Fathi El-Shihibi: The Arabs’ Triple Heritage 16/9/2011 01:01 Fathi El-Shihibi: The Arabs’ Triple Heritage
Fathi El-Shihibi بحث

Reconciling the Ideologies of Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism and Pan-Secularism

The almost simultaneous popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen to oust entrenched authoritarian regimes have led to frenzy among Arab and non-Arab intellectuals to identify common denominators between these uprisings as well as future uprisings in the Arab world. However the majority of them, due to their education and orientation as well as their inability to “think outside the box” so to speak, are unable, when asked to identify the nature of these uprisings, to go beyond the familiar labels of “Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism”. In other words they are still in denial regarding the novelty and manifestations of these revolutionary movements which are initiated and orchestrated by Arab youths. Any objective observer would most likely arrive at the conclusion that the two dimensions of these youths’ movements are traditions be they Arabic or Islamic and secularism. While the movements’ leaderships have consistently expressed appreciation for their Arab and Islamic heritage however based on their demands to implement democracy, justice and freedom it becomes clear that even though they would not pursue a clean break from the past, they would instead pursue reformed cultural and religious traditions which would in turn homogenize with the secular traditions they aspire to integrate in new sociopolitical orders. On this note I would like to trace the origins and evolution of the ideologies of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism just to see whether they, in their present forms are compatible with the expressed visions of Arab youths or that changes are necessary to accommodate the creation of new states and societies built on the universal pillars of rights enshrined in the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The interplay between Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism has been a recurring phenomenon in Arabic heritage since the advent of Islam in the seventh century. Even though Pan-Arabism predated Pan-Islamism the two ideologies that initially complemented each other under the guidance of Prophet Muhammad eventually turned rivals competing for the loyalties of Arab and non-Arab masses by engaging in a process of acculturation and assimilation among people of other ethnicities and cultures including but not limited to Berber (Amazigh, Shluh) , Africans, Kurds, Iranians and Turks as well as among people of diverse religious affiliation including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists and even indigenous religions practiced in parts of Africa and Asia. Contrary to common belief Pan-Islamism was not the creation of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897) and Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) but was initially inspired by the Qur’an (Islam’s holy book) and Prophet Muhammad and later promulgated by his immediate successors (caliphs) including Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. On the other hand Pan-Arabism was neither a new secular phenomenon employed by Sharif Husayn (1853-1931), who was the governor of Mecca and Medina in the eighteenth century in order to rally Arab masses against the hegemony of the Pan-Islamic Ottoman Empire and later redefined by the Arab-Christian Michel Aflaq (1910-1989) and the Arab-Muslim Salah al-Din al-Bitar (1912-1980) to serve as a bulwark against Western imperialism. Nor was it the recreated ideology championed by the Egyptian President Jamal Abd al-Nasser (1918-1970) so that Arabs could unite under the banner of Arab nationalism rather than Islamism. Pan-Arabism actually predated Islam by many centuries. As a matter of fact pre-Islamic Arabs qualify as a nation whether in terms of ethnicity hence claiming lineage either through Shem, Prophet Noah’s son or through Ishmael, Prophet Abraham’s son, or in terms of common Semitic language being the classical Arabic language and common Arabic culture or heritage despite some regional variations. Pre-Islamic Arabs also shared similar history along with inhabiting the same geographical location hence the Arabian Peninsula.

The advent of Pan-Islamism as of the seventh century temporarily eclipsed Pan-Arabism due to its inclusive message of common world community (Ummah) and ideology of monotheism and humanism which in turn prevailed over all other considerations including ethnicity, language, culture, nationality and even color of skin. However by the time of the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750) Pan-Arabism was back in force thus reversing some of Islam’s and Prophet Muhammad’s stances regarding the rejection of tribalism, ethnicity and nationalism for the sake of a universal community in accordance with the Quranic proclamation “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things)” (Quran ch. 49, verse 13. Yusuf Ali, trs). During and following the Umayyad Dynasty people of Arab descent claimed superiority over people of other ethnicities, religions and cultures.

We all remember that during the heydays of Arab Nationalism the ideology was constantly seen particularly by its ideologues and advocates as perfectly suited to all Arab states regardless of the makeup of their populations. Accordingly challenges to the ideology could only come from the outside and not from the inside regardless of the diversities and contradictions that existed within individual Arab societies. Along with being seen as the solution to problems plaguing Arab states from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arabian (Persian) Gulf, it was seen as the magic wand that could in the hands of true Arab nationalists bring unity, progress and strength to Arab states still reeling from years of occupation and exploitation along with layers upon layers of demographic changes and cultural accumulations. Due to this outlook internal divisions and problems were ignored for the sake of loftier ideals and visions. Overlooking internal imperfections in the majority of Arab societies, including changes over the years, eventually eroded the initial and overwhelming support for the ideology and gradually reduced its capacity to contend with hard social, economic and political realities on the ground inside most the Arab States. The question remains have Pan-Islamism and Pan-Arabism run their course and are no longer suited for modern times or that their tenants can still be resurrected to affect changes to the better in the Arab and the Muslim worlds?

In my opinion the pitfalls of both Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism was devoting so much energy and focus on external challenges and threats and in the process ignoring or at least bypassing the more serious internal contradictions within individual Arab and Muslim states. While the principles of the two ideologies outwardly appeal to Arab and Muslim masses alike however the implementation of these principles exposed inner contradictions that could not be easily overcome. The impressive success of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism when they were first introduced was due to their novelty and their appeal as well as the neutralization of worthwhile adversaries or challengers in the immediate vicinity and beyond. Most scholars and historians past or present are in agreement that Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism were well received by most populations surrounding the Arab Peninsula who were eager to be emancipated from their dire conditions under the Christian Byzantine Empire or the Persian Zoroastrian (Sassanid) Empire. The two movements at the time were able to overlook internal contradictions within the societies that they came to dominate since they did not pose serious threats to the vibrant and tolerant sociopolitical systems that they helped create and preserve.

If you have been wondering as to where I am going with this please bear with me. To begin with it is obvious that the modern reincarnation of both ideologies still, at the core, harbor similar contradictions which previously characterized their inception and maturation way back when. Back then, both ideologies overtly and explicitly expressed their inclusive nature and their aversion to discrimination and favoritism but covertly that was not the case particularly following the conclusion of the period known as the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs or successors to Prophet Muhammad which lasted from his death in the year 632 to the assassination of the fourth caliph and the Prophet’s cousin and son in law Ali ibn Abi Talib in the year 661. Consequently known members of the Umayyad clan, who wrestled control of the Muslim state including Caliph Muawiya and his son Yazid, were credited for promoting Pan-Arabism over Pan-Islamism. The Umayyads were accused by their rivals, particularly by the Shi’a (Partisans of Ali) of having turned a blind eye to the ensuing discrimination between various groups making up the Muslim community.

During the reign of the Umayyads (661-750) People of Arab origins were considered superior to other groups within the Muslim Ummah who were given unflattering labels so as to designate their status in the state’s social hierarchy. While Christians and Jews became known as (dhimmis) or protected groups instead of the more appealing designation of (Ahl al-Kitab) or people of the book which means that the two communities possess holy books similar to that of the Muslim’s Holy Quran, non-Arab Muslims particularly those of Persian or Hindu extracts became known as (Mawalis) who were looked upon more or less as second class citizens. Even those Muslims or non-Muslims who spoke languages other than Arabic were labeled (Ajams) or incoherent individuals hence a reference to the languages they spoke. Accordingly both the intransient Pan-Arabism and the transcendent Pan-Islamism came short in relation to peoples’ expectations both in the past and in the present. As a matter of fact the Abbasid revolution beginning in the year 750 was supported by a number of factions including the above mentioned dhimmis, mawalis and ajams who revolted against the Umayyads precisely because of the clan’s failure to fulfill the promises of either ideology to bring about equality, liberty and justice among all citizens of the state or should we say empire.

Nowadays advocates of both ideologies are reiterating the ideals of the past as if Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism had already demonstrated their full potential and fulfilled their promises as success stories and created egalitarian and just societies which could readily be duplicated today. When responding to criticisms such as the ones above advocates of both ideologies blame their short comings on external forces and not inner and irreconcilable contradictions. The principle culprits accused of putting a damper on their programs to promote liberty, equality and justice include the so-called reactionaries in their midst and hostile antagonists and detractors particularly in the West. Following the independence of Arab and Muslim countries, leaders and advocates of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism promised their masses freedom, democracy and justice for all yet in order to maintain their hold on power proceeded in the opposite direction. Accordingly the authoritarianism of the Umayyads was resurrected in toto by Arab leaders be they monarchs or presidents who also justify their iron grip on power by appropriating and misinterpreted commandments pertaining to the reciprocal relationship between the rulers and the ruled such “Obey those who ruled over you” which in the hands of despots such as Gathafi turned into an instrument for instilling blind obedience and exercising coercion and intimidation with impunity. 

In terms of Pan-Arabism, the self-proclaimed secular Arab nationalist and Western liberal president Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia who was credited for securing his country’s independence from France in 1957 once responded to his peoples demands for democratic reforms by holding a general presidential election which he single handedly won and not only that he was elected “President for life” thereby shelving the whole process of holding election for the top post in the country. Bourguiba actually fulfilled the wishes of the electorate and remained president till the year 1987 and only his senility caused his ouster in a palace cope which brought President Zain al-Abidin Ben Ali to power. As you all know President Ben Ali has recently been ousted by popular youth uprising which forced him to seek refuge in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The late Iraqi president Saddam Husayn (1937-2006) who rarely missed an opportunity to reiterate his visions of liberty, socialism and unity had never allowed his people whether Sunna, Shi’a or Kurds the means to implement such visions but instead turned Iraq into a nightmarish police state based on “Cruelty and Silence” as in the title of the book written by Kanan Makiya describing the regime’s reign of terror. Even the recently deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak (1928 - ) who began his career reiterating the trinity of Pan-Arab Nationalism according to his predecessor and the founder of Modern Arab Nationalism Jamal Abd al-Nasser including liberty, social justice and unity has instead veered off course and created an authoritarian regime with all the trappings such as an ill-reputed uniformed and uniformed police force and a cult of personality to complement that. He in keeping with the strategy of his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat exploited the existing rivalry and antagonism between advocates of Pan-Islamism and advocates of a secular Pan-Arabism to create a fluid socio-political situation thereby securing his and his government’s positions in accordance with the motto “divide and conquer”. The master manipulator Gathafi exploited the tenets of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism in order to further his own ambitions. He even added Pan-Africanism to the mix only to serve his own ends.

The Republic of the Sudan is the prototype of a modern Pan-Islamic order. What happened and is still happening in the Sudan ironically gives credence to a statement made by Charles Gordon (1833-1885), the British general who once controlled the Sudan and who purportedly said something to the effect that “Islam with democracy is no Islam at all”. He in other words claimed that Islam can never be compatible with the Western secular democracies or that Islam is inherently authoritarian therefore undemocratic. Let us for the sake of looking closely at Pa-Islamism in action put aside the fact that the transfer of power that toppled the democratically elected government of president Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989 and swept Brigadier General Omar al-Bashir to power, was in reality a military cope inspired by his mentor the Islamist Dr. Hasan al-Turabi . Soon after the takeover relations between the military junta and Hasan al-Turabi’s NIF (National Islamic Front) became strained to the point that al-Turabi himself was placed under house and later imprisoned. The Pan-Islamic program advanced and supported by the government gradually led to alienation among segments of the population instead of promoting healing and reconciliation. As soon as the government hinted at imposing Shari’a (Islamic law codes) on all of Sudan, Christian and animists in the south were up in arms and demanding session which is exactly what happened following the referendum sponsored by the United Nations.

Instead of practicing what they preach and create an egalitarian society, the Sudanese leaders reverted back to coercion to subdue any type of opposition or resurrection. They even ignored the fact that Pan-Islamism just like any ideology consists of two integral aspects and these are precedence and prediction. Precedence in an ideology means an aspect of a particular heritage that is worthy of resurrection and prediction means an ideal expressed in an ideology that is expected to become reality at some point in the future. Accordingly all the Sudanese officials’ needed to do to overcome the crisis that existed between north and south is resurrect a known precedence in the Islamic heritage. When Prophet Muhammad became the leader of Medina he immediately created a federated state inclusive of Muslims and Jews. Along with exercising complete autonomy over their territories the Jews of Medina were allowed to worship freely and govern according to their Jewish laws. The same rights were extended to the Christian communities inside and outside of the Arabian Peninsula. Although such amicable arrangements ended up being victims to the break out of hostilities between the Muslim and the Judeo-Christian communities, they should nonetheless serve as examples worthy of emulation. What I hope transpire from this survey is that the short comings of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism are related to the ideologies themselves as well as their applications. Pan-Arabism and most importantly Pan-Islamism have been introduced as perfect solutions to age old problems as in the case of some Salafists (followers of pious predecessors) and Arab nationalists, without the benefit of creating internal mechanisms to adapt to existing as well as new realities and challenges on the ground.

The leadership of the Pan-Islamic Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in a 2005 Electoral Program provided another example of not practicing what is being preached. While leaders of the organization have been expressing their endorsement of democratic reforms including the promotion of human rights and equal opportunities among all Egyptians, they followed that by a statement saying that Coptic Christians and women should not be allowed to run for the post of president of Egypt let alone becoming one. Despite efforts at damage control by Brotherhood luminaries such as the former parliamentarian and head of the movement’s political bureau, Essam el-Erian, who described the controversial statement as a mere speculation or draft that does not necessarily express the collective will of all members, the movement was on the defensive due to backlashes spearheaded by women and human rights organizations inside and outside of Egypt. Is it any wonder that the majority of Arab and Muslim regimes continue to exercise authority according to the age old double standards therefore talking the talk but not walking the walk. Even Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini who single handedly established the Islamic Republic of Iran and whose book or should I say manifesto “Government of the Muslim Jurists” promised a society built on the Islamic principles of justice and equality was unable or unwilling to fully extend the benefits of these principles to religious and ethnic minorities inside Iran including but not limited to Baha’is and Arabs inhabiting the region of Ahwaz or Ahvaz.

The most important feature of Western democracies and particularly American democracy is having an inner feature or capacity designed to adapt to new situations which showed flexibility and creativity time and time again. The civil rights African American leader Martin Luther King, Jr. understood that and utilized it to his advantage in order to persuade the US government to grant African Americans their full civil rights in accordance with the declaration of independence which confirms that “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (The Declaration of Independence, US. constitution online). Along with essentially accepting the validity of the American constitution and American democracy he simply asked the American government and the American people to live up to the ideals of their democracy or as he put it to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed” (The I Have a Dream Speech, US. constitution on Line). Most importantly the Prophet of Islam himself clearly alluded, fourteen centuries ago, to this integral aspect of the Pan-Islamic ideology that would insure its survival, renewal and continuity in one of his Hadiths (sayings) in which he predicted that “Allah (God) will send to this umma (the Muslim community) at the head of each century those who will renew its faith for it”  or in layman’s terms God will send visionary leaders who will conform certain Islamic ideals into realities. Both Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism could develop the capacity to turn ideals into realities which include granting all citizens their full rights in the case of Pan-Arabism and realizing the full potential of egalitarianism in the case of Pan-Islamism. Otherwise the promises and ideals of Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism would remain just that with no real hope of becoming actualities in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Therefore the way forward for Arab youth’s revolutions is to join hands with the traditional and national organizations in order construct new Arab societies based on the original and accommodating tenets of Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism and Pan-Secularism. In such societies democracy and human rights would undoubtedly reign supreme.

Professor Fathi El-Shihibi

Northeastern University

Department of Philosophy & Religion

Boston, MA 02115 USA

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