Sa'adeh wrote a comprehensive appraisal of Arab nationalism in which he reproached those who postulated it for their poor knowledge, and ridiculed their ideas for lack of scientific objectivity. He branded the concept as a fake and a sterile idea, a breeding ground for obstacles that impede the Arab World from achieving real unity. In one of his strongest condemnations of it, he wrote:
Arab nationalism in natural Syria is like a one-way export trade, to use an economic term: It amounts to an attrition of intellectual energies and spiritual activities that expends a considerable practical and material effort for no return. It leads to a losing of reality in delusory psychological currents and in an ocean of illusions.(1)
On another occasion, Sa'adeh warned of the dangers to be found in connecting Syrian nationhood to Arabism of this type, claiming that "it was a psychological malady which deformed Syrian intelligence, perception, and logic."(2)
The core of Sa'adeh's critique of Arab nationalism consisted of three fundamental axioms. The first focused on the idea of the "Arab nation". This idea, he claimed, did not come about through self-criticism and a searching reappraisal of existing social conditions. It was rather the outcome of a premature state of mind that wanted to recreate a caricature of the past Arab-Islamic Empire, by drawing on a romantic European conception of nationalism. Accordingly, its advocates committed two grave errors: one, in the field of nationalism, by accepting that a nation is a product of its cultural characteristics; and, two, in the field of history, in failing to realize that "the Muhammadan-Arab Empire was a political and religious unity which...grew through conquests and not through the willing acceptance of those who joined it."(3)
The trouble with Arab nationalism was that it rested too heavily on speculation and suppositions. Those who believed in it could not give it syntactic or structural meaning because they measured their national ideals in singularly cultural terms. For those of this way of thinking, argued Sa'adeh, nationalism is a cause not a result: "it is an existent being which has ties that connect the masses to it in the same way that ships in the ports are hooked by ropes to the quay."(4)
In dismantling the idea of Arab nationhood, Sa'adeh followed the golden rule in nationalism; this is that national peculiarities are a product of nation formation, not vice versa. This meant:
(1) That an Arab nationhood based on the concept of a single Arab origin is a groundless myth because a nation is essentially a racial compound.
(2) That an Arab nationhood defined in linguistic terms (i.e., common Arabic) is a bogus idea because language does not cause the process of social formation, but is caused by it.
(3) That an Arab nationhood, measured in religious sense, cannot be taken seriously, because religion is not accepted as a symbol of national identity.
The hope, for example, entertained by some Arab nationalists, that the unity of the Arab World could be brought about in the same way as the unification of Germany or Italy was achieved, was dismissed by Sa'adeh as bizarre. Those who hold this attitude, he wrote, are ignorant of contexts or analogy. A simple comparison of the shape of Germany and its borders and the density of its population with those of the Arab countries would show that any analogy must be defective in the main, given the variation in the locations, potentials, and components of the two areas.(5) Recent moves towards political integration in the Arab World amply justifies this observation. "In spite of the fact that the Arabs share a common heritage in terms of language, culture, religious traditions and socio-economic institutions, their political dynamics have constantly moved in the recent past towards divergent directions and have divided them into insignificant parochial entities."(6)
The second criticism of Arab nationalism is a purely methodological one. The idea of pan-Arab unity seemed to Sa'adeh to be a mere "propaganda force" for the attainment of narrow personal and political gains. He stressed that most of Syria's communalist politicians chose it, not because it was valid or attainable, but because the Syrian common people, who retain old beliefs, are still susceptible to it. In 1934, for instance, the Syrian politician Abd al-Rahman al-Shahbander declared in the pages of al-Muqtatif that the idea of Arab unity was inconceivable under the present political and geographical arrangements, and dismissed as political nonsense the suggestion that a central Arab state could be forged from the unity of language and religion. But in 1937, when he returned to Syrian politics, he formed a party in opposition to the ruling National Bloc, and began to give public lectures contrary to his earlier views. According to Sa'adeh, Shahbander backed away from his earlier views not because he had undergone an ideological transformation, but because he realised that Arab nationalism carried a strong emotional charge.(7)In other words, the trouble was that pan-Arabism, as a political force, could rarely be separated from the state or individual interests of one protagonist or another. It was a product of a political state of mind in which the masses had not matured to the point of taking initiatives independently. In its name, politicians in Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab World, were able to qualify their behaviour by asserting today what they denied yesterday and by changing the following day the ideology they proclaimed today, without provoking a single public outburst.
The third major negative trait that Sa'adeh discovered in Arab nationalism was the most serious. Arab nationalism, he thought, was a regressive phenomenon that bolstered, rather than negated the existing sectarian and ethnic divisions in Arab countries. Each variant in it caused social alienation in one way or another: Religious Arabism appealed mainly to the Muslims and alienated those who fear Muslim domination; linguistic Arabism, though more widely accepted, alienated those who spoke another language or those who did not consider language to be an important factor in national formations; the single-origin Arabism alienated those who did not wish to think of themselves as Arabs for historic, ethnic, or religious reasons. In other words, "the attempt to create a myth of an Arab race as the basis for the creation of a united Arab state was bound to create a resistance from all those groups and communities living in the Arab world which would have felt excluded from a purely Arab political structure defined in narrow ethnic or racial or even linguistic terms."(8)
By sowing dissension, Arab nationalism gave ample chances for Western powers to "dominate and deceive" the Arab nations by cashing in on their internal weaknesses.(9) Sa'adeh did not regard this negative feature as an intentional construct. Foreign interests knew that such Arabism could not develop into a unifying political doctrine and exploited this opportunity. According to Sa'adeh, they did little to discourage its growth
...because they found it a factor that would help promote internal divisions in Syria, fan antagonisms between members of the single nation, and stimulate secessionist movements that fragment the people and the country. For the reply to the doctrine of Arabism or Arab nation among the Mohammadans was the doctrine of 'Lebanese nationalism' among the Christians and the doctrine of Druze independence among the Druze. This was the best possible outcome that could have been expected by imperialism which seized the opportunity by encouraging all the conflicting movements simultaneously.(10)
Sa'adeh was particularly critical of religious Arabism, the type that stressed Islam as a factor of Arab national assertion. He branded those who advocated it as utopians who never really understood the moving forces in society. They revealed ignorance and fanaticism unmatched any where else in the Arab World. By clinging to an absurd notion of nationalism they unconsciously "obscured the unified upsurge of [Arab] nations in their struggle to win their independence and to fulfil their true aspirations which are rooted in the spirit and temperament of each nation."(11)All three of Sa'adeh's criticisms are aspects of a single idea: Arab nationalism has no practical importance of any sort; it is a jumble of polemical suggestions and empty slogans that revolve around eclectic and shallow ideas. Its ability to perpetuate as a dominant political creed is due, in large part, to the fact that from inception, it was and continued to be, a mirror reflection of established norms and beliefs rather than an image of the objective reality. This rather negative image of Arab nationalism earned Sa'adeh the title "enemy of Arabism". Some Arab nationalists even slandered him as a "shu'bist" who never really understood the meaning and significance of the Arab spirit.(12) His doctrine was dismissed as eccentric: a minority ideology that "exalted a deviationist and chauvinistic nationalism."(13) A recent study, however, has offered a more pragmatic picture:
Pan-Syrian nationalism has two forms, the pure and the pragmatic. Purists and pragmatists differ in their view of the great ideology of the central Middle East - Pan Arab nationalism - the first rejecting it, the second accepting it. Purists seek a Greater Syrian state complete in itself without reference to a larger union. This position has been adopted by only one group, Antun Sa'adeh and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) [Sic]. Pragmatists contend that Greater Syria forms part of the Arab nation and that its creation is a stepping stone toward a Pan-Arab polity.(14)
Sa'adeh did not reject the concept of Arabism, but understood it differently from Arab nationalism. His life as a political agitator reveals a sequence of honourable stands in defense of the Arab legacy. At his first trial, in 1935, for example, he displayed a remarkable zeal for Arabic and strongly defend it as the national language of Syria.(15) Unlike his Egyptian counterparts, who saw the Arab image in their country as a negative foil, Sa'adeh saw no contradiction between Syrian nationalism and Arab unity in the way he understood it. He regarded Syria as "one of the Arab nations, and indeed the nation qualified to lead the Arab World."(16) Those who accused him of alienating Syria from the Arab World did not distinguish between Syrian statehood as a national cause and pan-arabism as a political question.(17)
This raises the question: how did Sa'adeh reconcile Syrian nationalism and Arab unity? The answer to this is to be found in his approach to the question of Arabism. Broadly speaking, the plans for Arab integration can be classified into three different types: (1) The whole Arab World should form one state with one capital and one head of state. This type is referred to as pure Arabism. (2) There should be a multiplicity of Arab states, each state maintaining its separate political entity, agreeing to the formation of a centre for the co-ordination of economic and political policies and programmes and eventually paving the way for a confederation of all the Arab states. This type is called gradual Arabism. (3) The formation of an Arab League from the present Arab nations without upsetting the status quo in each. This type is labelled the conservative approach.(18)
Sa'adeh rejected all three approaches. His conception of the Arab World is one of different societies and environments whose needs, aspirations and views on life vary from one region to another. Hence, it is a group of nations, not a single nation. But because these nations share a common Arabian background, they should come together to form an "Arab front" as distinct from an "Arab nation".
Sa'adeh proposed that the primary aims of the Front should be: (1) To develop and encourage amicable inter-Arab relations; (2) To foster economic development through the creation of a common market; (3) To encourage political cooperation through treaties and other forms of international arrangement; (4) On the military level, the Front should be based on two central assumptions: First, that its members will pledge and consider themselves morally bound not to go war against each other. Second, that its members would come to the aid of each other as circumstances require, to prevent or suppress all cases of aggression emanating from without; (5) In accordance with the voluntarist character permeating the Front, members will preserve their individual sovereignty and political independence. (19)
The "Arab Front" was Sa'adeh's idea of Arab unity. He called it "real Arabism" (al-Urubah al-Sahiha) as opposed to the "fictitious Arabism" (al-Urabah al-Wahmiyya) advocated by the pan-Arabists. It differs from the pure approach in that it disavows the concept of an Arab nation; from the gradual approach, in upholding the national sovereignty of the participant members; and from the conservative approach, in undermining the status quo inherited from the recent past. According to Sa'adeh, this elevated level of political organization was attainable after each Arab nation had come to understand its conditions and aims in life, and trained its own citizens in the exercise of their civic and political right. This way, each one of them could determine the extent to which it could usefully cooperate with the other Arab countries in accordance with its needs and desire.
This helps us to understand why Sa'adeh gave Syrian nationalism priority over Arab unity. In sharp contrasts to the Arab nationalists, he did not think it was politically viable for Syria to take part in an Arab union until such time it had put its own house in order. He declared:
We shall never relinquish our position in the Arab World nor our mission to the Arab World. But we want, first and foremost, to be strong in order to accomplish our mission more adequately. Syria must forge ahead in its national revival so that it can fulfil its great mission.(20)
The creation of a free and independent state in Syria was therefore the first priority in Sa'adeh's schema. The attainment of this goal was also seen as an essential step toward Arab unity. The difference between Sa'adeh and the Arab nationalists, then, became one of emphasis: to the first, Arab unity was tantamount to an alliance; to the second, it was a national idea par excellence. Regrettably, Arab national thinkers failed to understand this difference. They criticized Sa'adeh in the newspapers before he was given the chance to publish his ideas on paper. Their naiveté reached a critical level in 1945. While continuing to attack him, they supported the formation of an Arab League which, in reality, was a defective realization of Sa'adeh's own idea of an Arab Front.
1. Antun Sa'adeh, A'da al-Arab A'da Lubnan (The Enemies of the Arabs the Enemies of Lebanon), SSNP, 1979, p. 54.
3. Antun Sa'adeh, Complete Works, Vol. 9, p. 263.
4. Antun Sa'adeh, Op.Cit, p74.
5. Antun Sa'adeh, Complete works, Vol. 9, p265.
6. Mohammad Ahmad, "Some Recent Moves Towards Political Integration in the Arab World," Voice of Islam, Sept. 1973, p. 541.
7. Ibid, p. 276.
8. Cecil A. F. Hourani, "In Search of a Valid Myth," Middle East Forum, Spring 1971, p. 42.
9. Ibid, pp. 267-275.
12. Ibid, p. 262.
13. For a detailed study of Shu'ubism, see Sami A. Hanna and G. Gardner, "Al-Shu'ubiyyah Up-Dated: A Study of the 20th Century Revival of an Eighth Century Concept," The Middle East Journal, Vol. XX, 1966, pp. 335-355.
14. Kassim Sallam, Le Ba'th et la Patrie Arabe, Editions du Monde Arabe, Paris, 1982, p. 97.
15. Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria, p. 40.
16. Sa'adeh told the French-speaking full bench of the court that the trials that are held in Syria should be conducted in Arabic not in a foreign language.
17. Antun Sa'adeh, The Ten Lectures, p. 156.
19. Sa'adeh did not formulate a program for the Arab Front but he discussed aspects of it in a lecture he delivered in 1947. See The Ten Lectures, pp. l69-186.
20. Antun Sa'adeh, The Ten Lectures, p. 182.
Arab Nationalism logically
The Weightier Critique of Antun Sa'adeh