The post-colonial Arab straightjacket is unravelling

After the demise of the Ottoman empire, the European imperial powers forced an artificial Arab identity on a complex, multi-ethnic Middle East and North Africa, creating arbitrary states. Non-Muslim states like Greece and Israel came about with the support of European public opinion. The independence of (the mainly Christian) South Sudan shows that the pan-Arabist straightjacket, an instrument for the oppression of minorities, is unravelling. Clear-sighted article by Professor Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz:

The independence of South Sudan is a significant milestone in the struggle of small nations for national independence, a struggle that began in the early 19th century with the Greeks’ war of independence against the Ottoman Empire. After dozens of years of struggle against bloody oppression by the Arab and Muslim Sudanese leadership in the north, the south − most of whose black residents are Christians or animists − achieved something that should have been attained without bloodshed, in a properly run world with an international community that sticks to its principles.

Modern Greece achieved independence not only thanks to public opinion in Europe, which supported the Christians’ struggle to be released from the Muslim yoke, but also because it was in the interest of the great powers, Great Britain and Russia, to weaken the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, U.S. and Soviet support for the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state stemmed not only from shock at the horrors of the Holocaust, but also from complex considerations relating to the foreign and domestic policies of those two great powers.

Sudan’s first international  soccer match

A spectator watching South Sudan’s first international soccer match, this week. (Photo: AFP)

The same is true in South Sudan: The fact that much of the population is Christian led U.S. Protestant groups to pressure their government to use its influence in the interest of the south’s right to self-determination. As is frequently the case in international relations, humanitarian considerations are not sufficient for bringing about the desired ethical outcome: Policy and power considerations must be brought to bear to achieve what is normatively the right thing in the real world.

It was Theodor Herzl who understood that without the support of the great powers, there would be no chance for Zionism, and therefore he wooed emperors, kings and world leaders − a policy that eventually proved itself with the Balfour Declaration and the UN partition plan. It’s not enough to be right; you need the support of a great power as well.

This is especially true when it comes to small, weak nations like the Greeks, the Jews, the Kurds − and now the inhabitants of South Sudan, too.

Yet there is another aspect to the independence of South Sudan: The original borders of Sudan, which won independence in 1956 from joint Anglo-Egyptian rule ‏(which was in effect a British colonial administration) were drawn after England assumed control of the region in the late 19th century. They did not accord with any geographical or historical framework, and reflected only the British Empire’s expansionist capabilities.

The boundaries and the very establishment of all countries in the region were arbitrarily determined by British and French imperialism, after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. Those two empires set the borders and divided the spheres of influence between themselves, without any consideration of the needs, composition or nature of the populations. The only exception was Egypt, an ancient country with a rich history. In their present borders, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Libya and Sudan are modern creations − products of European imperialist decisions.

The paradox lies in the fact that when these countries received independence, it was in the interest of their rulers − whether royal dynasties or republican-military dictatorships − to maintain those borders, because any change was liable to lead to wars and conflicts with unforeseen consequences. In this way Syria and Iraq − which had never existed as separate political entities within their present borders − certainly not during the period of Arab and Muslim rule in the region − became separate countries. The fact that all these countries were home to many ethnic and religious minorities ‏(Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, various Christian denominations, Kurds, Druze and Alawites‏) led, among other things, to the growth of dictatorships, since only tyrannical regimes like those in Syria and Iraq could hold together the mosaics of various ethnic, religious and tribal groups.

Arab nationalist ideology, which presented these new countries as an integral part of the Arab world and was the “glue” that granted them legitimacy, reflected reality only in part, but for several decades it served as a powerful device for oppressing minorities − Kurds in Iraq and Syria, non-Arabs in Sudan. Even the constant pressure on Lebanon to accept pan-Arab policy, at the expense of maintaining its unique character as a multiethnic, multireligious society, is part of the attempt to force an Arab national identity on a pluralistic, complex society.

The independence of South Sudan is a sign of the disintegration of these postcolonial frameworks, which in the name of Arab nationalist ideology tried to forcefully impose solidarity and uniformity in places where in effect there were many differences. It was preceded by the de-facto autonomy of the Kurds in northern Iraq after the fall of President Saddam Hussein. There is still no guarantee that Iraq itself, split between a Shi’ite majority and a Sunni minority, will continue to exist as a coherent body politic.

Read article in full

One Comment

  • the late unlamented [by me] Edward Said was one of those who fostered the pan-Arab myth as well as the myths of Arab innocence and Muslim innocence, although Said was apparently born into the Anglican church. Said had much to do with the success of these myths among the Western pseudo-intelligentsia, although he was not alone and the myths were being propagated in the USA as far back as the late 1940s. As Avineri says, the pan-Arab straitjacket is unraveling. That is, in practice. But in theory I have no doubt that hordes of non-conformist-minded Western pseudo-intellectuals will go on believing myths that make them feel good. They will go on worshiping the mystique of the noble Arab and the noble Muslim.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.