A century of self-determination

For a movement that would change the course of the Middle East, Arab Nationalism's origins were quite humble.

Abdication of Sultan Mulay Abdelhafid of Morocco (1875-1937), on 12 August 1912, Frontpage of French newspaper Le Petit Journal, August 25, 1912, Private Collection, (Photo by Leemage/UIG via Getty Images)
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For a movement that would change the course of the Middle East, Arab Nationalism’s origins were quite humble.

The First World War was still a year away when a group of idealistic Arab academics, journalists and students gathered in a hall of the Société de Géographie in Paris 100 years ago.

The creation of the disputed state of Israel was 35 years in the future. It took the Maghreb states of North Africa even longer to achieve independence from France. And the birth of the UAE would not come for nearly 60 years.

Variously called the Arab National Congress, the First Arab Congress and the Arab-Syrian Congress, the June 1913 meeting in the Boulevard Saint-Germain, on the Left Bank of the Seine, is credited with having achieved little of immediate value.But it has come to be seen as a crucial part of the sequence of events that was to have enormous influence in the subsequent development of Arab nationalism.

As the conference began, the world was already in turmoil. The Young Turks revolution had begun the process that would lead within five years to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

One Balkan war ended, another had just begun. Tensions were rising, darkening the war clouds over Europe.

“It was a paradoxical historical moment,” reads the introductory description at a conference held this summer to mark its centenary, 2 kilometres from the venue of the original congress.

The 1913 participants assembled as the Ottoman Empire was beginning to fade and the first glimmers of Arab nationalism were being seen.

The movement for self-determination was composed of “a number of dissident secret revolutionary and reform-orientated groups in Greater Syria, Palestine, Istanbul and Egypt”, this year’s anniversary conference noted.

One western historian, David Thomas, wrote in his 1976 book, Essays on Islamic Civilisation, that many were more suspicious of the intentions of Britain and France in the Levant than “afraid of and hostile to” the Ottoman leadership.

For the young representatives of these groups’ philosophy, Arab lands were under threat in the early part of the 20th century from colonial expansion.

With the Young Turks seemingly not “ready to warrant Arab protection”, demands for autonomy and reform, delivered by a loose band of exiles in the French capital, may even have seemed fanciful to the outside world.

But the title of the 2013 conference, “100 years of Arab Nationalism: Critical Assessment and Future Perspectives”, neatly illustrates the importance now attached not only to those deliberations of a century earlier, but to a work still in progress.

The centenary meeting took place against a backdrop of continuing unrest and violence in Syria and Egypt, with Tunisia and Libya also striving for a new order after decades of authoritarian rule.

The choice of venue, the Institut du Monde Arabe, one of the grand projects originally envisaged in the presidency of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as a means of improving Franco-Arab relations, was significant.

And it was not lost on speakers that France has played a prominent role in supporting rebel movements against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya and Bashar Al Assad in Syria, a country ruled by the French mandate from 10 years after the Arab Congress until 1943.

There remains a large population of Syrian exiles in France, and some of its members have been critical of the West’s tendency to concentrate on the Assad regime’s use of poison gas in comparison to its relative inactivity in the face of massacres carried out with the use of conventional weapons.

Dr Noha Khalaf, a noted Palestinian academic and writer who coordinated the event, said the concerns facing those analysing contemporary issues bear a striking resemblance to those dealt with in 1913.

She said there was an urgent need for such forums and suggested that the upcoming anniversaries associated with the First World War could offer impetus for further conferences. Abu Dhabi or Dubai, Dr Khalaf said, would be an ideal venue for a conference to be staged, perhaps in partnership with UAE educational or research institutes.

Inthe conference’s call for papers, inviting contributions from historians and scholars from several parts of the world to the Paris event in June, Dr Khalaf and her colleagues set out its aims: the commemoration of the centenary and reaffirmation of the Arab Congress’s importance, undertaking a critical assessment of the history of Arab nationalism, analysis of its impact on the political culture of Arab societies and reflection on new perspectives “offering a way out of the deadlock in which Arab societies find themselves”.

The call for papers also noted that with the “withering away of the ‘golden age’ of Arab nationalism”, the Arab Spring had raised once more the question of “the coherence of the ‘Arab space’ and of the bonds linking its past”. It was therefore necessary to assess the “historical tortuous course” of Arab nationalism and its impact of Arab societies “while putting into question its continued relevance today”.

The resolutions passed by delegates in 1913 were modest, urging “radical and urgent reforms” in the Ottoman Empire, decentralised systems of government in Arab administrative areas and recognition of Arabic in the Ottoman parliament and granting it official language status “in Syrian and Arab countries”.

But setting the tone for the centenary, Prof Rashid Khalidi, a professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University in New York, described the 1913 meeting as “the most visible sign of a budding movement whose many later offshoots were to dominate the Arab world for most of the 20th century”.

Prof Khalidi, the son of a Palestinian diplomat and writer, and the nephew of a former mayor of Jerusalem, chaired the scientific committee of this year’s conference.

In his inaugural speech, he said the nationalist trend represented in Paris a century ago had been “thoroughly eclipsed by another tendency – Islamism” and argued that recent setbacks for movements affiliated to mainstream political Islam had not led to any change in the “dire state of Arab nationalism”.

Prof Khalidi cited a list of interrelated reasons for what he saw as the failure of the aims of the 1913 delegates – most of whom, he pointed out, had in any case come from “only one part of the vast Arab lands – Greater Syria”.

He blamed a failure to deliver on promises held out by the early Arab nationalist movement, a “mixed but largely unsuccessful record” in dealing with colonialism and imperialism, an inability to deliver economic growth and Arab interdependence, serious shortcomings in “societal, cultural educational advancement”, insufficient attention to the potential contributions of women and “the inability to foster stable, democratic forms of governance”.

In a reference to 21st century unrest, he said: “One hundred years after the First Arab Congress, the Arab world faces a bleak perspective of division between and within Arab countries, chronic economic crisis and a desperate struggle to achieve real freedom and genuine democracy.”

What remained to be seen, he felt, was what formulas Arab peoples would develop to meet these daunting challenges, and whether in doing so they would “choose to draw on the legacy of Arab nationalism, the nostrums of its Islamist rivals, other approaches or some combination of them”.

For one of those closely involved in the 2013 conference, nothing can be taken for granted.

“In some ways, the perspective looked a great deal brighter back in 1913,” according to an academic, only for world war and international power struggles to intervene.

“So we are left with things that are as complicated and difficult as they were then, especially in Syria and Egypt, and when you ask if there is any reason for optimism my response is that there are too many unknowns and we simply cannot predict the future.”