Back to Basics
Empires and National States in the Historical Thought of Antun Sa'adeh
Dennis Walker
For Antun Sa'adeh, the construction of far-extending empires by any nation's capacity and potential. Yet empires were misapplications of such nations' greatness and counterproductive because the valid object of the nation's energies must be the territory-famed-nation-state.
Thus there is a certain duality in Sa'adeh's writing on ancient history. On one hand he exalted Carthage and they great Syrian sea-empire in antiquity, because they expressed the Syrians' greatness. On the other hand, as a progressive anti-racial nationalist, Sa'adeh within his frame of thought naturally regarded empires as running contrary to the factors working over historical ages for the birth of viable nations enjoying political sovereignty as nation-states within an international economic and cultural community o other nation states. Writing at the height of the Second World War, Sa'adeh pondered on the rise and fall of nations, and how if a nation is broken "it can be brought to its feet again only by solid moral principles. If it should lose these principles and resort to the sword alone, then the sword will take it and it shall never rise again. In the present conflict enormous states that fought many wars and conquered widely often fall before our eyes although they never once deviated from the sword's straight highway". (al-Islam fi Risalatayyhi pp. 65-69).
It is in such passages that Sa'adeh, the liberal and rationalistic thinker most vented his contempt for Fascism and Nazism and the principle of racial supremacy that motivated Hitler and Mussolini to conduct international conquest that nearly destroyed their own peoples, the German and Italian nations, not to speak of the nations against whom they aggressed. The Nazi state could sustain its shot-lived conquest and racial empire only through the severe internal moral and physical discipline that had assured Nazi German's triumph over the military strong but orally self-indulgent French. (al-Islam fi Risalatayhi , p. 96) The more liberal (but still colonialist) European powers had "advanced" by at once using "the sword of patriotism" to conquer outside opponents but "internally‚Ķthough forsaking the sword and following the teaching of justice and mercy without which no society can be viable". (al-Islam fi Risalatayhi  p. 94). Conquest produced in history unified and viable communities only in so far as pre-existing environment and resultant common life had created a potentiality.
One of the most interesting passages in Sa'adeh's book Nushu' al-Umam is his account expanding law as a means with which to integrate all people it had conquered: thus Sa'adeh deduced that "extension of political rights in the Roman state to the Italian provinces established the unity of the Roman Empire in Italy" (Nushu' al-Umam p. 119) because the geographical homeland, Italy, preexisted as a condition and despite the fact that Rome "was surrounded by people that qualled - as some of which like the Etruscans surpassed - here in culture" (Nushu' al-Umam p.119). Elsewhere, beyond the range of the geographical homeland "when these rights came to be distributed to people beyond the geographical borders, such as the trans-Alpine Gauls, they lost their magic" and even weakened the empire. Thus after the unification it Italy, Rome's "political experiments stopped because she found one way to deal with all problems, namely the exercise of force"  (Nushu' al-Umam p.119).
A difficult and perhaps unproductive enterprise even in antiquity, the formation of empires incorporated separate homelands has become quite untenable in modern history because of the rise of the "new factor" of nationalism which motivates people to call for a national state. The non-expansionist national state is the only form true democracy can take since it affirms that "authority derives from the people and that the people does not exist for the state but the state for the people" (Nushu' al-Umam p.130). The nation-state "is not based on external beliefs or an imaginary will but on a general will that results from a feeling of sharing a single social-economic life". (Ibid) In this new perspective the memories of a Carthaginian empire that had laid beyond the borders of the Syrian homeland did not define the current Syrian nation's border since the new democratic, nation-state "did not represent past history or ancient traditions or the will of God or a by-gone glory but the interest of a people with a single life represented in a single will" (Nushu' al-Umam, p.137). In pre-modern times a state could prepare the way for the birth of a national community by bestowing citizenship upon conquered peoples, but in modern times citizenship has become a right of every member of a given nation by birth. The state thus is not longer an entity that can weld together numerous diverse and distant peoples situated in any area that it comes to rule because in that case it would clash with the will of both the national community upon which it is based and the will of those other nationalities. Territorial expansion can in the modern age be imperialism only new and can produce new amalgamated nations. (Nushu' al-Umam p.131).
Although Sa'adeh was proud of certain ancient empires that had been founded by Syrians but which lay outside geographical Syria, his conceptualization of the development of nations in history thus excluded any possibility of either Phalangist Mediterranean extra-territoriality (although Sa'adeh made the Syrians' participation in the Roman experiment clear in Nushu' al-Umam) or of expansionism by any future Syrian national state against Arabia or Egypt or Turkey. Sa'adeh was in fact not a militarist vis-√†-vis other Arabic-speaking nations. He did not believe that any economic interests existed to involve the future independent Greater Syria in Arabia or Egypt or North Africa or other Arabic-speaking regions beyond the Syrian homeland: Syria herself produced an excess of the primary products which they could export, while markets for the products of Syria's future industries would rather lie in Afghanistan and Iran and that area beyond the Arabic-speaking world (al-Islam fi Risalatayhi  p. 221).
All the evidence, then, suggests that had Sa'adeh's party attained power anywhere in Greater Syria, it would have established a Syrian government respecting the other Arabic States particularist sovereignty despite Sa'adeh's exaltation of ancient Syrian States like "the West Syrian Empire" of Carthage (al-Islam fi Risalatayhi  p. 210) that had occupied wide territories of the Arabic world beyond the Syrian homeland. His pan-Syrian nationalism was complex, liberal, nearly pluralist in its tolerance. Sa'adeh combated all racist ideologies that filtered in from West Europe and Nazi Germany into the Arab world. He recognized Lebanon's right to a special position, virtual political autonomy, on the Syrian national community for so long as the Lebanese demanded that.

An extract from Sa'adeh's
Nushu' al-Umam

Of all the peoples of ancient history, the Canaanites were the first to follow the rule of love of the fatherland and social attachment in accordance with national conscience and unity of life and destiny. One group of them migrated from around the Dead Sea to the northwest and settled on the coast facing Lebanon. These were known in history as the Phoenicians, a name which became more famous than that of Canaan, but they remained loyal to their Canaanite ancestry and as Phoenicians continued to call themselves Canaanites. The story about the coming of the Phoenicians from the Persian Gulf or the Red Sea is not reliable, and has been invalidated by the new evidences which proves what we have already stated. Meyer (Vol. II. P. 356.) mentions a refutation of the story of the Phoenicians' coming from the Red Sea or Bahrain Islands, although Ceatani, (Vol. I. P. 185) accepts the allegation that they came from the Persian Gulf.
The Phoenicians (Canaanites) set up the city-state, which became a model adopted by the Greeks and Romans. But although several such states arose, the Canaanites refrained from fighting among themselves and maintained their states as one people linked together in life. Leadership in Phoenicia moved from city to city, from state to state, through the factor of progress and strength, size and increased interests and influence, as in the transfer of leadership from the city of Sidon to the city of Tyre, which founded the first maritime empire in history.
At an early date, the Phoenicians established the system of elected monarchy whereby the king was elected for life. They were thus the pioneers of all historical peoples and states in establishing the democratic state, which, after all, is the state of the people or the nation. It is the nationalist state emanating from the will of the society that is conscious of its existence and being.
The Phoenicians maintained their patriotic national bond in their dispersion throughout the length and breadth of the Syrian Sea and in the colonies and empires which they established. The civil laws regarding marriage and interrelation and all social and cultural manifestations remained the same for them all, exception being made only in respect to political rights.
Although the Phoenicians (Canaanites) set up a maritime empire, their extension took on a national character through the establishment of colonial settlements which maintained their links with the mother country and rallied around it in war as in peace. Their spread was the deployment of a people rather than the expansion of a state. This spread, with continued participation in life through national, social and blood bonds, was the world's first national manifestation which had the credit of disseminating civilization in the Syrian Sea, but which was smothered by the onslaughts of the Greek and Roman barbarians before it reached completion. One characteristic of this manifestation, which distinguished the Canaanites, was that they did not incorporate the conquered peoples, such as the Libyans and the ancient Spaniards (Iberians) into their civil and political legal system. Although this was a source of weakness to them in the face of the advance of Rome, it gave an indication of their national spirit and their preservation of the unity of their society.