But in an international system of nation-states, no nation can be true to itself without a nationalist foundation that encompasses a set of collectively shared values under the banner of a national identity. Referring to Nazi Germany in order to deny the validity of nationalism ignores the fact that all great and sovereign powers in our current era are grounded in nationalist principles.
Indeed, as with all concepts and ideologies, its extremities can produce unwanted effects, as Nazi Germany and Israel's Zionism have shown. But without a unifying national identity, a nation-state cannot be deemed as such, and risks falling into the degrading category of a “failed state.”
In their post-colonial designs on the Middle East, Western powers implemented a policy of divide and conquer that ensured steady oil flow, while maintaining regional hegemony through the suppression of the emergence of a nationalist, sovereign order reflective of the social and economic interests of the Arab peoples. Sovereignty – in other terms, independence from Western interests – is the West's ultimate fear for the Arab world. And sovereignty can only be achieved through a national conscience that produces a binding national identity.
The anti-imperialist argument concerning the Syrian crisis entails a complete rejection of the hegemonic order established in the Middle East, and great power involvement in internal affairs. It also strikes at the endless struggle between the desire for self-determination of lesser powerful nations and the global interests of greater powers.
However, the weakness of the wholly rejectionist anti-imperialist stance is that it relies too heavily on moral righteousness, which skews it from the fundamental, and often cruel, realities of international relations. Oppressed peoples of weaker nations should feel outraged that greater powers so often treat them with disdain and squander their freedom for the pursuit of selfish and violent interests. But morality does not define international relations, and unfortunately, the history of human civilization has been a recurring theme of the struggles of the weak against the powerful.
Great powers almost always have a stake in the affairs of the weaker powers. An accommodation of the world chess game between great powers needs to factor when pursuing and calculating the interests of lesser states. Opportunities for self-determination of weaker nations become available when sufficient conditions are met, such as a realignment of the world order or where a contest in world power allows room for the attainment of full sovereignty by the weaker power.
Israel currently exists as an addendum of US power, but its creation was only realized following a major realignment of global power after World War II. Vietnam was able to achieve self-determination by using the world power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union in order to reject American hegemony. The Vietnam War is often viewed as a fight for communism, but the Viet Cong were at the core nationalists simply struggling for self-determination.
“It was patriotism, not communism, that inspired me,” Ho Chi Minh famously declared. “Our secret weapon is nationalism.”
But without Soviet aid under the guise of communism, the Viet Cong would never have succeeded.
It is fair to state that the Arab world has routinely missed the few opportunities that have arisen throughout the past century to achieve self-determination. Western powers successfully manipulated and divided the region after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and went further to install Israel following World War II. On both occasions, the peoples of the Middle East lacked national cohesion and awareness to stake their claim for the post-colonial era. There was also a failure to exploit the Cold War to produce a sovereign position, particularly in the Levant where, as opposed to Vietnam, a local sense of nationalism failed to take root.
While the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran is demonized in the West as an act of regression, it successfully achieved self-determination for Iran in the sense that its identity and interests were no longer subordinate to the great powers. The internal political makeup of a country, as controversial as it may be, does not detract from the sovereignty achieved by that state. Iran's Islamic theocracy can rightly be contested within internal spheres, as Vietnam's communism has been since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the ability of a nation to have sovereignty over its identity and interests cannot be underscored. And despite both Iran and Vietnam's governing systems espousing different ideologies, the core motivation for their struggles lied in nationalist tendencies for self-determination and sovereignty over their decisions. Without a cohesive, nationalist understanding shared among the major stakeholders of society, there can be no clear case for self-determination.
This leads to the other glaring weakness of the anti-imperialist stance: it has remained entirely a reactionary expression to great power involvement in the region without articulating the desired nation(s) it would have in its place. Rejectionism on its own is insufficient in any attempt to alter the status quo for the better. And in this sense, the domestic sphere cannot be distinguished from the external surroundings. Rejectionism should not be the motivating force behind the need for change, but rather, a clearly defined vision for a desired nation rooted in a nationalist understanding that reflects the collective interests of its society. The movements behind Israel, Iran and Vietnam were able to define their intended state – Zionist, Islamist and Communist respectively – despite being grounded in a nationalist drive for self-determination. If the outcome is not envisioned when the conditions for the pursuit of self-determination arises, then such a pursuit is subject to manipulation by interested parties. Thus, a road leading to nowhere will be steered by external forces in a direction that will ultimately not lead to true self-determination.
This is the predicament that currently faces the Arab uprisings. The revolts have come at a time of gradual realignment in the global distribution of power, with declining US power and the emergence of non-Western powers. The Arab Spring has thus taken the first step in embracing the opportunity presented to seek self-determination. It has expressed its rejection of the current hegemonic order of the Middle East, but has subsequently failed to present an alternative model that truly expresses local interests.
What is the national identity(ies) of the Arab world? Do we redraw the map and rewind the borders imposed by great powers, or do we retain them? Do we pursue an Islamist model for the region, pan-Arabism, or revert to sub-nationalist identities (such as pan-Maghreb, pan-Syrian)?
A response to such questions, and a clearly defined and accepted platform for a nation(s), must be achieved in order to fully convert the Arab uprisings into true revolutions. The Arab uprisings have thus far created the space to discuss a model that truly reflects the social interests and character of the region. But the growing sectarian discourse perpetuated by the agents of great powers in the region has so far succeeded in sidelining such a necessary debate. The uprisings have, nevertheless, shown some indication that these questions are being addressed, albeit on a low level. Events in Tunisia and Libya have revitalized the Maghreb Union, reflecting a common desire for closer cooperation. Talk of redrawing Gulf boundaries is equally emerging as a result of the Bahrain revolt, but again, shrouded by the overt sectarian discourse driven by the Gulf regimes.
The Syrian crisis is, by contrast, the example of a state lacking a cohesive national identity. The country has turned its guns on itself partly due to an absence of a national conscience. Sectarian, tribal and geographic identities are emerging at the forefront, almost completely blind to the existence of a Syrian nation, which is threatening to tear at the 'cradle of civilization'.
A discussion reviving Syria's national identity cannot be delayed until after a resolution is found to the crisis, as some have proposed, as it is necessary to define the cause motivating the Syrian revolt. Launching a war without a clear alternative nation envisioned leaves the door open to the emergence of reactionary movements and an unforeseen outcome that potentially counters the goals of self-determination. For the Syrian revolt to succeed, it needs to reinforce a sense of nationalism that is inclusive of the country's demographics in its quest for true Syrian sovereignty, where the interests of its society, as diverse it is, are wholly reflected.
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