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Book Review


Dawisha, Adeed. Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003). 340 pp, $22.95.

      Adeed Dawisha's Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century does a stellar job of synthesizing current debates in Arab nationalist scholarship. Dawisha situates political and ethnic nationalism within a global context, one broader than the theoretical framework typical of nation and nationalism studies alone. Dawisha examines the birth, growth, and dissolution of the Arab nationalist movement, pinpointing its apogee within the presidency of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. In particular, he reopens the ‘great debate' pitting Charles Smith against Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, a debate centered around Gershoni and Jankowski's Redefining the Egyptian Nation 1930 ­ 1945 and Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities. The debate's central question: what is a nation? According to Dawisha, the essential point, frequently missed in this debate, is that nationalist cultures ­ whether Palestinians, Basques or Kurds ­ "are in fact adamantly and vociferously desirous of a state."(6) Dawisha maintains that a nation is "a human solidarity, whose members believe that they form a coherent cultural whole, and who manifest a strong desire for political separateness and sovereignty." (13) This desire for a political state is the critical component for a practical, realistic nationalist movement, and is the focus of Dawisha's first chapter. 1
    The idea of the nation, associated with particular territories, may seem to be the antithesis of world history. This view, Dawisha makes clear, is wrong. When nation is examined through the lens of ethnic aspiration rather than the territorial state, physical boundaries become more permeable. Nation is a flexible concept, Dawisha tells us, which encompasses a plethora of non-state structures. Yet, at its core, if it is to be viable in the modern world, burns a desire for a territorial nation-state. According to Dawisha, Arab nationalism did not exist until after the Second World War, precisely because the scholars, political activists, and theorists traditionally depicted as Arab nationalists (al-Afghani, al-Banna, Q'tub, etc.) built their "nationalism" on a foundation of an amorphous umma (the world Islamic community), not on a specific, imagined nation-state. 2
    Arab Nationalism traces the development of Arab nationalist sentiment from the rumblings of minority groups under Ottoman rule, like those of Syrian Christian Negib ‘Azoury. ‘Azoury defined a future Arab state as the area stretching from the Tigris and Euphrates to the Sinai Peninsula, but not into Egypt. (25) For these early nationalists, Egypt was not Arab, and Arab was not necessarily defined by religious dimensions (particularly given that many were Christian Arabs). Outlining the rise of Arab nationalism in this way, Dawisha draws a distinction between his work and that of George Antonius' 1938 book The Arab Awakening. Long considered the definitive work on Arab nationalism, Antonius contends that Arab political ambition was first stirred by Muhammad Ali, the Albanian governor of Egypt, in the 1800s and then later in the 1916 Arab Revolt. According to Dawisha, however, postwar Arab nationalism did not derive from the legacy of the Mohamed Ali or the Arab Revolt, but instead developed in the "infant state of Iraq" and the efforts of King Faysal's Minster of Education in Syria, Sati' al-Husri (47), as well as in the tumult of Palestine during the British Mandate (chapters three and four). 3
     Ironically, Dawisha contends, the resurgence of Arab nationalism resulted from defeat in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The war discredited the old Egyptian monarchy, overthrown in the 1952 "Officers Coup" that ultimately brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. Nasser's Arab nationalism owed much to late 19th century Christian Arab nationalists such as ‘Azoury and to the anti-colonial rhetoric of proto-nationalists like al-Afghani, al-Banna, and even critics like Sayeed Q'tub. His charismatic leadership, his secularist politics and his opposition to the Cold War's rigidly bipolar world order inspired many Arabs. His reputation reached its apogee in 1958 with the unification of Syria and Egypt as the United Arab Republic (UAR). 4
     However, Nasser's Arab nationalism did not fulfill its promise. The UAR fell apart in 1961, the victim of conflicting personalities and political agendas. Then came the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war. As Dawisha observes, "Arab nationalism, by the end of the century, was remembered mostly for the debacle of the 1967 war, for Arab divisions that led to weakness, for its inability to come to the aid of its Palestinian children, [and] for its big, resonant and meaningless words" (313).   5
     Dawisha concludes that by the end of the 20th century, very little remained of Nasser's Arab nationalist project. Promoted as the Arab world's route to international empowerment, promising to repair the damage incurred from colonialism and postcolonial ‘third world' status, Arab nationalism achieved none of its aims.  6
     For students of world history, mid-century Arab nationalism offers lessons about the nationalism in theory and in practice. Traditionally, World and Western Civilizations courses focused on nationalism as part of the "long 19th century," punctuated by Italian and German national unifications and the increasingly dangerous conflicts among Balkan nationalisms. Encouraging students to consider the history of Arab nationalism can deepen student understanding of nationalist projects worldwide over the past two hundred years.   7
Maryanne Rhett
Washington State University

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