Analysis: Arabs lack nationalist urge

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Dec. 3, 2001 at 2:38 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- Before the vast resurgence in American patriotism that followed the Sept. 11 atrocities, nationalism had largely fallen out of fashion among elites in the Western world. For example, with exquisitely bad timing, former President Bill Clinton reportedly told an Australian audience the day before the attacks that he "believes the world will be a better place if all borders are eliminated."

Even thinking of the United States and Mexico as two separate nation-states had become passé. Secretary of State Colin Powell said, "Our common border is no longer a line that divides us, but a region that unites our nations, reflecting our common aspirations, values, and culture."

Although this assumption that the Western world was inevitably moving from the modern age of nationalism into a postmodern era of "transnationalism" appears to have been literally exploded, its long grip on intellectual discourse has made it hard to fully understand Osama bin Laden.

This venture capitalist of terrorism seems postmodern because he too is resolutely transnational. He recruits Sunni Muslims from across Islam, not just the Arabic-speaking countries. For example, Afghanistan, his long-time base, is not an Arab country.

Yet, bin Laden's transnationalism grows out of his fanatical medievalism. He hopes to overthrow the governments of many moderate Islamic states and may want to re-establish the early theocratic Caliphate that once ruled all of Islam.

"These countries belong to Islam and not to the rulers," bin Laden has said.

Of course, there is little new about transnationalism in the West, either. Although the Catholic Church seldom exercised temporal power as directly as the Caliphate, as the successor to the mighty Roman Empire, it united Medieval Europe religiously and culturally and enjoyed considerable political influence across the continent.

The struggles between the Catholic church's political allies, such as the sprawling Holy Roman Empire, and the rising "nation-states" such as England helped mark the transition between the universalist Medieval Europe and the nationalist modern Europe. (A nation-state is one government ruling one relatively sizable, self-aware people. They might be united by some combination of genealogy, language, or what Abraham Lincoln called "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave.")

The rise of local European languages, replacing Latin even among most churchmen, doomed the Catholic Church's ambitions for continued control.

In contrast, Arabic plays an even more central role in Islam than Latin did in Catholicism. It is the original language of the Koran. The faithful believe Arabic is Allah's own sacred language, in which the divinity dictated the Koran to Mohammed. This tenet encouraged the spread of Arabic to newly Muslim lands.

Hence, Arabic is now spoken from Morocco to Iraq. It's all one "information sphere." It even now has its own satellite television superstation, Al-Jazeera, broadcasting out of Qatar in the Persian Gulf.

Since all of these people across a 4,500-mile expanse can more or less understand one another, the notion of permanently settled boundaries dividing them is less politically appealing than in other parts of the world. Linguistic diversity encouraged Europeans, for example, to trust their neighbors and distrust distant folks with whom communication was difficult.

National borders work to quarantine chaos. The lack of borders widely recognized by Middle Easterners to be fully legitimate contributes to the region's instability.

Within the Muslim world, it has largely been the nationalists - such as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular Republic of Turkey in 1923, and Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who made peace with Israel at Camp David, Md., in 1978 who have been forces for international stability.

Meanwhile, the men who have spread anarchy abroad -- such as bin Laden; Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and Iraq's Saddam Hussein -- have tended to be transnationalists of one sort or another.

Some of the transnationalists have indeed been motivated by utopian idealism, whether Islamic, pan-Arabic, or Socialist. (Others, like Hussein, have had a harder time disguising their simple rapacity.)

Sadat's great accomplishment was to redirect Egypt's foreign policy away from pan-Arab ideology, which required constant conflicts with Israel to incite Arab unity. Sadat rebuilt Egypt's foreign policy around his understanding that Egypt, for all of its language ties to other Arab-speaking lands, was the first and oldest of nation-states, blessed by geography and its 5,000-year history with the ability to largely stay aloof from the quarrels of other nations beyond the burning sands.

Sadat attacked Israel in the Yom Kippur war of 1973 in order to restore Egyptian national pride by winning a single battle. Henry Kissinger wrote, "Egyptian forces had drilled for years to perfect the technique of crossing the Suez Canal; beyond it they had no operational plan except to hang on ... Sadat fought a war not to acquire territory but to restore Egypt's self-respect and thereby increase its diplomatic flexibility." The Egyptian patriot could then honorably end his nation-state's pointless and debilitating struggle with Israel.

Similarly, Ataturk's Turkish nationalism set the template that has kept Turkey (a Muslim but not Arabic-speaking nation) out of the international trouble that otherwise seems endemic to the Islamic world. Of course, Turkey recently won a long, brutal internal war with its Kurds. (The unlucky Kurds are one of the larger nations without a state.) Western governments, though, largely choose to ignore what Turkey does within its borders, so long as it remains a good neighbor.

In much of the rest of Islamic world, however, there are few organic nation-states like Egypt or Turkey. Many societies have not evolved past medieval transnationalism into modern nationalism.

Afghanistan, for example, has never achieved national solidarity for long, largely because its mountainous terrain keeps its ethnic groups separated.

Both the British and Soviet Empires pummeled Afghanistan, but never found the place valuable enough to make worth permanently conquering its furious tribesmen. Afghanistan is not much of a nation state, partly because it is not at present a functioning state.

But it also has seldom been a unified nation at the emotional level. Except when being invaded, Afghan loyalties seldom rise far above their extended families. The terrain is so severe that many Afghans live tribally, isolated in mountain valleys, and may go years between contacts with the tribe on the other side of the ridge.

The young Winston Churchill, who fought in a punitive campaign against Pathan (now called "Pashtun") tribesmen on the Afghan frontier in 1897, noted the disunity of the place: "Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud. The numerous tribes and combination of tribes all have their accounts to settle with one another. Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid... The life of the Pathan is thus full of interest ..."

Churchill noted that while the founding of an empire often leads to much bloodshed, its collapse always does.

Most Islamic states today are the fragments of empires that collapsed between 1918 and 1991.

As a first example, consider Pakistan, which is now trying to play a delicate balancing act between the demands of the adamant Americans and the bluster of the Taliban regime that it helped to power in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is an artificial and fragile state attempting to govern 142 million fractious Muslims. Its roots go only as deep as Britain's 1947 abandonment of its vast Indian Empire, which was then anarchically partitioned. Many worry that it will be torn apart by the stresses of the new war.

Second, America's shaky new Central Asian allies in the war, such as Uzbekistan, were simply administrative units within the Soviet Empire. They are not organically evolved nations. Their boundaries were simply drawn by Stalin for his various, and unfailingly nefarious, purposes.

Third, the Arab-speaking states were regions within the Ottoman Empire until Turkish rule collapsed after its defeat in World War I. In short, while transnationalism may or -- as the aftermath of Sept. 11 suggests -- may not be the wave of the near future in the postmodern West, much of the Islamic world has yet to fully extricate itself from a medieval dream of a universal theocracy and evolve into the modern world of nationalism.

In the next article, I shall explore the roots and consequences of the bin Laden's transnationalist mindset and why it appeals so much to Arabs.

Trending Stories