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December 5, 2016


Sati’ al-Husri (ساطع الحصري ) (1880 – 1968) was an Ottoman and Syrian writer, considered to be the greatest Arab nationalist thinker in the 20th century: the “intellectual prophet of Arab nationalism,”[1] “ the man who did most to poularize the idea of nationalism among the literate classes of the Arab Middle East.”[2] He influenced the kind of Arab nationalism espoused by President Nasser of Egypt (1952 – 1970), since he was resident of Cairo from 1947, working in the Cultural Directorate of the League of Arab States, and producing most of his works. In 1965, he left Cairo to Iraq, where he died a few years later. If one wants to know the definition and nature of Arab nationalism, one cannot but read Husri. Arab nationalists across the Middle East have come to accept him as the Father of Arab nationalism.

Husri defines Arab nationalism on the lines of language and, to a lesser extent, history. According to Husri, a nation is objectively based through the unity of its linguistic community and the coherence of its history. It is the individual’s language and history, regardless of his own preferences, that determine his national identity.  Echoing the German romantics’ definition of what constitutes a ‘German,’ Husri would contend that people who speak Arabic as their mother tongue are Arabs, the very people who recognize the common thread of their long and distinguished history. The Arab nation is therefore predetermined and eternal. In this understanding of nationalism, there is no place for the will of the people, as the great Renan would emphasise – it is per-determined.[3]

On the attributes of the history, Husri writes:

“Nationalist feeling depends on historical memories more than anything else. … History-related ideas and data play an important role in the life of nations and have a great impact on the direction of historical events. … We do not exaggerate when we say that generally the movements for resurrection and struggle for independence and unity begin only by recalling the past and searching for revelation from history. … Love for independence is nourished by memories of the lost independence; the longing for power and glory begins with a lament for the lost power and diminished glory; faith in the future of the nation derives its strength from the belief in the brilliance of the past; and the longing for unification is increased by the renewal of memories of the last unity.”[4]

Husri sums up his theory on Arab nationalism by saying: “Language is the soul and the life of the nation; history is its memory and its cognizance.”[5] He does not allow, though, for religion to come into his definition of Arab nationalism: he emphasises that his nationalism is secular, and Islam does not constitute a fundamental element of it. Husri tells us that Arab and Islamic history are not co-terminus; that Arabs had existed long before the advent of Islam.[6] He was hopeful of enticing Christians in what is called the “Arab world” to join the folds of Arab nationalism. Somehow he argues that “‘Arab’ Christians are as proud of their Arab heritage as their Muslim brothers.”[7]

Husri proves that advocates of Arab nationalism knew nothing about the feelings of Christians in the Arab world. He might have been misled by the writings of some of the Syrian and Lebanese Christians, such as Michel Aflaq (1910 – 1989), Antun Sa’adeh (1904 – 1949), and Constantine Zuraiq (1909 – 2000), who saw in Arab nationalism a scape from the oppression of Pan-Islamism and the grasp of the Ottoman Empire that relied on the nexus of Islam to base its claim on the governance of Arab countries.

But what about the Copts, the largest Christian minority in the Middle East?  Husri does not talk about the Copts, a strange matter considering his stay in Cairo for 18 years. Most probably he saw that the Copts did not buy his promotion of Arab nationalism: the Copts spoke Arabic not because it was their mother tongue, but a tongue imposed on them by the Arab occupation of Egypt; further, the Copts could not subscribe to Arab nationalism on the basis of history, with Islam as a component or without it. In fact, Arab and Islamic history is diametrically different from Coptic history; and Coptic history cannot be understood without the oppression that Arabs and Muslims brought on the Copts. The Copts cannot feel any pride in Arab history; and they can be excused if they hated it. The Copts are simply not Arabs, and their roots go back to Ancient Egypt and not to Arabia. The Copts reject Arab nationalism as defined by Husri.

But, the outsider may think Husri is actually a very generous nationalist, that his Arab nationalism, as he presented it, is tolerant since it allows Christians in; but, is it? The Copts, as many other Christian minorities in the Middle East, do not subscribe to Arab nationalism, as they have their own nationalism of which they are proud of. Does Husri allow such nationalism within Arab countries? The answer is no. He writes:

“Every Arab-speaking people is an Arab people. Every individual belonging to one of these Arabic-speaking peoples is an Arab. And if he does not recognize this, and if he is not proud of his Arabism, then we must look for the reasons that have made him take this stand. It may be an expression of ignorance; in that case we must teach him the truth. It may spring from an indifference or false consciousness; in that case we must enlighten him and lead him to the right path. It may result from extreme egoism; in that case we must limit his egoism. 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, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without consciousness or feeling, and perhaps even without conscience.[8]

In fact, Arab nationalism, as defined by Husri, and taken by the Nasserists and Ba’athists, is a very oppressive and tyrannical type of nationalism – it does not allow any other nationalism within Arab-dominated countries except Arab nationalism. Those, like the Copts who speak Arabic must be forced to accept Arabic nationalism: no Copt has the free will to choose or reject Arab nationalism – it’s predetermined, not exactly by language and history but by Arab despotism.

And this is not a theoretical matter. The Nasser’s regime applied it in practice: Copts were not allowed to propagate the feelings of Coptic nationalism; and while in the pre-1952 Copts wrote and expressed themselves as a Coptic nation, we see in the post-1952 no such thing. That was because Nasser and his Arab nationalists were not tolerant of any nationalism other than Arab nationalism, which they imposed on Arabs and non-Arabs. There can be nothing more suffocating than Arab nationalism.


[1] Adeed Dawisha, Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (Princeton and Oxford, 2003); p. 49.

[2] Ibid; p. 50.

[3] Ibid; p. 72.

[4] Ibid; p. 67.

[5] Ibid; p. 68.

[6] Ibid; p. 70.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid; p. 72.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Emad permalink
    December 6, 2016 6:33 pm

    North africa like tunis algeria and morocco they born with a fluent french tongue and they still call themselves arabs



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