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The strength of Middle East nationalism as a search for legitimacy 27, February 2009

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Bahrain, Foreign Policies, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East, Saudi Arabia.
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Since Napoleon raised his army on a diet of nationalistic fervour, flags and anthems, people in the West have been only too aware of the powerful nature of nationalism. This is not to say that it is not powerful elsewhere. However, from a Western perspective, since Western states have – on the whole – been established, bordered and Weshphalian entities for longer than elsewhere in the world, there is, it could be suggested, something of an implicit assumption that nationalism could be ipso facto stronger in the West. In the Middle East, for example, how could the forces of nationalism possibly be that strong, one might think, in such young states (some of which only became independent in 1971) where there is such a manifestly important and pervasive uniting element at the supra-national level in Islam?

Whatever the apparent logic of such a position, it is clearly wrong: nationalism in the Middle East is thoroughly entrenched and all too visible. During the Iraq-Iran war, many on the Iranian side expected that their Shia brethren in the Iraqi army (and the vast majority in the country) might switch sides to the Iranians or at least not fight. Eight years of bitter, attritional and epically costly warfare later and such notions were thoroughly disabused. In a talk given at Durham University, the Iraqi Ambassador to America echoed these sentiments when discussing Shia in power in Baghdad today: they did and do not ‘sell out’ Iraq to Iran in any way, shape or form, act as Iranian stooges or even fail to drive a hard bargain where necessary. They were Iraqi first and Shia second.

Exactly the same logic has been apparent in Bahrain recently. Bahrain, like Iraq under Saddam, is mostly Shia but ruled by a Sunni minority. In the Bahraini case the country is approximately 2/3 Shia. There have always been exceedingly close ties with Persia/Iran but some 230KM away. Indeed, the ruling al Khalifah family have always feared the closeness of Iran and their history of overlordship. Their fears are not eased by periodic hawkish remarks from various Iranian parliamentarians, such as last week’s comments by Ali Akber Nateq Nouri the speaker of Iran’s parliament bemoaning that Bahrain used to be the 14th province of Iran. Far from inciting his Shia, Farsi-speaking former country-men in Bahrain to stand up against the Sunni minority (whether that was what he was intending or not) such actions created a vociferous nationalist reaction and general opprobrium.

“Three Arab summits in response to the Gaza offensive.”

3-conferences-for-gaza-peaceAl-Quds Al-Arabi, London, January 17, 2009 (MEMRI)

The manifest strength of nationalism in the Middle East is one of the reasons that, despite most of the region having a common language, an over-achingly common religion, a common enemy in Israel, a common cause in the Palestinian situation and common social, cultural and political histories, so many divisions emerge when trying to come together over a given issue. The most recent example of this was in the establishment of conferences to deal with the Israeli invasion of Gaza: one involving Qatar, Iran and Syria, another with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and a third in Kuwait. As Gregory Gause writes, however, these divisions are nothing new and indeed were even more divisive in the recent past.

It could be argued that the desire for each Arab country to be seen as ‘fixer in chief’ stems from their inherent lack of democratic legitimacy. Without a popular mandate, leaders have to justify their positions in a different way. Acting as a leading country in the region, one that is standing up to Israel or assiduously helping the Palestinians, is all currency that may help fill the democratic void.