Arabism good for Arabs and the world at large

Arabism good for Arabs and the world at large

Ask most Arabs today about Arab nationalism and the reply will be along these lines: It’s dead. What nationalism are you speaking of? It was just a slogan used by people like Gamal Abdel Nasser to maintain power. 
Of course, such knee-jerk and unthoughtful replies are meant to describe the political side of Arabism; but in reality they also reflect a bitter attitude that still, in some ways, proves that the idea of Arab nationalism is in the soul of most Arabs, only buried deep under mounds of debris. To remove that debris and get to the heart of this issue, one must begin by redefining what nationalism is, look at why it cannot die unless Arabs themselves become extinct, and explain why losing it as a unifying concept is detrimental to Arabs, their friends and even their foes.

First, the idea of nationalism is quite a different matter from what can be assumed from its political symbols and their misuse. This is in fact no different to the abuse of religion by some political figures or movements that reduce it, erroneously, to simply being a political ideology. Within the Arab historical experience, nationalism revolves around the Arabic language and culture, not religion or race.

It is this framework that put some of the Arab Christian leaders of the Arab nationalism movement — like George Antonius, author of the influential 1938 book The Arab Awakening, or Michel Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian and founder of the Ba’ath party — among the undisputed leaders of Arab nationalism for a long time. In this sense, Arab nationalism is quite different from European nationalism, which is based on race and ethnicity. Yes, Arabism was employed early in the 20th century as a political project to eradicate European colonialism across the Arab world, and later as the basis of wrong-headed socialist political ideological policies, but it remains essentially a simple fact of history, culture and language, irrespective of ideology, race or religion. 

If the region can recognize its true common identity, it can flourish both economically and politically and contribute enormously to global peace.

Hafed Al-Ghwell 

Second, the notion that there is some sort of homogenous identity that unites all Arab-speaking people across the Middle East and North Africa, who share a common language, cultural norms and historical experience, is a present reality — not a theory or a goal to be achieved in the future. It can still be seen in even the simplest forms, like the shared experiences of pan-Arab TV channels or the same music enjoyed by all Arabs across the region and the world. 
For a long time, this sense of shared Arabism also served as a concrete defense against the ethnic and religious fragmentation that occurs today. Until recently, it meant that all people of the region — Kurds, Amazigh, Christians, Jews and Muslims — from Qatar to Morocco are one people, one nation despite the divisions of the relatively modern nation-state political paradigm. This kept radical and extreme religious groups and movements at bay; in that way, it also defended the West against the terrorism and mayhem inflicted by extremists today. It is no accident that radical Islamism only began to flourish after the early 1970s, when political symbols of Arabism, like Nasser, died. In my opinion, by turning Arabism simply into a political ideology, Nasser ironically became a chief contributor to its collapse.

Third, in a world that no longer allows national borders to limit the ability to take advantage of cross-border trade, unifying basic standards and economic integration, it is extremely odd to see how little economic cooperation and trade there is among the 22 Arab states, even though each of them signed agreements via the Arab League even before Europe envisioned the European Union as an economic bloc. The EU has allowed Europe to become one of the largest markets in the world and an economic power that plays a crucial role in the global economy despite its different languages, contentious history, and even governments. According to the Arab League’s secretary-general, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, inter-Arab trade does not exceed 8 to 10 percent of the region’s foreign trade.
However, the Arab world still has an opportunity to reverse this trend. This is possible if it can recognize the benefits it will achieve and if it has the will to accept the historical and cultural reality of a unified Arab identity that encompasses all its people, irrespective of ethnicities and religious background, while maintaining separate national governments. If the Arab world can build on existing reality and operationalize its already-signed agreements to unify its commercial and educational standards and remove tariffs on its inter-border trade and investments to stimulate its private sector, it can certainly increase the size and growth of its combined economy, attract more investments, and become a major player in the global economy.

Moreover, by recognizing its true common identity, the Arab world will offer a true homeland to all of its ethnicities and religious diversity and give all Arabs a deep stake in the future of their individual countries and the region as a whole. This will help diminish the current increasing phenomenon of political disintegration and the fervor of different ethnicities to migrate or seek independence in order to feel safe and secure. It will also limit the need for young people to join extremist groups that give them an illusionary sense of belonging. 

In short, Arabism is good for the Arabs and good for the world at large, both economically and politically, and can contribute enormously to regional and global peace and security.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a former adviser to the board of directors at the World Bank Group.  Twitter: @HafedAlGhwell 
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view