Young Arabs share ‘individual loyalties’, Arab-American historian says
Washington - Ask a Frenchman what it means to be French and he will likely reference liberty, equality and fraternity. An American will probably invoke the founding fathers and the US constitution.
Ask an Arab and the answer may not be so clear.
Palestinian-American historian Muhannad Salhi, area specialist at the Library of Congress in Washington, studies Arab nationalism and identity. He challenges the notion of nationalism in the contemporary Arab world.
While French and US citizens often point to their respective revolutions as the source of national identity, citizens of Arab states seem to have no clear reference point.
For Salhi, who wrote his doctoral thesis at the University of Chicago on Arab nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, this comes as no surprise.
“Citizens in the West feel that their nation owes them a future [and] that the future of the nation is also their own,” he said. “Not so in our part of the world.”
It may be too early for the “Arab spring” to have produced ideals similar to those of the French or American revolutions but Salhi said young people in the Arab world might simply be too preoccupied with pursuing their basic needs to invest in their country or develop ideals for national identity.
Therefore, loyalty is not to a country but to make a living. The economic circumstances of many Arabs compel a whole generation to be more loyal to individualism than to their mother nation.
“You won’t forget that you’re Egyptian or Jordanian or whatever when you’re living abroad and perhaps you feel nostalgic for your homeland but, in the end, you’re living abroad and saving money and maybe you will ‘invest’ in your country by buying a house with a swimming pool [where] you can retire and that’s the extent of it,” Salhi said.
Salhi can relate on a personal level as he witnessed many of his generation of Palestinians and other Arabs build their lives in exile in the West or in the Gulf countries.
“My dad is 89. When he grew up he was filled with hope. It’s almost heartbreaking,” Salhi said. “Many of my father’s generation truly believed in Arabism.”
Historically, in times of relative prosperity when people felt little or no pressure to emigrate, local nationalism took on similar flavours and eventually led to pan- Arabism.
“People didn’t like to be associated with smaller groups. They’d rather be part of the larger Islamic body [or] a larger Arab party, though, of course, they always wanted to manage their own local affairs,” said Salhi, referencing what he described as the general sentiment during Ottoman rule on the eve of its dissolution.
“And today, that’s why it’s called the ‘Arab spring’, not the ‘Egyptian spring’ or ‘Syrian spring’ or ‘Tunisian spring’,” he added.
Arab nationalism developed at the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Greater Syria, and its pan- Arab and socialist ideals spread as far as the Maghreb and the Arabian peninsula. Egypt became a centre of pan-Arabism because of its relative autonomy from the Ottoman centres of power and its free press. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became Egypt’s second president in 1956, would come to embody pan-Arabism but Salhi said he is sceptical of Nasser’s genuine commitment to the greater Arab nation.
“Was he more interested in pan- Arabism or in Egypt’s geopolitical role? Many say the latter,” Salhi said.
But pan-Arabists still were faced with one fundamental question: What makes an Arab an Arab?
This was easier to answer when rural populations in modern-day Iraq, Jordan and Syria identified with their tribe, while urban populations in Baghdad, Damascus, Aleppo, Beirut and Jerusalem identified with their family name, mother tongue, religion and profession — and everyone was a subject of the Ottoman empire.
“Nationalism is an imagined and negotiated system,” said Salhi. “The nationalistic myth of our generation is that the Arabs were occupied by the Turks but people under Ottoman rule didn’t necessarily see themselves as under occupation.”
If socialism and pan-Arabism are mostly romantic notions of the past and pan-Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood have so far proven nonviable, what is next?
Salhi said the ‘Arab spring’ has been compared to the European revolutions of 1848, when uprisings erupted in France, Austria, Prussia and Italy before “the bad guys won” when “conservatives banded together and overcame the youth movement”.
Can Europe’s history shed light on the future of the “Arab spring”?
“The human spirit is the human spirit. You always want that stake in your future and if you’re dispossessed, you want to be heard,” he said. “But I hope we’re not looking at decades of more wars and revolutions and instability like in the decades that led up to World War I.”