English عربي


Print  Email

Heresies of statehood

Oct 30, 2013

A commonly held piety has it that nations create states: that in the beginning there was nationalism, which gave rise to nationalist movements, which gave birth to states -- in that order. The state feeds this illusion through educational curricula and other means for disseminating information on the greatness of the nation, its continuity in the face of history, its suffering at the hands of its enemies and its long struggle towards deliverance through national independence. Frequently, too, independence is portrayed as the revival of a former glory, usurped through decades of treachery and aggression. 
It hardly bears saying that reality is much more complex than that. Moreover, the process proceeds in the opposite direction: the state creates the nation, at least in the modern sense of the term, not the reverse. Nor is the design of educational curricula and the dissemination of beliefs about landmark events, epic struggles and glorious heroes the innocent, or otherwise, process of writing or documenting history. Rather, it is an integral part of nation-building. Certainly, in their struggle towards independence nationalist movements are consciously or unconsciously aware that the state is the instrument, par excellence, for modern nation- building. The modern state builds a nation by establishing the foundations for a common economy, or by enhancing economic cohesion if the foundations of a common economy already exist: unifying, for example, the national market and the tax system. The state also establishes a variety of national institutions of which individuals become members solely by virtue of their affiliation as citizens. The army is such a national institution; its uniform symbolic of its function in the production of national allegiance. So, too, is the concept of the rule of law, in accordance with which all individuals are considered equal and subordinate to a single collective will as expressed in the corpus of national statute. 
Such thoughts must spring to the mind of any scholar of the history of political thought when confronted with the news from Iraq. Why did the fall of a regime cast into relief the question of the political affiliations of members of a region, sect, tribe, or other such disparate units of the erstwhile national entity? Certainly the collapse of the Ottoman Empire or the Soviet Union, in their time, posed similar questions. Why is it that a national identity constructed on the basis of religious affiliation could not withstand the storms of nationalism, whether in the case of the Ottoman Empire or the Holy Roman Empire? 
The disintegration of the Soviet supra-national entity is an especially interesting case. Soviet nationhood was not so much constructed on the rights of citizenship as it was on a secular religion that was imposed as an artificial bond of affiliation intended to supersede other religious, sub-national, regional or ethnic affiliations. This secular religion was also to serve as the source of legitimacy for an order in which citizenship, per se, did not confer established rights. In practice not a single right of citizenship was immune to erosion by politically charged motivations. Upon the collapse of that order, as we know, religious and ethnic affiliations resurfaced in full vigour and began pushing towards the dissolution of former national entities and the creation of new ones, most of which are still struggling with their identities and the identities of their neighbours.
In contrast to this, other nations made up of peoples of diverse ethnic and national origins have succeeded in safeguarding a single national political entity, and the ongoing evolution of that entity. This phenomenon has manifested itself in two types of cases, both contingent upon elevating citizenship, as a concept, a practice and a body of rights, to a fundamental affiliation, alongside, or above, cultural or ethnic affiliations. The first case consists of those nations that recognise the ethnic and cultural diversity of their people and honour a code of citizenship that confers equal rights upon all individuals with equal opportunities, under law at least, to influence the affairs of the nation, regardless of ethnic or religious origins or affiliations. The second case is that nation that regards citizenship itself -- above ethnicity -- as the primary constituent of the nation. In both cases the unity of the nation can only be sustained through a concept of equal citizenship that serves as a guarantor of individual rights and duties as well as an entrance ticket into the field of participation, through lobbying and/or the ballot box, in public affairs -- including affairs of policy, government and the state. 
That the concept of citizenship was established at the level of the propertied classes and then gradually extended to embrace the proletariat, women, minorities and even former slaves represents the other side of the process of building a nation in which citizenship is a membership card. Here is the nub. Here is precisely where Arab states have failed. 
Arab states have failed in their primary mission: nation-building. But, to quickly quell the zeal of romantics who idealise society, I must stress that this failure does not necessarily make the state evil. Nor does it exonerate society. Indeed, nation- building requires the state to confront the flaws of society and overcome the many formidable obstacles society puts in its path. Entrenched tribal and clan affiliations, the suppression of the individual in the name of the organic group, a fanatical attachment to the existing "natural" hierarchy, are social ills. No -- society is not an innocent creature that must be coddled while condemning the state. But, when the state fails in the process of nation-building, it does not merely leave society's ills intact. It compounds them. It pushes society into a corner, driving it to transform natural affiliations into self-vindicatory political ideologies and, even, into political parties. These, in turn, can easily mutate into nationalist-like secessionist entities that formulate their demands in a language borrowed from the rhetoric of the state. 
Are we to believe that, after decades of a nationalist party's rule in Iraq, we have to prove that an Iraqi's identity as an Iraqi prevails over his being Shi'ite, Sunni, Kurd or another such affiliation? Must we prove that the majority of the Iraqi people perceive themselves as Arabs and that this cultural and political bond is sufficient cause to keep Iraq undivided? 
The European left, including the Jewish left, has claimed, along with the Arab left and Arab nationalists, that the Jews do not comprise a nation by any modern standard. (The implication appears to be that if they were a nation then they would have the right to take over Palestine in broad daylight.) Ironically, Zionism is in full accord with this opinion, in that it presumed, as did other European nationalist movements, that the state was the prime instrument for nation-building. Nation- building does not begin with an ontological argument, it begins with action. Ben Gurion did not attempt to flatter his audiences with panegyrics on the great Jewish nation. Rather, he told the Israeli Knesset, "We are not a people." This, to him, presented a problem, because it was presumed that the young would want to fight and would want to be able to fight, "and in order to be able to fight they must become a people. But we are not a people." (Ben Gurion to the Political Committee of the Mapai Party, 24 July 1952, Mapai Archives, cited in Uri Ben Elyazer, The Making of Israeli Militarism, p. 283). 
In a similar vein, he added, "I've been a Zionist all my life and God forbid that I should come to despair of the existence of a people of Israel. But, even the British people had not always been the selfsame people. Rather, they were made up of disparate, warring tribes, and it was only after hundreds of years of evolution that they became a single people ... But, we don't have hundreds of years. Without the army we will not become a people quickly enough. We cannot depend on a slow and random process. We must guide the historical process, urge it to go faster and prod it in the right direction ... This demands a compulsory framework for all youth, a framework for national obedience ... This can only be done in the framework of the army." (Knesset minutes, 19 August 1953) That entity which Ben Gurion addressed in the early 1950s soon reached a point where the existence of a people is no longer contingent upon fluctuations in government. Ben Gurion had not attempted to formulate a theoretical argument to prove that the Jews as a people existed; he rolled up his sleeves and set to work on a conscious process known as nation-building. 
What concerns us here are not the means Ben Gurion proposed for hastening the process of nation-building but rather his awareness of the need to build one, and his frankness in declaring that one had not yet existed. Naturally, no Israeli official today would get away with such a statement. Indeed, he would probably be subjected to prosecution, let alone to rabid campaigns of intimidation. Curiously, were any Arab official to be similarly forthright in recognising the need for, and tasks involved in, nation-building in the Arab world, he would be regarded as a idiot or a traitor. 
Certainly, denigrating the legitimacy of the Arab nation-state has been fundamentally instrumental in obviating the collective participation of social forces in a process that was condemned as a heresy to the Arab nationalist ideology on the grounds that it contributed to sanctifying colonial partitions. Has not elevating Arabism and Arab identity to an article of allegiance above the state created an insurmountable obstacle? Has the insistence upon the overriding legitimacy of the broader Arab nation as a framework for citizenship hampered the process of state building? Also detrimental was the fact that the Arab leaderships that gained legitimacy through independence were more concerned with the process of constructing the supra- national than they were with the process of state- building and institutionalising democratic government within their borders. Arab nationalist forces, on the other hand, were ever-ready to turn a blind eye to even the most outrageously despotic practices of an Arab political regime so long as that regime performed lip service to the idea of Arab unity. 
So much for the past. Since then, Arab nationalist forces have become one of the victims of the nation state. In addition, they have lost, with the collapse of the Nasserist project, the opportunity for a Bismarckian mode of unification whereby a strong central state becomes the vehicle for imposing unification, as was the case in Germany and Italy. Arab nationalists arHe thus left with no alternative but to demand unification through a democratic process on the model of the EU. There is a certain historic injustice in this, to be sure. The Arabs have much more in common between them, in terms of culture, civilisation and political aspirations, than the Europeans have. However, Arab nationalism will have no chance of survival without democracy, regardless of the extent to which it thrives in the minds and hearts of the people. Once the sense of Arab identity, which is shared by the vast majority of people in every Arab country, converges wiÁth a democratic project, it will be able to contribute, alongside the state, to the process of nation-building. This implies, simultaneously, that that majority must not attempt to obstruct the expansion of the concept of citizenship to embrace non-Arab minorities and their rights. This is the only way that it will be possible to achieve Arab integration and eventual federation. 
Arabism in the past was open enough to embrace non-Arab peoples who became culturally and ethnically Arab. Indeed, who knows for certain the origins of the Arab families in our major cities? What is important is that they are now Arab. However, these days, Arabs of various sects emigrate abroad to discover that they are not Arabs and that their sects are in fact separate ethnic groupings or nationalities. This could not have occurred had not an "internal migration" preceded migration abroad. How is it that a people -- here Iraqis -- can fall apart upon the fall of a despotic regime? It would not have been possible for the tribe to surface as the polity after every crisis had Arab regimes built national institutions that had eliminated tribalism from the public domain, and that had ensured that citizenship, or membership in the nation, offered the individual greater protection than membership in the tribe.

Azmi Bishara on Twitter


Useful Links