It’s an Arab Nationalist Thing

Osama’s Islamism and Saddam’s Baathism are more alike than you think.

Zarqawi pledges allegiance

Earlier this week, in a statement posted on a jihadist Web site, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi pledged allegiance to Osama Bin Laden. This raises an interesting question: Was Zarqawi always affiliated with Bin Laden and only lately formalized their ongoing arrangement? Or does it mean that up until now there was no alliance at all, except in the imaginations of Bush administration officials eager to establish ties between Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein? Remember that Colin Powell argued in front of the United Nations that since Zarqawi was an al-Qaida figure who had set up house in Baghdad in the spring of 2002, Saddam and Bin Laden were therefore connected.

According to a recent poll, a staggering 42 percent of Americans (down from 70 percent last year) believe that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. While Donald Rumsfeld recently explained that there was no evidence to support such a claim, critics of the White House argue that people believe it because government officials told them so. Many analysts and journalists claim it was preposterous for the Bush administration to suggest that there could ever be any connection between an Arab nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist. After all, as one is secular and the other religious, they are natural enemies. A cobra would sooner consort with a mongoose than a stalwart jihadist like Bin Laden collaborate with a dyed-in-the-wool Baathist like Saddam.

This line of thinking, that Arab nationalism and Islamism are irreconcilable, is forcefully expressed in a recent Anatol Lieven article in The Nation. Among other things, the piece is a nasty attack on Paul Berman’s Terror and Liberalism, which, writes Lieven, is “historically illiterate and strategically pernicious” for its “suggestion that secular radical Arab nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism are essentially similar phenomena.” Let’s see if they’re not.

The earliest incarnations of both Arab nationalism and Islamism appeared in the mid-19th century, and both were reactions to the West’s renewed presence in the Middle East. Western powers like France and England directly threatened the Ottoman Empire’s control of the region, which concerned many Muslims who had no desire to be ruled by infidel outsiders. Still, they recognized how far Islam lagged behind its historical rival the West and called for a return to the faith’s earliest principles, before the Ottomans had set Islam on its spiraling downward course. These were the salafis, Muslim reformers whose ideal Islam was that of the prophet and his companions and the righteous forefathers. These 19th- and 20th-century intellectuals inspired the Islamist movement.

At the same time, there were other activists and ideologues, Muslims and Christians, who wanted to secure their political independence from the Ottomans and used the Western powers to achieve it. These were the Arab nationalists. They reasoned that if shared language and history made England, France, and Germany nations, then the Arabs were also a nation. However, as Elie Kedourie wrote in Islam in the Modern World, “[T]o define the Arab nation in terms of its history is—sooner rather than later—to come upon the fact that Islam originated among the Arabs, was revealed in Arabic to an Arab prophet.” Hence, “Arab nationalism,” Kedourie explained, “affirms a fundamental unbreakable link between Islam and Arabism.” (Here’s an essay on the same subject, with a collection of quotes from Arab writers agreeing with Kedourie that Arabism and Islam are one and the same.)

So, why do people believe that Arab nationalism and Islam are opposed? Kedourie showed that it was the nationalists themselves who spread the idea. Among other things, they were “aware that their Western patrons and protectors looked with fear and aversion on Islam as a political force.” The result is that the misunderstanding lives on, which is why analysts have been at great pains to itemize, mistakenly, the differences between, say, Baathism and Islamism.

In his article, Lieven writes that Baath Party founder Michael ‘Aflaq’s conception of Arab nationalism was “secular and modernizing. He believed religion, whether Islamic or Christian, had no place in Arab politics.”

’Aflaq was a Christian (although he is rumored to have converted to Islam before his death), but as Joshua Landis, a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma specializing in Syria, explains in his Weblog, ‘Aflaq believed that the Baath Party “would never appeal to the broad masses of the Sunni heartland without making it perfectly clear that Baathism was not secular or based on earthly truths. … He directed non-Muslim Arabs to ‘attach themselves to Islam and to the most precious element of their Arabness, the Prophet Muhammad,’ for he was the greatest Arab nationalist.”

So, if Baathism is neither secular nor disdainful of Islam in particular, what about Islamism? Are the Islamists contemptuous of ideologies that value the nation rather than religion? Many people argue, along with Lieven, that the “central allegiance” of Islamist radicals is not to Arabs alone, but “to the idea of the undivided umma, or transnational community of all … Muslims.”

Since the Quran itself reminds us at least six times that Allah has revealed to Muhammad an “Arabic Quran,” with the result that many Muslims believe a translation of the holy text is no longer the true Quran, it’s clear that the Arabic language is central to Muslim history and theology. And, because the prophet and his companions and their righteous followers were almost exclusively Arabs, Muslims are accustomed to holding the Arabs as a nation in high regard as well. In fact, the early 20th-century salafi Rashid Rida had a particular reason for putting the Arabs front and center. He believed that since the Ottoman caliphate had, among its other faults, overseen the decline of the Arabic language and exposed the umma to the depredations of the West, the Turks were responsible for Islam’s current weakened state. The only way to rectify the situation was to restore the Arabs to the privileged place they held when Islam was at its strongest.

Rida, a Syrian who moved to Cairo, where he became one of the earliest and most important influences on the Muslim Brotherhood, is one of the intellectual fathers of the Islamist movement. Today, we should recognize the very powerful Arab component in Bin Laden’s jihadist international, which, according to some analysts, represents “a global resurgence of Arab influence on the back of the call to Islam.” While there have reportedly been non-Arabs in al-Qaida’s operational hierarchy, the members of Bin Laden’s inner circle are Arabic speakers, as have been the movement’s leading ideologues, Sayyid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

In short, Baathism and Islamism are more similar than dissimilar. Sure, there are differences—the former draws its influences more specifically from Western modes of thought, the latter from patently Muslim contexts—but, as Landis writes, “like the Salafis, the early Ba’thists argued that to revive the eternal spirit of the Arab world, Arabs had to return to their roots, which ‘Aflaq insisted was an Arab Islamic message.”

Both ideas were forged in the flames of the Muslim world’s 19th- and 20th-century engagement with the West; and both are illiberal, or antiliberal, in that the rights of the individual are put aside in favor of a group identity that is defined both positively—in terms of language, history, and religion—and negatively, against the West and other outsiders.

But if the enmity between the two camps is not due to differences in ideology, how do we explain, as Lieven writes, “the ferocious persecution in the past of the Islamists in Baathist Syria and Iraq, and the bitter hatred between the Baath and the fundamentalists”?

Of course Saddam persecuted Islamists, just as he went after anyone who challenged him or the legitimacy of his regime. He also butchered Kurds, Shiites, and other Baathists. Syrian Baathist Hafez Assad destroyed the city of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, not because he was picking on the town’s fanatical Sunni element, but because the Brotherhood threatened his power and had tried to kill him. Still, like his son Bashar today, Hafez used Islamist terror when it was in his interests, which was only when it was outside his country.

Conversely, most Islamists certainly hate Saddam, but they hate every living leader of an Arab state, from Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak. Islamists think Arab leaders are not “real” Muslims because their governance does not live up to the mythical standard of the prophet’s Medina; they are seen as Western stooges, even if they are not; and they treat their subjects cruelly, especially Islamists, who, by the way, want to kill those leaders. Still, none of that stops Islamists from working with, or taking money from, those same apostate chiefs of state when it suits their purposes. For that matter, they’ll even take handouts from Americans, as they did in the Afghan jihad against the Soviets.

So, does all this mean that Bin Laden and Saddam really worked together? Certainly the two of them are smart enough to have avoided leaving a paper trail documenting any joint projects if they did, and we should be suspicious of any such records that might turn up in the future. A recent report criticizes officials at the Pentagon (whose response is here) for trying to establish a dubious relationship between the two. Presumably, any material connection would only be icing on the cake for the Bush administration’s ideologues. To them, decapitating an Arab regime was a blow against radical Arab politics generally, Islamism and nationalism alike.

This seems to be why Lieven thinks Berman’s argument is “strategically pernicious.” It “justifies the most dangerous aspect of the Bush Administration’s approach to the war on terrorism: the lumping together of radically different elements in the Muslim world into one homogeneous enemy camp.” Of course, just because Baathism and Islamism are very similar phenomena doesn’t mean that invading Iraq was the only strategic choice available to the White House, or those like Berman who seem to agree with Washington’s decision. Just as our government has ill-served the American people by habitually failing to explain its reasoning, then it is all the more important that journalists and intellectuals build constructively on each other’s work to articulate and understand difficult and complex ideas. Regardless of the historical connections between Islamism and Arab nationalism, it’s possible to make a very good argument against the administration’s conduct of the war on terror—but it’s hard to see the virtue of making one based on a faulty understanding.