When the first interaction between the East and West took place in the 18th century during Napoleon Bonaparte’s French campaign targeting Egypt and then, Syria, the “Arab World” did not exist as we now know it. Back then, Arabic-speaking regions were an integral part of the larger Islamic empire led by a Constantinople-based Ottoman caliph. Today, we ask “why did they move forward, while we moved backwards?”
The “renaissance questions” are asked to all Muslims, including Arabs, to the Muslim collective mind, not just the Arab one. Therefore, it is clear why the Lebanese Shakib Arslan (the Prince of Eloquence)’s book “Why Muslims Lagged Behind and Others Progressed” held this title. This reinforces the notion of this question’s direction towards religion.
Religious reform was presented as the sole direction toward renaissance and progression. However, this area had expanded massively in parallel directions, especially since the rise of nationalism in Europe in the mid-19th century. This led to the emergence of nationalist movements that succeeded in building nationalist states and uniting multiple European fighting emirates into countries such as Italy and Germany.
The nationalist European effect reached not only Arab students of Europe, but also the Turkish who started a nationalist “Turanism” movement aiming at uniting all Turkish peoples. In parallel, the Turkification movement intensified and called for limiting high-level positions in the Empire to Turkish people only and excluding all other ethnicities that lived within the Empire’s borders including Arabs.
Both the nationalist European movement and the Turanism and Turkification movements created an incubating environment for an Arab nationalist movement. Arab nationalism believes the mutual history and culture of Arabic-speaking peoples are the basis for an independent nation with the right to its united and independent state.
A pioneer group of intellectuals emerged including Sati’ al-Husri, Zaki Al-Arsuzi, Izzat Darwaza, and many others who had an immense impact on reshaping the Arab awareness and establishing Arab nationalist movements that led to the Arab Revolt during the first World War. The Arab Revolt liberated the Arab World from the then-dying Ottoman Empire and prepared for a united Arab state. Despite its failure, the Revolt led to a continually evolving Arab nationalist ideology with an obvious impact in many Arab countries. Currently, it is the most widespread political ideology in the Arab World, especially after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt pushed it during the 50s and 60s.
Arab nationalism focused on proving a notion promoting the belonging of all Arabic-speaking peoples to one Arab nation and that Arab peoples’ awareness of their united destiny is what will enable them to force it on their rulers despite their resistance to it. It believes that a united Arab state is the only chance for the Arab nations’ renaissance and progression.
The movement reached great strength during Gamal Abdel Nasser’s ruling and succeeded in achieving the political union between Egypt and Syria in 1958 into the United Arab Republic. Back then, the movement began heading towards defining factors and requirements to realize the shift from the ideology and dream into a reality. A few theories emerged such as the one focusing on one great Arab state boosting Arab unity and awareness rather than happening as a result of Arab awareness. This state would have been Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Unfortunately, the fall of the United Arab Republic after less than four years and the shake Nasser’s regime received after its loss against Israel led Arab nationalists to reconsider and refocus. The movement focused on issues that emerged from reality such as the relationship between democracy and nationalism and others. Dozens of questions arose such as “Could Arab nationalism be achieved through high-level decisions rather than the peoples’ will?” “Does unity’s sustainability require peoples’ involvement in decision-making?” “Is the Egyptian-Syrian model the correct one or should unity take place gradually including a few countries and then expanding towards art and economic unity, and finally, political unity?”
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s sudden death and Anwar El-Sadat’s takeover after him had massive effects on the Arab nationalism movement on at least two levels:
First: El-Sadat set members of the Muslim Brotherhood free and allowed them to resume political activity. He believed that was important for realizing his vision and that his collaboration with them would dismantle Nasser’s political and social legacy that hindered his efforts to achieve political change internally and externally. Not only he allowed Islamists to resume activity, but he even incited against them which weakened the nationalist movement and caused doubts about its worth. Islamists do not believe nationalism could be the basis for a nation regardless of the mutual history and culture, and rather consider that shared religion, specifically Islam, is the core of a united nation. They do not believe Arab states existed prior to Islam and subsequently, Arab nationalism or unity. Instead, they uphold the prospect of an Islamic nation uniting the people under an Islamic Caliphate. The opposing positions led to what is known as the identity conflict in the Arab world.
Second: El-Sadat visited Jerusalem in November 1977, initiating Egypt’s withdrawal from the Arab-Israeli conflict with a peace treaty signed in march 1979. This move had a great impact on the Palestinian cause, Arab’s main cause and demonstration of the live threat to the Arab nation. The Zionist project aiming for a Jewish state expanding between the Nile and Euphrates is a threat to the whole Arab world, not only Palestine. This created a new issue regarding Palestine’s place within the Arab nationalist project on the intellectual and movement level and new questions arose such as “Is Arab unity required to fight the mutual threat of the Zionist project? Or does the Palestinian case concern the Palestinian people only?”
In conclusion, the emergence of the nationalist ideology as a thought and movement complicated the question of the “renaissance”. At least for the pioneer generation of thinkers, the renaissance question was concerned with catching up with progression and religious reform that requires the eradication of myths clouding the understanding of religion. However, there are now additional factors relevant to the relationship of the renaissance with identity matter, Arab unity, democracy, social justice, and others. In the coming articles, we will scrutinize these factors indicidually.