Pages Navigation Menu

The Center for the Study of Islam Democracy

Arab Nationalism & Political Islam: Issues of Identity & Problems of Democratization

Lecture Summary from March 28, 2000, at the University of Maryland, College Park

On March 28, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy was pleased to sponsor an evening lecture at the University of Maryland by Adeed Dawisha, professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, in conjunction with the University of Maryland’s Earhart Lecture Series Program, the Organization of Arab Students, and the Sadat Chair for Peace and Development. Professor Dawisha’s lecture was entitled “Arab Nationalism and Political Islam: Issues of Identity and Problems of Democratization.”

The presentation focused on Arab nationalism and Islam as the two most potent ideological forces and political movements of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that aimed at the fundamental restructuring of Arab society. Prior to his remarks, Dawisha noted that he chose the terms “Arab nationalism” and “Political Islam” advisedly. His primary concern, he says, is not with Arab nationalism as a cultural identity, nor with Islam as a religious identity, but instead he regards them as political movements with distinct political goals. The three themes of his lecture were:  (1) the competitive nature of these two movements; (2) how the West was, is, and will continue to be the point of reference for both; and (3) the attitude of each movement towards democracy.

Growing up in Baghdad in the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s charismatic leadership of the Arab nationalist movement in the Middle East, Dawisha admits that he himself was a product of this nationalist movement. He recalls being among the Iraqi youths who flocked to the Baghdad Hotel in July, 1958 to hear lectures by the renowned Syrian Ba’thist leader, Michel Aflaq, who held court in Baghdad during the Iraqi revolution. Looking back at the nationalist movement of his youth, Dawisha reflects that it was more an affair of the heart than of the mind.

The central mission of the modern reform movement in the Arab world, which began in the second half of the nineteenth century, was not political independence, but the reformation of Islamic life. At the same time, there was an effort by the custodians of the early movement, such as Muhammad ‘Abduh and ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, to make sure any assault on the West would be contained. As a political movement, there is no doubt that Islam, rather than Arab nationalism, was the more authentic. To a man, Dawisha insists, the Arab nationalists were Christian writers of Syrian and Lebanese extraction, such as the Syrian author George Antonius and the Lebanese publisher Salim Taqla. The Islamic modernists, on the other hand, were Arab Muslims living within the Ottoman Empire, who were most concerned with preserving their religion and whose call for separation from the Turks was couched in Islamic language. Never did al-Kawakibi, for example, advocate the political separation of Arabs from the Ottoman Empire. Rather, the Islamic modernists put their efforts towards creating a new and glorious age for Islam. The chief aim of these efforts was to separate only the religious component of Arab society to Mecca from Istanbul.

Arab nationalism, in contrast, was the offspring of political activities by various Arab revolutionaries and secret organizations in Istanbul. Dawisha contends that the actual number of these groups, although highly exaggerated, was in fact very small. He also believes that the myth of the great Arab revolt in 1916 was popularized by proponents of Arab nationalism. In The Arab Awakening, George Antonius, for example, describes the revolt as the reaction of a seething Arab population struggling to extricate itself from the Ottoman empire. In truth, says Dawisha, the Arab nationalists constituted an isolated segment of the Arab population–certainly smaller compared to the rest of Arab society–that was completely out of touch with the feelings and loyalties of the Arab majority. For one thing, many Arabs considered the Ottoman sultan the custodian of Islam and the Islamic heritage, not the enemy of the Arab people. It is also telling that Sharif Husayn, who led the revolt against the Ottoman empire in 1916 to establish a single Arab kingdom in the empire’s Arab provinces, tailored his call to rebellion to Islamic, not nationalist, sentiments. More importantly, Arab support for Husayn’s movement was virtually non-existent, given the hostility that was shown him by Egypt and Syria, the real bastions of Arab nationalism. So there was no such thing as an Arab response in favor of Husayn. This fact, too, was highly exaggerated. Throughout the early reform movement, then, the importance of nationalism was overestimated in terms of the actual support it received.

Jumping ahead to the resurgence of political Islam and Arab nationalism in the second half of the twentieth century, it was their polemics against the West, which Dawisha describes as the mobilizing “other,” that helped crystallize the contemporary movements and propel them into power. Interestingly, while both movements clearly avow hostility towards the West, this hostility is nuanced differently in the two ideological narratives. Arab nationalists, on the one hand, present their opposition to the West entirely in terms of Western imperialism, the political manifestation of the West. It is no coincidence, says Dawisha, that the glory years of the Arab nationalist movement in the Middle East took place during the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Western domination in the region. The Islamists’ assault on the West, however, stems from a deeper, cultural antagonism to Western modernity. Sayyid Qutb, the well-known author of Signposts on the Road and Social Justice in Islam and a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, dubs this the “new jahiliyah,” or “the new age of ignorance” (the original “jahiliyah” being the time of pagan worship that preceded the revelation of Islam). The Pakistani fundamentalist as well as Qutb’s contemporary, Abu al-A’la Mawdudi, calls the three principles of Western civilization–secularism, nationalism, and democracy–“imported solutions,” which he sees as corrupt to the core and the source of every evil and disaster to befall humanity. Thus Mawdudi urges that all means be used to destroy these obstacles blocking the way to the liberating practice of Islam. He also condemns the Islamic modernists as defeatists for seeking to accommodate nationalism within Islam by arguing that Islam is truly reasonable, a concession to reason Mawdudi denies Islam has to make.

Finally, Dawisha asks, where are the two sides located in relation to democracy?  Not surprisingly, the Islamists and nationalists, who have been hostile to the West, are hostile to democracy. Again, it is not a coincidence, says Dawisha, that the flowering of Islamism and Arab nationalism comes at a time when the ancien r√©gimes in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have been discredited because of their association with the West. There is continuing hostility to the West and its institutions, such as elections and majority rule, because they are seen as the heritage of Western imperialism and Western culture. One thing, in particular, says Dawisha, that Islamists cannot accept about Western-style democracy is the notion of sovereignty in the people. To Islamists, there can be sovereignty only in God–not in the people who are the servants of God. Moreover, the idea that the laws are given by the people is rejected as absolute apostasy. Laws are God-given in “shari’ah,” or Islamic holy law, which is divine and hence timeless and immutable.

As for the objections raised by Arab nationalists to democracy, the Syrian intellectual and pan-Arabist, Sati al-Husri, rejects the notion of freedom in the Anglo-French tradition that regards the state as instrumental in founding the nation. Al-Husri derives his idea of freedom instead from the 19th-century German concept of nationalism as cultural, meaning that the nation is an organic creation formed long before the state. This German notion of freedom affects the theory of democracy insofar as liberty is rendered freedom from the outsider, whereas freedom in the European tradition means guaranteeing liberty and rights to individuals within the nation. According to al-Husri, individual freedom is strictly secondary, even subservient, to the freedom of the nation. To illustrate the prevalence of this understanding of freedom in the Arab world, Dawisha notes that the cognate “al-dimuqratiyah” in Arabic is rarely used, while the word “hurriyah,” meaning freedom from imperialism, is a central concept especially in the political thinking of Ba’thists. In terms of democracy, then, there seems to be equally ingrained hostility in the two movements.

In closing, Dawisha stresses that Arab nationalism and political Islam are not the only two ideologies in the Muslim world. Although the Islamic militants seem to have “cornered the market” on Islamic political discourse, there are other influential positions being taken by prominent Arab and Muslim thinkers. For example, Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali, although also a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, stands diametrically opposed to the teachings of Sayyid Qutb. Al-Ghazali maintains that if Muslims were more open to the concept of “ijtihad,” the idea of independent judgment in religious matters, things like democracy could be accommodated within Islam. Whereas the notion of “ijtihad” has been part and parcel of the Shi’i intellectual tradition, it is necessary to bring this concept back into currency in the Sunni tradition. In addition, al-Ghazali calls for Muslims to adopt the operative principle attributed to the Prophet, “my community will never agree on an error,” which provides an Islamic basis for believing in the people to rule and judge rightly for themselves. To apply this principle of the “Ummah Islamiyyah,” or Islamic Community, to reinterpret Islam, al-Ghazali holds, can bring new ideas to Muslims living throughout the world.

Receive exclusive policy, publication, and event updates in your inbox

Thank you. You have successfully subscribed.

X