The Introduction and Spread of Nationalism

In the spring of 1919, about six months after the end of World War I, political posters festooned the streets of Damascus. A pedestrian taking an evening stroll would thus not have been surprised to see a poster ending in the following phrase: “The Arab nation is indivisible. The Arabs make up a single nation that demands independence.” Turning the corner, that same pedestrian might have encountered another poster, this time ending with the following slogan: “We demand complete independence for Syria within its natural boundaries.” That pedestrian might be forgiven for wondering just who he was supposed to be. Was he a member of the Arab nation, the Syrian nation, both, or was there yet a fourth option? One year earlier it is doubtful that he would have had to ponder the question. The year before he had been, after all, an Ottoman.

In the aftermath of World War I, a variety of nationalist movements emerged and spread in the Middle East. Representatives of the Armenian, Arab, and Kurdish “nations” descended on Paris to lobby the peace conference, while Turkish, Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese ( “Phoenician”) nationalists made their voices heard in other ways. Each of these movements claimed to represent the political aspirations of populations that had previously been ruled by the Ottoman Empire. Each claimed that the Ottoman Empire had been little better than an imperial prison that had kept their nations in captivity. But as the nineteenth-century French philosopher Ernest Renan once put it, “Getting history wrong is part of being a nation.” Despite the claims of nationalist movements, those movements did not represent age-old nations yearning to reestablish their freedom after four hundred years of bondage. Nationalist movements created those nations. Furthermore, it was the very Ottoman Empire the movements vilified that had laid the foundation for the explosion of nationalisms in the post-World War I Middle East.

To understand how this was the case, it is necessary to understand something of the nature of nationalism. Although every nationalist movement and creed asserts its uniqueness, all are, in fact, comparable. All share a common set of assumptions about the proper ordering of human society. All nationalists believe that humanity is naturally divided into smaller units, or nations. All nationalists believe that nations can be identified by certain characteristics that all its citizens hold in common. These characteristics include the linguistic, ethnic, religious, or historical traditions that make a nation distinctive. All nationalists believe that times might change but nations retain their essential characteristics. As we have seen, Persian nationalists believe that the Persian speakers who listened to the “national poet,” Firdawsi, recite the “national epic,” theShahnameh, in the eleventh century are members of the selfsame nation as those who memorized Firdawsi in schools built by Reza Shah. They are linked across time by language, literary tradition, and history. All nationalists believe that a people has a special relationship to some particular piece of real estate in which their ancestors first emerged as a distinct group and flourished. Zionists “belong” in Palestine, Egyptians in Egypt, Persians in Persia. All nationalists believe that nations possess something called a “common interest” and that it is the role of the state to promote it. Indeed, all believe that the only form of government that can assure the common interest of the nation is self-government.

These, then, are the five essential assumptions of nationalism. In the modern world, these assumptions need no explanation or justification. They just are. And when populations believe that these assumptions are self-evident and part of the natural order, we can say that they live within a “culture of nationalism.”

All nationalisms draw their assumptions from the culture of nationalism. All nationalisms take one or more linguistic, religious, or ethnic attributes of a given group of people and claim that the attributes they have highlighted makes that group a nation and entitles it to political sovereignty in its ancestral homeland. Yet it is important to keep in mind that the culture of nationalism and the particular nationalisms that draw from it are different. The culture of nationalism has proven to be extraordinarily resilient wherever it has taken hold. In the modern world, everyone must belong to a nation. Nationalisms, on the other hand, come and go all the time. Thus, the Ottoman nationalism that Ottoman state-builders had floated during the nineteenth century (osmanlilik) could join Confederate nationalism in the dustbin of history in the twentieth. Because all nationalisms are rooted in a common set of assumptions, it is relatively easy for people to switch from one to another as circumstances demand. Over the course of the twentieth century, for example, loyal Ottoman citizens could become Arabs or Syrians or, over time, both, and some of these could later become Lebanese or Palestinians. Nationalists? Always. Ottoman or Arab or Palestinian nationalists? Maybe, sometimes.

True believers, of course, swear that their particular brand of nationalism deserves to succeed because it represents the authentic identity and aspirations of a given people. Most historians, on the other hand, wince at the idea of authentic identities and aspirations. For them, nationalisms succeed or fail not because they represent true or false identities and aspirations, but because of the often unpredictable circumstances in which they find themselves. After all, who is to say what the subsequent history of the Middle East might have been had the entente powers supported the establishment of a unified Arab state, or had Arab nationalism been anchored in a state that had the power to coerce and persuade its citizens?

The culture of nationalism differs from the various nationalisms that draw on its assumptions in another way as well. Because the culture of nationalism deals with assumptions about the organization of state and society, its advent in any given territory represents a truly revolutionary departure for the inhabitants of that territory. The culture of nationalism transforms subjects into citizens and citizens into cogs of a machine grinding away for something called “the common good” (or common wealth). Such transformations began to take place in the Ottoman Empire during the mid-nineteenth century. The rise and fall of various nationalisms, on the other hand, is more superficial than revolutionary in nature. When compared to the extraordinary social and political changes that the Ottoman Empire had to effect for a culture of nationalism to emerge within its domains, the fact that Ottoman citizens would assert one or another nationalist creed down the road is of negligible importance.

Nationalism (and here I am referring to the category into which various nationalisms might be grouped) is a relatively new phenomenon in world history. We can trace it back only as far as the eighteenth century. Historians disagree about where nationalism first emerged. Theories range from the usual suspects, Britain and France, to the Netherlands, Germany, and even the Americas. It is probable that a culture of nationalism originated as a result of efforts made by rulers and statesmen to strengthen their states in the highly competitive European environment. They did this in two ways. First, they made the state and sovereign the focal point of their subjects' loyalty. After centuries of struggle, states finally supplanted their main rival, the Church, and eradicated or at least diminished the power of social groups (the aristocracy, tax farmers, etc.) that blocked the central government's direct access to its population. The second way rulers and statesmen strengthened their states was by mobilizing and harnessing the energies of their subjects in common endeavors and for that new invention, the “common interest.” To do this they conscripted townsmen and peasants alike into armies and labor gangs, standardized educational and legal institutions, and put in place policies designed to enhance their “national” economies, such as mercantilism. Over time, in those places where governments had imposed the new conception of state, populations internalized the notion that they were part of unified societies that had identities of their own and for whose benefit those populations had to direct their efforts.

Nationalism provided a narrative for those unified societies. It gave those societies an identity and a history. It also gave the state that presided over those societies legitimacy and purpose. Nationalism proved useful to state-builders as well, who used it to mobilize and harness the energies of their populations. As the modern state system spread throughout the globe, nationalism hitched a ride.

Nationalism could not emerge in the Ottoman Empire until a nurturing environment for it — a culture of nationalism — emerged. That came about after the modern economic and state systems absorbed the empire within their bounds. The reason for this was because the modern economic and state systems encouraged the spread of modern institutions of governance and market relations within every territory, principality, or empire with which those conjoined systems had contact. The Ottoman Empire, like the Habsburg, Russian, and Chinese empires, may have continued to call itself an empire. Nevertheless, over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it increasingly came to resemble a modern state. For example, the tanzimat decrees established the notion of citizenship as a legal principle. The announcement of this principle quickly struck roots among many in the empire. As early as the 1840s, peasants began asserting their newly acquired rights in local disputes. So did others, who also sought to use those rights to their advantage. Along with new rights, the Ottoman state demanded new obligations from its citizenry. It therefore increased its control and coercive capabilities over that citizenry. By taking responsibility for functions it had previously disregarded, by standardizing institutions, by attempting to set norms for public and even private behavior, the Ottoman state created the conditions in which new ties among its citizens might emerge.

Those ties also emerged as a result of the spread of market relations within the empire. Over the course of the nineteenth century, for example, peasants who had furnished most of their own needs and artisans who had produced for local markets found themselves bound up in larger economic networks. Sometimes those networks were regional. At other times, they were imperial or even international. The introduction of new transportation technologies such as railroads and steamships not only opened up new markets, it expanded the traffic in labor and goods between cities and countryside. That traffic flowed in both directions. Peasants, for example, might migrate seasonally to urban centers to supplement their incomes by engaging in wage labor. At the same time, increased urban economic control over the countryside broadened and deepened the spread of market relations in rural areas. The expanded interchange between city and countryside brought urban values and norms to outlying areas. It also enlarged the social, economic, and cultural space in which people lived their lives.

The spread of modern technologies and market relations, then, affected notions of social, economic, and cultural space. In some cases, the new notions of social, economic, and cultural space paved the way for regional loyalties that would later provide the basis for nationalist movements (and here, as earlier, we might define a nationalist movement as a stateless nationalism on the make). This can be seen in the case of Greater Syria. Over the course of the nineteenth century, trade and infrastructural development established Greater Syria as a distinct economic unit. By 1861, a British-built telegraph connected Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus. By the 1880s a system of carriage roads connected the inland cities of Damascus and Homs with the coastal cities of Tripoli, Sidon, and Beirut. By the 1890s, rail service connected Beirut with Damascus and Damascus with the grain-producing region of the Hawran to the south. Commerce increasingly flowed along the lines of the new railroads and carriage roads. Urban-based merchants enriched by that commerce increasingly loaned money to and frequently repossessed the lands of peasants inhabiting the hinterlands of Syrian cities. Peasants increasingly swelled the population of nearby urban centers in search of jobs in industries fueled by that commerce. Elite families in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Aleppo increasingly sought marriage alliances with their peers in Sidon, Nablus, and Beirut in an effort to supplement commercial ties with family ties. All this contributed to the emergence of a Greater Syrian social and economic space.

At the same time that a regional social and economic space emerged in Greater Syria, the connections between Greater Syria and areas with which it was not so well integrated loosened. For example, over the course of the nineteenth century, Greater Syria and the territory that is now Iraq emerged as distinct economic units. By the beginning of the twentieth century, little remained of the overland trade that had connected the two regions in earlier centuries. After the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, farmers of the upper Tigris valley began to ship grain via the Persian Gulf to Europe. This allowed them to abandon less profitable markets in geographic Syria. Not that it mattered all that much to the Syrian economy. With the opening of rail connections and ports, Syrian merchants could increase their profit margins as well by orienting to the Greater Syrian market or to the west.

The evolution of Greater Syria as a distinct unit capable of inspiring loyalty would rouse later generations of nationalists to champion the establishment of a Greater Syrian state. As we have seen, their plan ran afoul of the mandates system. Nevertheless, the legacy of the regional economic, social, and cultural ties that emerged in the empire in the nineteenth century affected even Arab nationalists. Most of the plans Arab nationalists floated to unite the eastern Arab world called for regional autonomy within a federated Arab state. And if economic integration affected Greater Syria in this manner, imagine how it affected the Ottoman province of Egypt, where the process of economic integration was much further advanced.

The economic, social, and cultural integration of a region does not necessarily mean that a nationalist movement will emerge there, of course. If that were the case, a California nationalism would have emerged years ago. For a nationalist movement to emerge, there must be nationalists to invent it, articulate its principles, and mobilize a population to realize its goals. Sometimes these nationalists work through states to produce what are called “official nationalisms.” We have seen this in the case of the Ottoman Empire, and it would take place again among the various states that emerged in the aftermath of World War I. At other times, freelance nationalists have worked either in the absence of a state (as Palestinian nationalists have done) or in opposition to one (as Balkan nationalists did).

Groups of nationalists began to emerge in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century for several reasons. Some bureaucrats and imperial functionaries consciously copied European techniques for state-building. The result was osmanlilik. They were soon joined by other nationalists who hailed from strata of the population created by defensive developmentalism. There was, for example, a Christian bourgeoisie in the port cities of the Ottoman Empire, created by the integration of the Ottoman Empire into the world economy. There were urban notables, enriched, in good measure, by the Ottoman Land Code of 1858 and empowered by the provincial and urban councils established during the tanzimat. They counted on Istanbul for positions of influence and were willing to toe the party line to get them. Finally, there were the professionals, intellectuals, and military officers, who had often attended imperial schools and had been educated according to standardized curricula (both products of the tanzimat). This is the same layer of society that had played such a key role in constitutional movements. These strata had been raised in an environment defined by the culture of nationalism. They were accustomed to the modern public sphere and an urban environment in which new techniques of mass politics could be deployed.

Often, individuals from these strata supported the nationalism of the Ottoman state. A number of them, however, were dissatisfied. For urban notables, there was only so much imperial patronage to go around. Some were sure to feel slighted. Many among the Christian bourgeoisie believed themselves excluded from a state that professed an Islamic osmanlilik. Other Christians felt bound by shared ties of religion, ethnicity, or both to one or another foreign nation or nationalist movement. And as we saw in Chapter 10, many professionals, intellectuals, and military officers failed to achieve the power and influence they felt they deserved. These were the layers that were at the forefront of oppositional nationalist movements.

The more the Ottoman state intruded into the lives of its citizens, and the more it attempted to establish norms of acceptable behavior and belief, the more the disgruntled members of these strata resisted. For example, some historians trace the origins of Arab nationalism to attempts made by the Young Turks to “turkify” the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. Because the Young Turks sought to make Turkish the official language of the empire and eliminate non-Turks from positions of authority, these historians claim, some in the empire became conscious of themselves as members of a distinct Arab nation and demanded the right to rule themselves.

It is interesting to note that here as elsewhere a nationalist movement invented a nation. Before the nineteenth century, the word "‘arab" did not have the same meaning among Arabic speakers it has today. Instead, the word was commonly used by town-dwellers as a term of contempt when referring to “savage” bedouin. Only in the nineteenth century did intellectuals begin using the term to refer to their linguistic and cultural community. Their nationalist descendents then appropriated the term and used it for their own purposes.

Lest any Turkish or Persian nationalist feel smug, both the idea of a “Turkish nation” and “Persian nation” has similarly shallow roots. During the nineteenth century, Ottoman and Persian intellectuals, trained in Europe or in elite institutions that borrowed their methods and curricula from those of Europe, began to apply assumptions about historical evolution and social cohesion to trace the genealogies of their respective societies. Using the tools of the newly established disciplines of archaeology and philology, they traced the lineages of their respective cultures and languages from pre-Islamic times forward. These intellectuals were not necessarily nationalists. More often than not, they weren't. Nevertheless, they provided a cultural, linguistic, and/or ethnic argument for the continuous existence of the Turkish and Persian nations that later nationalists, such as Ziya Gokalp and Sayyid Hasan Taqizadeh, could apply. When Mustafa Kemal and Reza Shah took power, they found the ideas of these nationalist ideologues useful for their nation-building projects and used the institutions of state to disseminate them. With what degree of cynicism they approached the ideas is anyone's guess.

Arab nationalism was, of course, just one of the nationalist movements that emerged in the Arab Middle East. It was not the first. That distinction belongs to the Egyptian nationalist movement. A nationalist movement emerged in Egypt before the other Arab provinces because of the peculiarities of Egyptian history. Under the mamluks and then Mehmet Ali and his descendents, Egypt had been virtually autonomous. This made it easier for the more politically motivated of its inhabitants to think of Egypt as a single unit that should be independent. At the same time, the effectiveness of Mehmet Ali's policies of defensive developmentalism, combined with the integration of Egypt into the world economy and British administrative practices, caused the breakdown of the social structures that had reinforced local identities: the autonomous village, the guild, the town quarter. As a result, inhabitants of the province could see themselves as part of a wider, yet clearly bounded, political community.

Egypt was also home to a large and concentrated stratum of intellectuals and political activists. Some of them were exiles from other Arab provinces who found shelter from Hamidian repression in British-controlled Egypt. Others were homegrown, the products of Western or Western-style institutions that defensive developmentalism had fostered. These intellectuals and political activists played the same role in fostering Egyptian nationalism as their counterparts would later play in fostering Arab nationalism. The only difference was that the target against which a nationalist movement in Egypt could mobilize was a foreign occupation. This, along with the aforementioned factors, contributed to the rise of a nationalist movement in Egypt that was distinctly Egyptian.

Beginning in 1907, a number of nationalist parties and associations began to materialize on the Egyptian scene. The first such party, the Nationalist Party, was organized by Mustafa Kamil (not to be mistaken for Mustafa Kemal of Turkey), a French-educated lawyer and newspaper publisher. Another party, the Umma Party, followed soon afterward. Although both parties wanted to bring the British occupation to an end, they divided along tactical lines. The Nationalist Party took a more combative stance than its rival, whose approach was anything but combative. Leaders of the Umma Party felt that Egyptians should cooperate with the British and hoped that the British would learn from this that Egyptians were ready to enter the “civilized” world as an independent nation. The British consul general called the Umma Party the “Girondists of Egypt,” a reference to the “moderates” of the French Revolution who clashed with (and were decimated by) the more radical Jacobins of Robespierre fame.

Nationalist parties in the proper sense of the word did not emerge in the Levant and Mesopotamia until after World War I. That is not to say that no nationalists existed. There were a number of associations with branches in various cities of the Levant and Mesopotamia that advocated Arab or Syrian or Mesopotamian autonomy within and, eventually, even independence from the Ottoman Empire. But these associations were small and had limited influence. Because their members feared repression, and because they were more inclined to engage in conspiracies than mass organizing, these associations did not attract a large following. The largest of them, the Damascus-based al-Fatat, included only about seventy members before the war.


Nationalist demonstration in Aleppo, Syria, 1920. (From: ‘Abdal-‘Aziz al-‘Azma, Mir´at al-Sham: Tarikh Dimashq wa ahliha (London: Riad El-Rayyes Books, 1987), p. 218.)

Arab, Syrian, and, to a lesser extent, Iraqi nationalist movements attracted a larger following in the aftermath of World War I. The Ottoman Empire had been destroyed and there was a political vacuum at the top that had to be filled. We have already seen how larger and more popular nationalist movements in Turkey and Egypt were able to take advantage of postwar realities. Nationalist movements in the Levant and Mesopotamia were less successful in realizing their goals. Arab nationalism had to compete with regional nationalisms, and both fell victim to the mandates system and its heir, the regional state system. This is where we are now. As we shall see in a later chapter, the nationalisms associated with established states appear to have taken hold — at least for the time being — but only as a result of years of state-building and the support the international state system offers to the regional state system. The states in the region jealously guard their borders, rewrite their histories, and, indeed, have produced enough of their own history to coax the loyalty of their citizens. All the while, international guarantees ensure the durability of the state system created in the aftermath of World War I. Whenever some strongman rises to the surface and threatens to upset the regional balance of power by playing the role of a Bismarck or Garibaldi, he gets slapped down by one or another great power or coalition. This is exactly what happened to Saddam Hussein in 1990 (although the Iraqi conquest of Kuwait was hardly in the same league as German unification or the Risorgimento). For these reasons it appears that the current state system and the nationalisms it fosters will remain with us for a while — no matter how much Osama bin Laden might rail against them.

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