More than a century after its genesis, Arab national identity remains a vexing question for many Middle Eastern writers and intellectuals. In its 20th century heyday, it frequently overshadowed any alternative identity frameworks. Its vocal proponents dismissed any alternative, non-Arab identities, placing their ideological convictions over any other competing force. Writing in the sec
ond half of the twentieth century, Lebanese ideologue Omar Farrukh (1906-1987) argued that it is irrelevant that Iraqis should deem themselves a hybrid of Aramaeans, Persians, Kurds, Turks, Indians, and others: "they still are Arabs, in spite of their racial diversity, [even in spite of themselves,] because the overriding factor in their identity formation is the Arabic language."1 Likewise, Farrukh stressed, the inhabitants of today's Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and elsewhere in Northern Africa, may very well be a mix of Berbers, Black Africans, Spaniards, and Franks, "but by dint of the Arab nation's realities [sic], they all remain Arabs shorn from the same cloth as the Arabs of the Hijaz, Najd, and Yemen."2 Beyond these ideological positions were undoubtedly more practical fears of undermining a political cause intended to unite Arabs under one political banner. Such high-pitched rhetoric also had a damaging effect on the new "nation-states" established after the Ottoman Empire's demise at the end of WorldWar I. These new states were deemed by their critics as artificial creations, serving the interests of foreign powers or their local cronies. For Arab nationalists, they were a pale substitute for the more appealing dream of a united Arab state. In the market place of political ideas, Arab national identity reigned supreme. But despite this ringing endorsement of Arab nationalism, mostly by Middle Eastern intellectuals, allegiance to the cause of Arab nationalism was not always given or evident. Many of the leading proponents and promoters of Arab nationalist ideology went through various stages, during which they explored-and frequently endorsed-alternative ideologies, before formally accepting the tenets of Arab nationalism.
Syrian thinker Adonis (b. 1930) is perhaps the most notable among those modern voices. His personal intellectual and ideological journey took him from siding with Syrian Social Nationalism to embracing an encompassing Arab national identity to committing, more recently, to fostering pluralism across the region. Adonis embodies these nuanced positions, serving as a leading individual who has emphasized differing ideological positions at various points of his life. This essay highlights Adonis's transitions, along with the people and ideas that paved the way for these changes. It explores his life, while assessing the possibility of securing a greater degree of pluralism in Middle Eastern public life. Such pluralism may be found in another feature of Middle Eastern society-Levantinism.
To be sure, Adonis has dramatically shifted his opinions and orientations over the years at a breathtaking pace. He started out by making the case for a composite Syrian identity as imagined by Antun Saadé some eighty years prior. He even dabbled briefly with Arab nationalism and a pan-Arab outlook. His later critique of Arabism was devastating; his despair of Arab nationalist intransigence was disheartening; but he also clung to some hope in the waning of Arab exclusivism. "I have no doubt in my mind," he wrote recently,
that the lands that conceived of and spread man's first Alphabet; the lands that bequeathed and taught the principles of intellectual intercourse and dialogue with the "other," since the very early discovery of Alphabetic writing; these lands that bore witness to processions of the world's loftiest civilizations, from Sumerians to Babylonians, and from Egyptians to Hebrews, Phoenicians and Romans; these lands that spawned monotheism, humanism, and belief in a compassionate deity, etc.--I say that I am confident that such fertile and bountiful lands will no doubt shake off the torpor, intransigence, and immobilism [of Arabism], and will hurtle skyward toward modernity and progress.3
There is a clear celebration of cosmopolitan humanism and multiple identities here, as well as an invitation to cast aside the narrow, resentful chauvinism espoused by Arab nationalists of Adonis's generation. In their brutal exercise of power, Arab nationalists, wrote Adonis, have abused and etiolated the hybrid cultural identities of the Middle East. They have reduced the human richness of the Middle East to a "single linguistic, cultural, racial, and religious totalitarianism; a uniform, monolithic, one-dimensional Arab culture ... obsessed and consumed by a need for ‘oneness' in thought, opinions, language, and belief."4 In sum, from Adonis's viewpoint, Arab nationalism and Arab identity presented the Middle East with a narrow, regurgitant, exclusivist culture, built solely on negating apostatizing,marginalizing, and obviating "the other"-that is in addition to incessantly accusing "the other" of treason should that "other" dare stand up to the "one-culture" chauvinism.5
But the walls of resignation and fear came tumbling down in 2011. Meeting in Antalya, Turkey in May-June 2011, a group of Syrian expats and dissidents seemed to suggest a "non-Arab" model for an impending "post-Assad Syria." In addition to demanding the ouster of the Ba'thist regime--one of the Middle East's last remaining avatars of Arabism--the fourth clause of the Antalya Final Declaration read as follows:
We, participants in the Syria Conference for Change, affirm that the Syrian people are a composite of many ethnicities, including Arabs, Kurds, Chaldaeo-Assyrian, Circassians, Armenians, and others. The conference recognizes and asserts the legitimate and equal rights of all of these constitutive elements of Syrian identity, and demands their protection under a new Syrian constitution to be founded upon the principles of civil state, pluralistic parliamentary democracy, and national unity.6
The early twentieth century conception of Syria--and its "Levantine" backyard--as a cultural and ethnic mosaic, has come full-circle in the early twenty-first century. The heaving Middle East of 2011 is perhaps putting an end to a tragic chapter of its history. Arab nationalists, on the retreat, can no longer hide the hybridity of their universe. They have suppressed the Middle East's diversity for far too long, but they could not desiccate its multi-ethnic personality to suit their monistic impulses. The Middle East is currently experiencing a shift from sectarian nationalism to a more encompassing diversity.
This is not, however, the way things began. A century ago, the idea of an encompassing Arab national identity gained traction across the region. By the mid-20th century, Arab nationalism, as noted, was the leading ideological force. It was Sati" al-Husri, Arab nationalism's chief theorist, who popularized the notion that all users of the Arabic language are Arab, regardless of their own wishes.7 Husri (1880-1967), a Turkish-speaking Syrian writer and spiritual father of linguistic Arabism, lectured throughout the 1950s and 1960s about how one is an Arab simply because he, Husri himself, so decreed. In a widely anthologized political snippet, Husri harangued that
Every person who speaks Arabic is an Arab. Every individual associated with an Arabic-speaker or with an Arabic-speaking people is an Arab. If he does not recognized [his Arabness] ...we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand ...But under no circumstances should we say ‘as long as he does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab.' He is an Arab regardless of his own wishes, whether ignorant, indifferent, recalcitrant, or disloyal; he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feelings, and perhaps even without conscience.8
Husri was aware, indeed he was proud, of the fascistic impulses of his brand of Arab nationalism. In fact, he bragged about the Arabism that he yearned for as one that had to exude totalitarian rigidity and partisan regimentation in order for it to triumph: "we can say that the system to which we should direct our hopes and aspirations is a Fascist system," he famously wrote.9 But if Husri had been intimidating in his advocacy for a compulsory Arabism, his disciple Michel Aflaq (1910-1989), co-founder of the Ba'th Party, promoted outright violence and called for the extermination of those users of the Arabic language who refused to conform to his prescribed Arab identity. Arab nationalists must be ruthless against those members of the Arab nation who have gone astray, wrote Aflaq:
they must be imbued with a hatred unto death, toward any individuals who embody an idea contrary to Arab nationalism. [...] An idea that is opposed to [Arab nationalism] does not emerge out of nothing! It is the incarnation of individuals who must be exterminated, so that their idea might in turn be also exterminated.10
This is, in a nutshell, one of the foundational tenets of Arab nationalism, and the dominant theme in the Arabist narrative of Middle Eastern history as preached by their avatars: hostility, rejection, negation, and brazen calls for the extermination of the non-Arab "other."
Professor Franck Salameh is an ASMEA member.
The opinions expressed here are his own.
Read the full article from the Bustan: The Middle East Book Review Volume 3, Issue 1.