Pan-Arabism – the only sensible way forward

Published on 1 March 2012 in Opinion
2012 Linda S. Heard / Gulf News / Feb. 28 (author)

2012 Linda S. Heard / Gulf News / Feb. 28


A powerful, united and determined Arab world could pressure America to get serious about a Palestinian state.

Last Tuesday, I read Faisal Al-Qasim's column, titled Pan-Arabism used to divide and rule, with interest as the concepts of Arab nationalism and the emergence of an Arab nation are variously considered by many modern-day Arabs to be old-fashioned, stupidly idealistic, undesirable or simply unworkable.

Although Al-Qasim tackled the topic by citing some of pan-Arabism's proponents – Iraq's former president Saddam Hussain, Libya's former leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as "deviated individuals" who "called for unifying the Arab world into a single entity" whereas "in actual fact they were separatist rulers", he failed to clarify his view of pan-Arabism in principle.

I've no intention of putting words in Al-Qasim's mouth, but as the host of Al-Jazeera's Opposite Direction, during which he spends much of his time waving his arms around to keep Arab guests from going for one another's throats, I can understand if he believes Arab unity is a lost cause. It may be, but, to my mind, it is something all Arabs should believe in and strive for.

The dictators Al-Qasim refers to were, indeed, sectarian or tribal and they all used brutal tactics to rule. But that doesn't mean they weren't sincere Arab nationalists. Saddam and Gaddafi were of the same mold as Egypt's former president Jamal Abdul Nasser who, in 1958, succeeded in unifying his country with Syria under the banner of the United Arab Republic.

Nasser worked hard to further the Palestinian cause, even to the extent of going to war and he stood firmly with Algerians in their struggle to oust the French. Gaddafi was inspired by Nasser's dream of a unified Arab nation and in 1972 he spearheaded the "Federation of Arab Republics" – a union between Libya, Egypt and Syria – that failed to get off the ground and, in 1974, he worked unsuccessfully to join Libya with Tunisia.

For his efforts, Nasser was universally adored from Casablanca to Sana'a. Gaddafi isn't exactly the flavor of the year and neither is Al-Assad. The way they were prepared to sacrifice their own people to cling on to power is abhorrent, but it isn't right to say that they used pan-Arabism to divide and rule. In any case, pan-Arabism shouldn't be judged on the basis of its advocates in the same way that religion ought not to be criticized due to the actions of some misguided believers.

The fact is that the Arab world – if, indeed, such an entity still exists – has rarely been as splintered as it is now, as evidenced by the divisions in the Arab League over Syria and Iran. There are great disparities in GDP and standards of living – and chasms between liberals and conservatives and systems of governance. The youth of the Middle East and North Africa region wave their respective country's flag and listen to patriotic songs but rarely proclaim themselves to be proud Arabs.

Family-oriented culture

Arab traditions are being watered down to make way for western-imported lifestyles. In some countries, traditional dress has almost disappeared along with time-consuming dishes, cast aside because kids prefer burgers and French fries.

It bothers me to see young Arabs aspiring to become western clones when, if they only knew it, their own family-oriented culture of respect, hospitality and generosity is rich and should be preserved. Superficially, Arabs may not have a lot in common nowadays but that culture is rooted in all Arab lands along with a shared language and faith-based societal mores.

When Arab Spring states are undergoing transition and no one knows how Syria will look six months from now, the idea of a unified Arab bloc may sound ridiculous. But when the dust has settled, Arab leaders should hold a conference, to revisit pan-Arabism/Arab nationalism to decide once and for all whether closer cooperation would be beneficial for all or whether Nasser's grand plan should be filed in the dustbin of history.

Like it or not, from a geopolitical standpoint big is beautiful. It took two world wars for Europe to cotton on. The Nato alliance of countries from North America and Europe has afforded protection to all and the EU club provides even the smallest of its European members with international clout as well as a financial cushion. Likewise, English-speaking nations, such as the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, all very different, usually band together when one faces aggression.

If Arabs could pool resources and invest in one another's countries there wouldn't be a single Arab child wondering where his or her next meal is coming from. If there had been a pan-Arab army when former US president George W. Bush moved into the White House, Iraq wouldn't have been invaded and, it's likely Al-Assad would have packed his suitcases months ago. Moreover, a powerful, united and determined Arab world with every country pulling in the same direction could lean on Washington to get serious about a Palestinian state.

The bottom line is "united we stand, divided we fall". For the sake of this region's prosperity, security and stability, I hope the Arab condition isn't defined by the words of the American comedic actress Lily Tomlin who once memorably said: "We are all in this together, by ourselves."

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs.