Nationalism and Religion in the Arab World

I can remember when Americans were popular, even admired, throughout much of the Arab world. Of course that was mainly before 1948 when the UN partition vote established the state of Israel. But even after that, for a while, most Arabs saw us as a model to which they aspired, and treated those of us who were there with respect tinged with disbelief that we could have done anything as thoughtless as to “plant this cancer in the breast of the Arab nation”.

We were not only a model to be envied, we were the principal single outside force that planted the seeds of Arab nationalism in the heartland of the Arab world. Early plantings were in the late nineteenth century, in the American University of Beirut, which had redefined its former mission of conversion with broadly defined educational goals. The American University in Cairo and Roberts College in Istanbul followed, plus other institutions like Aleppo College. We were on a sustainable and winning track in the region as a whole. We functioned as a model they aspired to emulate, not as a boss they feared and came, eventually, to hate.

If we helped foster Arab nationalism, it took a turn after the Second World War that was not exactly what we hoped for. Individual Arab states turned authoritarian, with dictators ranging from military strong men to rightist movements. Crypto-fascists (the Baath) emerged, and outright emulators of the Nazis (the SSNP). They espoused pan-Arabism, but with the exception of a brief union between Syria and Egypt, their efforts were focused on building up their power bases within the national boundaries the Western powers had drawn up for them. Their saving grace, from our perspective, was that they were secular, and provided stability and relative safety for the region’s many ethnic and religious minorities. They dealt firmly with the Muslim Brotherhood, the only effective pan-Arab religious-based movement; in fact, the elder Assad leveled a good bit of Hamas, killing thousands, to squash the Ikhwan once and for all.

Saddam Hussain’s regime in Baghdad was a brutal one, and one reason our public supported taking him out was our revulsion at his record of dealing ruthlessly with dissent. But be careful what you wish for. As soon as we eliminated the Baathists, the Shi’a community took over and has, ever since, been beating up on their former Sunni oppressors. We midwifed a transition from one can of worms to an even bigger and nastier one. We traded stability under a nationalist regime for a low-level sectarian civil war.

Now Arab nationalism is dead. It has been replaced by religious strife. The search for national power and dignity has been translated into a struggle between Sunni Muslims and their Shi’a adversaries, the latter supported as in Syria with Christians and other minorities. Where we used to see a group of young nation states led mostly by young people who aspired to become more like us, we now see a regional war, increasingly bitter, between groups fighting over which route to follow to get back to some kind of a medieval religious theocracy.

Considering that our nation was founded on the principle of separation of church and state, it’s not a record for which we can be proud. We have helped transform the aspirations of the region from secularism to sectarianism, from an evolutionary track leading toward democracy to one leading back to an Islamic theocracy.

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