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Middle EastDifferential Nationalist Trajectories

The several nationalisms considered above have taken very different paths since World War I and its settlement. In Iran the territorially based nationalism that emerged in the nineteenth century remained dominant under the Pahlavi dynasty (1921–1979). It was never fully accepted, however, by more religious Iranians, particularly by the country's powerful Shiite religious hierarchy. In the late 1970s the religious class played a leading role in overthrowing the secular nationalist government of the shahs. In the 1980s the promotion of worldwide Islamic solidarity and international Islamic revolution became the leitmotif of Iranian foreign policy. In the 1990s, as the Iranian revolution moderated, the concept of Iran as a distinct national community again received greater emphasis. The precise nature and implications of Iranian collective identity is a contested issue at the start of the twenty-first century, part and parcel of the struggle between more liberal and more conservative Iranians.

With the creation of a cohesive independent state in Anatolia, Turkish nationalism largely shed the grandiose visions of pan-Turkic unity that had been expressed by some of its early proponents. Reified and promoted by the government of the new Turkish state during the long ascendancy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920s and 1930s, belief in the construct of a Turkish nation centered in Anatolia gradually disseminated beyond the elite circles in which Turkish nationalism had been born. The post-Atatürk decades have seen intensive debate among Turks as to the orientation of the Turkish state, particularly over the question of the role of religion in public life; but the participants in these debates have by and large not challenged the existence of a Turkish nation. The one partial exception is Turkey's marginalized Kurdish-speaking population, among whom demands for cultural and political autonomy surfaced in the later decades of the twentieth century and generated a prolonged civil war in eastern Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Zionist movement realized its main goal with the creation of the Jewish state of Israel in 1948. Some religiously oriented groups have never accepted the legitimacy of a Jewish state created as a result of human rather than divine agency. Moreover, fierce debates over the internal character of the state (for example, the role of religion in public life and the relationship of the Palestinian Arab minority to state institutions), as well as over the territorial extent of the state (the fate of the Palestinian-inhabited territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip occupied by Israel in 1967), have continued to perturb Israeli public discourse. However, these debates occur among a Jewish population the vast majority of whom have accepted Israel as their national community of destiny.

Egypt was granted formal independence by Great Britain in 1922 in response to a nationalist uprising after World War I, and territorially based nationalism remained the dominant political construct in Egypt for most of the three decades of the parliamentary monarchy (1922–1952). Its cutting edge was Pharaonicism, an intellectual movement that posited the existence of a distinctive national character deriving from the ancient Egyptians. From the later 1930s the primacy of this locally based nationalism was challenged by voices that insisted upon Egypt's Arab affiliations and that emphasized the common problem of imperialist domination facing all Arab regions. Thereafter, both Egyptian opinion and Egyptian state policy evolved in a more Arabist direction, especially after the Egyptian revolution of July 1952. Under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser, by the late 1950s Egypt had become the champion of Pan-Arabism. In 1958 it joined with Syria in the major experiment in Arab unity of the twentieth century, the United Arab Republic (1958–1961). The collapse of the UAR when Syria seceded in 1961 in effect marked the turning point in Egypt's involvement in the Arab nationalist movement. A drift away from commitment to Arab nationalism set in Egypt from the 1960s onward. It accelerated under Nasser's successors Anwar al-Sadat and Husni Mubarak, both of whose policies have emphasized Egypt as a separate political entity with its own national interests.

The fate of nationalism in the Arabic-speaking lands of the Fertile Crescent since the post–World War I settlement has been complex. In the interwar era the new states created after the war gradually acquired a degree of reality in the minds of their inhabitants. The effectiveness of state consolidation varied from country to country. It was probably strongest in Lebanon, where spokesmen among the country's slight Christian majority expounded an exclusively Lebanese nationalist ideology focused on the country's long history since the era of the Phoenicians as a uniquely "Mediterranean" nation different from other Arabic-speaking lands. It was probably weakest in Syria, where much of the political elite clung to the vision of the united Arab state that had been destroyed by imperialist partition in 1920. Among Palestinian Arabs a distinctive local identity was on the one hand fostered by the conflict with Zionism, but on the other was undercut as Palestinians sought outside Arab solidarity and support in the same struggle.

The process of Arab state consolidation in the Fertile Crescent was uneven. Continuing foreign domination reinforced the perception that the new states created after World War I were artificial entities established to suit imperial interests. An aura of what-should-have-been hovered over Arab politics in the Fertile Crescent, a belief that Arabs had been swindled out of the unity that was their proper destiny. After World War II this disaffection with existing states and belief in the desirability of their replacement by a state uniting most Arabs blossomed into Pan-Arabism, the drive for integral Arab unity that was a central component of Arab politics through the 1950s and 1960s.

The process of territorial state consolidation was facilitated with the recession of Pan-Arabism from the later 1960s onward. Over the decades the expanding institutions of the territorial state (bureaucracy, schools, vested interests) and its new symbols (flags, monuments, national holidays) bound the population to the state and gave greater substance to what had been artificial entities. At the level of policy-making there has been a clear trend away from the pursuit of Arab unity toward the realization of state interests since the 1960s. Wider Arab nationalist sentiments—belief in the existential reality of an Arab nation transcending existing state borders—have not totally faded. There is also an impressive degree of inter-Arab economic and cultural cooperation that has developed over time under the auspices of the League of Arab States and similar agencies. Pan-Arab issues, especially Palestine, are capable of arousing deep emotions across the Arab world. But, in the shifting relationship between the alternative concepts of local/statal allegiance and a broader identification with an Arab nation based on the bonds of language and history, the former appears to be the more prominent tendency at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

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