the acceptance of the ways of the West leading to the degradation of Arabic society.  In addition to the modern facets which foster the attitudes of nationalism in Arabic society, the history of turbulent relationships with the Western hemisphere has not lent itself to the formation of positive political exchanges.
In the age of empires, the West had a tendency not only to invade and dominate Eastern lands, but also to adopt attitudes of paternalism in overriding the established norms of internal affairs. The traces of this are seen in many of the current conflicts in the Middle East. They are the result of Western empires destroying existing political affiliations during invasion and years later, upon de-colonisation, re-establishing once separate political entities as single nations. This has been the cause of many bitter and lengthy conflicts as the individual nations are not able to establish joint identities with another when forced together into a single political state. The modern states continue to be divided by elements such as language, ethnicity, and religion, and are unable to arrive at a compromising consensus that established a new and effective political order and national identity.
The rise of Arab nationalism has its roots deep in the history of imperialism following lengthy periods of suppression of Arabic culture, and its birth was essential seen with the rise of modernity. "The genesis of Arab nationalism was part of the Arab awakening by which the Arabs moved into the modern world of Western science and secularism," (Dawn in Khalidi, et al., 1991, p. 3).  As modern medicine, science and technology has changed the Western way of life, Eastern society saw an increasing need to follow suit unless they were to be left in the ways of archaic, and perhaps backward timeframes. This however often led to a sense of disloyalty as the adoption of the West necessarily dictated the discarding of Eastern traditions. "One could question the efficacy of both the reforms and the inherited culture, but there seemed to be no escape from adapting the ways of the West….consequently, the opposition was able to advance an opposing self-view, the set of beliefs that later came to be known as Islamic modernism and revivalism," (Dawn in Khalidi et al, 1991, p. 6).
Arab nationalism is not just a product of the collision of Eastern values and ideologies against those of the West. They are also derived from the desire for all independence from Imperial rule. Much of the Arab world was a territory of the Ottoman empire, and the with the establishment of the first Arab Congress, Arab nationalism began to take root as desire for more autonomy in the Arabic world, separate from Ottoman rule became a standard political theme. "Nationalism inspired the desire for separate national sovereignty, free from what they were increasingly beginning to regard as the oppressive Ottoman yoke," (Lewis, 2002, p. 48).  Yet, some politicians denied that Arab nations were ever really suppressed under Ottoman rule. One politician stated, "Were we really the subjects of imperialism when Iraq was under Ottoman rule? Never! We were one nation, living under one flag. The bond of religion bound us in the firmest of ties. Islam united our hearts and our feelings, and made us one bloc, supporting each other, like a solid building," (Dawn in Khalidi et al, 1991, p. 19).  This is essentially claiming that despite a lack of political control and self-determination, there is no power than could divide a nation. The ties of religion, culture and language are stronger than any political divisions.
In additions to this, there were also religious divisions within Islam in the Ottoman world. Although the Ottoman was pluralistic, it was essentially Islamic. However, due to compromises and concessions that the Ottoman's made with the West in an attempt to preserve the Empire, many Arabic Islamics saw this essentially as a corruption of true Islam. "The cure for the present humiliation and abasement of the Muslims was to return to the true Islam of their ancestors," (Dawn in Khalidi, et al., 1991 p. 9).
Then during World War I, Arab nationalism essentially received world-wide recognition as the desire of the Arab world to secure independence from the Ottoman Empire became a legitimate pursuit. The British even went so far as to design a flag as a symbol of Arab nationalism, the design of which is still predominant in the flags of most of today's modern Arabic states. The British were avid supporters of the Arabic nationalists as it caused divisions within the Ottoman Empire, on of Europe's greatest threats to national security. The rise of new political states from the old Ottoman empire was not a problem for the West as "the confrontation between Ottoman Islam and European Christendom has often been likened to the Cold War of the second half of the twentieth century," (Lewis, 2002, p.33).
For many years, has been a movement for, not only for the freedom of Arabic states from imperial rule, but for the unification of all Arab nations into one unified, sovereign state. This includes a common unifying thread of Islam, but this was not the only justification for the desire for a Pan-Arabic state. However for some, "Islam was important not as the binding substance of the nation, but as a culture and civilization. In other words, culture, language, and history rather than religious solidarity were posited as the glue that was to hold the Arab nation together," (Muslih in Khalidi, et al 1991, p. 179).
Arab nationalism has had both its successes and its failures. History has written that the modern Arabic states have achieved freedom and independence from the Ottoman empire in the early parts of the 20th century. However, despite the crumbling of the Ottoman empire, the Middle East had to further contend with the British Empire, the very ones who had been instrumental in the demise of the Ottoman's. Today we see many strong, independent, economically and militarily advanced sovereign states with legitimate governments recognised throughout the globe. Yet there are still several Arabic states that have not been able to achieve stability and to legitimise their sovereignty. As a result, continued interference from hegemonic/imperial forces is still seen in the region.
The failure of Arab nationalism is evident as the movement for a Pan-Arabic state has not seen the realisation of its goals. It is implausible that this will ever occur as the strong Arabic states will be less willing to release their political control in favour of creating melting pot of them with internally unstable and backwards states-despite a shared religion and history. There is too much as stake for a strong state to meld with a weak state. Although the movement continues, there is also the jihad movement of modern Islamic extremist who propose to destroy anything and all people in opposition to Islam. While this is a radical example, it is still an example of a failure of Arabic nationalism. Finally, there is also the continued situation in the acquisition of territory so as to establish a legitimate Palestinian state.
Narratives of Arabic history, culture and society have provided elements for the rise of Arab nationalism. It is the desire to preserve a way of life, seen to be threatened by foreign and strange cultures and ideologies  that has given many the impetus to follow the cause of Arabic nationalism. This is becoming extremely common in a world radically changed through globalisation and the advent of technology. As most of this change is perpetuated by the West, it is not surprising that some in the Arabic worlds are doing all they can to preserved the elements that define their self-identity.

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