The Rebirth of Arabism—Again!

Witness the rise of the nation-state in the Middle East.

 Countering close to a century of Arabic intellectual output tolling the death knell of Arab nationalism, Western “Arabist” romantics still cling to this ideology’s obsolete models, still advance its outdated principles, and still speak its archaic language. And as, at last, Egypt ventures to chart a new national course, away from the desolation wrought by Arabism, unreformed Western demagogues dust off their musty playbooks and defiantly spout the “rebirth” of Arabism. If Arab nationalism is dead, “Egypt is trying to revive it” came recent dispatches from the West.1 Even the Muslim Brotherhood, suspected by many to soon pounce on Egypt’s burgeoning freedom, was wise and cautious enough to refrain from such indiscretion and curb misplaced celebrations. Yet displaying clumsiness reminiscent of Hosni Mubarak’s own graceless fall from grace—Mubarak himself being one of the last remaining avatars of Arabism—indecent Arab nationalists, still unconvinced of their own prior deaths, show no misgivings about rushing to claim the fruits of someone else’s rebirth.

After all, if we are to believe the Arabists, there are no non-Arab “others” in the Middle East, and there are no cultures, languages, or narratives beyond those of Arabs. Turkish-speaking Syrian writer Sati’ al-Husri (1880-1967), the intellectual fountainhead of linguistic Arab nationalism, was adamant in this regard and disquieting in his advocacy for a compulsory Arabism. He wrote that every person who spoke Arabic was an Arab; that every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker was an Arab; and that under no circumstances should conscientious Arabs accept the wishes and narratives of those who cast aside their assigned Arabness.2 “You are an Arab if I say so!” preached al-Husri.

Ominously negationist as this dictum might be deemed in a Western intellectual context, it causes nary a stir in the consciousness of those friends of Araby still besotted by the Arabist elixir: “one Arab world from the Gulf to the Ocean.” Personal freedoms, freedom of opinion, freedom of conscience, compromise, and respect of others and of the “other’s” narratives and rights seem to matter little, and can be sacrificed on the altar of Arabism. To have the Arab nationalists describe it, Egypt’s February 11, 2011 was not about freedom, food, and finances; it was about redeeming Egypt’s Arab identity and avenging Arab nationalism’s past failings.3

Yet in spite of the lip-service and histrionics, Arab nationalism was never the strong suit of Egyptians; at least not the Egyptians outside the gilded gates of the military and the autocrats. For the average Egyptian, Arabism remained extraneous and superficial at best, pragmatically, not ideologically driven. Until his dying day, Taha Husayn (1889-1973), considered by many the doyen of modern Arabic literature—and for some time the Arab nationalists’ and Sati’ al-Husri’s bête noire of choice—scorned the faintest notion of an “Arab Egyptian” identity. He held Egypt’s roots to be Pharaonic, not Arab; maintained Egyptian culture and mentality to be closer to the ways of modern Greeks, Italians and Frenchmen than to those of Arabs; and considered his own use of the Arabic language to be immaterial and irrelevant to his Egyptian authenticity.4 Husayn even claimed the Arabic language, his own literary medium, to be an exogenous intruder and a foreign speech-form to the majority of his countrymen. No Egyptian speaks Arabic, he wrote; not at home, not at school, and not on the streets: “Egyptians everywhere speak a language that is definitely not Arabic, despite its partial resemblance to it.”5 And Husayn was hardly the odd man out in this debate. One of his contemporaries, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872-1963), urged Egyptians to hold fast to their Egyptianness; to not dilute their proud identity into the Arabness of their neighborhood; and to never lend allegiance to any other fatherland beside the Egyptian fatherland.”6

There were others still, besides Husayn and al-Sayyid, in Lebanon, in Syria, and Iraq; Middle Eastern intellectuals who celebrated diversity, and poured sharp criticism on the Arab nationalist ethos, on its illusions of authenticity, on its imagined particularism, on its fear of diversity, and its lack of introspection. Arab culture, claimed Syrian intellectual Adonis (b. 1930), is one “completely closed on itself,” utterly incompatible with modernity and loath to the Middle East’s richly textured multiple identities. In one of his recent French-language works, Adonis claimed that advocates of Arabism embrace “a closed, resentful, repetitive kind of culture, where there is nary an opening to the outside, where the only ‘other’ is Evil, Hell, Satan […] and where distinctness and plurality are rejected out of hand.”7 Adonis goes so far as to proclaim the Arabs “in a phase of extinction […], facing a new world with ideas that no longer exist, and in a context that is obsolete and outmoded.”8