Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Withered Arab Nationalism

Withered Arab Nationalism

In Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics, the present era is one of assertive nationalism. In Arab lands, the vitality of nationalism seems quenched. Perhaps this is because the nationalism currently sweeping across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics is basically ethnonationalism, and therefore disintegrative, while Arab nationalism is primarily a cultural-political force seeking integration. In any case, Arab nationalism, which once seemed timeless and immutable, now seems obsolescent, if not obsolete. Its life cycle–a nineteenth century inception, a zenith in the 1950s and 1960s, and a diminution in the 1970s and 1980s-is apparently coming to a close in the 1990s.

In retrospect, one can see, Arab nationalism never developed a comprehensive ideology with an elaborated, coherent structure of thought and action. Rather, it remained a rehash of some general notions of shared cultural identity and heritage. Politically, Arab nationalism aspired to be a transnational panacea, but, by its disregard of prevailing Middle Eastern conditions, ended up divorced from reality. Unable to realize the elusive goal of Arab unity, Arab nationalism faded towards unimportance and irrelevance. Finally, the Gulf War of 1990-91 shattered the concept entirely, making it unlikely to survive as a major political force. Today, Arab nationalist rhetoric is dismissed by many Arabs as the empty sloganeering of a bygone era.

With the end of Arab nationalist ideology and the ascendancy of an Arab state system, one can expect Arab countries-to the extent they are influenced by modernists-to act more in terms of their distinct national interests, less in terms of all-Arab concerns. Regional, economic, and demographic factors will shape their relations and alignments. Among non- or anti-modernists, however, one can see that Islam is replacing Arab nationalism, and Islamic& are challenging modernists for control of the Arab world. Both of these changes will of course have great significance for U.S. policy.

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