The two ‘isms’ of the Middle East

Can Islamist and Arabist ideologies converge on the issue of unity?

arab unity

In the post-Ottoman Arab World, pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism emerged as
competing ideologies [GALLO/GETTY]

As the Ottoman Empire began to lose its hold on the Middle East to European powers, the concept of Arab unity was resurrected by two competing ideologies: Pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism.

Pan-Arabism appeared most publicly during the struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1916-1918. Sheriff Hussein ibn Ali of Mecca, who with British support rose up against Ankara, was the first to advocate a framework of pan-Arabism with his desire for a united Arab state spanning from Aleppo to Aden.

At the beginning of the 20th century, pan-Arabism came to permeate much of the Arab world with the goals of unity of the Arab peoples and fight against colonialism.

Shafik Masri, a professor of international law in Beirut, sees a distinction within pan-Arabism. “With pan-Arabism you have to look at two domains: the conceptual and the practical.

“Most intellectuals believe in pan-Arabism as a kind of civilisational, as a kind of cultural belonging; as a heritage to which these intellectuals accepted and were pleased to interact with.”

It was not until the 1930’s, however, when buttressed by serious and systematic intellectual thought which combined elements of Marxism coupled with a vision of an Arab nation, that the idea of pan-Arabism really took root.

The ‘Awakening’

George Antonius’s 1938 work The Arab Awakening argues that the earliest manifestations of this ideology were predominantly the work of Lebanese and Syrian intellectuals.

Ideas about the role of an all-encompassing Arab entity were mainly influenced by Western thought and through Western institutions, in particular at the Syrian Protestant College (now the American University of Beirut).

It was here that scholars like Nasif al-Yaziji and Butros al-Bustani sought to respond to the emphasis then being placed on Turkish and Islamic identities by emphasising Arab history, culture and the Arabic language while de-emphasising religion as a source of political and national unity.

Michel Aflaq and Salah ad-Din al-Bitar, the former a prominent Syrian intellectual and the latter a Syrian politician, were two of the foremost pan-Arabists of the early 20th century.

In the 1940’s Aflaq and al-Bitar founded the Baath or ‘renaissance’ party which represented the pinnacle of intellectual triumph for the pan-Arab movement. It was, however, rather short-lived as political considerations overrode ideological consistency.

Because the Baath movement was secular in nature, Aflaq paid lip service to Islam but in actuality relegated it to a historical force without a contemporary role.

“The connection of Islam to Arabism is not, therefore, similar to that of any religion to any nationalism. The Arab Christians, when their nationalism is fully awakened and when they restore their genuine character, will recognise that Islam for them is nationalist education in which they have to be absorbed in order to understand and love it to the extent that they become concerned about Islam as about the most precious thing in their Arabism,” he wrote in 1943 in his In Memory of the Arab Prophet.

With Islam aside, Aflaq was able to define a romantic and vague definition of nationalism, one that was entirely secular.

Solution is Islam

A 2003 Hamas rally marks the anniversary of
Hassan Al-Banna’s death [GALLO/GETTY]

In stark contrast to calls for pan-Arabism through greater Westernisation, modernisation and secularisation, pan-Islamism arose almost concurrently as an alternative to those concerned by the increasingly secular language and nature of pan-Arab discourse.

A young graduate of Dar al-Ulum University in Cairo, Hassan al-Banna spent four years in Cairo witnessing and distressing over what he viewed as the breakdown of traditional Muslim society.

The son of an imam, al-Banna took it upon himself to promote a return to traditional Islamic principles among the children and adults he taught.

He believed that Islam had lost its social relevance because of the twin corroding effects of Westernisation and secularism and felt that the Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University had failed to oppose the marginalisation of Islam within Egyptian society.

Al-Banna decided that the only appropriate response was to organise and in March, 1928, along with six employees of the Suez Canal Company, he founded the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian city of Ismailia.

Soon enough, individual country chapters of the Ikhwan were popping up all over the Middle East.

Political Islam revived

Originally founded to promote an Islamic revival, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly became a political force – first in Egypt and then throughout much of the Middle East.

Ahmed Mousalli, a professor at the American University of Beirut and an expert on Islamic movements, does not see a contradiction between pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism as expressed by Hassan al-Banna.

He says: “The Muslim Brotherhood would have no problem with pan-Arab ideals, since it also meant one step closer to Arab unity.

“The main branches of the Muslim Brothers and other mainstream Islamic groups do not reject nationalism, but rather secularism. In fact, pan-Islamism of this type was able to promote both Islamic and national unity.”


The problem, in Mousalli’s mind, was the radicalisation of these Islamic movements, particularly by the heavy hand of the state – especially in Egypt.

He says: “The difficulty, however, was the way it developed newer, more radicalised generations of the Muslim Brothers, highlighted most notably by Sayyed Qutb, [who] rejected nationalism.

“This led to the rise of ideologues who believed that nationalism was essentially paganism.”

Mousalli suggests that the problem is not irreconcilable. “There’s actually more unity than not between Islamists and Arabists, it’s just there are extremists – on both sides – who take issue with each other.”

Even given the tensions that exist, there is hope for a certain level of “rapprochement” between Arabists and Islamists.

Mousalli says: “There is more harmony now, especially because most regimes in the Arab world are no longer nationalistic. In fact, the Islamic Nationalist Congress has already met at least five or six times. Both sides also agree on general principles and now basically all of their enemies are the same.”

Source: Al Jazeera