By William R. Polk
Defining a Nation
Meeting in Brussels in December 1938, an assembly of the most gifted Middle Eastern students tried to reach agreement on the meaning of the words “Arab” and “Arab nation.” An Arab, they decided, was pretty much anyone who thought he was an Arab and who spoke Arabic.
What was different in this meeting was that for the first time, they used a word to replace the current term Wataniyah. They decided that it was national sentiment (al-Shuur al-Qawmiyah) that was the key element. So let me dig into the meaning of Qawmiyah.
What the students were trying to emphasize is that if the Arab people were split into artificial states, as the French and British had done in the Mandate system they constructed at the Paris Peace Conference, the Arabs could never achieve independence, power or dignity. Only if they recognized a pan-Arab loyalty could they move toward those fundamental objectives.
And, as always among the Arabs, the word chosen was crucial. So what was Qawmiyah? It is the quality living by the terms appropriate to a Qaum. To understand what that means, consider the basis of the Arab experience, the tribal or desert background.
In desert conditions, survival is a group activity. A lone individual cannot survive. But pasture for animals and water for humans, which are always meagre, depend upon irregular rainfall. So the group cannot be large. It ranged in size from about 50 to a hundred or so people, usually descendants of a single man.
Among the Arabs, this group was not the tribe (Qabila), which might number hundreds or even thousands, and so could rarely assemble, but to the clan (Qaum). To the Qaum the individual owed total loyalty and from his membership in it derived social identity, legal standing and protection. He was absolutely honour bound to protect fellow members and to avenge any wrong to any member.
These were the sentiments the young Arab nationalists wanted the members of their movement to exemplify. To them, the granting of quasi-independence under the League of Nations was not a step forward but a reinforcement of foreign control carried out by local puppets among an artificially divided people.
If the young nationalists needed any proof of the result, it was provided by the weakness, cowardice and disunity made manifest in the 1948-1949 Arab-Israeli war. In their petty jealousies and conflicting aims, the Arab governments had allowed almost the entire Arab population of Palestine to lose what the Arab League had proclaimed to be an integral part of the Arab World.
The defeat was a humiliation of unprecedented proportions. The most memorable critique of the – separate or Wataniyah – Arab leadership was by the Syrian Christian diplomat and educator, Constantine Zurayq, who wrote: “Seven Arab states declare war on Zionism in Palestine, stop impotent before it and then turn on their heels … [content only to make] fiery speeches … but when action becomes necessary, the fire is still and quiet…” [The Meaning of the Disaster (Maana al-Nakba), Beirut 1949.]
His words would echo down the years and still sound loudly today.
The Rise of Nasser
One of the men who watched the war under fire was the Egyptian officer Gamal Abd al-Nasir (aka Nasser), who came out of the battle gripped by two ideas: the first was that the only hope for the Arabs was an overarching sense of Qawmiyah or pan-Arab unity. The second was that the existing “old regimes,” starting with King Faruq (aka Farouk) of Egypt must go.
Except in Egypt where exiling Faruq was easy, he failed to accomplish his first objective – the old regimes were deeply enmeshed in systems of privilege, custom and corruption and remained in power in most of the Arab states. Seeing this, he slowly realized that that change must be profound to be effective. Indeed, it required a social, economic and intellectual revolution.
To achieve his goals or even to survive, Nasir (Nasser) thought that he had to create what I have called “new men.” They were not a separate class but existed in each social class. Usually, they were “graduates” of the army, acquired a sort of uniform, were encouraged by special privileges and were able to earn several times the income of traditional workers.
Unfortunately for his regime, his social revolution was deflected and stopped by his “Vietnam,” his involvement in the Yemen revolution of 1962, and the ensuing 1967 war with Israel. But, during his short life (he died in 1970 at the age of 52), he personified the Arab quest for Qawmiyah.
Very different was the experience of the men who led the Algerian struggle for independence, but they shared a slow evolution of nationalism comparable to Egypt’s. Like the Egyptians who thought of themselves as part of a Mediterranean culture, prominent Algerians sought to “evolve” into Europeans. Algerian évolués put aside Arabic to be admitted on equal terms into France. Their best known leader, Farhat Abbas, even denied that there was such an entity as the Algerian nation.
But many Algerians concluded that becoming sort-of French was not an option. As some of the Vietnamese Communist leaders experienced, from working and living in France, they knew that the French would not accept them on any terms. The leading Algerian in this group was Messali Hadj.
Messali Hadj was not a member of the French tolerated Algerian elite. He was a working man and his target was the Algerian worker population of France, the labourers who actually wielded the shovels and did much of the hard work on French roads and in French factories. His first move was to form a club for them, for which crime the French put him into prison.
When he got out in 1937, he organized the first real political party, calling itself the Parti Progressiste Algérien. But, only the name was French. It demanded full independence and the redistribution of lands taken by the settlers. Those were nearly capital crimes. During the Second World War, he was condemned to 16 years of hard labour and the party was outlawed. Bullets soon replaced bars.
At the end of the Second World War, a euphoria swept the colonial world inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s “ringing” words about freedom, much as the Egyptian had reacted to similar pronouncements at the end of the First World War. The words of others, such as Winston Churchill, were less ringing and those of Charles de Gaulle were much more guarded and vague, forecasting a French effort “to lead each of the colonial people to a development that will permit them to administer themselves, and, later, to govern themselves.”
The Algerians organized for freedom. Indeed, some thought they had already become free. Among them were the people of the little Algerian town of Sétif who gathered to celebrate. Their originally peaceful manifestation was broken up by private Frenchmen, the French police and the French army. And some 40 villages in the area were bombed by the French air force. Estimates of Algerian casualties range from 10,000 to 45,000.
That tragedy may be taken as the seedbed of modern Algerian nationalism. Messali Hadj re-emerged to reform his party which won the municipal elections of 1947 but was overwhelmed by fraud and intimidation in the next round of elections. He was again arrested and deported. This action was an early case of what today is called “decapitation,” but it was not successful. A new generation of Algerians, many of whom had served in the French army during the Second World War, concluded that they could gain nothing with ballots and began to think in terms of bullets. Among the new leaders was Ahmad ben Bella.
Ahmad ben Bella was a decorated soldier and favoured violent action. Electrified by the French defeat in Indochina, he and a group of colleagues formed the “Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). Nov. 1, 1954 was the effective beginning of the Algerian war.
The French accepted the challenge. In the first major engagement, French soldiers were ordered to kill every Arab they met. They did. French soldiers massacred about 12.000 Algerians.
The brutality was returned in kind. In the first three years of the war, the militants killed more than 7,000 “turncoat” (Harki) Algerians. Some of these killings were used as an indoctrination ritual that, like the Mau Mau “oathings,” was meant to convert an untested recruit to commit an act from which he could not turn back. Above all, the FLN like other Arab guerrillas and terrorists feared disunity. Today, the Islamic Caliphate is apparently using the same tactics.
The war was fought on three “fronts.” One was in Europe and America where efforts were made to get the United Nations and the other Powers to press the French to give Algeria independence; a second was in Cairo, Tunis and Rabat where Ben Bella and his colleagues gathered funds mobilized men into an “external” army that never fought but was prepared for the conditions of independence. The third was in Algeria where small bands (wilayas) actually fought the French army.
The principal guerrilla leader, Ramdane Abane, decided on a bold and nearly suicidal campaign: the Battle of Algiers. It began with the general strike of Jan. 28, 1957. To put it down, the French army used all the tactics of counterinsurgency. Militarily the army won, but politically their campaign was a disaster.
Special Forces (paratroops) use of torture and murder revolted the French. But it was not French opinion that caused de Gaulle to give up: it was the French army’s threat to overthrow the French government itself. De Gaulle was so frightened that he ringed the presidential palace with anti-aircraft cannon and he left Paris secretly for the safety of a French army group in Germany.
Having survived an attempted coup, De Gaulle was so infuriated that he sent 20,000 French soldiers with tanks, artillery and aircraft into the European suburb of Algiers where they killed a large number of French citizens. With them beaten down, the French government was able to bring the war to a close in the Evian Accords of March 17, 1962. (During this time, I was the head of the “Interdepartmental Taskforce on Algeria” in the U.S. government.)
The Palestinian Struggle
Very different was the struggle of the Palestinians at the other end of the Mediterranean. About 800,000 Palestinians had been driven out of their land before and during the 1948-1949 war. While, for years, Israelis denied their involvement, Israeli government documents prove that the forced exodus was deliberate, well planned and brutal. It left scars which have shaped Arab nationalism and today shape Arab guerrilla warfare and terrorism. More narrowly, this Israeli action ironically created the first “international” movement of the Arabs.
Internationalization of the Arabs happened in two interrelated ways. On the one hand, the international community decided that the Palestinian refugees could not be left to die. So in the summer of 1950 a new United National organization (UNRWA) was created to care for them.
I first visited several refugee camps in 1950, and in 1963, while a member of the Kennedy Administration, I was offered the job of Deputy Commissioner General of UNRWA, but the State Department would not release me to take it.
While the most employable, the best educated and the lucky among the Palestinian refugees found temporary or permanent homes in Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Libya and even further afield, the vast majority were assembled in about 50 what were assumed to be temporary camps in Gaza, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. They were to be supported – given food, shelter, medical care, schooling and clothing – at a per capita subsidy of $27 yearly.
If the material diet was insipid, it was sustaining. The emotional diet was noxious. It was a blend of exaggerated memories, unrealistic hopes, enforced idleness and real angers. Within a decade over half of the Palestinians had never lived outside the camps. They blamed their hosts, the Arab governments and peoples, for the loss of their homeland.
And, in turn, their hosts felt insulted. Worse, their hosts used them as sources of cheap labor and that increased both their sense of misery and anger. To would-be leaders, they were raw material. Inevitably, the more radical turned to what I have called violent politics. Reports of the 1950s and 1960s are filled with hijackings, kidnappings, murders. [I provide a record of these events in my book The Arab World Today (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), Chapter 16.]
Actions replaced words and thoughts. Unlike the other national movements, this one gave rise to no definitions or programs of nationalism. All thought of the Palestinians was directed toward the sole goal of Return. How to accomplish that goal was always elusive; what was clear was that at least in their experience, “internationalization” was not conducive of pan-Arab unity.
Pan-Arab unity remained avidly sought. The last of the nationalist groups to espouse it was the “Resurrection” (Baath) Party formed by the French-educated, Greek Orthodox but personally secular Syrian intellectual, Michel Aflaq (1910-1989).
From 1932, he went through several major changes in style and organization. At first, he espoused Communism, but when the Communists opportunistically endorsed French colonialism, he broke with them and, together with a fellow Syrian (Salah Bitar) who also has studied in the Sorbonne, set out to create an Arab socialist national party. He dissolved the party when in 1958 the Syrian army decided to merge Syria into the Nasserite United Arab Republic (the UAR).
When the UAR broke up in 1961, Aflaq’s reputation declined in Syria. During the 1966 coup d’état (that led eventually to the seizure of power by Hafez al-Assad), Aflaq fled Syria and went to Iraq. There, two years later, one of the men whose thought he had influenced, Saddam Hussein, seized power. Hussein welcomed and publicly honored Aflaq but did not allow him much political influence or action.
Saddam did, however, publicly proclaim his regime’s support of Baathism as part of his rivalry with Assad. Thus, ironically, while the basic idea of Baathism was Arab unity, it became itself an example of the pressures that led to Arab disunion.
In summary, it became evident to the younger generation that nationalism and “Arab Socialism” had failed in the tasks they had assumed – to protect the Arab “nation” and to create a sense of national unity and dignity. As I wrote above, there were many reasons for failure – insincerity, rivalry or corruption of leaders, imbalance of military and civic components of society, the magnitude of the tasks to be performed with insufficient means and, above all, foreign military threat and intervention – but a growing number of politically active people concluded that, regardless of the causes of failure, failure itself was starkly evident.
With that recognition that nationalism had failed to produce the reality of power or the sense of dignity that were its goals, disillusionment set in. What remained was only the heritage of religion. I will address its contemporary manifestations in my next and final essay.
William R. Polk is a veteran foreign policy consultant, author and professor who taught Middle Eastern studies at Harvard. President John F. Kennedy appointed Polk to the State Department’s Policy Planning Council where he served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His books include: Violent Politics: Insurgency and Terrorism; Understanding Iraq; Understanding Iran; Personal History: Living in Interesting Times; Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times; and Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.
URL of Part 1: http://www.newageislam.com/islam-and-politics/the-formal,-textual-and-original-elements-of-islam-often-sat-lightly-on-the-shoulders-of-the-converts--muslim-memories-of-west’s-imperialism---part-1/d/104491