The Real Desert Storm: Pan-Arabism and the Fight Against Colonialism

WHILST I first began writing articles in support of the Arab struggle against Zionist imperialism some thirty-five years ago, I have devoted rather less time to the history of Arab identity in general and hopefully the following essay will help to redress the balance somewhat.

Following the steady collapse of the Ottoman Empire between 1908 and 1922, the increasing presence of Western powers in the Middle East led to the emergence of Arab nationalism and calls for unity in the face of European interference. The idea that Arabs should form a political, cultural, spiritual and linguistic union stretching from the Atlantico-Mediterranean coastline of North Africa to the Eastern waters of the Arabian Sea, first began to take shape in the late-nineteenth century.

In accordance with the aspirations of each Arab nation concerned and the domestic policy-making of their respective governmental administrations, however, there have often been vast differences of opinion with regard to the precise form that such a vast geographical alliance should take. For some, Arab nationalism implies the construction of a single Arab nation based on the centralisation of political, social and economic power, rather like the old Soviet Union, but for others this notion involves a type of Pan-Arab unity that strives to retain and nurture the unique sovereignty of each member-state.

There are two separate words in the Arabic language that can be translated into English as ‘nationalism’. The first of these, ‘qawmiyya’ (قومية), comes from the Arabic word for ‘tribe’, whilst the second, ‘wataniyya’ (وطنية), means ‘homeland’ or ‘native country’. It is ‘qawmiyya’, therefore, which is more commonly used in association with Pan-Arab nationalism, particularly in twentieth-century Egypt, whilst ‘wataniyya’ is usually reserved for more localised examples of Arab identity.

When Arab nationalism first appeared in the 1860s it stemmed from a profound sense of pride that ordinary Arabs felt towards the gradual expansion of Western European technology. Ironically, therefore, whilst their colonialist occupiers had developed the technology in the first place, it was the Arabs themselves who first began to connect such achievements with the intrinsic peculiarities of their own national identities.

Around the same period, inflammatory Arab literature produced in the Ottoman-controlled Mashreq region of the Levant and Mesopotamia began to attack the Ottoman Empire for having betrayed the fundamental tenets of the Islamic religion and favouring the Christian West. Whilst the Muslim faith had provided the impetus for the Empire itself, the early Arab patriots of Mashreq were convinced that it had begun to adopt Western reforms and the Egyptian government, in particular, was seen as one of the main exponents of modern, ‘un-Islamic’ values.

The original impetus for Arab nationalism, therefore, was centred around the propagation of Islam and its ideas soon began to spread in both Egypt and the Levantine nations of Syria and Lebanon. Before long, however, non-Muslims also became involved with the nationalist cause. In 1868, for example, Ibrahim al-Yazigi (1847-1906), a Christian poet and philosopher from Syria, called for the Arabs to rediscover their history and vanquish the hated imposition of Turkish rule. During the 1870s, meanwhile, al-Yazigi was part of a secret society that disseminated propaganda in Beirut inciting all-out rebellion against the Ottoman Empire itself and advocating the establishment of a Greater Syria. Other underground groups appeared in both Lebanon and Damascus, mostly involving Muslims, but there were also Lebanese Christians who rejected a Greater Syria in favour of national independence.

In 1870, a Syrian writer by the name of Francis Marrash (1836-1873) – who was involved with the Nahda movement’s campaign to modernise the Middle East in accordance with the principles of the 1789 French Revolution – made an important distinction between the words ‘fatherland’ and ‘nation’. The latter, he argued, was more appropriate for the emerging notion of a Greater-Syrian identity because it took into account the importance of language and not simply culture and belief. The Egyptian scholar, Hasayn al-Marsafi (1815-1890), made the same observation in 1881, albeit from an Islamic perspective.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) – another Egyptian scholar who was associated with the Neo-Mu’tazilism school of Islamic rationalism – spent the final years of his life insisting that the Islamic ancestors of the Arab peoples had bestowed upon them the theological precepts of modernisation. Unless Muslims learnt to combine their faith with the principles of the Western Enlightenment, he argued, they were condemned to lose the true spirit of Islam. By seeking to link modernity with the world of Islamic tradition, Abduh was an early example of someone who actively sought to reconcile Islam with the creeping influence of Western civilisation. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Abduh was a Freemason. One of his followers, Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (1855-1902), accepted that Turks should control the political aspects of the Ottoman Empire, but also stipulated that Arabs should be placed in charge of its cultural and religious aspects. Al-Kawakibi was thus one of the first advocates of Pan-Arabism.

In 1911, a group of Muslim intellectuals in Damascus formed the Al-Fatat (Young Arab Society) and, two years later, held the first Arab Congress in Paris. Most of the group’s activities involved lobbying the Ottoman Empire to provide more regional autonomy for Arab nations, as well as efforts to contain Western influence and what was seen as the continuing ‘Turkification’ of Arab lands. Al-Fatat’s sister-organisation, the Young Turks, had already staged a successful rebellion against the absolute rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1842-1918) in what became known as the Young Turk Revolution of 1908. Consequently, this act of anti-Ottoman defiance led to the Second Constitutional and a period of multi-party democracy for the first time in Turkey’s history. As the Ottoman Empire continued to weaken, the emerging shadow of Arab nationalism filled the void.

Another factor that contributed to the forging of Arab identity was the British alliance with the Sharif of Mecca, Hussein ibn Ali al-Hashimi (1854-1931), during the Arab Revolt and combined efforts to overthrow the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In 1918, in a struggle made famous by the participation of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), or Lawrence of Arabia, the Empire was defeated and the Sharif’s son, Faysal ibn al-Husayn (1883-1933), entered the city of Damascus in triumph. By October 1920 he had become King of the Arab Kingdom of Greater Syria and, in August 1921, King of Iraq. More importantly, Faysal and many of his military officers had joined the Young Arab Society and set about creating a new Arab state in the Levant and Hejaz regions.

After 400 years of Turkish rule, Syria had become the thriving epicentre of the emerging Arab nationalist movement. This fact did not, however, disguise the ideological divisions that still existed between those who wanted to form a single geographical entity comprised of all Arabic-speaking countries and those who wished to see regional devolution and the accentuation of local traditions. In the midst of this debate the Western powers, eager to get their hands on the territorial spoils arising from the collapsed Ottoman Empire, were already secretly planning to carve up the Middle East between themselves.

The imperialistic connivances of the main Western powers led to the further consolidation of Arab nationalism and, in 1920, the British were forced to deal with the Iraqi Revolt when Sunni and Shia communities united against the occupation. The rebellion, which had been led by Sheikh Mahdi Al-Khalissi (d.1925), was eventually crushed but the British adminstration was also forced to deal with a simultaneous Kurdish revolt in the north of the country that had been inspired by Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji (1878-1956). Elsewhere, the Egyptian revolution of 1919 saw attacks on the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan and was co-ordinated by the exiled revolutionary leader, Saad Zaghlul (1859-1927), and members of the Wafd Party. Despite maintaining a large military presence, by 1922 the British were obliged to grant Egyptian independence. It should be noted, however, that the revolutionaries considered themselves to be Egyptian nationalists and were not motivated by notions of Pan-Arabism. Between 1925 and 1927, Sultan al-Atrash (1891-1982) also led a fierce Druze uprising against the French in the Great Syrian Revolt.

Between 1919 and 1928, seven congresses were held by the Palestine Arab Congress in Jerusalem, Haifa, Jaffa and Nablus. Meanwhile, at a two-week General Islamic Congress staged in Jerusalem on December 7th, 1931, a total of 145 delegates from 22 different Islamic countries met to discuss the restoration of the Caliphate, the Palestinian question and plans to build a Muslim university in Jerusalem itself. Among the leading participants were Tunisia’s Abdl sl-Aziz al-Tha’alibi (1879-1944), India’s Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and Maulana Shaukat Ali (1873-1938), and delegates from the Egyptian Wafd. The organisers also agreed that Arab countries should unite to form an integral and indivisible whole, thereby seeking to encourage each member-country to set aside its local concerns and resist Western colonialism with all of its collective strength. However, the fact that the original Palestine Arab Congress had relaunched itself as the General Islamic Congress and refused to allow Christians to attend its events split the Arab nationalist movement apart.

Worse, unfortunately, was to follow and this time the Arabs would need to unite against an external problem that would prove to be far more challenging than the Western colonialism of the past.

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