Peter W. Galbraith writes that Iraq is an artificial creation made up of different ethnic groups. This is true, but Iraq is not alone in its artificiality. All states are artificial in that they have been created by historical process and human machination, not by God or nature, and all contain different ethnic groups. More specifically, the centralised nation state in the Middle East (and Africa and much of Asia) is always artificial because the very concept of the nation state is an import from 19th Century Europe. The borders of every Arab state were determined, suddenly, by imperialism, and not by the long processes of war, negotiation and ideological mythmaking that drew borders in Europe. It is this imperialist division of the Arabs which has led to various forms of pan-Arab nationalism.
The definition of ‘Arab’ has expanded over the last hundred and fifty years from describing tribal nomads as opposed to townsmen, to describing the people of the Arabian peninsula, and then to describe all from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf who share the heritage of the Arabic language.
The Ba’ath Party went so far as to find religious significance in ‘Arab,’ as is evident from the slogan ‘One Arab Nation bearing an Eternal Message.’ The ‘risala’ or message is what Arabs would previously have assumed to be the revelation of the Prophet (more often called Messenger in Arabic) Muhammad. In fact, Ba’athism should be seen as one of the twentieth century’s many attempts to compensate for the collapse of traditional religion (Nazism, Zionism, Stalinism, contemporary Wahhabism and hedonist consumerism are others).
In its effort to spiritualise and mythologise Arabism Ba’athism surely takes nationalism to absurd extremes, but it is significant that the Ba’ath Party was founded by a Damascene Christian, and that it appealed in the main to minority communities. Arab nationalism’s potential strength was its inclusive nature, the possibility that Sunni and Shia, Christians and Muslims, urban and rural populations would all identify together as members of the Arab nation. Sadly, it is precisely this inclusiveness that has failed.
If nationalism’s definition of ‘Arab’ had been the widest possible – to engage all those who share the common heritage of the Arabic language in a cooperative enterprise – the Arabs could perhaps have overcome their underdevelopment and imposed borders more easily. They would have had increased political weight for a start, and would not have wasted so much blood and treasure on intra-Arab fighting (or rather, fighting on behalf of the little ruling classes of each state). Given that some Arab countries are blessed with fertile land but not with oil, others with educated people but not with sea ports, an intelligent sharing of resources would have been mutually beneficial.
This cooperation has failed, and there is no Arab state, but the Arab nation exists. The nation, not the state. The nation exists despite the tens of states, and now the attempt to splinter the Arabs further, into yet more mini-states squabbling over sect and ethnic variation, all of them dependent on a corporate-imperial sponsor for survival. It exists in shared language and cultural reference points. Any Arab who travels the great distances of the Arab world will find each corner foreign and also familiar. He will recognise the classic and contemporary music on the radio. He’ll see the same Egyptian films in the cinemas, the same Syrian comedies and historical dramas on the television. He’ll understand the newspaper. He’ll feel welcomed and understood, more than he would, for instance, in a non-Arab Muslim country. Wherever you go in the Arab world the ordinary people want closer economic cooperation between Arab countries, an end to foreign military bases, and justice for the Palestinians. In these times of rising sectarian conflict, it’s important to realise and remember that the Arab nation exists
So why then is Galbraith’s thesis – that even a single unit of Arabism like Iraq needs to disintegrate – to some extent persuasive? Because the same homogenising impulse that animates both contemporary Islamism and late capitalism has perverted Arabism. I’ll repeat it: Arabism only had a chance if it recognised the diversity of the Arab world’s peoples. The inheritors of Arab history, culture and language include blue-eyed Syrians and black Africans in the Sudan. Many of the heroes of the Arabist narrative were not ethnically Arab at all. Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (Saladin) was a Kurd, Ibn Rushd a Spaniard, Ibn Batuta a Berber. In Iraq, where Arabism has failed most spectacularly, ‘Arab’ even began to morph into ‘ethnically-Arab Sunni Muslim,’ but many of the great Arabic-language writers and scientists have been Christians and Jews, Berbers and Persians.
The moral degeneration of Arabism is painfully evident on Layla Anwar’s blog http://arabwomanblues.blogspot.com/. We must make allowances for the fact that Mrs. Anwar lives, it seems, in Baghdad, in the midst of a savage occupation and civil war. Most of the Iraqis I meet who have recently left Iraq are traumatised in some way or other, and Mrs. Anwar probably is too. But then, she doesn’t make any allowances for the Kurds or Shia who suffered so much under the previous regime. She calls the Kurds turds (ha ha), and denies that any were massacred by Saddam Hussain. I must say here that by now, although I don’t believe that new states can set anybody free, I support the Kurdish desire for an independent state, at least in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps Iraqi Arabs could have persuaded the Kurds to be part of an Arab state if, from the start, they had treated them as full citizens with full rights to cultural expression. What happened was that they were seen as a non-Arab security problem, and that thousands of their villages were razed, hundreds of thousands of their people subjected to poison gas attacks. The ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948 seems smallscale by comparison. True, it was a dictatorship, backed at the time by the West, that committed these crimes, and relations between ordinary Kurds and Arabs often remained good. But if people like Layla Anwar can’t accept that the oppression even happened, we have an insurmountable obstacle to coexistence. Mrs. Anwar declares in one of her postings that the Kurds are guests in Arab Iraq. How shameful that this supposed nationalist is unaware of her own country’s history. Kurds have been present in Mesopotamia for as long as Semites, and for far longer than Sunni Muslims.
Mrs. Anwar regards ALL Shia forces in her country as Persian, and therefore inauthentic. Again, exclusive nationalist extremism has blinded her to her country’s reality. The Shia are of course a majority of Iraq's people. It is both true and unsurprising that many Shia escaped Saddam’s persecution by crossing the border to Iran, where some founded organisations with Iranian help. Some of these organisations, like al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, returned to Iraq after the regime’s fall and are now in powerful positions. But other organisations, like Moqtada Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi, are Arab nationalist as well as Shia, and resent the Iranian-supported organisations. Mrs. Anwar rightly complains about the persecution of Sunnis by Shia militias, but is silent on both the sectarian repression practised by the Ba’ath regime which provoked the Shia revival, and the horrific Wahhabi terrorism to which Shia militia crimes have been retaliation.
As for more general Iranian influence in Iraq, which many Sunni Arabs are unable to accept, this is natural. The word itself, Iraq, comes from the Persian ‘Eraagh’, meaning ‘lowlands.’ The Arabs of southern Iraq have been as influenced by the cooking and religious and philosophical ideas of Persia as much as the Arabs of Syria have been influenced by the Turks and Mediterranean cultures. This doesn’t stop them being Arabs.
Nations (as opposed to states) are imaginary structures. Their borders are porous and membership in them is not exclusive. You can feel allegiance to the Arabs and also to Islam, or Africa, or Christianity, or Shi’ism. Variety and diversity should be the strength and richness of the Arabs, but many Arabs are ill with the centralised state disease, the rage for conformity which made Saddam Hussain brutalise the majority of Iraq’s people. When we replace humane, inclusive nationalism with exclusive totaltarian police states, we have lost nationalism as a positive force.
There are still glimmers of light. Important sections of Sunni Iraqi opinion have turned decisively against Wahhabism and Ba’athism. The vast majority of Shia feel Iraqi and Arab. But the Iraqis and other Arabs will be unable to work cooperatively until they honestly confront sectarianism and the class oppression which it usually masks, until they are able to sympathise with the history of the other, until they can think beyond the nation state.