On December 8 1965 King Faisal of Saudi Arabia flew to Tehran for a meeting with the Shah of Iran. Both men shared a pebble in their shoes; President Nasser of Egypt. There were also other similarities between the two men. Both were absolute monarchs and sons of petty adventurers who raised themselves to seemingly ancient thrones and assumed lavish roles. Both were spending considerable oil fortunes to modernize their countries. Both ruled nations with flammable religious hierarchies that rarely held back from baiting angels and devils in equal measures. But beyond these similarities there were vast differences. Faisal was as wily as the Shah was improvident. Iran’s alliance with the most visibly and noisily Sunni power earned the Shah the scorn of the Shi’a Mullahs, and within a dozen years would cost him his throne. Faisal knew that an alliance with the primary Shi’a power in the region would anger the atavistic Wahabi clerics, who viewed these fellow Muslims as worse than Christians, or even Jews. To boot, Saudi Arabia was increasingly reliant on Christian powers for its security and the continuation of the Saud family in power. Faisal’s acumen led him to one road, buying off the Wahabi clerics with a flood of cash to support their Da’wa, or missionary efforts in the Muslim world and beyond. The marriage of convenience between Saudi Arabia and Iran soon collapsed in a heap of venomous and murderous recriminations, but not before begetting a twin offspring that still haunts the region, and indeed the world. The twins are the curious and dangerous phenomena of the Arabization of Islam and the Islamization of Arab Nationalism.
Less than 1 in 5 Muslims speak standard Arabic with any facility, and even fewer are skilled in Classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an and the only language in which it should be read according to many Salafi (and hence Wahabi) theologians. In their mind this is a serious situation that will lead to either limiting the spread of Islam or the “corruption” of its tenets by native beliefs. What the Muslim world experienced since the 1960s was a new version of Arab cultural imperialism clothed in religious fervor. Many cultural institutions and practices unique to the harsh Arabian Peninsula were imported into various Muslim communities. This not only upset the cultural balances in many countries, but also created a cadre of nearly de-racinated young men ready to join in any fight to “save” Islam from its enemies. Curiously most of the dangers to Islam seem to be peculiarly Arab obsessions. Take the Palestinian-Israeli conflict for example. For many decades three major Muslim powers had cordial relationships with Israel; namely Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Since the 1970s, all have moved into confrontation with Israel, most recently Turkey under the pressure of its Islamist governing group. But beyond the Israel issue, all three powers became keenly involved in Arab affairs. Iran was a partisan in the Lebanese civil war, and now in the Syrian civil war. Pakistan developed close relationships with the Gulf, even importing Arabs to do fighting in Afghanistan and occasionally in Kashmir, and on many occasions lending troops to Arab countries. Turkey has recently become the unfettered voice of Islamism, working actively to undermine traditional Arab states such as Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Islam has become “Arabized” both in form and in strategic objectives. It is a development unlikely to positively affect many non-Arab Muslim countries, as it absorbs their energies into conflicts irrelevant to them, and sets them up for a nasty fight with the larger global world simply because the Arabs have a variety of such grievances.
But beyond the Arabization of Islam, Arab Nationalism became increasingly “Islamized”. The notion of a great Arab nation was developed by westernized theoreticians, including many Levantine Christians. In their view this was a way of building national identities larger than the narrow religious confessions, giving them political agency and power that would normally be unavailable if viewed as merely non-Muslim minorities. All nationalisms are at some level manufactured, and so is Arab Nationalism. This would not be a drawback if it had succeeded in its objectives. But beginning in the 1960s the entire edifice began to crumble. Saudi Arabia needed to grasp the leadership of the Arab nation from men such as Nasser of Egypt, motivated by self-interest. In his rendering of Arab nationalism, progress came as traditional monarchies are transformed into popular Republics. After the bloody demise of another Faisal in Iraq, the removal of the Yemeni Imam, and the traditional King of Libya, the house of Saud saw no alternative but to join, and ultimately drive, the Arab bandwagon. Money, and the decline of Egypt and Levant, assisted greatly. But Saudi Arabia could no more rid itself of its Wahabi baggage than a lion of its fangs. Inevitably, Arab nationalism became increasingly Islamized. Witness the flags of various countries such as Egypt and Iraq gaining deeply Islamic symbols (the Eagle of Qureish and the Shehada). In time this transition would serve more to shatter than cement the Arab nation. No better proof is needed than Palestine, locked in an existential struggle with Israel, seeing itself partitioned again between the nationalist PLO and the Islamist Hamas. The Levant, once the home of Arab culture and sophistication, is now a post-apocalyptic patchwork of religious lunatics. Egypt, which stayed aloof from Arab entanglements until the 1940s, only to lustily lead it for three decades, is now locked in an ugly struggle between the forces of Islamism and traditional nationalism. A significant fraction of the Egyptian public applauded Israel’s recent pounding of Gaza, and even the election of the hyper Jewish nationalist, “Bibi” Netanyaho. Even distant, and usually off-the-Arab-track Tunisia, is locked in a similar struggle.
The numerical reality is that being a Muslim cannot be conflated with being an Arab, while the forces of ugly ethnic cleansing may mean that all non-Muslim, or even non-Sunni Muslim Arabs will simply quit that national grouping. The harsh numbers are beginning to define the post-Arab reality. States such as Iraq and Syria can no longer be spoken of as real entities. Their component pieces will be largely Muslim, but not all will be Arab, even if Arabic speaking. The larger world is understandably interested in reducing the damage from the chaos in the Arab region, and in some parts of the Muslim world. But any rational policy must begin by ditching epistemological fallacies; first and foremost conflating Islamic and Arab cultures.
— Maged Atiya