Arabism, Islamic history

The Ins and Outs of Arab nationalism and Militarism: the Role of the Phalange

The making of Arabia? The role of Nasser

I just heard a preview of the second episode of  ‘The Making of the Arabic World’, to be aired on Radio 4 tomorrow and discussed in the last posting of this blog. Tarek Osman announced how Arab nationalism, was inspirational to large numbers of Arabic people, but unfortunately its military underpinnings led to problems. The movement was led by Jamal Abdel Nasser, who took power in 1954 after a bloodless  military coup. He attempted to nationalise the Suez Canal, a key trade route at the time, a move that resulted in military intervention by Britain. Interestingly Nasser first opposed English domination in the early 1930s, at the age of fifteen.


It is not easy to discern if this particular excerpt is a neat bit of propaganda as, the Egyptian military, is in conflict with the elected Islamic Brotherhood. Election is the key word here, as it is the raison d’etre for the West, even though both the coup d’etat and the overthrow of the previous regime were the result of popular movements. The military is said to be in the control of the former President Mubarak; who was elected in 1981 under a socialist banner; deposed three years ago and is known, both as a militarist and an Arab nationalist.

The role of militarism

As is commonly known militarism is not unusual, whether it applies to guerrilla or open warfare and does not pertain only to Arabia or the Pan Arabic movement. Hamas, who originate from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood are regarded as militants by the West who, for this reason, refused to recognise their election victory in January 2006; despite their substantial majority.

The result was a  short but serious war with the Israelis in 2008, where the Palestinians suffered a high casualty rate. This was not the beginning of Western disapproval, as the Israelis had attacked Gaza in July 2006, when people were distracted by their war with Lebanon, which involved mainly Hizb’allah. For the Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood, Palestine is secondary to the establishment of Islamic ideals. Hamas (Sunni) and Hizb’allah (Shia), though, are interdependent and working towards a common goal; the liberation of Palestine.

Oddly enough both groups became established as political parties in the 1980s and despite the fact they are rarely mentioned in the media, other than in the context of war; they are both organised and elected in their areas. I did hear on Radio 4, that some Christians in South Lebanon vote for Hizb’allah because of their capacity for community organisation. In my view, the allegiance between Syrian President Assad and Hizb’allah is more to do with politics than the Shia religion. I say this because the Assads are noted for their commitment to Arabism, a socialist ideal, rather than the principles of Islam per se.

The Phalange and other Christians

It is documented that the President Hafez Assad sent troops to intervene in the Lebanese civil war, in the 1970s and 1980s, in favour of minority Christian groups, which were under attack from the Phalangist Christians. I remember an English Christian cleric reporting this on ‘Everyman’, shown on BBC 1, in 1983; I had spent some time in Turkey the year before and had tried to visit Syria but didn’t get a visa beforehand, so was refused entry. ‘Everyman’ was a religious and philosophical programme and the cleric, who was working in Syria, offered this information as an explanation for the civil war in the Lebanon.

This is only part of the story but Syria’s intervention did stem from disagreements relating to Arabic nationalism and the Maronites, or their military wing the Phalanx, (kataib in Arabic), did not regard themselves as Arabic but rather as Western. As a result they chose to ally to the Israeli forces, who also intervened. The actual politics of the Maronites is complex and not for this entry but their history appears to incorporate left and right wing politics as well as Christianity and Catholicism.

Crucially, according to a report by the BBC World News in 2007, the Phalanx are again taking military action in support of the invasion of Syria. This follows the return of its founder’s son, Amin Jemayel, to the Lebanon. Despite its links to the Israelis, the report describes how the Phalange was set up along ”fascist lines” in the 1930s. The Jemayal family is ardent in its support of Lebanese independence.

I believe the Maronites now only constitute a small minority in Syria. With regards to Lebanon, I don’t know the impact of the prolonged civil war on the status of Christianity there, though I did notice, during my recent and only visit, that some of the Christian areas seemed very wealthy and wondered, if there were overseas money being poured into them.

There are several Christian groups in Syria and Lebanon, some of whom consider themselves Arab nationalists. Christian Arabism is rooted in the philosophy of Ibrahim al Yaziji, an Ottoman and Greek philologist (that combines literature, linguistics and history); born in 1847. His father Nasif was responsible for translating the bible into Arabic.

The Syrian judicial system

The judicial system in Syria is secular and though, at the outset, it was imposed by French colonialism it acknowledges religious and cultural differences and does not give precedence to Islamic law and the Sharia, law according to the Quran. As we saw last time the holy book is open to interpretation and adapted to situations that may arise. To address the issue of Islam, in 1973, Syria adopted a form of Islamic jurisprudence (the Fiqh), as a legislative source which influenced the drafting of the Islamic code of  ”Personal Status” that applies to all Syrians. Since, though, Christian Catholics have been granted separate codes giving them judicial and legislative freedom. Other Christians could have applied if their religious leaders had agreed; of course this was before the current war.

The last points came from a great site called I’ll be reading more of that.

I realise this post has missed a few centuries but it is meant to be a pre-emptive strike against the BBC programme tomorrow; as I am convinced it will be prejudicial against Arab nationalism and fail to explain the complex nature of the present day struggle. Perhaps I’ll be surprised though!!!


Prolonged struggles

Questions of independence  will continue to blight the future of both Lebanon and Syria. Islam is not going to disappear, and its radical proponents, along with those of the Christian groups, may well be guilty of religious intolerance. They all have axes to grind too, as most of them have been ”persecuted” in some shape or form, in the past.

The restructuring of the region is not likely to be completed any time soon as each social group has a political agenda. To acomplish their goals these factions build uneasy affiliations with those who do not share all their political ideals, let alone their religious principles. This, in turn, creates situations, that inevitably backfire and prolong the struggle. What is worse is the role of the big Western powers who control the arms industry and are waiting in the wings to grab land and resources. A monopoly game that never ceases to amaze me.

Back to an earlier period next time when it goes on with the Caliphates.


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