Iraq’s Identity Crisis
The future of Pan-Arabism.


As Iraq’s political parties and groups continue their wrangling over a new constitution, consensus seems to be taking shape on at least one issue: The future Iraqi state should not be described as “Arab.” Some participants also want Iraq to withdraw from the Arab League to contemplate broader alliances in the region and beyond.

The idea of dropping Iraq’s Arabism is backed by most Shiite parties that want the nation’s Islamic identity to be emphasized.

“What binds a majority of Iraqis together is their Islamic faith while Arabism divides them,” says Abdel-Aziz Hakim of the High Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. “The Arabs will, of course, have their specific identity within the broader Islamic identity.”

The Kurds also want Arabism to go because the see Iraq as a multi-ethnic nation in which no community should try to impose its specific identity and culture on others.

“Any future constitution would have to reflect the reality of Iraq as a country where two nations, Arab and Kurdish, live together along with other ethnic and faith minorities,” says Hoshyar Zibari of the Kurdistan Democratic party. “Pan-Arabism was always used as an instrument of terror and repression against our people. It has no place in a new Iraq.”

The Iraqi left is also favorable of abandoning what the poet Fadil Sultani calls “the illusion of Arabism.” The reason is that Iraqi Socialists and Communists have been frequently persecuted and, at times, massacred, as enemies of “pan-Arab nationalism.”

Iraq’s democrats and liberals see pan-Arabism as a barrier to democratization.

“You cannot build a democracy with a tribalist ideology,” says Kanan Makiya of the Iraqi National Congress.

Most Iraqis wish to develop the alternative concept of Uruqua (Iraqi-ness) as a substitute for Uruba (Arab-ness).

They say Uruqa is not a version of classical nationalism because it cuts across ethnic and confessional divides.

Uruqua is a big tent in which we can all live together,” says Hussein Qazvini, a mullah from Karbala.

“It can unite us because it does not carry a history of oppression and terror as do other ideologies that dominated our politics since independence.”

Iraq is not the only place where pan-Arabism is coming under critical scrutiny.

Libya is already distancing itself from the so-called Arab world. According to our sources, Colonel Muammar Kaddafi, the Libyan “Supreme Guide,” plans to announce his withdrawal from the Arab League sometime in August. The Libyan “Popular Assembly” has just passed a bill to drop the word “Arab” from the country’s official name. From next September Libya will describe itself as “The African Republic of Libya”.

“Associating with Arabs has brought us nothing but shame and heartache,” says Seyf al-Islam Kaddafi, the colonel’s son and possible successor.

Pan-Arabism is under pressure elsewhere. The Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a maverick of regional politics, has prepared a plan under which the Arab League will be dissolved and replaced with a new organization that could eventually admit non-Arab states as well. Calls for abolishing the Arab League or reforming it beyond recognition have also come from the moderate Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain and the fundamentalist regime in the Sudan.

Many Arabs see the ease with which Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in Baghdad as a strategic defeat for pan-Arabism as an ideology.

“Pan-Arabism has always led us to defeat and humiliation,” writes Ayed al-Wedadi, a Saudi commentator with an Islamist background. “One peak of pan-Arabism was the defeat of 1967 under Nasser. The other peak is the fall of Baghdad and Saddam Hussein’s disappearing act. One must be mad to want that particular game to continue.”

Pan-Arabism was the brainchild of a number of Christian and Druze intellectuals who believed that by promoting nationalism as a broader identity for Arabs, they would protect their own communities from being oppressed and/or massacred by the Muslim majority.

It was not until the 1950s that, by attracting some secular Muslim-born intellectuals, pan-Arabism found a wider base among the Muslim majority.

Michel Aflaq, a Syrian Christian and one of the early fathers of pan-Arabism explained how this new ideology would “make the Arabs one against their many enemies.” In practical terms, this meant that the Arabs, rather than killing one another in the name of religion, should pool their diverse identities and unite against others.

The best known of these “others” was, and remains, Israel whose destruction remains a key goal of pan-Arabism. But the pan-Arabs also wish to dismantle Iran by detaching the province of Khuzestan, which they call “Aabistan.” They also insist on designating the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf.” Turkey has been and remains another target of pan-Arabists. Maps in Syrian schoolbooks, for example, show the Turkish province of Iskanderun as part of “the Arab world” along with Iranian Khuzestan.

It is too early to assess the full impact of the liberation of Iraq on pan-Arabism. The Arab League has failed to meet, even at junior official level, to analyze the situation and make policy recommendations. Most of the voices heard in support of Saddam before the war have become silent, embarrassed by the fact that their prediction of “an Arab Vietnam” was not borne out.

Last month a conference announced by Algerian Baathists for last week was cancelled without any explanation, although it initially had the support of Foreign Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem. Other pan-Arab gatherings scheduled to take place in Cairo and Damascus have also been “indefinitely postponed.”

The only pan-Arab rallies in the post-Saddam period so far came in Beirut last week where George Galloway, a British Labour Member of Parliament, under investigation for allegedly receiving money from Saddam, was the star of the show.

Pan-Arabism may not be quite dead as an ideology but is certainly agonizing. The question is what may take its place. The Islamists hope that their own ideology of terror and repression will fill at least part of the gap left by the now inevitable marginalisation of pan-Arabism. But there is no indication that any of the various brands of Islamism may be making fresh inroads among the Arabs.

The Arab nations may well have entered a period of historic disequilibrium in which old established ideologies are receding without their place being taken by new ones. Some may well see as a dangerous passage that could encourage the emergence of new, and increasingly radical, ideologies based on this or that form of patricularism and preaching a message of hatred and revenge. Others, however, see the new situation as an opportunity for democratic ideas to find a reasonable space within which to come into contact with the broader masses in the region.

These are early days. But the liberation of Iraq has triggered an unprecedented identity crisis in the Arab countries. If properly understood and put to good effect, that crisis could help the Arabs break out of their tribalism and join the democratic mainstream of contemporary politics.

— Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam. He’s available through


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