Remembering the past
Azmi Bishara identifies the most urgent challenges facing any renewal of Arab nationalist thought
It takes more than seminars and conferences to resurrect ways of thinking. Renovation is a process undertaken by individuals at the intersection between the needs imposed by the socio-historical process and the course of the history of ideas. One of the most pressing needs is for thinkers of the type that embraced the concept of the "Arab idea" and who made their mark in the first half of the 20th century. Conferences and seminars will not produce them, just as they will fail to produce any other kinds of innovative thinkers. Ultimately the task of renewal falls upon the individual who must engage in a creative intellectual process.
Since Arab national thought is not uniform we should not expect any renewal to be so. The factors that distinguish it from other trends of Arab thought are few, but they make all the difference. Even so, the difference is not sufficient to establish a distinct way of thought. Nationalism that is liberal democratic in outlook is a world away from nationalism that is fascistic. Nationalism is not a way of thought but the politicisation of an affiliation and it is as easy to imagine democratic bearers of the idea of politicising national affiliation as a platform for the realisation of sovereignty as it is to imagine fascist ones.
A national movement that transforms itself from the collective awareness of a common cultural identity as the foundation for an imagined community to a pure ideology can only ever be totalitarian and meagre: it is totalitarian because it will strive to define all its stances on the basis of a single tenet, and meagre because it will do so on the basis of a limited set of shaky premises that offer few answers. To transform national affiliation into a sovereign democratic nation is a modern concept, as is fascism. The two, though, are antithetical.
What are the distinguishing features of Arab national thought?
First, it recognises the existence of an Arab national identity that has the right to sovereign national expression. Secondly, it holds that Arab national theory and the policies derived from it should be founded upon the higher collective interest of the whole, as opposed to only a part such as the sect, tribe or region.
While these points might suffice to distinguish Arab national thought from the bodies of thought that do not recognise Arab national identity they do not offer a sufficient platform for running a country. They cannot define a position on democracy, civil rights or education or healthcare policies. This is why early Arab nationalists had such divergent views on what constituted the most urgent concerns of their countries.
It is precisely for this reason that persons such as myself believe that democracy offers the best means for a nation to express its will, that the complementary side of sovereignty is the principle of equal citizenship and civil rights and that social rights, such as medical insurance, free education and labour rights are an integral part of nation-building. It is also for this reason that people of different outlooks and temperaments might translate the two distinguishing premises of Arab national thought into completely different outward expressions.
It is because of the outward expressions -- the regimes and movements -- that Arab national thought has taken that there is a need for renovation. Arab national thought fossilises when its proponents are marginalised from the political and social process and when the thought itself becomes no more than an ideological prop for a ruling regime.
The major obstacle to the fertility of political thought founded on the premise of the existence of an Arab national identity with the right to sovereign national expression resides in the practices of the proponents of the idea who exercise power in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Iraq. This obstacle impairs the idea itself -- the idea of a sovereign nation -- for it is because of their practices that unity cannot be achieved even between neighbours. Every instance of the scrambling for excuses not to unify only succeeded in miring Arab nationalist thought in scandal. The practices of Arab nationalists in power also proved an obstacle to renovation in Arab thought on democracy because their attitudes towards citizen rights, public supervision of power and civil liberties undermined the credibility of those other Arab nationalist thinkers who explored such issues.
The second major obstacle to the development of Arab national thought is that Arab nationalists are marginalised in those societies in which they do not participate in government, at best confined to an opposition that vocalises its support for Arab unity and which rejects normalisation with Israel as opposed to constituting a dynamic opposition that offers a democratic alternative to the existing government of society. Arab nationalist thought cannot evolve outside attempts to rise to the challenges posed by the concrete concerns of the people, among which are social rights, civil rights, democracy and questions of identity.
Attitudes and policies on such issues cannot be directly derived from the national idea itself because, in and of itself, the idea does not provide the answers to such questions. The task of finding answers falls upon the proponents of the idea, and the more the proponents of the idea produce answers to the people's pressing needs and concerns in the form of political platforms and policies the more they will contribute to the development of national thought. In other words, Arab national thought can only evolve within a practical environment. All attempts to derive positions from the abstract are in essence doctrinal and pave the way for totalitarianism.
Developing Arab nationalist thought entails clarifying its position in favour of democracy and civil and social rights. It is a task that assumes a clearer and more constructive direction through practice. Practice in the context of social currents and political trends not only offers concrete answers but alleviates the utopianism of the answers provided by angry national revivalist theory, the other face of dogmatism, another fringe language remote from the actual lives of the people and the dynamism of political and social activity.
Renewed Arab national thought will have to settle, through practice, the question of democratic citizenship as organic to the state (as opposed to organic to the affiliation). When it does it will find that the way to Arab unity is not through the imposition of theory from above but through the exercise of grassroots democracy, as was the case with the European Union. Also, through practice and involvement with the people Arab liberals, who have been so frustrated by their marginalisation from politics and society to the extent of airing admiration for Israeli democracy, will find themselves not only ready to condemn the Israeli version of democracy as a colonialist model but will also be capable of appreciating the achievements of Arab nationalists and not just their flaws and failures.
When proponents of Arab national thought, democratically inclined and open-minded, deal directly with the needs of the people they will discover their own sources of strength. For example, they will discover that identity is not an airy theoretical concept but a pressing popular concern with tangible ramifications and that Arab identity, in contrast to sectarian and tribal identity, is one of the sources of the strength of the Arab national movement and its thought.
National thought, as defined by the two primary premises mentioned above, is a modern mode of thought. A nation is an imagined community, but it is not imagined out of nothing. Its constituent elements exist and they include such ingredients as language, culture and a shared history (ethnicity, by contrast, is an imagined common origin or even common ancestry). Modernity is what furnishes the instruments, such as the press, channels of communication, and even the rise of the middle class, needed by a nationalist ideological drive to transform the constituent elements of an imagined community into a sovereign state.
Arab nationalism is no less modern than other national movements. It is not to be confused with Arabism, which has existed for more than a thousand years. It is not based upon a concept of an imagined ethnicity founded upon a common ancestry. It embraced many non-Arabs (in the ethnic sense) at a time when Arabism was an urban movement made up of intellectuals, members of a rising middle class and officers in the Ottoman army and merchants. Arab national identity is not about blood or ethnic bonds, it is about an imagined community with the tools of language and modern communications to help it become a sovereign nation. The theoretical underpinnings of this quest are what make up Arab nationalist ideology.
This type of theorising was common in countries with delayed capitalist development, in which an advanced capitalist economy was not around to unify the market and the state in a natural way, and in which absolutist monarchies also failed to perform this task. As a result we have nationalist ideologies that arose on the ruins of crumbled empires, as opposed to evolving in tandem with the evolution from an absolute monarchy to a nation state. Take, for example, the cases of Turkish and then Arab nationalism which emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, or the case of the nationalist ideologies that arose on the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, or those that are still in the process of coalescing following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The more recent such nationalist expressions the more adamantly they feel they must justify themselves. However, not every national ideology is justifiable and there is no reason why the democratic nationalist should not look favourably upon the alternative of living in a multinational democratic country. Yugoslavia, for example, could have become such a multinational democratic state instead of a series of bloodbaths and ethnic cleansings on the way to the establishment of several separate "democratic states". National purity as grounds for secession and as a condition for establishing an ostensibly democratic state is an almost certain road to massacres, ethnic transfer and the spread of totalitarian ideology.
When we speak of citizenship in Arab national thought we must recall that just as Arab nationalism is an imagined community seeking sovereign expression, there are non-Arab groups living in Arab countries. Not only must we recognise that the individual members of these groups should be endowed with full rights of citizenship but also we must recognise the collective rights of groups that continue to define themselves as non-Arab and that seek to express their national identity.
These are some of the challenges that the renewal of Arab national thought must meet. But they cannot be met without engaging innovatively and practically in the attempt to address the problems and concerns of the people. Nor can they be met without summoning the humility needed to treat with critical respect the intellectual and practical heritage bequeathed by earlier generations of Arab nationalists.