Nationalism In The Arab World Research Paper

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For almost a century, Arab nationalism was one of the major political currents in the Arab world; in the 1950s and 1960s, it was undisputedly the dominant one, albeit never uncontested. Like in other parts of what was then still called the Third World, its intellectual origins in Europe did not hinder its spread and success as a principal source of anti-imperialism. Like other nationalisms, it covered a wide range of ideas, images, and aspirations that appealed to and were supported by different social groups and strata; it built on existing self-views and affinities, forming various blends of local, regional, and transnational allegiances, reflecting different shades of religious and secular orientation. Critical scholarship has absorbed key assumptions of the theoretical literature on nationalism and ethnicity more generally, which can be read as a refutation of, or counter discourse to, nationalist claims and convictions: it stresses the contractedness of Arab like any other identity or identification; its hybrid character rather than the purity of race, culture, language, and design nationalists insist on; fragmentation rather than the unity of intent, action, and objective nationalists assert; fuzziness rather than the clarity of program, boundaries, and orientation they proclaim (Jankowski and Gershoni 1991, Khalidi et al. 1991, Gelvin 1998). Arab nationalism thus emerges as multifocal, multifaceted, and multilayered. Measured against the level of theoretical sophistication, knowledge of the historical evolution of Arab nationalism remains highly uneven, and in several respects quite inadequate.

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1. Contingency And Continuity

There was no unilinear movement, or organic growth, from cultural revival (Arabism) to Arab nationalism first in greater Syria and then the remainder of the Arab world, to pan-Arabism and Arab unity. From the beginning, Arab activists interacted, and competed, with advocates of alternative frames of reference that emerged simultaneously in the Middle East and North Africa: if Ottomanism died with the collapse of the Empire, territorial nationalism and political Islam found equally strong resonance among the area’s population. While in the Middle East, as in most other parts of the world, there existed a tradition of local pride and attachment that was also reflected in a specific literary genre ( fada’il) listing the beauties, monuments, and personalities of a specific town or region (watan, comparable to the German notion of Heimat), this sense of belonging did not necessarily translate into patriotism or nationalism, be it defined in terms of territory (wataniyya) or a people nation (qawmiyya). Arabism never constituted more than one option of cultural and political orientation. To insist on choice and contingency, however, cannot imply denying all kinds of continuity between Arabism, Arab nationalism, and pan-Arabism.

1.1 Arabism

The intellectual and social roots of Arabism can be traced back to the second half of the nineteenth century, when in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, more particularly in certain cities of Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, small circles of scholars and intellectuals began to call for a revival or renaissance (nahda) of the Arab language, literature, and culture. The Nahda, which in later nationalist writing was represented as an ‘awakening’ of the Arab nation (alumma al-arabiyya), or of ‘Arab consciousness’ (al-wa‘i al-arabi), involved religious scholars, writers, journalists, government officials, and members of the liberal professions, reflecting the spread of education, literacy, and new means of communication, first and foremost an Arab press, that resulted in the creation of a public sphere ranging from clubs and associations of all kinds to salons, tea and coffee houses, theaters, etc. The revival of Arab(-Islamic) culture and literature (in written standard Arabic, fusha, not the vernacular used by the vast majority of Arabic-speakers) was to be combined with modern knowledge coming from Europe. While new literary forms gradually developed (novels, theater plays, later films), poetry retained its central role for cultural and political expression in the Arabic language. The long-held view (e.g., Antonius 1938) that Arab cultural revival was largely the work of Arab Christians who, through bonds of faith and their education in European schools had been more receptive to European thought including nationalism as it was embraced by their coreligionists in the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire, has since been challenged and revised (Khalidi et al. 1991, Tauber 1993, Nafi 1998). The prominent role of Christians in the early Arab press cannot be denied. However, education on modern lines was not restricted to foreign schools, but equally adopted at Ottoman state schools and private institutions that were established by members of the local elites, Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Most important, Arab cultural revival was at that stage intimately linked to Islamic reform and maintained its link to Islam even later. A second view has been modified (Kayali 1997): that Arabism evolved as a reaction to a Turkification drive pursued by the Young Turks after their ‘revolution’ of 1908, resulting in the marginalization of the Arabic language in official use and of Arab delegates in Ottoman representative bodies. The use of Turkish in Ottoman courts, schools, and government offices had been made obligatory since the 1870s. The Young Turks merely accelerated and intensified the centralization policies of the Ottoman reform era (Tanzimat), and as a result Turkish was more widely used in the Arab provinces of the Empire. At the same time, Arabs became less well represented in parliament, the higher echelons of the bureaucracy, and at court. With the decline of a legal and educational system that was based almost exclusively on Islamic learning, whose normative texts were in Arabic, knowledge of the ‘sacred language’ lost much of its prestige and usefulness for a career in the Ottoman public service. Modernization, then, contributed in more than one way to the rise of Arabism and, later, of Arab nationalism.

Arab political societies that from the 1880s onwards, formed and met in Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Istanbul, or Paris mostly worked for greater autonomy within the Ottoman Empire, for constitutional reform or decentralization, not for political independence (Tauber 1993, Nafi 1998). Geographically, their horizon was limited to ‘greater’ or ‘natural Syria’ (bilad al-Sham); Egypt with its distinctive tradition and emerging national movement, Sudan, the Maghreb, and the Arab Peninsula, Hijaz excepted, were not part of their vision. Membership in secret societies such as al-Ahd (The Covenant, 1909), al-Fatat (The Young, ca. 1911) or the Ottoman Administrative Decentralization Party (1912) was small; an Arab Congress held in Paris in 1913 was attended by some 25 delegates. Similar to Iranian, Turkish, or Russian opposition groups of the same period, they were made up of urban intellectuals and military officers. In contrast to the literary clubs and associations that also included some women, or addressed themselves to a female audience, they appear to have been exclusively male. Their impact on local society and politics was slight. Still, the secrecy surrounding them and rumours of broad popular support alerted official circles in Istanbul at a time when nationalist feeling was rising not only in the Balkans and among other Christian subject populations like the Armenians, but also in predominantly Muslim territories such as Egypt.

1.2 Arab Nationalism

During World War I, the vast majority of Ottoman subjects remained loyal to the Empire. Separatism remained a minority trend among its Muslim population: in 1915, Arab activists in Damascus contacted the Sharif of Mecca, Husain ibn Ali, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad in the Hashemite line and de facto of the holy city, who, after some hesitation, signaled his willingness to rebel, in the name of Islam, against the sultan-caliph. In a separate move, Husain obtained British declarations of support for Arab independence under Hashemite leadership in exchange for military revolt. The Ottoman authorities reacted harshly to all stirrings of autonomous political activity including Arabism, which under the circumstances amounted to high treason, and in 1915 16 hanged dozens of activists, creating the first martyrs to the Arab cause. In June 1916, Husain declared the Arab Revolt and after the fall of Medina in November 1916, proclaimed himself ‘king of the Arab lands.’ In the course of 1917 18, British, Arab, and Jewish forces jointly conquered Palestine and Syria. In October 1918, an ‘Arab government’ was installed in Damascus under Faisal ibn al-Husain, one of the Sharif’s sons, who with a group of Arab nationalists of diverse origins, attempted to take control of a country ravaged by war, famine, and disease. In March 1920, a Syrian General Congress representing Arab nationalists from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon proclaimed the independence of ‘greater Syria’ with Faisal as king. Within Syria proper, their policies were partly assisted and partly resisted by urban, tribal, and village-based popular committees defending their own understandings of collective interest (Gelvin 1998).

Britain and France were in the meantime taking measures to implement their different wartime arrangements, most of them secret, which included not only the correspondence with the Sharif, but also the Sykes–Picot agreement of May 1916 regarding their respective spheres of interest in the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 promising British support for the establishment ‘in Palestine’ of a ‘national home’ for the Jewish people. The terms of these commitments had somehow to be reconciled; Britain and France did so at the expense of their Arab allies. As a result of World War I, more Arab lands were under European control than ever before, be it as provinces (Algeria), colonies (Aden), protectorates (Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Kuwait), or mandates (Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq) under the newly created League of Nations. Only the Zaidi Imamate of Yemen and the Saudi kingdom in Najd and Hijaz gained or retained full independence. The war and its aftermath defined some of the themes that were gradually woven into the ‘grand narration’ of Arab nationalism: the crucial role of ‘martyrs’ for national liberation; the ‘Great Arab Revolt’ or ‘revolution’ (thawra) of 1916–18 (to be followed by similar ‘revolutions’ in Egypt 1919, Iraq 1920, Syria 1925–27, the Egyptian officer coup of July 1952, as well as a series of ‘corrective revolutions’ in the 1970s and 1980s); exposure to ‘conspiracies’ and intimately linked to it, ‘betrayal’ of the Arabs by the West.

Within the framework of the emerging Arab state system, Arabism evolved into a political movement of growing impact and complexity, providing one of the major sources of anticolonial struggle and sentiment. The interwar period witnessed the rise of new social and political forces alongside the urban notables that still dominated politics and society (at least outside tribal areas): new urban middle class parties that could not be considered mere covers for elite families or factions; paramilitary youth movements inspired by the fascist model; Islamic movements of social and political reform; socialist and communist groups, some with links to trade unions, of various back- grounds and affiliations—all of them responding to Arab references, inflecting their emphases, adapting or rejecting them. If there was a hegemonic formulation of (politicized) Arabism (al-uruba) it was provided by Sati al-Husry (1880–1968) who as a high government official was able to influence public education in Iraq (then still under British mandate) (Cleveland 1971, Tibi 1981). Visibly influenced by the German romantic school, and Herder in particular, Husry defined the Arab nation on the basis of language, history, and destiny, embedding his vision in a narrative of pristine glory, foreign-machinated decline and eventual awakening, with a heavy emphasis on the us them dichotomy, ‘them’ being the Arabs’ enemies and oppressors from the Byzantines and Crusaders to the Ottoman Turks, Zionist Jews, and European colonial powers. The criteria of inclusion and exclusion remained malleable and contested: Arabness could be interpreted in secular terms to include all men and women of Arabic language and culture regardless of their religious or ethnic background, and thus provide the basis of common nationhood and citizenship; but it was impregnated so strongly with references of a specifically Sunni Muslim nature that it could also be given a distinctly religious (Sunni Muslim) coloring. At the same time it contained enough references to the superiority of the Arab race and genius to make it possible for Kurds, Berbers, or Jews to be marginalized, if not entirely excluded, from the national community.

1.3 Pan-Arabism

After World War II, two dimensions were added to nationalist discourse and strategy: Arab socialism addressing the issue of how to organize the growing number of independent Arab states, and pan-Arabism (al-qawmiyya al-arabiyya) aiming to transcend the existing regional order. Previous projects of political union had been associated mostly with members of the Hashemite dynasty, who, after losing Syria to the French and Mecca, Medina and the rest of Hijaz to the Saudis, reigned in Iraq and Transjordan; and they had been restricted to the Fertile Crescent and Arabia (Porath 1986). The 1930s saw the gradual diffusion of Arab identification to other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. The conflict over Palestine, which in 1936–39 erupted in the Arab revolt or ‘revolution,’ contributed to widening the sense of a shared Arab destiny. Intellectuals, scholars, and politicians in Egypt, Sudan, and the Maghreb who had not defined themselves previously in terms of Arabness, began to increasingly add an Arab dimension to their agenda, or even adopt pan-Arabism as their ideology. In the late 1940s, the Arab Socialist Ba‘th Party presented the new and enlarged credo of Arab nationalism, revolving around three concerns: unity (al-wahda) of the Arab nation both internally and across the existing borders that had been ‘artificially’ created by the colonial powers and had to be eliminated to create one single Arab state stretching from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean (min al-nahrvila l-bahr); freedom (alhurriyya) from foreign rule and reactionary feudal oppression at home; (Arab) socialism (al-ishtirakiyya) which was to be distinguished from Marxism or communism by its belief in God and the rejection of class struggle (Abu Jaber 1966). The Arab League founded, with British support, in 1945, could at best offer partial fulfillment of this vision: it worked for political, economic, and cultural cooperation among existing Arab states, not for their unification, and it did not adopt Arab socialism (Maddy-Weitzmann 1991).

In the course of the 1950s, Syria, which until then considered itself the ‘beating heart of Arabism,’ was overshadowed by Nasserist Egypt as self-proclaimed leader of the Arab nation. The call for Arab unity and solidarity evoked extraordinary responses from broad sections of the population all across the Arab world (the Arab ‘masses’ constantly evoked in Arab nationalist rhetoric), testifying to the power nationalism, and Arab nationalism in particular, had acquired regardless of its foreign origins. Appeals to Arab solidarity had the obvious function of legitimizing, inter alia, a ‘fair share’ in ‘Arab’ oil wealth. The politics of Arab unity equally bespoke the will to control and interfere, in the name of shared Arab concerns, in what rivaling national elites viewed as their domestic affairs. The heyday of pan-Arabism (ca. 1956–67) was also a time of relentless competition among Arab states and intrastate actors (Kerr 1971). All experiments of merger and fusion (some of them, like Iraq’s incorporation of Kuwait in 1990, based on military conquest) failed, most notably the union between the two champions of pan-Arabism, Egypt and Syria, that only lasted for three years (1958–61). The failure to solve the Palestine issue, epitomized in the Arab defeat of 1967, was therefore not the only factor weakening pan-Arabism as a political movement of mass mobilization. Yet while, from the 1970s, the ‘end of pan-Arabism’ was proclaimed repeatedly (Ajami 1981), not least by the adherents of political Islam and many foreign analysts, reference to Arab identity, interest, and solidarity continued to play a significant role in Middle Eastern politics even at the beginning of the twenty-first century.


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