The ultra-nationalist Arab identity

Eyad Abu Shakra
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In 2003 when the drums of the Iraq War were beating, I remember well how the term Qawmajiyya, alluding to ultra-nationalism, spread like wildfire.

The word and its derivatives were reiterated by many among the supporters of the invasion of Iraq who belonged to two contradictory camps: the fundamental Islamist Shi’ite camp and the leftist communist camp. Both camps were imbued with animosity towards Saddam Hussein, who at the time ruled Iraq in the name of the “pan-Arabism” of the Arab Socialist Ba’athist Party.


Personally speaking, I was annoyed by the two camps belittling and ridiculing pan-Arabism in this manner, although I was well aware of Saddam Hussein’s terrible history of human rights abuse and his policy of exclusion and monopolizing power, as well as imposing an oppressive and bloody garb on the Arab identity, inflicting it—until today—with the worst impressions.

What about the day after?

I have always been opposed to the invasion of Iraq, not out of love for a backward and oppressive dictatorship; but rather, out of concern for the absence of any genuine vision for the “day after” scenario on the part of the invaders.

The one thing that is most absent from the region today is pan-Arabism; by which I mean true pan-Arabism, not the artificial version that is being promoted by the Syrian media propagandists.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Perhaps some of our brothers and dear friends in the Gulf countries, particularly Iraq, will be upset by my remarks. However, I oppose any invasion that destroys without containing any plans for rebuilding. The invasion of Iraq refused to pay attention to the local sensitivities and the nature of Iraq’s delicate social fabric, and to make clear its vision for “post-Saddam Iraq” within the Middle East; particularly given that the country is threatened by Iranian and Turkish aspirations, Israeli animosity, and Kurdish dreams of independence.

In short, I opposed the invasion of Iraq as much as I opposed the survival of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship which, through its bloody “management” of the Sunni-Shi’ite and Kurdish situations, contributed to the destruction of national unity and tempted many Iraqis to fall into the arms of Iran and others.

This was the case in 2003. Today, a decade after the Iraq war, we find ourselves face to face with a new regional reality created by the invasion. This reality boils down to handing the entire region, from the Iranian-Iraqi borders to the Eastern Mediterranean shores, to Iran via the government of Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, and Hezbollah’s hegemony over Lebanon.

True pan-Arabism

In fact, the thing that is most absent from the region today is pan-Arabism; by which I mean true pan-Arabism, not the artificial version that is being promoted by the Syrian media propagandists over the corpses of the Syrian people and the rubble of their destroyed cities and villages.

This week, while the Damascus regime was preparing to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile—which, like all of its weapons, has only been used against its own people—the Lebanese capital of Beirut hosted “The Arab International Forum against Aggression on Syria.” It was reported that 450 figures from 30 countries attended the event. The organizing body of the forum was the “Arab International Center for Communication and Solidarity,” an institution that, judging by the names of those in charge, seems to represent a trend that was very close to Saddam Hussein before 2003. Actually, it stands as the Iraqi (or “Nationalist Command”) version of the Ba’ath Party. However, it seems that the circumstances of the Arab nationalist struggle dictated that they should come under the wing of the very sides that instigated against Saddam and benefitted from his fall, as well as pushed towards his execution while Iraq was still under occupation.

The images of death and destruction in Syria for more than two and a half years have not provoked these “ultra-Nationalists’” sense of “pan-Arabism.” Furthermore, they had no qualms about listening to Sheikh Naeem Qasim who represents an Islamist party that is divorced from their secularist principles. Of course, they were not annoyed by the remarks of the Syrian regime’s ambassador to Lebanon who insisted on thwarting the “plot” that infiltrated more than 40 years of Intelligence rule in Syria. They were not upset by the Russian ambassador who utterly rejected “foreign intervention” that, it seems, does not include sending Russian weapons and thousands of Iraqi, Lebanese, and Iranian fighters to Syria.

Here, we are facing two quandaries, one intellectual and the other moral.

As for the intellectual aspect, it has become clear that those who claim to be pan-Arabists may be able to trumpet Arab Nationalism, but they lack the ability to define it. They are unable to understand this concept in isolation from coercion, authoritarianism, hegemony, favoritism, bullying, and buying influence. Moreover, they cannot differentiate between what is Arab Nationalist and what is not, or between those who truly believe in their Arab identity and those who exploit it.

There is a real problem in understanding the meaning of pan-Arabism on the part of those who gathered this week in Beirut in solidarity with a regime that had shed Arab blood for more than seven months before the Syrian opposition took up warms, directing the so-called weapons of the “resistance” away from its declared purpose towards the Syrian cities and villages.

I assert here that linking the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to the empty threat to strike Syria in 2013 is an insult to any political analyst. The developments during the recent weeks prove the falsehood of the “conspiracy” against it that the Damascus regime has continually parroted. This is evidenced by the British House of Commons refusal to participate in a military strike and Barack Obama’s satisfaction at his “diplomatic victory” in which he handed the keys to the Middle East to Vladimir Putin. This is not to mention John Kerry’s keenness to reassure Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Syria ridding itself of its chemical weapons. Where is the conspiracy in all this and against whom?

Do these “ultra-nationalists” still believe that decision making in the Mashriq (Near East) is in Arab hands? Do they seriously think that the Iranian leadership believes in the pan-Arabist character of, as they put it, the “struggle against Israel” and imperialism?

Opportunist 'ultra-nationalists'

As for the moral aspect, the calamity is greater.

Here we are facing opportunist “ultra-nationalists” who well know how to transfer loyalties—or subordination—from one side to another.

Regarding human rights, the only fundamental they adhere to in their political practices is to never attach weight to the value, rights, or dignity of the human being. Over the decades, they have justified authoritarianism, abuse of power, restricting freedoms, destruction of coexistence and depleting national resources under the slogan of pan-Arabism. As a result, pan-Arabism has become synonymous with all of these crimes.

Will it harm them, after all of this, to announce their support for a regime that is killing its own people in full view of the world?

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Sept. 21, 2013.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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