Arab Nationalism & The Changing Face of Arab Identity

Nationalism as a word has been dirtied by European history. Politicians are unlikely to openly identify with the ideology unless they wish to ostracize themselves. Despite its inherently mythical basis on ‘the Nation’ and its fictionally homogeneous identity, Nationalism has been repeatedly used throughout history both as a force of great good and great evil. It remains a popular philosophy, only rephrased by European politicians as protectionism, solidarity, socialism and patriotism. Nationalism has proved itself a greater unifying force than religion, successfully tapping into the people’s passion in order to realise anti-colonial movements and wars against the innocent. In order to truly ascertain the relevance of Arab Nationalism in the present moment, one must understand the notions of Arab identity.

To be Arab was once exclusive to those with direct tribal blood links. Fast forward to the rise of the Ottoman Empire and its engulfment of the region altered the Arab identity to become one synonymous with Islam – no longer confined to genetics, the Arab population soared. At the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the Europeans once more took root in North Africa and elsewhere, the sense of Arab connexion between the colonised rekindled a fire for the need to gather this transcontinental brotherhood. It was around this time that the Nahda (renaissance) took place. Mainly involving Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese writers and thinkers, this intellectual, cultural and artistic revolution evolved the idea of Arab identity to include Christians (the largest minority) and other sects. The Nahda churned out a constant stream of nationalistic poetry, intellectual means for debate and inspiring literature that reignited the pride of the Arab peoples and handed a loudspeaker to the oppressed voice. Symbols of the Nahda were often behind the propaganda that inspired a string of anti-colonial movements, famously utilised by Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Arab Nationalism does not promote the idea of racial superiority, but exists to create a unifying force amongst people from the very North West of Africa to the Asian borders of Iraq and Oman. In addition to its physical borders, Arab Nationalism has created an emotional frontier amongst the individuals who believe they share a common history, destiny and identity. This union also provides the region with concrete political benefits, such as economic and trade dealings. The power of a unifying language has tended to a continual transnational cultural evolution with cross continental influences and the means to a common understanding. Pan Arabism is similar in ideology, but calls for greater state economic independence. In both cases, the individual identity of civilians and the state is celebrated and encouraged.

A key failure of the movement, a significant obstacle to Arab peace and a vulnerability exploited by international powers is the reluctance to involve and address issues raised by ethnic minorities in the Middle East and North Africa. Arab leaders who have for many years abused or excluded some minorities have created a significant destabilising force within their own nations. The non-exclusive Kurdish involvement in Arab affairs, particularly due to their increasing independence, is essential for the region. A similar approach must also be taken towards the Amazigh and other ethnic minorities found in North Africa. We have seen how easily Arab ‘oneness’ is split by infighting between groups in Syria* and Lebanon.

For some, the definition of an Arab still reigns as an individual born in the Middle East, who speaks Arabic and has Arab ‘roots’. However, in this era of mass immigration and increasing numbers of “full blooded” or mixed race children being born outside MENA borders with their first language being English, French, Swedish or Spanish, the Arab identity is evolving to encompass not only those of different faiths, but lifestyles and outlooks. Arab identity is not weakening, but becoming more fluid and more colourful. It still stands to question, however, whether Arab Nationalism/Pan Arabism is still an effective uniting force or one that excludes too many Arabs that no longer fit the ‘original mould’. There are individuals in the US and Europe who feel very little connexion to the country of their forefathers, just as there are some who do. As long as there is a continual outside influence in Arab affairs and the Muslim Brotherhood strive to dismantle this now fairly inclusive idea of ‘the Arab’, Nationalism is undoubtedly the most useful and continually prevalent source of unity, rebellion and potential strength within the region and those abroad.

*Also the victim of international involvement.

Noora Ismail



  1. Reblogged this on Al-Must'arib (the vocational Mossarab) and commented:
    It has a point… But I truly doubt that nationalism Is an answer… At least a nationalism based in the union of hindreds of millions of people who share somehow historical cultural and religious links. The best proof of it is my beloved Europe… We are all westerns, white and mostly christians,… We have been sharing thus continent with even more contact than arabs. For centuries there was only one christian church and the cult language was latin for all. But we soon found our ways to set differences. Same happens with arabs and with everyone else. Finally, individualism finds its way… And a whole culture flourishes with it!. Main excuse to unite arabs was religion… But it was only an excuse to justify the eternal real ways to keep a group lf identities together: Force.

    That, and anything else, was always the key factor to unite peoples everywhere. A strong linking army. If the one who rules is a king, an imam or a warrior, ends up being indifferent to history. The results are the same everywhere. And arabs are no exception to being humans as everyone else.

  2. I understand your point that history has a similar effect on everyone. The strength in Arab nationalism is the language, as long as people share the same tongue there will always be a connexion between them. Europe does not have that and has been forced together but translated legislation, I don’t think Europeans really share a sense of ‘brotherhood’. The political and economic union is stronger than MENA, but you can see how many wish to leave the EU – Arabs don’t have this particular problem. Can’t really compare the two, though.

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