The December 2000 issue of the Middle East Quarterly featured an article by Efraim Karsh, "Why the Middle East Is So Volatile," followed by responses from Graham Fuller, Martin Kramer, and David Wurmser. Mr. Karsh here has a chance to answer his critics.
In my article "Why the Middle East is so volatile," I argued that the region's endemic instability stems first and foremost from the failure of local political and intellectual elites to internalize the reality of state nationalism and their continued subscription to dated notions of imperialism.
These notions, as aptly noted by David Wurmser, are deeply rooted in indigenous soil; the story of the Middle East has long been the story of the rise and fall of universal empires and, no less importantly, of imperial dreams. This has been so from the ancient empires of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent (for example, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Carthage, Persia, Assyria, Babylon, and so on), through the early Muslim states and the Ottoman Empire. Politics during this lengthy period were characterized by a constant struggle for regional mastery; again and again, the dominant power sought to subdue, and preferably to eliminate, all potential challengers, so as to bring the entire region under its domination.
Such imperialist ambitions, however, often remained largely unsatisfied as the determined pursuit of absolutism was matched by the equally formidable forces of fragmentation and degeneration. This wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the stark realities of weakness, between the imperial dream and the centrifugal forces of parochialism and local patriotism, has survived the demise of the Ottoman Empire to haunt Middle Eastern politics for generations to come.
Regrettably, as Martin Kramer points out, these notions of regional imperialism have often been endorsed by Western political intellectual circles that have viewed them as beneficial to their own interests. Indeed, one needs to look no further than Graham Fuller's response to my article to realize the depth and tenacity of this support. Ignoring the historical evidence that points to both the untenable nature of the pan-Arab ideal and the exorbitant human and material cost attending its pursuit, Fuller argues that "there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this idea; to the contrary . . . a quest for closer unity is a progressive force in a world in which the ethnically-based nation-state has presented us with a largely ugly model."
Even if one accepts this fashionable indictment of the modern nation-state, Fuller's enthusiasm for pan-Arabism seems excessive. For if the "ethnically-based nation-state" does present us with "a largely ugly model," then an ethnically-based super-state must surely be an even uglier phenomenon. Contrary to Fuller's assertion, there is nothing inherently ugly or violent about the desire of a specific group of people sharing such attributes as common descent, language, culture, tradition, and history. National self-determination in a definite, well demarcated, and bounded territory that a people considers to be their historical or ancestral homeland is acceptable. Imperialism, rather, which has constituted the foremost generator of violence in modern world history, is the problem. The desire to dominate foreign creeds, nations, or communities, and to occupy territories well beyond the "ancestral homeland" contains the inevitable seeds of violence - not the wish to be allowed to follow an independent path of development. The worst atrocities in human history—from the exile of entire nations by the ancient Mesopotamian empires, to the decimation of the native populations of north and south America, to the Armenian genocide of the World War I, to the Holocaust—have been carried out by imperial powers seeking regional or world mastery. Even some of today's worst outbursts of violence, from Rwanda to Kosovo, are remnants of the bitter legacy of longstanding imperial domination.
It is here that the sources of Middle Eastern volatility lie. As demonstrated in my article, the term "Arab nationalism" is a misnomer. It represents not a genuine national movement or ideal but is a euphemism for raw imperialism. There is not and has never existed an "Arab nation" and its invocation has been nothing but a clever ploy to rally popular support behind one's quest for regional mastery. Before the 1920s and 1930s, when Arabs began to be indoctrinated with the notion that all of them constituted one nation, there had been no general sense of "Arabism" among the Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East. There was only an intricate web of local loyalties to one's clan, tribe, village, town, religious sect, or localized ethnic minority—overarched by submission to the Ottoman sultan-caliph in his capacity as the religious and temporal head of the worldwide Muslim community.
This extreme orientation to the locality explains the near-total indifference among these populations to the nationalist message of the secret Arab societies prior to World War I, as well as their continued loyalty to their Ottoman sultan through the end of the war. Most important, it rebuts the standard historiographical version of widespread yearning for a unified pan-Arab state, or rather an empire, in the wake of World War I, and underscores the fundamental disposition of the Arabic-speaking world to local patriotism rather than to a unified regional order.
Had this disposition been allowed to run its natural course, these disparate communities would have developed into "normal" nation-states and been spared the artificial schizophrenia instilled into them by imperialist-minded rulers and regimes. As things were, the systematic pan-Arab indoctrination sufficed to create a deep dissonance between the reality of state nationalism and the dream of an empire packaged as a unified "Arab nation." It failed, however, to make any headway towards the creation of such a nation. For even "imagined communities" cannot be invented deus ex machina
but must rather be grounded, however tenuously, in the real world.
It is precisely this insubstantial nature of "Arab nationalism" that turned the Arab-Israeli conflict into the main, indeed the only, common denominator of pan-Arab solidarity. For it is infinitely easier to foment collective hatred of the other than to create a genuine national solidarity among disparate populations with nothing in common apart from shared language and religion. Had the Arab masses not been systematically indoctrinated over a period of decades, most of them would have been totally oblivious to the existence of their Palestinian "brothers," let alone the "Zionist movement" and its alleged usurpation of "Arab land." Thus, pan-Arab indoctrination has managed to generate pervasive hatred of Jews and Israelis but not a real solidarity that could drive the Arab masses to voluntarily sacrifice their well-being on the altar of the Palestinian cause.
The involvement of the Arab states in the Palestine problem, with which they have had no intrinsic attachments apart from the hegemonic aspirations of some rulers and regimes, had an extremely adverse impact on regional stability. It has resulted not only in thousands of deaths of non-Palestinian Arabs, cynically ordered by their leaders to fight wars whose declared aims had nothing to do with their real objectives, but it disrupted the Palestinians' national development and condemned them to protracted dispersion and statelessness. Had Arab regimes foregone their selfish intervention in the Palestine conflict in the mid-1930s, the zero-sum strategy of the contemporary Palestinian leadership, headed by the Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husayni of Jerusalem, might have given way to a more realistic, mixed-motive approach, recognizing the necessity of sharing their contested land between the two contending national groups. That such a realization has not yet emerged, over sixty years later, is due in large part to the unrealistic visions, hopes, and expectations inspired in successive Palestinian leaderships by the pan-Arab dream.
Given this historical record, Fuller's assertion that "the deep cultural roots of the Arab world" will never bear positive fruit "without both a truly just settlement and a wholesale change in the authoritarian leadership of Arab regimes across the boards" would seem to substitute cause for effect. It will only be the banishment of imperialist thinking from the Middle Eastern political scene that paves the way to regional peace and reconciliation, not the other way around.
As for the trendy advocacy by Western pundits of a wholesale democratization of the Arab world, this fad is misconceived and dangerous. It ignores the realities of the Middle East and instead imposes Western values in the place of Middle Eastern ideals, hopes, and beliefs. For another, this approach grossly overstates the ability of the great powers, the United States in particular, to bring about such an eventuality. There is no grassroots yearning for democracy in the Arab world, and any American attempt to impose such a system is bound to encounter mass resistance and to be viewed (quite correctly) by the local populations as neo-imperialism or a latter-day imposition of the "white man's burden."
Noting the adverse impact of "pan-" ideas on modern Middle Eastern history, Martin Kramer wonders whether Western pundits and politicians will draw the right conclusions from past mistakes. Fuller's response offers little room for optimism.
Efraim Karsh, professor and director of Mediterranean studies at King's College, University of London, is the author, most recently, with Inari Karsh, of Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Harvard University Press, 1999).