Monday, February 18, 2008
By Basheer Nafi
"Understanding the relationship between Islam and Arab nationalism has always been problematic.
The separation between Islamists and Arab nationalists, and the period of their political conflict, is a relatively recent development in Arab history.
In the early 1950s, a series of military coups brought young Arab nationalist officers to power in many Arab countries, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Algeria.
It was during this period that Arab nationalism, expressed in exclusive, radical and even socialist discourse, became the official ideology of the Arab states.
But the military background of the ruling forces, their fragile base of legitimacy, and the sweeping programmes of modernisation and centralisation they pursued, turned the Arab nationalist entity into an authoritarian state.
One of the major results of this development was the eruption of a series of confrontations between the Arab nationalist regimes and the Islamic political forces, in which questions of power, identity and legitimacy were intertwined......
For the Arab-Islamic reformists, Arabism was meant to reassert the Arab identity, seen by increasing numbers of the Arabs as the answer to the Ottoman failure to defend Islam and protect the Arab and Muslim lands.
In this sense, Arabism was not only defined in Islamic terms, but was also envisioned as inseparable from the Islamic revival.
During the inter-war period, although students of the Arab-Islamic reform movement continued to play a major role in the Arab anti-imperialist struggle, the gradual transformation of the social and intellectual making of the Arab elites contributed to the evolvement of an exclusive, ethnically based Arabist narrative......
Equally important was the fact that although the Islamists had the masses on their side, they lacked influence among the Arab elite circles, and were largely unable on their own to break the political impasse impeding the process of democratic transformation in most Arab countries.
An Islamic-nationalist convergence could bolster the legitimacy of the Islamic project and broaden its base of representation.....
In many respects, Islamism and Arab nationalism have been, and still are, the most powerful movements in Arab political and cultural life.
It is true that neither holds power in any of the Arab countries, but their influence in society and within civil organisations is beyond doubt.
For the increasing diversification of Arab cultural systems during the past few decades, nationalism and Islamism can no longer claim to possess an exclusive hold over the Arabs' imagination.
All this, however, should in no way diminish the importance and meaning of their convergence for the future course of Arab politics and culture.
For more than half a century, the Arabs have lacked a solid, durable level of consensus, a middle ground, around which the political process normally revolves and in which political stability is anchored.
Although not yet very clear, the Islamist-nationalist convergence has a great potential to develop such a consensus."