Arab Unity: Rising nationalism

Secularism and Islamism emerged as political movements during the 1920s and 30s.

Arab Unity Episode 3

The Arabs sought ways to free themselves of foreign rule and create a united nation

In the wake of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, new political ideologies started to take root across the Arab World.

Many of the competing parties that emerged during this time shared one common feature, secularism.

The third instalment Trials and Tribulations – of Al Jazeera’s nine-part series, A Question of Arab Unity, examines the rise of a secular Arab nationalism after the Sykes-Picot agreement divided the region.

Into this was added an urge by some to return to the fundamentals of political Islam. With the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East was now moving in different directions as Arabism and Islamism diverged.

During the 1920s and 1930s, three major nationalist movements took form.

Pan-Arabism dismissed existing sovereign states as artificial colonial creations while local nationalism insisted on preserving the independence and sovereignty of individual Arab countries.

Then there were those who sought some form of regional unity, such as a Greater Syria or the North African union, either permanently or as a step toward a broader Arab unity.

In 1919, Saad Zaghlul’s famous cry “Egypt for the Egyptians” introduced the concept of regional nationalism. Zaghlul believed that Egypt and the Nile Valley, including the Sudan, were one entity.

In Lebanon, Antoun Saadeh carried the mantle of regional nationalism, proposing the creation of a Greater Syria and establishing the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) with this aim.

Rejecting the notion, dominant in pan-Arabism, that language was a defining characteristic of a nation, Saadeh argued that geography, history and culture made Greater Syria a naturally unified bloc.

‘Awakening Arab consciousness’

Articles in this episode

Founding an Arab Brotherhood

Dreaming of Greater Syria

Iraq’s bloody political history

Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood

‘Islam larger than Arabism’

The Arab Baath Socialist Party

Nationalism vs Islamism

Around the same time a group of Syrian intellectuals proposed that differences among Arabs were, in fact, “accidental and unimportant” and that they would all “disappear with the awakening of Arab consciousness”.

Like Saadeh, Michel Afleq and Salah Bitar, the founders of the Baath party, wanted to rid the Middle East of foreign domination but, in contrast to Saadeh’s regional nationalism, their party promoted the idea of the “common destiny” of all Arabs.

Baathism took off after 1948, when a lack of Arab unity was held responsible for the loss of Palestine and the defeat of Arab forces at the hands of the new state of Israel.

During the latter half of the 20th century the party played a critical role across the region but the nationalist ideals of its founders were rarely reflected in their implementation.

Islam is the key

But a school teacher in Egypt believed there was another path to unifying the region. Hassan Al-Banna turned to the Quran, Islam’s holy book, and the sunnah – teachings of the Prophet Muhammad – for inspiration and guidance to chart the course of unification.

He urged that the Arabs take up the banner of Islam, rather than embrace secularism, to rid the region of foreign occupation.

Al-Banna said the Quran and sunnah “will lead the Islamic states, reunite the scattered Muslims, restore their glory, and retrieve for them their lost lands and stolen homelands.” 

Source: Al Jazeera