Antun Sa‘adah’s Secularism and “Re­gionalist” Vision of the Nation
Written by Maher al-Charif
Translated by
Mujab al-Imam
Sa‘adah is by far the supreme representative of the "regionalisy" national tendency, who offhandedly rejected liberalism and firmly believed in the historic role of the individual, charismatic leader. Very early on, he warned against the dangers of “mixing between political and religious ends,” practiced by those “who are greedy for power and who always seek political authority through, and by means of, religion.”

He considered that “believers of all religious faiths are brothers only in the spiritual sense of the term. Socially and economically, however, brothers are only the citizens of one society, brought together by their social environment and united by their various ways and means to earn their living - i.e., by the demands of life, not by the dictates of heaven or religious faith.” Sa‘adah saw that, throughout history, the nationalist causes have always led to the “dissolution of the theocratic state, Christian and Mohammedan alike.” As for Arabism which, to him, meant only “the unity of countries speaking Arabic and believing in the Mohammedan faith,” it was nothing “but a new nominalization for the old theo­cratic, Mohammedan union.” It merely signified “a religious unity limited by language, replacing the old, absolute religious union.” Against this brand of Arabism, Sa‘adah juxtaposed his Syrian nationalism (qawmīyah sūrīyah), “a unitary nationalist movement, comprising elements from different sects, races and creeds.” From the very early stages, “these people who joined the movement,” Sa‘adah wrote, “believed that they are the sons of one Syrian na­tion (ummah sūrīyah), united together by one ideology, one inter­est and one will.”

Also, the founding premises were as follows: “Every individual of the Syrian nation has the right to free choice in issues pertain­ing to metaphysical beliefs, such as Allah, heaven and hell, eter­nity and death. The individual Syrian is free to embrace whatever creed he wants. He is only asked to be a true nationalist who be­lieves in his homeland and his nation.” In other words, Sa‘adah refused to consider religion as a factor in the founding and evolu­tion of nations. Nor did he accept language as one of these factors, for “one of the greatest mistakes,” Sa‘adah added, “is to equate the nation with the language it speaks.” The unity of language “does not determine the nation,” although “language is necessary for holding the nation together.” Rather, based on his conception of the “uni-factor,” Sa‘adah considered the geographical location and environment as the primary factor in determining the na­tional entity. The environment is the pot which melts various groups, remolding them into “one temper and one character.” The nation, to Sa‘adah, is a group of people inhabiting a particular region or country. Their activities in, and their reac­tions to, this geographical location endow them, in the course of time, with specific features and characteristics that distinguish them from other groups. The region, there­fore, is “the most important and perfect national uni-factor.” Now since the Arab world is not one region or one geographi­cal location, it cannot be said to have “one psychological and physical character”; hence “it cannot have one nationalism.”

For my part, I suppose that Sa‘adah’s “regionalist” vision of the nation was basi­cally a severe reaction to the religious and theocratic conceptions. His systematic nar­rowing down of the idea of nationalism to include only Bilād al-Shām, moreover, sprang from the specific realities of this region, which distinguished Bilād al-Shām from other regions and environments of the Arab world. Bilād al-Shām has always been characterized by its plethora of reli­gions and religious sects. It has always been fertile grounds for different “isolationist” and “sectarian” tendencies, which, in turn, have always opened the door for foreign intervention. What supports my thesis is that, at a later stage, Sa‘adah himself ex­tended the realm of “Syrian nationalism” to include Iraq, another Arab country bor­dering Bilād al-Shām and composed of a diverse population embracing various reli­gions, sects and creeds. In fact, as Sati Husri has pointed out in his two books, Difā‘ ‘an al-‘Urūbah (In Defense of Ara­bism) and Al-‘Urūbah bayna Du‘āti-hā wa-Mu‘āridī-hā (Arabism, its Advocates and Detractors), that Sa‘ādah had founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (al-Hizb al-sūrī al-qawmī al-ijtimā‘ī) “in order to fight the sectarian spirit and the isolationist tendencies he witnessed in Lebanon.” The call for Syrian nationalism was his mid-way out “to condemn both narrow Lebanese isolationism and broad Arab nationalism.” His prejudices and obvious bias against Arabism were originally due, Husri adds, to a grave “misunderstanding.” Sa‘adah had failed to comprehend the true meaning of Arabism and Arab nationalism, always confusing them with Bedouinism and des­ert life on the one hand, and with political Islam and Islamic party politics on the other. Inevitably, this had led him to the illusion that Arab nationalism “was nothing but a mask put on by advocates of Islamic sectarianism, and thus, understandably started to attack Arabism as severely as he attacked and condemn sectarianism.”

Of course, Husri and Sa‘adah were united in their secular approach and “elitist” thinking. The former however blamed the latter for the excessive overemphasis he laid on the significance of the environment and geography. Husri rejected Sa‘adah’s view that these are the major factors in the life of nations, and in directing and understand­ing the facts of history. Husri also blamed Sa‘adah for grossly underestimating the role of language in this field.