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Pan-Arabism is the concept that all Arabs form one nation and should be politically united in one Arab state. The intellectual foundations of pan-Arabism were laid down in the early decades of the twentieth century, in the context first of Arab alienation from Ottoman rule and later in response to the imperialist partition of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The doctrine became politically significant in the post–World War II era, when it produced the drive for integral Arab unity that culminated in the union of Egypt and Syria in the United Arab Republic (1958–1961). Since the 1960s pan-Arabism has receded as a meaningful political aspiration, giving way to the acceptance of the reality of the existing Arab state structure overlaid by a continuing sense of Arab cultural unity and political solidarity.

Both as theory and practice, pan-Arabism was a child of its times. Its roots lay in the linguistic unity of elite culture across the Arabic-speaking world, where classical Arabic provided a common means of communication transcending geographical barriers, and in Arab awareness of their historical importance as the people responsible for the spread of Islam. This latent Arab consciousness was politicized in the early twentieth century, when educated Arabs in the Fertile Crescent provinces of the Ottoman Empire began to chafe at growing Ottoman centralization as well as at their partial exclusion from participation in Ottoman rule due to the growth of Turkish nationalism. With parallel aspirations for autonomy developing in the several Arabic-speaking provinces of the empire by the pre–World War I years, these first nationalist stirrings in the Fertile Crescent had an implicitly pan-Arab character. The proximate referent for an explicit pan-Arabist ideology was the Arab-run state that emerged in greater Syria by the close of World War I as a result of the wartime Arab Revolt. Although crushed by the French in 1920, Emir/King Faisal's short-lived Arab Kingdom was thereafter a constant reminder of the united Arab polity that might have been were it not for the machinations of imperialism.

An explicit ideology positing the existence of one Arab nation and calling for the unity of all Arabs emerged in the interwar years. Articulated particularly by ideologues from the new mini-states of Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, it was in large part a reaction to the externally imposed division of the Arab East. Its key spokesman was the Iraqi educator Sati' al-Husri (1880–1968), whose numerous essays hammered home the message that language and history were the main determinants of nationhood and consequently that the Arabs, united as they were by one language and a shared history, deserved a parallel political unity. Husri's message was reinforced and deepened by Arab pedagogues of the interwar era, whose histories of the Arab nation expounded on the concepts of linguistic unity and a glorious Arab history reaching into antiquity. By the 1940s the doctrine of the existential reality of the Arab nation had been internalized by much of the younger generation, generating new political movements dedicated to working for Arab political unification. The most important of these was the Ba'th or Renaissance Party formed in Syria in the 1940s, an organization that rapidly found adherents in other eastern Arab lands. Its slogan—"one Arab nation with an eternal mission"—encapsulated the pan-Arabist vision; its 1947 program—that "[t]his nation has the natural right to live in a single state and to be free to direct its own destiny"—set the pan-Arabist agenda.

Pan-Arabism became a major political force in the decades after World War II. The circumstances of the postwar era—the entry into political life of a younger generation imbued with pan-Arabist ideas; individual Arab countries obtaining a greater measure of independence from foreign domination, and with it a greater ability to pursue pan-Arabist goals; the existence of the common problems of Western imperialism and the new state of Israel, both of which were perceived as necessitating Arab cooperation to be successfully addressed—provided a receptive medium for the flourishing of political pan-Arabism. The new League of Arab States (formed 1945), although strictly a confederative arrangement in which the separate Arab states retained freedom of action, nonetheless indicated the new postwar mood envisaging greater inter-Arab cooperation in the future. The Ba'th and other pan-Arabist political parties grew in size and influence in states such as Syria, Iraq, and Jordan from the 1940s onward, occasionally succeeding in stimulating a measure of inter-Arab political cooperation and at least lip-service to the goal of Arab unity from their governments. Most meaningful politically was the emergence of a new champion for pan-Arabism in the 1950s, in the person of Jamal 'Abd al-Nasir (Nasser) of Egypt. Although his own nationalist outlook was at base primarily Egyptian nationalist, Nasser nonetheless perceived the desirability of greater inter-Arab cooperation in order to attain the goal of complete independence for the Arab world. Nasser's successes in opposing Western imperialism in the mid-1950s made Nasser and Egypt the natural focus of pan-Arabist hopes.

The high point of pan-Arabism as a political movement came in 1958, when pan-Arabist activists in Syria approached Nasser to request the integral unity of Egypt and Syria. Not without reservations, but also snared by his own previous advocacy of Arab nationalism as a mobilizing slogan, Nasser assented. The result was the United Arab Republic (UAR), a new state uniting Egypt and Syria under Nasser's leadership. The creation of the UAR set off considerable agitation for unity with the UAR by pan-Arabist enthusiasts in other eastern Arab states such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, agitation resisted only with difficulty by more localist leaders and forces concerned about their own prospects in any unified Arab state.

In the end Nasser's reservations about the UAR were borne out. Frustrated by their marginalization within the counsels of the regime, and opposed to the socialist measures being introduced by the early 1960s, in September 1961 elements of the Syrian military revolted, expelled their Egyptian overlords, and effectively terminated the reality of the UAR (although Egypt retained the name until 1971). The breakup of the UAR was a crucial setback for the pan-Arabist goal of integral Arab unity. To be sure, the dream did not die; when Ba'thists seized power in Syria and (more briefly) in Iraq in 1963, both governments immediately entered into "unity talks" with Nasser. These collapsed (as did the subsequent but less substantial initiatives aimed at negotiating Arab federation initiated by Mu'ammar Gadhafi of Libya in the early 1970s) on the rock of political power-sharing. A further and greater setback for pan-Arabism came in June 1967 with the stunning military defeat of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria by Israel, an Arab catastrophe in which the leading exponents of pan-Arabism, Nasser and the Syrian Ba'th, were indelibly discredited as potential leaders of the drive for Arab political unity.

As a political movement, pan-Arabism has receded since the 1960s. Just as the context of the post–World War II decades provided the necessary medium for its earlier flourishing, so changed conditions since the 1960s have contributed to pan-Arabism's fading. The gradual consolidation of the power and legitimacy of what were initially artificial Arab states; the end of overt imperialist domination, thereby undercutting much of the reason for inter-Arab solidarity; the growing acceptance of the reality of Israel; the increased clout of the Arab oil monarchies, regimes apprehensive about what Arab unity might mean for them; not least the growth of the rival transnational ideology of Islamism, many of whose spokesmen view Arab nationalism as an alien, Western-inspired concept designed to subvert Muslim unity: all these developments of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s have worked against significant movement toward Arab political unity.

Politically, pan-Arabism has stalled since the 1960s. Other than the union of Yemen and North Yemen in 1990, a local development with no broader nationalist implications, there have been no further mergers of separate Arab states since the formation of the UAR in 1958 (the forced "merger" of Kuwait with Iraq in 1990 was quickly reversed by international opposition, including that of most other Arab states). The post-1970 leaders of those states that had led the pan-Arabist movement in the 1950s and 1960s—Anwar al-Sadat and Husni Mubarak of Egypt; Hafiz al-Asad of Syria; intermittently Saddam Husayn of Iraq—all concentrated on promoting the interests of their respective states, rather than on pursuing integral Arab unity, during their long tenures in power. There have been various regional organizations of Arab states created since the 1970s, the Gulf Cooperation Council formed in 1981 by the six Arab monarchies bordering the Persian Gulf being the most durable and meaningful; but these have been confederative arrangements that guarantee the territorial integrity of their members.

If political pan-Arabism is in eclipse, what remains? The League of Arab States continues to exist, and through its various subsidiary organizations has fostered an impressive level of interstate Arab cooperation in the economic, social, and cultural fields. Inter-Arab migration for occupational or educational reasons boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, driven particularly by the demand for Arab labor in the Arab oil states. Literally millions of Arabs lived, worked, or studied in Arab countries other than their homelands in the 1970s and 1980s; this inter-Arab migration decreased from the mid-1980s onward. Perhaps most important in perpetuating and deepening a shared Arab consciousness in recent decades has been the mass media. First radio, then television, more recently the Internet and the emergence of Arab media outlets capable of reaching Arabs everywhere have spread a common Arab culture and kept "Arab" issues, Palestine being the most vital, at the forefront of Arab awareness. Political pan-Arabism may be stalled; but an abiding sense of the Arabs as one people with a common culture, similar problems, and shared aspirations has increased and penetrated more deeply into the fabric of Arab society.

The temporal trajectory of political pan-Arabism was thus significantly different from that of the cultural Arabism on which it was in part based. Whereas the former emerged, flourished, and then declined over the course of the twentieth century, the latter has steadily increased and disseminated more widely. Arabism is by no means an exclusive identity; it exists in tandem with affinal ties, a longstanding self-definition as part of the Muslim community (for most Arabs), and a more recent loyalty to the state in which Arabs live. But it remains part of the blend of referents that define collective identity, shape popular sentiment, and inspire political action.

James Jankowski

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