It has become all too common for Arab politicians, scholars and even political philosophers to understand the nation-state divisions of the contemporary Arab world as either inevitable or even preferable to pan-Arab unity. Such exponents of division point to the differences between dialects and culture between the Gulfi Arabs, Levantine and Mesopotamian Arabs and the Maghrebi Arabs. Others yet point to allegedly irreconcilable differences between Sunni Muslim Arabs, Shi’a Muslim Arabs, Orthodox Christian Arabs and Roman or Greek Catholic Arabs. Many other increasingly petty points of division are often listed as an argument for the impossibility of Arab unity while others claim that disunity is a preferable state to one of political unity.
Yet the reality of the Arab world since the time of the Prophet Muhammad up until 1916 had been one of total unity. Whether under the Arab Caliphates where Arabs saw political unity under self rule or whether under the Ottoman Empire where the Arab world remained united under a single sovereign within the context of a wider multicultural/multiracial Ottoman empire, only once since the death of the Prophet Muhammad was division within the wider Arab world contemplated as being preferable to unity. Perhaps characteristically of the origins of Arab disunity, the concept of dividing the Arab world along largely arbitrary lines was the product not of an Arab mind but of the Englishman Mark Sykes and the Frenchman François Georges-Picot.
Since the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, other enemies of Arab unity have promulgated narratives about the incompatibility of the Arabs with one another. And yet during a century where Europe united in the form of the European Union, during a time when the post-colonial states of south east Asia along with Thailand formed ASEAN, during a time when the vast countries of India and Pakistan formed as independent nations comprised of unions of a wide variety of peoples, during a time in which a multicultural Russia grew and flourished and when a multicultural United States became the most powerful nation in modern history – the Arabs started to adopt the language of their conquerors and exploiters by proclaiming that unity is impossible and that division is either an inevitable or preferable state of political being.
The Arab unity invoked by General Gamal Abdel Nasser, by Libyan revolutionary Muammar Gaddafi and the original Ba’athist thinkers including Michel Aflaq, Salah al-Din al-Bitar and Zaki al-Arsuzi was revolutionary in terms of its concepts of economic and social progressivism but in terms of rejecting the legacy of Sykes-Picot and embracing unity, the Arab Nationalism of the mid 20th century was perfectly in keeping with the previous thousand years of Arab history.
And yet for many in the Arab world, the last hundred years of history when the Arab states have been largely divided has begun to take an intellectual precedence over the previous thousand years during which the Arab world’s greatest achievements were made. The reality is that it is not religious sectarianism, divides in dialects or local customs that have led to far too many Arabs thinking that their historically united lands should be divided. Nor is it the presence of non-Arab groups within the historic Arab space that have precluded a unity. Indeed under the Arab Caliphates non-Arab minorities tended to be treated exceptionally well compared with the status of minorities in Europe. This was particularly true of non-Arab Orthodox Christians and Jews, both of which were treated exceedingly poorly by the Catholic regimes of early modern Europe.
While exceptions to the spirit of unity have always existed, it was the exceptional nature of such instances which served to contrast with the unbroken holistic identity of a wider Arab world where regional and local realities existed harmoniously under a single sovereign entity.
The reality therefore is that it is the immense wealth in parts of the Arab world that has precluded unity. Today, a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon exists wherein the Arabs living in wealthy artificially created states have no desire to share this wealth with their fellow Arabs, while Arabs from poor artificially created nation-states have adopted a self-defeating attitude wherein they think that the wealthy Arabs have attained their material status because they have in turn surrendered the most refined elements of high Arab culture.
Both the arrogant attitude of the Arab rich and the parochial attitude of the Arab poor serves not the needs of the wider Arab world but only the interests of foreign powers who can exploit these artificial schisms for their own economic and strategic gains. Making matters worse, while the solution to sectarianism problems (both real and imagined) throughout large Arab states is not further division and Balkanisation but further unity as I laid out in a piece arguing for a political union between Syria and Iraq, many continue to argue for further political divisions. Such voices are seemingly unaware that small states, no matter how wealthy are ultimately vulnerable to foreign manipulation and invasion far more readily than large and militarily mighty powers. With a population of over 400 million, a united Arab state would be able to pool not only its wealth but its military strength and become a force to be reckoned with rather than a series of small and medium sized nations to be perpetually exploited. Indeed such a united Arab nation would be smaller than China and India in terms of population but larger than the United States.
While the Arab world remains a place of cultural pride, in a political sense, many Arab leaders and many more Arab scholars have adopted the attitude of those who intrinsically detest the Arab world. In this sense, it is important for Arabs to turn the mirror the other way and in so doing derive wisdom from those commenting on the disunity of the Arab world from a foreign or even cynical perspective. In the film Lawrence of Arabia, a romanticised account of the Arab Revolt of 1916-1918, the figure of T.E. Lawrence as portrayed by director David Lean framed an argument for a revitalised self-governing Arab unity in a moment of personal disgust by saying the following,
“So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel, as you are”.
This quote from a western film is tragically accurate in portraying not the realities of modern Arab culture, but the realities of the modern political state of the Arab world. Indeed, in the final decades of his life, one of the Arab world’s most eloquent proponents of unity, Muammar Gaddaf said much the same. After trying for years to unite the Arab world only to find that his revolutionary nation would be betrayed again and again by fellow Arab rulers, Gaddafi gave up on his Arabs and turned instead towards the rest of Africa in a push for a pan-African unity that at least in an economic sense may well happen prior to any real Arab unity, even though the Arab world could theoretically unite far more easily than the wider African world. Gaddafi stated as early as the late 1970s,
“The times of Arab nationalism and unity are gone forever. These ideas which mobilized the masses are only a worthless currency. Libya has had to put up with too much from the Arabs for whom it has poured forth both blood and money”.
If Gaddafi himself gave up on Arab unity, it is difficult for non-Arab observers to see the Arab world as anything other than hopeless and helpless. Indeed, until the Arab world unites of its own accord, it will be both hopeless, helpless and increasingly useless to itself. This is the tragic reality that contemporary Arab leaders have created. In doing so, these myopic Arab leaders have spread the venom of disunity among their people with more fervour and tenacity than any foreigner, including the Israelis could ever hope to do. In this sense the Arab world has been well and truly improvised by a sense of lethargy, greed and myopia in spite of its vast wealth and potential in every sense of those words.