The Demise of Arab Nationalism in Iraq and Its Possible Alternatives

By Rahman Dag | 01 June 2010

Contemporary Middle Eastern states have not yet reached to the full level of stability in terms of domestic and foreign issues after the demise of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Even today, several of them, such as Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and Somalia have been struggling with and suffering from severe internal conflicts Current internal quarrels in these countries have been experienced and yet no solution has been found to halt them. This essay is going to focus on current internal conflicts in Iraq and approaches to them from an ideological perspective. It is undeniable that every single struggle among belligerents in a particular conflict has its own ideology to justify and legitimize its demands and aim. By doing so, sides in a particular fight seek to increase their disciples and supporters. In the light of these conditions, the crucial question has come to mind is the question of that Arab nationalism still has a chance to prevail in Iraq`s politics and if it does not, what are its alternatives?




It is very well known that from the late Ottoman Empire to today’s world nationalism has become an inherent ideology for the Middle Eastern countries. Nationalism was born and grew up in Europe and then has spread to the world. It was the most fundamental idea in the process of state building in the post-World War I period.  One of these states was modern Iraq which was established in 1922 as a British mandate. On the other hand, there is another significant determinant of the Middle Eastern countries in the respect of ideology, which is religion namely Islam. The Middle East is a place where Islam came into existence and it has been perceived as a natural part of that region and of people living in there. It has penetrated into the blood of that region. These two basic components have taken the Middle Eastern countries` pulse. Therefore they are always effective in the politics of any country in the Middle East as it is so for Iraq. These two major ideological tenets- nationalism and religion- are powerful identity signifiers in times of uncertain structural conditions and conflicts (Kinnvall, 2004).

In the regard of ideological thoughts in the Middle East, nationalism had been emerged as a culturally Arabist movements in the late Ottoman Empire with the invasion of Egypt by France and commercial relations between the west and Arab world via port cities such as Beirut, Aleppo and Basra (Antonius, 1938). That culturally Arab movement changed into political nationalist movement when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and Western powers directly interfered to the Middle East politics and created Arab nationalism which means unification of all Arabs coming from the same cultural roots and having the same language (Dawisha, 2003 pp:2). With the forming of mandate system, Arab world was administratively divided rather than ruled by a single political unity which covers all Arabs. As a result of that, nationalist movements fought for state independence instead of Arab independence (Barnett, 1995). In the colonial period, the nationalist sentiments evolved and generated Pan-Arabism which simply means the political unification of all Arab states. For instance, the initiation by Egypt, Syria and Iraq to be united as a pioneering force to encompass a unique and one Arab State is a concrete evidence of pan-Arabist ideology (Choueiri, 2000 pp:167). The failure and disunion of this enterprise and the defeat of Egypt by Israel in 1967 war due to Palestine question extinguished the flame of Arab nationalism. This was the turning point of the displacement of nationalist thoughts and it left its dominant position to the Islamic movements with the fostering role of Islamic revolution in Iran. During the revival of religious notions, territorial nationalism among Arab states has emerged and each Arab state sought to improve and solidify its own nationality for example Saudis, Iraqis, or Egyptians. After the short history of the evolvement of nationalism in the Middle East, it can be said for the contemporary conditions; nationalism has lost its previous dominance but did not completely lost its power. Moreover, it should be mentioned that this reminded that nationalism was not pan-Arabist nationalism but territorial nationalism.

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* Published in the Second Issue of Political Reflection Magazine (PR).

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