But Karsh strays to some extent in his analysis by limiting the time frame which he chose to address. While he correctly notes that the origins of modern pan-Arabism passes through the Hashemites' broad claims to a vast empire from "Iraq to the Mediterranean," he wrongly asserts that this claim is the origin of pan-Arabism. As a result, he wrongly lays at the Hashemites' doorstep so much of the blame for what has gone so obviously wrong in Arab politics.
The concept of unity has a far richer pedigree than Karsh has it and is, thus, even more resilient and destructive than Karsh imagines. In fact, it would have been rather odd if the Hashemites did not rest their claim to leadership on Arab unity given the prevailing beliefs that form the real origins of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism. Those are six-fold.
First, the Hashemites claimed their narrow authority as the guardians of Mecca only through an appeal to family lineage that justified their universal appeal to all Muslims—as the direct descendants of the prophet. They thus evoked the language of caliphate—which is the only really legitimate language of power, politics, and leadership in a Muslim and Arab context—to justify their claim to current political power. But the early caliphs faced a major challenge to unify the various clans and tribes that were permanently tempted to internecine strife, not to speak of the challenge posed by the Shi`a; and so did their twentieth-century would-be heirs. The Hashemites had many enemies which they needed to discredit. These included not only the Saudis who were building an empire that would eventually digest all of the Hashemites' native lands, but also many Arabs who previously had been part of the Ottoman establishment, especially the military elite, local landowners, and the Shi‘a in Iraq. Also, being aligned with the British meant that the Hashemites were targeted by the local allies of Germany and France.
Second, the emphasis on unity and the illegitimacy of any division is imbedded in Islam as a cornerstone in almost all political thought. Because the world was of divine creation in Islam—an extension of God's "oneness"—Muslims have since early times considered mundane divisions as perversions of the unity of the divine. This emphasis on unity became the foundation, the sine qua non, of Muslim thought because of Islam's need to distinguish itself as the true, perfected heir to and replacement for Judaism and Christianity. Muslims found that neither of those two faiths pursued unity: Judaism because it did not see itself as the message for all mankind, as ensconced in the principle of the "chosen people," and Christianity not only because it separated the political and divine worlds as seen in the constant conflicts between the popes and princes, but also because it introduced a divided divinity through the concept of the Trinity.1
Third, Arab intellectuals—whom Karsh acknowledges himself admits formed the first chapter of the pan-Arabist doctrine's existence—adapted eighteenth-century European ideas which emerged from the French revolution and which espoused a universalism of sorts.
Fourth, even after World War I and independence, Arab political thought remained quite in tune with European political currents even as it railed against European colonialism. These included embracing plain old imperialism and White Man's burden—as Karsh rightly points out the Hashemites employed—as a justification of empire. But they also included becoming the local shadows of ghoulish inter-war European movements, such as proto-Nazi (and then Nazi) German nationalism, fascism, and communism. Karsh notes the prevalence of Sati` al-Husri in shaping pan-Arab nationalist doctrine. But Husri did not look back to the Hashemite example for intellectual justification. He hated the Hashemites and was instrumental in undermining the Hashemite regime in Iraq. He looked to contemporary Europe. Husri was a great admirer of German nationalism and served as one of the key interlocutors with the Nazis in the late 1930s and early 1940s in Iraq, then Syria.
Fifth, the Hashemites also faced a tactical consideration. To undermine the Ottoman control of the Hejaz, indeed bring down the empire, they and their British advisors felt it useful to damage the Ottoman empire's control of Palestine, Syria, and Jordan. The problem is that, despite modern Arab nationalist claims to the contrary, the Arabs of these areas wanted little to do with the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire. Indeed, when local Arabs took sides, it was far more often to cooperate with the empire against the Hashemites and British. In Palestine, the British solved this problem by relying largely on Jewish assistance--the NILI resistance organization. In the other areas, which the Hashemites were tasked to help capture, there needed to be some appeal made to local Arabs. The Hashemites had to employ all the intellectual means at their disposal--ancestry, Arabism, Muslim cohesiveness, etc.--to galvanize support, or at least to stop their fellow Arabic-speakers from working with the Ottomans. All these claims necessitated some form of universal solidarity if they were to mean anything to the targeted communities.
Finally, there is the issue of the world of Ottoman politics, from which all these political movements in post-World War I emerged. In the century before World War I and the rise of Arab nationalism, the Ottoman empire, sensing its decline relative to Europe, embarked on several broadly destructive attempts at governmental "rationalization," which meant mostly centralization and bureaucratization—not dissimilar to the sorts of absolutist reforms which Louis XIV executed in France in the seventeenth century. These Ottoman reforms, the Tanzimat, amounted to a full-scale assault on local and sectarian autonomy. As in France two hundred years earlier, an elite emerged whose identity surrounded centralized statism, the institutions of bureaucracy, and the effort to wipe out localized forms of identity.
At the pinnacle of this "rationalized" structure was the military officer elite. Early Arab nationalists, those who joined the Arab revolt toward the end of World War I and shortly thereafter when it became an inescapable observation that the Ottoman empire was dead and could no longer support their ambitions, had a very tenuous concern for the defense of "Arab" rights. Being mostly officials of the centralized bureaucracy—indeed often military officers—dislocated by the empire's collapse (Husri might have been an Arab nationalist by day, but by night he spoke with his family in the language in which he felt most at home—Turkish), they were simply an elite in search of a new mission in life. And that mission was to translate their authority under the Tanzimat reforms from an Ottoman context to an Arab context, namely to become the elite of a centralized bureaucratic state. That is why these Arab nationalists embraced not only Arab rights, but unity and statism as well. And while they joined the Hashemite-run revolt, they did so because it was the only movement clearly linked with the new victors and regional power, Britain. They shared an ideological affinity with Faysal's pan-Arabism not because they were convinced intellectually, but because it suited their political interests.
More work will need to be done on the origins of the concept of "unity" in Arab thought, and the easy answer of blaming the Hashemites will have to yield to a better understanding of the push and pull of ideas which intruded and shaped fin-de-siècle Arabdom. In fact, if there is one accusation to make regarding the Hashemites, it is how weakly they shaped their own destiny, and how openly dominated they were by the ideas of others. It is not that their influence was pernicious, but that they could not seize the moment because their fiber was weak. And that rendered their legacy as passively tragic, not actively destructive.
But these clarifications should not obscure the very important point Karsh makes. Arab culture and Islamic theology since about the year 1200 have firmly tied their politics to a concept of leadership that acquires its legitimacy only through the quest for unity, while the demands of modernity, if they ever emerge victorious in the region, will pull their politics toward accepting the limits of the power of governments within their societies and among other societies, as Karsh suggests, namely embracing division. This, unfortunately, is a far greater task than what Karsh exposed, however. One hundred years of distorted modern politics could be erased with an imaginable effort over decades. But the effects of eight centuries of indigenous thought and two centuries of external influences will take generations of Arabs to put right and generations of Western purveyors of fashionable ideologies to sit still.
David Wurmser is resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and directs its Middle East program. He is author of Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (AEI Press, 1999).1 Hillel Fradkin, "The Roots of Islamic Fundamentalism," Vision Confronts Reality: Historical Perspectives on the Contemporary Jewish Agenda, ed. Ruth Kozody (Teaneck, N.J.: Herzl Press, 1988), pp. 245-261.