Collapse of Pan-Arab Nationalism and rise of political Islam in Middle East and North Africa

The roots of Pan-Arab Nationalism have gained ground in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. 

Collapse of Pan-Arab Nationalism and rise of political Islam in Middle East and North Africa

By Prathmesh Rai

A report published in a prominent US daily in 2017 reflected upon the tireless efforts of the United States to bring peace in the Middle East; including the initiatives taken by the Trump Administration in its initial days. A plethora of initiatives have been taken but peace still remains as distant as it has been in the past. In fact, five years later, the situation has changed from bad to worse as the infighting has further deepened.

The once-powerful Pan-Arab Nationalism which emerged in the aftermath of the creation of Israel has fallen due to the exponential rise and widespread adoption of political Islam. Once strong and united, West Asia disintegrated due to power tussle and extremist ideologies leading to regional insecurity and uncertainty with no signs of peace in the region.

India, which is closely linked with the Middle East has a vast diaspora and energy dependence, has high stakes in the region but a narrow path to manoeuvre in. Thus, it’s even more important to understand the historical reasons behind the rise of political Islam and its future implications. 

Rise of Pan-Arab Nationalism 

The roots of Pan-Arab Nationalism gained ground in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The growth of Arabism gave rise to countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Syria. However, something that fueled the flames of Arab Nationalism came after the creation of Israel in the heartlands of the MENA region.

Increasing influence of Zionism was a vital factor leading to the formation of the Arab Brotherhood with the fundamental idea of removing the Israeli occupation and protecting Palestinian interest. The 1948 mass exodus of Arabs from the modern-day Palestinian and Israeli territories stimulated Arab nationalism and brought Arab powerhouses like Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia in a coalition under the Arab League to fight for the rights of fellow Palestinian.

Challenges to Arab identity

The policy of divide and rule of colonial powers incited nationalist sentiments across the region but has limited success in bringing minorities like Kurds, Shias, and vastly complex Christian communities, under unified Arab identity. By 1961 the union between Egypt and Syria fell apart, and Kurds started exerting their ethnic and linguistic identity in Syria, Iraq as well as in Turkey.  

Political Islam slipped in hands of extremists 

Arab Nationalism was not only a political concept; instead, it seeped deep into the civil society of the region. This became evident when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated due to public sentiment against Camp David Accords 1978 and 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty. Political Islam gained popular support in the region based on religious and ideological foundations providing fertile ground for terror outfits like to flourish.

The world, especially Western-backed alliances tried to hunt down such terror outfits with limited success, a tragic cycle of violence for the region. The growth of political Islam has tormented the region by turning it into a divided and fragmented society resulting in long-lasting wounds and discomforts which are difficult to overcome. 

Recently, Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan has been trying hard to give leadership to political Islam in order to consolidate Turkey’s power in West Asia and gain popular support within Turkey to awaken Turkish nationalism, without any respect for peace and stability in the region. 

Big power politics 

The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 under President Saddam Hussein was a significant event that dented the fundamental principle of Arab unity and Arab identity; primarily an outcome of Arab nations falling victim to external balancing and getting sucked into Big Power politics. The growing sentiments towards political Islam have arisen as a result of irrational decision-making along with constant tussle for expanding influence while keeping a blind eye to the underlying realities.

Qatar’s ambition of becoming a separate pole of the region has further created a new set of hostilities among the countries of the region.

The current situation in Yemen is a testimony of how political Islam and its manipulations can lead to disastrous and severe outcomes; one can see early signs of Lebanon moving in the same direction and it will be a test for the Arab Brotherhood to try to prevent Lebanon from becoming Yemen 2.0. 

The way forward 

Nonetheless, there is still a ray of hope for the Arab world to remain united and consolidate their position; some good examples for them would be EU and ASEAN countries which are a conglomeration of sovereigns having common agenda to peruse. The need of the hour is to adopt Arab led and Arab owned process serving the interests of Arabs; through adopting rational and moderate approaches as well as greater focus towards collaboration. Although this is easier said than done, this appears to be the only solution to gain back the glories of the region once known as the ‘Cradle of Civilization’. 

(The article is authored by Prathmesh Rai, a research scholar. All views are personal)

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