Published in the Huffington Post on Feb. 22, 2012.
In his 1999 book, The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami examines how Arab nationalism — a secular concept which advocates Arab unity via language and culture — not religion — went into decline following the 1967 War, the 1973 War and the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. In the 1950s and ’60s, the popular, charismatic and gifted orator Gamal Abdel Nasser, guided Arab nationalism. He served as the undisputed leader of the Arab world and inspired a generation of Arabs to believe that unity could be an attainable vision.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, Arabism suffered a major setback, and went into decline. Several self-proclaimed Arab nationalists surfaced including Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. All vied to be Nasser’s successor as spokesperson for the Arab people, but failed miserably by relying primarily on brute force and oppression.
Since the 1980s, political Islam, or Islamism, became the most potent ideology to replace secular Arabism. Islam — not Marxism, socialism, nor liberalism or nationalism — is the only authentic ideology indigenous to the Arab world. Unlike the West, the Arab world has not undergone a reformation separating religion and state, and religion continues to play a major role in Arab society. To be sure, Arab regimes perceive Marxist, socialist, liberal, secular and progressive opposition parties as a threat, but mosques, have traditionally enjoyed a degree of autonomy. This autonomy and the rapid rise of madrasas has helped facilitate the rise of Islamist parties throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Despite the rise of Islamism in the past two decades, self-proclaimed champions of secular Arab nationalism maintained power in Iraq, Libya and Syria. However, the popular uprisings in the Arab Spring have eroded the last vestiges of Arabism. Saddam is long gone and Gaddafi has recently been killed. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, while not champions of secularism or Arabism, repressed Islamists for years. Now, Islamists are the ruling parties in both Tunisia and Egypt. Assad’s Syria, long the self-styled bastion of Arabism, is brutally suppressing anti-regime protests. Even if Assad manages to remain in power, his regime has been badly shaken, and will most certainly be forced to make major power sharing concessions.
On Feb. 12, Libyans in Benghazi demonstrated their hatred against Gaddafi’s regime by destroying a statue of Nasser. This symbolic act not only underscored Libya’s intentions to eradicate traces of their former leader, but illustrates the impact Islam plays in new governments from the Arab Spring. For many in Libya, Nasser’s secular philosophy is no longer viewed as a relevant, unifying force, but as archaic, flawed and ineffective.
Islamists will guide new regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, yet Nasser’s legacy will never completely die out. Nasser sympathizers and advocates of Arab nationalism remain largely confined to the older generation and intellectuals. Yet some youthful protestors proudly displayed Nasser’s portrait during the Egyptian Revolution in January 2011 and on the one year anniversary last month. Nonetheless, new Arab regimes will be dominated by Islamists, not secular Arab nationalists, and it remains to be seen how these Islamists will view democracy, reform and governance — the three issues secular Arab nationalists were unable to deliver.