After the Great War, Arab societies, like many others, for the first time came to know politics as a modern mass phenomenon in which modern communication technologies are used for mass political mobilization. For the first time, intellectuals, journalists, poets, and men of letters of all sorts replaced the old classes of religious scholars by becoming the source of moral knowledge and ethical education for the public. The new trend of inspiring people with a total philosophical “vision,” the conversion of artistic sensibilities into populist political symbols, and the pooling of mass support into a demand, symbol, or figure that could be converted to power became the mainstays of Levantine and Egyptian politics. At the heart of this new trend were the two most transformative revolutionary ideologies German philosophy has produced: romantic nationalism and Marxism, and their struggle against the common postwar enemy of Western imperialism.
Nationalism as a romanticist literary and artistic phenomenon could be discerned in late-19th-century Arabic writing and art, yet it was not until the interwar years that nationalism mattered as a mobilizing revolutionary impulse around which political movements could form and as a literary genre of romantic imagination. The revolutionary impulse that started to ferment during the Great War and accelerated after its end was a generally anti-imperialist fervor without ideological content or clear direction. It is best to imagine it as a primordial pool to which intellectual and political developments in Europe, such as Marxist-Leninism, fascism, Nazism, and antisemitism constantly flowed, and from which the political movements that shaped the region today emerged.
Arab nationalism was the first and earliest idea which articulated a cohesive ideology for the region in the works of its intellectual father, Sati Al-Husri (1880-1968). A former Ottoman officer, Husri became one of the first modern Arab educators for whom education meant the mission of preparing and producing nationalist youth and endowing it with a Prussian militant sense of historical mission. The idea that the Hegelian conception of the political community as a historical protagonist whose members form an organic unity with a transcendent salvific mission inside history could find its inevitable realization only in the establishment of a state. The outright rejection and delegitimation of current reality in favor of a supposedly historically inevitable future which is the only legitimate reality possible is a prerequisite of Hegelian revolutionary action. Those who defend the present naturally become an obstacle and enemies of history itself.
Constricting the idea of natural political legitimacy, in itself a modern philosophical concept, to a political reality that must be identical to an abstract and ideal notion of a great Arab or Islamic nation, embodying a certain mystical essence, naturally led to complete delegitimation of any political reality short of such ideal while establishing legitimacy, and not sovereignty, as the criterion of political truth. Actual, lesser nation-states were delegitimated as “artificial” products of European colonialism, a view enshrined in the fictitious and ideological treatment of historical episodes such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Such philosophical conception can be clearly grasped in all modern Middle Eastern political ideologies; it can be discerned, for instance, in the Baathist slogan, “One Arab nation with an eternal mission,” or in that of the Muslim Brotherhood, “Islam is the solution,” or in the propaganda of ISIS which named the video of its deceleration as “The End of Sykes-Picot.”
As Hegelianism and its ideologies were shaping Arab thought, a new generation of men of letters emerged, primarily in Egypt and the Levant, whose work valorized self-expression, the quest for authenticity, romantic ideals, and artistic subjectivity as a sense of mystical duty toward some absolute spirit. The sense of romantic struggle provided a literary fantastic view of a heroic self, encircled by a world of hostile forces; seeking to overcome such a world by unlocking the authenticity of one’s most inner self naturally intersected with a new kind of political activism centered on deeply mystical notions of nature, blood, soil, liberation, death, regenerative violence, and armed struggle. European phenomena such as cultural salons, secret societies, and militant youth groups led by intellectuals, self-identifying as vanguards, with unique colored shirts and carrying slogans referring to death, iron, and fire proliferated.
It was therefore inevitable that such intellectual and psychological conditions would lead to consequences not too dissimilar from the consequences of such conditions in Europe; the appearance of popular political movements carrying devotional romantic symbols founded by self-styled fuehrers who embodied the potent Leninist mix of intellectual-politicians leading a vanguard in the final phase of a historical struggle toward an inevitable salvific future in which all contradictions will be resolved. In the interwar years in Egypt and the Levant, communist, Arabist, Egyptianist, Syrianist, and Islamist groups proliferated and created an ideologically competitive mimetic contagion. Together, those groups formed a common space where the abstract ideas of German philosophy, nationalism, socialism, unification and European revolutionary thought combined and recombined along with the local symbols of Islam and Arab culture and altered the entire substructure of Arab thought.
If the arrival of the Arabic printing press in the 19th century allowed literary nationalism and romanticist ideas to proliferate among the new educated classes, the shortwave radio brought a new phase of possibilities carrying on its waves the thunderous voices of mass mobilization. The new possibilities of the new technologies were first fully realized in the Middle East by the two protagonists of the global European revolution known as WWII, Italy and Germany. The former established its Arabic Radio Bari station in 1934 and the latter, the Voice of Berlin in Arabic, in 1939. Together, they filled the airwaves with Arabic propaganda of the most sensationalist kind mixing Islamic motifs and symbols with anti-Westernism, antisemitism, and incitement to mass violence. Radio Bari and the Voice of Berlin championed the national liberation of all the Arab and Muslim peoples and warned against the conspiracies of imperialist powers and the “Jewish States of America,” and called for a revolution against the West.
Many of the antisemitic catchphrases and conspiracy theories still found in Arabic culture today can indeed be traced to the legacy of the Voice of Berlin and its Iraqi anchor, Yunis Bahri. According to the British propaganda official, Nevill Barbour, “The Nazis had the skill or luck to find and employ an Iraqi, Yunus al-Bahri, who had a remarkable talent for the sensational type of broadcasting which they favored. Berlin Radio was bound by no scruples and cared nothing for factual accuracy … it, therefore, used every device to inflame Arab resentment against Britain for favoring Zionism, to exploit every conceivable suspicion regarding British actions, and to sneer at Arabs who publicly declared their support of the British connection. The Berlin Radio announcer, for instance, used regularly to refer to Prince Abdallah as ‘Rabbi Abdallah.’”
Nazism and fascism served as an inspiration and a prototype to many aspiring movements such as the Syrian Socialist National Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The excitement in the prospects of a German victory brought, along with Arab intellectual affections to German philosophy, can be clearly read in almost all the memoirs of those who came to political age during the period including Presidents Nasser and Sadat in Egypt and Antun Saadah in Syria. More significant than politicians, in my opinion, are those who would become the founders of Arab and Muslim modern thought, such as the Egyptian thinker Abdulrahman Badawi, the first modern Arab philosopher, a figure of utmost importance, whose memoirs show deep sympathies with Germany and Nazism and a near-pathological obsession with Jews. Or the most prominent Algerian thinker of the era of national liberation, Malek Bennabi, who was accused later by France of having been a Nazi collaborator.
During the war, the minority of Arab intellectuals and thinkers who firmly opposed Nazism and fascism belonged to either the older generations of the pro-British or else were young communists. Otherwise, it is not an exaggeration to say that the overwhelming majority sympathized with Germany and the Axis and encouraged the population to do so. The political fervor of the time was primarily anti-British, anti-French, and anti-Jewish, and in favor of revolutionary mobilization; the question of ideology was secondary at best. That is why qualifiers of ideological identity added to famous figures of the period, such as Haj Amin el-Husseini, often oscillate between describing him as an Arab nationalist and or as an Islamist.
By the end of the 1940s and as the Cold War started, the atmosphere of struggle had permeated the minds of the most modern Arab societies and they were ripe for the beginning of their revolution. In retrospect, it seems only fitting that the end of the colonial era in the Middle East was ushered by a sequence of events that was the culmination of the story outlined above and the foreshadowing of the decades to come; the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab ruled lands, the coup d’etat in Syria in 1949, and the coup d’etat in Egypt in 1952.
The revolutionary wave which has been fermenting for decades in the primordial soup of revolutionary ideas burst forth as the sun was setting on European colonialism to carry the mission of national liberation and decolonization in Egypt, Syria, Algeria, and Iraq. The revolutionary milieu which oversaw the establishment of the Syrian Republic included Baathists, Syrian nationalists, proto-Islamists, and communists. Similarly, the 1952 coup in Egypt followed by the rise of Nasserism, was a collective project in which all revolutionaries supported and participated. In other words, the revolutionary wave was the practical embodiment of the primordial pool of ideas mentioned earlier. It formed, in the beginning, a unified revolutionary milieu from which a process of mitosis led to its later fragmentation into the distinct yet interconnected movements of Nasserism, Baathism, Islamism, the Arab new left, and Palestinian nationalism in which the potent mixture of revolutionary nationalism, revolutionary socialism, anti-Westernism, and antisemitism dominated.
One of the prominent members of the revolutionary milieu was none other than Sayyed Qutb, a literary critic who later came to be remembered as the ideological founder of Islamist jihadism. Qutb was part of this revolutionary milieu and an insider in the halls of revolutionary power. His later fallout with Nasser turned him into a kind of a Muslim Gramsci or Trotsky, with which a mixture of revolutionary existentialism, Leninism, and a literary romanticist conception of Islam came to be identified. One way to understand Qutb’s work is to see it with the eyes of a literary critic turned revolutionary, an attempt to extrapolate the literary sensibility of Islam, i.e., divine subjectivity, and use it to existentially shape one’s self in an environment of sensory isolation. Such a process would be followed by the creation of the vanguard which will proceed to realize the spirit of Islam in history.
The revolutions of national liberation led to the establishment of one-party populist states of which Egypt was the largest and most important. The period was that of the euphoric mass sentiment of absolute unity between the people, the state, the heroic leader, and the intellectuals, which was celebrated as true popular democracy. A large public sector, large state investments, and a state-led economy were the essence of Arab socialism. The holy trinity of unity, Arabness, and socialism, the invention of the Baath, became the creed of the new Arab secular political religion. The massive projects of postcolonial modernization, meant heavy investment in literacy programs, free education, and more extensive higher education to produce the needed administrative skills for the new massive state bureaucracies and security apparatus. The confiscation of foreign and Jewish property provided the needed capital for many such projects.
Decolonization and nationalization did not just target industrial assets and land ownership. They also naturally extended to all aspects of cultural life, as the urban cosmopolitanism of the colonial era was to be replaced by a centralized Arab urban culture. In Egypt, the state gradually took control of all educational institutions, secular and religious, all media, print, and radio, record companies, as well as the Egyptian movie industry, which at the time was one of the largest in the world. The progressive Arab left then proceeded to mass radicalize all of society and culture.
Above the reshaping of popular culture, and within the global context of the Cold War, sat a new high Arab culture that was changing its orientation from the fascism and the Nazism that inspired its roots toward Marxism, the Soviet orbit, and specifically the French left, which at the time was wallowing in postwar pessimism that lost hope of revolution in Europe and looked to the former colonies for salvation. By the early 1960s, Jean-Paul Sartre was the most widely read, in-vogue intellectual in the Arabic language, and Arab students and intellectuals found a second home in Parisian cafes. In 1955, Raymond Aron made note of this in his and warned the French left against indoctrinating Arab and African young students into ideologies that were not suitable for their societies. Yet the Sartrean combination of valiant existentialism, Marxism, and decolonization along with the French conception of the public intellectual as the lodestar of sacred struggle continued to shape the culture of youth in Cairo, Alexandria, Damasus, Beirut, and Baghdad. His books “sold like bread,” wrote George Tarabishi, one of Sartre’s Arabic translators.
The new generation of revolutionary intellectuals started decolonizing intellectual life by replacing the older generation of men of letters who had dominated under the British and French influence such as Taha Hussein and Abbas Aqqad with politically committed authors. In this, the Arab revolutionary intellectuals were following the steps of the French left who sought to “repudiate the spirit of seriousness” of traditional European philosophy as well as of European bourgeois culture. The Sartrean concept of Commitment was widely enforced, meaning that anyone who wanted to participate in cultural production or public life had to be committed to revolutionary politics. Under the auspices of Commitment, Arabic culture became a culture of struggle. In the autobiographical formula of veteran Lebanese communist Fawaz Taraboulsi, everyone was, “Communist poetically, Arabist politically, Socialist economically, and existentialist philosophically.” If revolutionary romantic heroes were the mimetic contagion of the interwar year, the left-wing existentialist smoking in a cafe, holding a Sartre or a de Beauvoir book, and making pronouncements that are as deeply shallow as they are superficially profound was the mimetic contagion of the ’50s and the ’60s. Literary existentialist feminism, of unprecedented sexual expressionism, appeared in the writings of figures such as Laila Baalbaki and Nazik Al-Malaika.
Suhayl Idris is a case in point. Born in Lebanon in 1925 to a religious Sunni family, Idris proceeded to obtain classical Islamic education in religious law in Beirut. After graduation, he turned secular, obtained a Ph.D. from the French Sorbonne in literature in 1953, and returned to Lebanon to establish the leading Arabic literary periodical and publishing house of the time which translated the works of Sartre, Camus, Isaac Deutscher, Rosa Luxemburg, Gramsci, Marx, and others. Idris’ literary style was the furthest possible from the religious style. In 1956 he wrote, “Today, the Arab writer cannot but put his feather pen in the fountain of the blood of martyrs and heroes … so when he may lift his pen, it drips with the meaning of revolution against imperialism.” And in 1958, objecting to the anti-Soviet, anti-Nasser Baghdad Pact he wrote, “We Arab Nationalists are objecting to the policies of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan despite being Muslim countries … if Islam indeed supported imperialism we would have fought against it!”
Intellectuals with more sophisticated Marxist inclinations had to follow the Soviet line which gave predominance to the revolutionary intersection between the struggle of ruling nationalist petit bourgeois against Western imperialism and the Marxist struggle against capitalism. It encouraged Arab Marxists to focus their analytical works on Western imperialism and not on analyzing the class structure of their own societies. This influence kept Marxism constricted in two areas, polemics against wealthy classes, and a political view of international relations that complemented romantic nationalism.
The Marxist inevitability of revolution and overthrow of Western capitalism created an Arab sense of inevitable triumph against the West and Israel which in turn led to unquestioning support of the revolutionary regimes despite their accumulating record of failures, excesses, abuses, and idiocies. Thus, Arab communists overwhelmingly supported the leadership of Nasser even as they were being tortured in his prisons. A rare exception was the Iraqi Marxist intellectual Ali Al-Wardi, whose sociological studies in Islamic history in the 1950s attempted to provide a historical materialist analysis emphasizing class warfare as the historically meaningful factor in the development of Islamic beliefs.
The ideological developments and transmutations of the periods can be seen in the lives of many figures of the period such as Fayez Sayegh, who was the first Arab intellectual to apply Sartre’s critique of racism and neocolonialism to Israel. He argued that what applies in Congo and Vietnam also applied to Israel, and he was also the principal author of the 1975 U.N. Zionism-is-racism resolution. Sayegh, born in Syria to a Presbyterian minister in 1920, started his active life in the 1940s by joining the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, a Syrian imitation of Nazism under the leadership of the “Fuehrer” Antun Saadeh. During the time Sayegh wrote and spoke for the SSNP about “the danger of Zionism on civilization and the soul,” as well as the dangers of the “Jewish psyche.” After the turn to the left, Sayegh became an Arab existentialist authority on Sartre and Fanon. In 1965, during his tenure at Stanford, he wrote the booklet “Colonialism in Palestine” which was published by the PLO and then translated to a dozen of languages and distributed globally by the Afro-Asian People’s Solidarity Organization (AAPSO). His booklet was the birth document of the global cause for Palestine as it hit all the major notes played by the international left—racial supremacy, segregation, exclusion, civil rights, emancipation, anti-capitalism, self-defense, human rights, and resistance—invoked Algeria, African Americans, Congo, and Vietnam, and used existentialist ideas of otherness. It was Sayegh who inserted Palestine into the anti-Western canon of the international left. The later anti-Zionist works by major figures of the French left such as Maxime Rodinson would only continue Sayegh’s work.
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