Several years ago I attended a conference in Beirut on the Syrian Social National Party. At the end of the conference a submission was tendered and endorsed by the participants that it should be called the “Return to Sa’adeh” conference – a fitting title, I thought, for a conference on Sa’adeh’s ideas. The submission passed almost unanimously but not before a good challenge. One of the participants, an authority on Sa’adeh’s thought in her own right, argued that the conference should be called “Advancing toward Sa’adeh” because Sa’adeh, she argued, was in front of us, not behind us. She was perfectly valid.
Although Sa’adeh started out from the reality of his time, the vision that he developed and handed down to us, viewed retrospectively, has all the character of a prophecy. He was not a prophet as such but a thinker for incredible foresight. He was ahead of his time not only in his personal and political approach, but also in the ideas, ideals, and the principles that he put forward. Sa’adeh took the present as his point of departure, but his target was the future. He studied the past with a keen eye, but only for the purpose of clarity and planning. One studies the past with a view to gain better insight into the present.
The past, in all its achievements and tribulations, allows us to better plan ahead without repeating its mistakes. Sa’adeh’s analytical powers can be demonstrated in four basic ways.
1. Syrian Nationalism
Sa’adeh emerged in the 1930s as perhaps the leading spokesman for Syrian nationalism. His speeches and writings went far to stir the discontent among the intellectuals and ordinary supporters of the national cause. His words helped bring on a revival in the independence movement, and he played a key role in the struggle against European colonization.
The point that should be emphasized, here, is that the unity sought by Sa’adeh was a Syrian, not a Lebanese or an Arab one. He believed that neither the Arabs nor the Lebanese constituted a nation because the factors that underlay their political claims, namely language, ethnicity and religion, do not play a vital role in the process of nation-formation. Sa’adeh wasn’t the first Syrian to raise the banner of Syrian nationalism. Butrus Bustani, Gibran, Rihani, and a string of other well-known figures had identified with the Syrian national idea well before he did.
Nonetheless, Sa’adeh was the only one to be condemned for endeavouring to keep the spirit of Syrian nationalism alive. His foes on all sides of the political spectrum dismissed his national vision either as unrealistic or impractical. Years later we notice a major re-assessment of this position even from within the core group which criticized the Syria idea, namely the Arab nationalists. One of the first and most striking indicators of this transformation was embodied in a speech delivered by President Hafiz Asad in October 1983 to a gathering of representatives of Syrian emigrant communities in the Americas.
In that speech, Asad told his guests:
When some of you migrated, there was no Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. We all formed one political entity. The country as a whole was called Syria or Bilad al-Sham. Colonialism came and sliced us up, in addition to the previous dismemberment of the Arab homeland, it also further tore up this part of the Arab homeland called Syria. Colonialization created Jordan, gave Palestine to the Jews and established Greater Lebanon. The late President came to realize that territorial union, like that advocated by Sa’adeh, could have bolstered the march toward Arab unity rather than impeded its progress.
He stated: "Imagine comrades a unity between us and Iraq that had been in existence for twenty or thirty years. Would such an achievement have been in the interest of the British? Imagine the presence today of Greater Syria. Would that have been in the interest of the English and the French? Of course not. Matters would have been different in relation to Israel, assuming that Israel would have been established in the fashion it is today." A recent study of the Middle East lends credibility to Asad’s views and, in a round about way to Sa’adeh’s. The scholar Umar Abdallah recently stated: "The division of [geographical] Syria, wrote, “into artificial petty states was - and remains - a fundamental necessity of imperialist and Zionist politics.
A unified, independent [geographical] Syria would be a region power on a par with any in the Middle East, and the further unification of [geographical] Syria with any of its neighbours would bring into being a world power that would effectively put the Middle East beyond the global reach of the superpowers." Sa’adeh forecasted a rocky beginning for Syrian nationalism, but he never lost faith in it. He believed that inevitably there will come a time when the public will realize that the national unity of Syria is the only practical solution to their dreams and hopes.
Sa’adeh, as you all know, was a native of Lebanon. He was born in Dhur Shweir, a town of the Metn district overlooking Beirut. It was in the Lebanon, during the First World War, that he witnessed the suffering and despair of his people, rousing inside him a sincere awakening to the national crisis of his country. It is only natural, then, to find Lebanon right up there among Sa’adeh’s priorities.
Actually, Sa'adeh respected the political entity of Lebanon and understood its real issues. But he did not want the country to develop into a self-indulgent fortress, isolated from the rest of Syria. In one of his memorable speeches, he said: "What do the Lebanese want of their entity? Is it to have light themselves while the surrounding region can remain enshrouded in darkness? If there is light in Lebanon, it is only to be expected that this light should spread itself out throughout the whole of natural Syria. Could we accept that we in Lebanon could have light without all compatriots in our nation having a share in it.”
Sa'adeh tried in vain to get this message across. At one stage, he said that his real aim was Syrian unity and not the dismemberment of the Lebanese state. But few understood what he was saying and actually thought he was contradicting himself. He meant that any union between Lebanon and Syria must be preceded by a program of intense national education to overcome the existing psychological barriers. Such education would have to go further than merely pointing out the kind of problems and contradictions that prevailed in Lebanon. It had to consist of making the Lebanese more aware of the national question and their stake in it. Inevitably, this would lead to Lebanon's dissolution as a separate political entity, but its re-incorporation into Syria would not be a question of merger or annexation, but one of genuine unity. Sa’adeh did not attack the country that is Lebanon but its political sectarian system.
What he objected to was the preponderance of sectarian interests over the wider social interest of the people. He was detested and constantly attacked by the sectarian leaders of Lebanon basically because his well-thought out and penetrating arguments undermined their power and exposed them for what they really were. As early as 1920, Sa'adeh predicted a life of misery and degradation for Lebanon for seceding from the rest of Syria on purely religious and sectarian grounds. In the very act of its creation, he said, were sown the seeds of its own destruction. The political history of Lebanon since 1920 clearly testifies to the accuracy of Sa'adeh's diagnosis.
One analyst has recently remarked that:
Lebanon has never really succeeded in overcoming the repercussions of the events of 1920. This failure has been manifested ever since in the continuous tension between the Christians and Muslims in Lebanon and between Lebanon and the Arab Muslim world, particularly Syria. The civil war of 1958 and that of 1975/6 … were rooted in the expansion of Lebanon's borders. Sa'adeh emphasized the concept of "national brotherhood" in which the Lebanese can look for self-fulfillment and overcome their fears on the basis of unifying and secular principles.
Isn’t that precisely what most Lebanese aspire for today? Is not the principle of national brotherhood the ideal setting for creating a modern democratic state in Lebanon? What can be better than a society in which the interest of the whole community takes precedence over all other interests? Today, we can all take heart in the fact that, after many years of neglect, the Lebanese people is waking up to Sa’adeh. The Lebanese State is also slowly coming around to his viewpoint, although not with the speed that one would hope for.
The predictive capacity which Sa'adeh displayed in his diagnosis of Zionism is remarkable, to say the least. His swift but far-seeing understanding of the danger posed by Zionism has been described as (and I quote) "very unusual ... Some thought that the danger was one targeting only Palestine."
Antun Sa'adeh, however, stepped in to warn that this danger was not confined to a section of Syria but would affect the whole country. It is here that we can see how creative the projections of Sa'adeh were, because the loss of Palestine was indeed the first of our losses." As early as 1925 Sa'adeh foresaw the potential danger of Zionism and warned against any underestimation of its strength.
He wrote: “Despite that the Zionist movement is not rotating around a natural axis, yet, this movement has been able to make significant progress. If no other systematic movement is organised to counter it, it will eventually succeed.” How true is this projection today? Over the past 75 years, that is since the time that Sa’adeh made his prediction, the Zionist movement has scored one success after another primarily because there has not face a systematic counter-movement. Sa’adeh was also perfectly right to warn his people of the need for alertness. The events and developments of the past fifty years clearly show that Zionism is both ruthless and uncontrollable. Long ago, Sa’adeh argued against the characterization of Zionism as a national movement.
Today, it is the standard view in literary and intellectual circles. For example, Morris Jastrow Jr, who is an expert on nationalism, recently wrote: It is a surface view to regard Zionism, as is done by most of the political Zionists, as part of the general movement of the rise of nationalities which is a distinguishing trait in the political history of the nineteenth century, which led to the resuscitation of the Balkan nationalities, which prompted the union of Italy and found another expression in the formation of the united German Empire in 1871, and which manifested itself at the end of the war in the efforts of Polish, Bohemian and Magyar nationalities for a renewal of their national independence.
These movements furnish no analogy for Zionism. Years ago Sa’adeh described Zionism as a feature of Western imperialism. Today, the literature is replete with evidence of this. He was also correct to say that in struggle there is no such thing as good or bad Zionists, but a single group determined to do everything within its power to accomplish its super-dreams. The Zionists often disagree among themselves over tactics, but not over their objectives.
3. Arab Unity
The idea of Arab unity was very precious to Sa'adeh. But he was widely misunderstood or misrepresented. Sa’adeh was not against Arab unity but against those who thought of it grand national terms. “The idea of an Arab nation,” wrote Cecil Hourani, … has … become a myth in which many Arabs still profess to believe, but which has no relation to their contemporary life or to their vision of the future.”
The specialist in nationalism Louise Snyder was even more affirmative: "Pan-Arabism, like other micro-nationalisms, was destined to remain an unimplemented myth." Sa’adeh said the same basic thing almost fifty years, but he has never received credit for it. Sa'adeh conceived of the Arab World as 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 Arab background, they should come together to form an "Arab front" as distinct from an "Arab nation". According to Sa'adeh, there should be at least four entities in the Arab World consisting of -
(a) The Fertile Crescent
(b) The Arabian Peninsula
(c) The Nile Valley
(d) North Africa
Current developments in the Arab World confirm what Sa'adeh had said all along. The basic thrust, as Sa’adeh had predicted, is toward territorial unions inside the Arab World rather than to a single Arab nation-state. The Arab Maghreb Union, Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, the Nile Valley Economic Council, are three primary examples of this. The Arab World has come to realize that the path to Arab unity is not national but regional and that the most practical approach is the one that Sa’adeh proposed many years ago, although no one is ready yet to concede publicly the accuracy of his analysis.
I conclude by saying that Sa’adeh was a model of intelligence, persistence, courage, delicacy, honour, depth of argument, decency, kindness, and much more. He belonged to a sadly depleting group of thinkers who pursue the truth, regardless of the consequences. Unlike his contemporaries, Sa’adeh never sought to please anyone. He never swayed with public opinion, this or that way.
He wrote from the heart with the power of conviction and facts. His political philosophy has withstood the test of time and constant change. It has survived all sorts of persecution to eradicate it from the public imagination. In 1949, the Lebanese government brutally executed Sa'adeh in the hope that his death would also spell the end of his political philosophy; it succeeded only in killing him. Perhaps Sa'adeh was right when he said that his vision was destined for the future generations of Syria rather than for contemporary times!
Sa’adeh’s Predictive Capacity