The easiest way for most people to deal with the Middle East is to mock it, show it contempt, or ignore it. This is understandable because, even at the best of times, the Arabs come across as a rather unpleasant bunch; while untangling just what is going on in the Middle East is about as inviting as unravelling a rats’ nest.
But the Arab world is an interesting case study in the uses and abuses of nationalism, and something that can shine a little light on the greater problems of nationalism, including White nationalism. For that reason alone it is something well worth exploring.
Right now ISIS is the centre of attention, which also means it is inevitably the centre of incomprehension. There are two main theories about ISIS that crop up:
(1) ISIS is an Islamic force
(2) ISIS is not an Islamic force
Both views are relatively simple. They are meant for mass consumption so they have to be. The first one points to ISIS’s projected image, what ISIS says about itself, and its brutal imposition of something called Shariah Law. This is often backed up by direct quotes from the Koran to demonstrate that ISIS are actually acting out the word of ‘the Prophet, and being “good Muslims.”
This viewpoint tends to be favoured by some Conservatives, Christians, Jews, and White Nationalists, and also by Neocons and those would-be savants who have totally bought into Samuel P. Huntingdon’s Clash of Civilizations schtick, along with the complementary DVD, featuring bloopers and outtakes.
The second view, which is the hegemonic one, is that ISIS is not an Islamic force (I have italicized the ‘not’ because it is usually said with a certain tension and overemphasis). According to this view, ISIS are just bad seeds, psychos, naughty boys, etc., who falsely claim to be Muslims, because most Muslims are, after all, very, very nice people, and Islam is the “Religion of Peace,” etc., etc.
A false dichotomy like this is usually constructed to keep people busy so that the true story is obfuscated. Naturally, both of these main theories are about as reliable as a three-legged camel on a long desert crossing. ISIS is not not Islamic, but neither is it truly Islamic. Rather it is only Islamic in a superficial sense.
As Dota’s recent article Enter the Muslims pointed out, Islam is less a cultural essence and more of a ritualistic veneer. Duns Scotus article Ideology is Not a Thing made the same wider point about Islam and other ideologies:
“The value system of something as large, complex, and powerful as the West or any other empire will never come from musty books and cloistered academics, but instead from trade systems, consumption patterns, and geopolitical power balances. If sticking a label on aspects of this is temporarily expedient, then names like ‘Liberalism,’ ‘Marxism,’ ‘Cultural Marxism,’ or even ‘Islam’ may be appended, but, underneath, quite different mechanisms do their work.
Islam is a good example of the protean aspects of ideology. It essentially got its start not as ‘the faith of the true believers,’ but as a rather sleazy device for uniting the desert tribes to take full advantage of the massive mutual weakening that the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires had been inflicting on each other for decades beforehand. The faith or ideology of Islam would have had no traction otherwise, and in the face of two healthy empires able to repel them, the tribes would have cheerfully returned to slitting each other’s throats. It was plunder that built Islam, and when the plunder ran out, it went into a protracted period of abeyance. Its recent revival since 1967 as a supposed ‘ideological force’ has much to do with the expediences of asymmetrical warfare for which its tribal origins give it some utility and its convenience as a channeling device for second-generation immigrant ressentiment in Europe.”
Behind the rise of ISIS is not a great spiritual awakening, but a number of other factors. In its essence, ISIS is only an Islamic force if a sexually confused Western tumblrista ranting about “cisgenderist privilege” and “oppression” is recognized as a Marxist. In both cases, both are just using ideology and religion to dress up more mundane concerns and motivations.
But while the sexually confused Western tumblrista is merely trying to cope with a plummeting ego, ISIS is a bastardized expression of the nationalist identity and interests of Sunni Arabs. In all its deformity, the movement is simply filling a gap that should more correctly be filled by a healthy form of Arab nationalism.
The Rise of Baathism
In the past, there have been potent forms of Arab nationalism. The uprising against the Ottoman Turks in WWI famously depicted in David Lean’s sweeping epic Lawrence of Arabia was such an expression, as were the Nasserite state of Egypt and the Baathist states of Syria and Iraq. Baathism (literally ‘Resurrectionism’) is particularly important, as it formed the template of Arab Nationalism that Arab leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, and even Yasser Arafat, drew upon.
Developing in the 1930s, Baathism was a blending of nationalist and socialist ideas that was designed to liberate Arabs from both the past in the guise of Islamic traditionalism and the present in the guise of the colonial and post-colonial powers of Britain, France, and later America.
It grew out of the ideas of Zaki al-Arsuzi (1899-1968), a Syrian Arab from an Alawi Shiite background, Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), a Syrian-born Greek, and Salah ad-Din al-Bitar (1912-1980), a Syrian Arab of Sunni background.
It is very significant that the principal minds behind the genesis of this movement all came from distinct cultural backgrounds within the wider Arab World. This led them to de-emphasize the specificity of culture and sect, and to create a more abstract vision of Arab Nationalism.
This is something that has obvious relevance to the ongoing debate in alternative right circles about the best path for White nationalism to follow. Here, there is a split between those, like Richard Spencer, who favour an all-embracing, White nationalism, based on a common race and similar experience of multiculturalism, and those like Greg Johnson, who believe that nationalism happens at a more specific national or even tribal level.
Just as Arsuzi, Aflaq, and Bitar favoured an all-embracing, but necessarily more abstract form of Arab Nationalism, in order to transcend differences within the Arab world, and which defined itself in opposition to the colonial system, so Spencer emphasizes a similar strain of White nationalism aimed at transcending the sort of petty divisions that European nationalist parties like Jobbik represent with their revanchist claims.
Johnson takes the opposite view, expressed in his recent article Grandiose Nationalism, in which he highlights the inherent contradictions of an overarching White nationalism that demands division but also unity:
“Whenever White Nationalists speak of multiracial societies, we stress that forcing different races to live in the same political system is a recipe for tension, hatred, and conflict. But this truth applies to different European peoples as well. All forms of ethnic diversity within the same political system cause weakness and conflict. Thus political unification would actually heighten rather than ease tensions between European peoples.”
For Europeans like me, it is easy to imagine how such a “grandiose” vision could play out – namely by aggregating power to certain groups of Whites, while marginalizing others. A unified White world, for example, would probably end up being dominated by White America – and the WASP part at that! – leading to inevitable resentments. A unified White Europe would probably be dominated by Germany or Russia, which would hardly please the English, French, or even the Belarusians. Even a united Britain is problematic, considering the justified pride of the Scots and, to a lesser extent, the Irish and the Welsh.
Johnson also points out that all the real energy in nationalism today is in so-called “petty” nationalism, suggesting that the more abstracted form of “grandiose” White Nationalism would simply dilute the nationalist impulse and weaken enthusiasm for the idea.
In its essentials, this debate raises very similar issues to those raised by the history of Baathism.
Early Arab nationalists de-emphasised the cultural and religious divisions in the Arab World, most notably that between Sunnis and Shiites. For Europeanized and educated men like Arsuzi, Aflaq, and Bitar, who had all studied abroad and lived with the example of Turkey modernizing and reviving itself by moving away from its Islamic culture, disregarding religious and sectarian factors seemed the way forward. In the heyday of Arab nationalism, in the 1950s and 60s, there was even a hope of unifying Egypt (Sunni majority with large Coptic minority), Syria (Sunni with large Shiite minority) and North Yemen (Shiite majority) in a greater Arab federation. At the same time, the Iraqi branch of the Baath party was also in the ascendant.
The Fall of Baathism
So, why did Arab Nationalism fail so abysmally? There seem to be three main factors:
(1) A failure to recognize and deal with significant cultural division lines within the Arab World.
(2) The promotion by the West of anti-nationalist forces.
(3) The effective inferiority and demoralization of the Arabs.
Given the present, deeply dysfunctional situation of all Middle Eastern states that have large numbers of both Sunnis and Shiites (Iraq, Syria, and Yemen), the first factor cannot be emphasized enough. Whatever one wishes to say about the Machiavellian or Mephistophelian power of Israel (or the US State Department) to foment riot, chaos, and revolution in its chosen targets, the most stable Islamic states tend to be those that are overwhelmingly of one sect or the other.
In addition to this destabilizing factor that Baathism failed to address, the second and third factors also had considerable influence. The reason that Baathism had such an appeal with Arab intellectuals, as well as the Arab Street, was because the Arab world was such a backward place. In most respects it still is.
In the same way that Fascism was sometimes seen as a means for states like Italy, Germany, and Japan, which felt disadvantaged by the international system, to gain parity with the leading colonial or continental powers, like Britain and France, Russia or America, so Baathism held out the hope of uniting and lifting up the Arabs, while also greatly improving living standards.
Arab nationalism derived its initial strength and popularity from this backwardness, and the hopes that it gave rise to, but such backwardness also provided materials that the enemies of Arab Nationalism – Britain, France, Israel, and the United States – could use.
The main methods for countering Arab Nationalism were naturally enough pioneered by the British, who, after 1918, became the dominant power in the Middle East. These methods consisted of promoting Islam and tribal monarchy, both of which were seen as rather docile and conservative forces, as well as encouraging localism and occasionally fomenting divisions. The creation of Jewish settlements in Palestine could even be viewed in this light. These tactics were later inherited and augmented by the Americans.
The over-generalized, rather abstract nature of Baathist Arab nationalism was partially a response to Britain’s divide-and-rule tactics of supporting small, disparate, politically weak, and backward-looking monarchical states. While many of these monarchies were later toppled, including those in Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958), North Yemen (1962), and Libya (1969), those in the all-important Gulf region, buoyed by oil revenues and Western military expertise, managed to survive. In some respects Saddam Hussein’s extremely ill-timed invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – just as the Cold War ended– was the last chapter in that saga.
But even where such petty monarchies fell, a policy of discouraging Pan-Arab unification was successfully followed. Unions between Egypt and Syria and Egypt and Yemen quickly broke down, as local interests came to the fore.
An important feature in the geopolitical architecture of the region was of course the creation of the state of Israel. At the very same time that the West was doing all it could to deflect and discourage Arab nationalism, it was also inserting a massive amount of Jewish nationalism into the Middle East through its support of Israel. This in turn provoked an Arab nationalist response, but, strategically, Israel, along with the continuation of the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, served to geld Arab nationalism.
The state of Israel serves very effectively as a dagger, cutting the Arab world in two – Arabia and the Levant on one side; Egypt and the Maghreb on the other. By controlling the oil through the petty Gulf monarchies, the West took away the key economic resource of the Greater Arab World, and prevented it from being used to create a modern and powerful Arab state.
This greatly weakened Arab nationalism and fed into the third factor: the effective inferiority of the Arabs. One strength and possible weakness of nationalism is the factor of morale that is connected to the belief in the superiority of one’s own group.
The belief of Arab Nationalists had been greatly buoyed by the victories they had enjoyed in tandem with the British Empire against the formerly invincible Turks. The relentless series of defeats they then suffered against the Israelis from 1948 onwards, ate into their sense of secular pride. This not only weakened nationalist élan, but also prepared the way for a swing back to a belief system, like Islam, that downplays effective results, and instead allocates status on the arbitrary basis of “spiritual purity” and the “will of Allah.”
For a nationalist, to see his people crushed in battle is at best dispiriting, but at worst it calls his whole belief system into question. For a religionist, however, it is merely “fate” and their God choosing to use the “infidels” to chastise his “chosen people” in preparation for final victory and the eschatological utopia.
From the corpse of Arab nationalism, killed on the battlefields of the Six-Days War and Yom Kippur, the spirit of Islamism arose like a malarial miasma to hover over the region until events further East – the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the holy war of the Mujhadeen in Afghanistan – and then the defeat of Saddam Hussein helped to bring it to realisation.
But another important factor in the collapse of Arab nationalism was its abuse by sectarian minorities. In Syria, the Baathist party became dominated by the Alawite minority, while in Iraq exactly the same thing happened, but with a different minority. This allowed these minorities to establish dominance over their respective states and use a generic form of Arab nationalism as a means of entrenching their sectarian interests. Why was Baathism so prone to this?
The simple answer is because Baathism failed to take account of “petty differences,” but these “petty differences” did not fail to take account of Baathism.
By remaining abstract, and failing to define its group in precise terms, Baathism opened itself up to co-option by sectarian minorities, rather in the same way that Western societies and social media are dominated, or least disproportionately influenced, by certain minorities.
The economist and social scientist Mancur Olson outlined part of the problem in his book The Rise and Decline of Nations, in which he explained why minorities tend to be more politically active than majorities. This is because of the “free rider problem,” as Mike Newland explained in an article on Olson published here:
“An individual…pursuing any…cause concerning millions has little inducement to get involved. His time risk and trouble may be great and yet if successful he will only enjoy the tiniest proportion of the gains to the group as a whole. Why not ‘let George do it’, as Olson says, then sit back and enjoy the benefits having contributed nothing.”
Coupled to this is the fact that minorities tend to have much greater ethnic consciousness than majorities. It is often said on the alternative right that anything that is not explicitly pro-White will eventually become anti-White. There is a great deal of truth in this, as long as Whites are the dominant demographic. We see a similar process at work in the co-option of the Syrian and Iraqi Baathist parties by Alawites in Syria and by the Sunnis in Iraq.
The solution for Baathism would have been to define more precisely the group that the movement was to represent and embody. For example, if it had clearly defined itself as a movement of racial Arabs of Sunni culture in a precise area – say Arabia and the Levant – then its hijacking by minorities and side-tracking into unproductive efforts would not have occurred. In such a case, Iraq’s Shiite Arabs and the Alawites of Syria would also have known where they stood, and would have had to develop distinct political solutions that suited their needs.
An over-generic form of White Nationalism throws up many of the same problems, namely a wide movement that serves narrow interests. The best way forward for White nationalism, therefore, is to channel itself through specific organic nationalisms that people can actually feel connected to and be passionate about, while, at the same time, White nationalist leaders should endeavour to create a network of alliances that harmonize White interests and create a generally agreed framework for resolving disputes and addressing external threats. If Arab nationalism had been based on the same principle, it is hard to imagine Israel now existing, let alone ISIS or Saudi Arabia.
The way forward for the Arabs is clear. From the depths of their defeat and humiliation, and the pointless detour of ISIS, they have to turn back to a radical form of secular nationalism similar to Baathism, but more precise in its categories.
Perhaps one role of ISIS will be to totally discredit Islamism as a driving force in Arab political consciousness, and thus prepare the way for a renewal of secular Arab nationalism. In contrast to the wooliness of Baathism, the new Arab nationalism will have to define the group it represents much more clearly. With this as a basis, Sunni Arabs may start to gain some of the victories they have been deprived of for so long, victories which can nourish the pride that a healthy nationalism needs to flourish. Whether the Arabs will be wise enough to find this path is another question. Part of me hopes that they will, but part of me also hopes that they do not.