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With the apparent demise of Communism, if not of socialism, the other political pathology of modernity, nationalism, is returning to center stage. If scientific socialism carries the “progressive” idea of human universality to its extreme, nationalism carries the “reactionary” idea of historical particularity to its extreme. To put the matter differently, where socialism runs contrary to human nature, nationalism too much encourages it. Nationalism, then, is the more dangerous and more virulent political pathogen because it truly moves masses of people, whereas the dubious claim that socialism commands the support of the masses has issued mainly from the remote province of the intellectuals.

In the Middle East, the conflict with Iraq has demonstrated the continuing appeal of Pan-Arab nationalism. Although the regimes of the area fear Iraq, the popular support for Saddam Hussein rests on the perception that he alone is capable of confronting Western domination in what to the Arabs are its two most pernicious forms: Israel and the United States. The conflict between Israel and the Arabs may then be viewed as a microcosm of the problem that resurgent nationalism will continue to pose for liberal democracy, because it appears to be both a conflict between nationalisms and between nationalism and liberal democracy. In this essay, I will bring together the two issues: the conflict between Arab and Jewish nationalism, and the conflict between liberal democracy and nationalism.


The term “nationalism” is often confused with the problem of “nationalities.” There have always been nationalities or “peoples” or tribes or, loosely, speaking, “races” or, as some have called them, “primordial groups.” Such have always been characterized by a love of their own and by xenophobia. This is only to say that “custom” and “convention” are “natural” to mankind. But nationalism as a doctrine that identifies the nation with the state and in which, as Elie Kedourie has written, “language, race, culture, and sometimes even religion constitute the primordial entity” is a relatively recent development.

It is not possible to understand nationalism as a doctrine in the Middle East—or anywhere, for that matter—except as a consequence of what has come to be called “modernity.” Modernity is a peculiarly European or Western phenomenon, connected with what we called “enlightenment,” the scientific revolution, and modern, especially liberal, political thought and arrangements. Modernity in its root sense may be characterized as the opinion that antiquity as such has no inherent authority, whether in the form of custom, philosophy, or revealed religion. Nationalism, which is a doctrine of historic continuity, is itself a consequence of radical discontinuity.

At the same time, the facts of human behavior have not changed. David Hume, in the essay Of The First Principles of Government, writes that men are governed by opinion. Of the governing opinions, it is the opinion of the “right to power” that is most prevalent, and this may be traced, he says, to “the attachment which all nations have to their ancient government, and even to those names, which have the sanction of antiquity . . . . Antiquity always begets the opinion of right.”

The implicit tension between the presumption of modernity, that antiquity as such has no authority, and the given fact of human behavior, that “antiquity always begets the opinion of right,” is the breeding ground of nationalism. It is the consequence of the situation that “antiquity” is not what it used to be, because “modernity” has intervened. As a doctrine, nationalism may be characterized as rediscovered, or invented, or imagined antiquity. As such, it is not merely nostalgia. It is, in fact, a consequence of the deepest philosophical teachings of modernity, of the replacement of nature by history and of a certain radical view of human autonomy or freedom. Its motivating passions are two: what we have come to call a “crisis of identity,” and a political grievance.

This is especially true of the Arabs. The effect of European political and economic domination in the region has been intellectual and political turmoil that has undermined the self-esteem and self-sufficiency of a traditional, religious way of life. Intellectually, modernization may be described as the motion from external domination of the Arab world by European powers to internal domination by European thought and the psychological consequences of that motion. It is in this sense that we may speak of Arab modernization as Arab Westernization, which appears as the simultaneous absorption and rejection of the West. It is Westernization that brought the crisis of identity and, eventually, the doctrines of nationalism, to the Arab Middle East.

This is the kernel of truth in the grievance against Western “colonialism” and “imperialism” even in their literal absence. This is not a regional phenomenon; it is global. There is virtually no place in the world that has not been intellectually “colonized” by the West and its extraordinarily powerful tradition of inquiry and science.

An excellent introduction to this complex topic may be found in Sylvia G. Haim’s Arab Nationalism: An Anthology (1976), especially in its perceptive introductory essay. In Haim’s subtle but incisive study, she shows that, paradoxically, Arab nationalism (or, more precisely, Pan-Arab nationalism) begins as Pan-Islamism. Pan-Islamism supplied two crucial premises for the emergence of nationalism: the idea of Arab Muslim solidarity, and the legitimization of secularized politics. Arab solidarity or homogeneity derives from Islam, which was the only bond of unity the Arabs had against European domination. But Islam so understood, as Haim observes, could be “transformed . . . into an ideology which the shrewd statesman” could use for his political ends. Religion thus becomes a tool of political ambition, and politics is redefined as a secular activity. In Islam, this was a development that ran counter to tradition, which from the time of the Caliphate had seen no separation in principle of religion and politics.

There were both liberal and reactionary strains of Pan-Islamism. The liberal view emphasized that there is a harmony of progress (or reason) and religion. The reactionary view has been more significant. It taught religious reform and return, a “puritanical revival of strict Islamic practices and religious fervor.” The connection of reform and nationalism is that it implied a return to the Arab origins of Islam. In the context of the Ottoman empire this indicated an invidious distinction between Turk and Arab. The Turks, and the Ottoman system of government, were held responsible for failing to protect the umma, “the body of all the Muslims,” from European encroachment.

With the end of World War I, the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and the beginning of a new era of European involvement via the League of Nations, the ideology of Pan-Arab nationalism began to emerge. One may get some sense of the direction the ideological development took—and its intellectual dependence on Western thought—from this statement of Sami Shawcat, the Iraqi Director General of Education, in 1939.

The history of our illustrious Arab nation extends over thousands of years, and goes back to the time when the peoples of Europe lived in forests and over marshes, in caves and in the interstices of the rocks; at that time our own ancestors used to set up banks, sculpt statues, and lay down canons of law; they invented the first principles of medicine, geometry, astronomy, the alphabet, and the numerals . . . We find inscribed the basic law given by one of our ancestors, Hammurabi This took place before the Torah, the Gospels, or the Koran. In the same way we find that everything makes us lift our heads high when we consider the histories of the Semitic empires formed in the Fertile Crescent—the Chaldean, the Assyrian, the African, the Pharaonic, or the Carthaginian . . . These empires and their dependencies are all our property; they are of us and for us, and we have the right to glory in them and to honor their exploits.

A reflection on Pan-Arab nationalism both as a doctrine and a political practice reveals that it is burdened by two fundamental and, as events have borne out, unresolvable dilemmas of identity or loyalty. One dilemma is religious. On the one hand, as Haim remarks, “It would not do to identify Arabs and Islam completely, since Islam contained many more people than the Arabs.” But, on the other hand, an autonomous theory of Arab nationalism “would seem to replace Islamic loyalty—which, so far, has been the only one to move the Muslims.”

Pan-Arab nationalism also paradoxically offered a solution to the problem of identity of Christian Arabs, as Haim observes:

We find [Christian writers] . . . saying with even more vehemence and eloquence that the relation between Islam and Arab nationalism is intimate and that Islam should be the special object of veneration for all nationalists.

From the Muslim side, however, if the outcome of nationalism would be a secular regime in which Christianity or other religions might have a claim to equality with Islam, it could in no way be acceptable. Under Islamic and Ottoman law, Christian and Jewish communities enjoyed a protected status but had to accept legal, civic, and political inferiority. Reconciling Islam to the idea of the political equality of religions—that is, “liberalizing” and modernizing Islam in the manner of Western Christianity—has remained a perhaps insurmountable difficulty.

The second dilemma of Pan-Arab nationalism is the matter of nationalities, or “regionalism.” On the one hand, the “Arab nation” as ideologically defined calls into question conventional boundaries. This certainly reflects in part the historical truth that the boundaries of states in the Fertile Crescent and Arabian Peninsula have largely been arbitrarily established in recent times. Prior political loyalties in the area were traditionally tribal, religious, and familial. Nonetheless, these new artificial entities have developed a real political existence where the Pan-Arab idea has not.

The dilemma of regionalism vs. Pan-Arabism was addressed in two ways: the inclusion of Egypt in the fold of Pan-Arab nationalism, and the founding of the Arab Ba’ath party.

The earliest geographical description of a reborn Arab nation placed its boundaries at the Indian Ocean to the south, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the east, the Taurus mountains to the north, and the Mediterranean and Suez Canal to the west. Egypt was not included. The Egyptians themselves, whose national identity is of the greatest antiquity in the region, did not identify themselves as “Arab,” although their language is Arabic and their predominant religion Islam. Arab nationalists, however, came to see Egypt as vital to their Pan-Arab aspirations. Egyptian opinion, and finally policy, came around to Pan-Arabism by the mid-1940s, and after the 1952 coup against the monarchy became, in Haim’s words, “its most zealous advocate.” Under Nasser, Egypt’s preeminence in the Arab world was secured, and it twice attempted (and failed) to realize dreams of Arab unity through creation of a United Arab Republic. But even Nasser’s commitment to Pan-Arabism was hedged by his commitment to Egyptian national interests. In his “Philosophy of the Revolution,” he described Egypt as the center of three circles: Arab, African, and Islamic. The subsequent history of Egypt, as of the other states of the region, confirms the priority among Arab nations of commitment to their own national goals.

The other major element in the Arab national movement was the founding in 1940 by Michel Aflaq, a Christian Arab, of a political movement, the Ba’ath Party, based on his doctrines of nationalism. The unique contribution of Aflaq to Arab nationalism lies in what Haim calls “his uncompromising vision of a superhuman and transformed life as the end of political action.” For Aflaq, nationalism must be revolutionary, that is, have a revolutionary program of implementation, and a revolutionary goal. The Ba’ath party is revolutionary, totalitarian, and socialist. Ba’ath means “reawakening,” and the word is religious in origin, referring to the resurrection of the dead. According to Aflaq, the revolution “is a prime propelling power, that powerful psychic current, without which the reawakening of the nation is not to be understood.” The Arab nation is characterized by successive rebirths: “Revolution is the opposition of the future to the present.” The future, however, is illuminated by and (in a certain sense) identical with the past. “The ascendant march on the road of the revolution is the only possible means for us to join up with our past . . . Our past was a revolution, and we will never reach its level or meet with it except through revolution.”

Revolution is not merely a political or social movement; it is a permanent condition of the soul, a perpetual reawakening or rebirth. The soul, one might say, in order to become authentic, must become absorbed by the nation, must struggle and sacrifice for the nation. This is its true freedom. The love of which Aflaq speaks as the end or goal of nationalism requires, as its means, a mercilessness, “a powerful hate, a hate unto death of the persons who embody an idea contrary” to the national idea. “Any action,” he says, “that does not call forth in us living emotions and does not make us feel the spasm of love, the revulsion of hate, that does not make our blood race in our veins and our pulse beat faster is a sterile action.” Youth is the key to this revolution: the young must rebel against a humiliating present in which their elders acquiesce for the sake of a future that will restore a glorious past. They must act ruthlessly for the sake of love. Aflaq’s work may thus be epitomized in two of his teachings: that nationalism is “love before everything else,” and that “we do not recognize a middle solution.”

As regards the religious dilemma, it is by now evident that the Islamic political revival sees both nationalism and socialism as essentially threatening because they are secular. As regards the dilemma of nationalities, the Ba’ath party which was to unite all the Arab lands is now common only to Syria and Iraq, who have little else in common except their mutual enmity.

But this is not to suggest that nationalism has not succeeded in some important way. Quite the contrary: It has legitimated a secular, revolutionary politics in a land of religious traditions. In this sense “modernity” has come to the Arabs in its most virulent form. On the other hand, the republican traditions of the West, the tradition of the moderated politics of governing and being governed in turn, has had no similar success.


Palestinian nationalism under the PLO umbrella, born of a profound social and political crisis, is an offspring of Pan-Arab nationalism and is subject to the same dilemmas. The people of the region have become “Palestinians” to the other Arabs, to themselves, and to the world. But they also identify with and derive much of their political animus from the condition of being “Arab,” that is, “oppressed” by European imperialism. Similarly, the Palestinians have experienced the same historic religious differences and divisions between religious and secular perspectives as other Arabs. The tide of Islamic fundamentalism, while rejecting the West, also rejects the “democratic and secular” nationalists precisely because they see them as corrupted by the satanic West. Were the Palestinians to vanquish Israel tomorrow, these fundamental divisions would still remain as political dilemmas urgently requiring resolution. The prospects for that appear remote. There is emphatically no Palestinian identity as “citizen” except in Israel. That is as much, if not more, a consequence of historic Arab reality as it is of the Palestinians’ dispossession by the Jews.

What is true of Palestinian nationalism is also, in its own way, true of Jewish nationalism. Israel, and without doubt “Zionism,” is also an expression of nineteenth-century European nationalism resting on “historical claims” and is burdened by some of the same unsavory aspects of that heritage. David Hartman has observed that

Zionists both revolted against Jewish History and saw themselves as continuing it . . . The attachment to the ancient historical past of the Jewish people goes together with the yearning for the creation of a new Jewish personality. There is therefore a deep need among secular Zionist ideologists to find historical legitimization for their revolution. Yet they cannot find it . . . through the religious community . . . Rather they must step back into the earliest framework of Jewish history, in which the Jewish people developed and grew in their own natural society.

But two points about Jewish nationalism that distinguish it from Arab and other nationalisms should be emphasized. First, the situation of the Jews in a Europe at once liberalizing and nationalizing was unstable and becoming untenable, as events in this century have made clear. If the Jews were a nation, they were a nation without a state. If, on the other hand, the Jews were not a nation, then European liberalism should have provided security for them as individuals and as a religious or cultural minority. It did not.

Second, Jewish nationalism was born out of the promise of liberalism, not as a reaction to it, as was the case with the other doctrines of nationalism in Europe. The same crisis of identity that affected everyone exposed to modernity deeply affected the Jews of Europe as well, but their hopes lay in liberalism. that is, in a doctrine of universal right (which many of them took to its socialist extreme). For the Jews, the failure of European liberalism, under both nationalism and Communism, was in the end catastrophic. Nevertheless, the birth of the Jewish state was a de facto achievement of liberalism. Israel has achieved a form of liberal democracy, or more precisely, a distinctive form of constitutional government, inherited both from its own internal communal traditions and the European experience of the Jews. That they sought refuge as Jews was out of necessity; that they sought it in Israel was a combination of religious tradition, nationalism, and opportunity. The chief point, however, is that Israel’s political legitimacy derives from its liberalism, not from its nationalism.


It has been said that Israel and the Palestinians are locked in a tragic conflict of two nationalisms with irreconcilable claims to the same land. This is a regrettable formulation, since it would seem to identify “nationalism” with rival claims to political legitimacy. But nationalism must not be confused with political legitimacy. It is necessary to distinguish between the alleged right of a people to be or to have a state, that is, political autonomy, and the right or title of the particular regime to govern, that is, political legitimacy. It is this very distinction that nationalism, as a doctrine, obscures.

Political legitimacy, that is, the right or title to govern, cannot be founded on historical, religious, racial, or linguistic claims to a particular piece of land. Each of these claims assumes, first, a questionable principle of right which, by definition, belongs to only one particular group, and, second, speciously assumes the unity and homogeneity of that group. But political legitimacy, when it exists, is always a solution to the inescapable heterogeneity and diversity of even the most racially, culturally, and linguistically homogeneous societies. What is meant by liberal constitutionalism is just such a modern solution to the most ancient political problem. That is why political legitimacy, or the right to govern, is properly identified with a constitution, written or unwritten, that has the ongoing consent of the governed.

The conflict between nationalism and liberal democracy, then, may be recast as the conflict between nationalism and constitutionalism both in its root sense of politeia—the making of an enduring political whole out of diverse parts—and in its modern sense of the universal consent of the governed and the security of their rights. The premise of nationalism, on the other hand, is homogeneity, or exclusion. The difference is not that nationalistic regimes lack written constitutions; it is rather that the principle of the regime, by definition, denies the premise of constitutionalism, consent. Nationalism favors totalitarianism internally and aggression externally.

Of consent, we may say that it is a phenomenon that rests upon the need of mankind to secure the most vital interests of life and property. To secure these, people consent to government. If it be asked where liberty is as an “interest,” the answer is that consent may itself be the expression of liberty, and this in two senses: that it must be given freely, that is, rationally and deliberately, and that it requires some form of participation in governance. Since political self-government in this sense is what is meant primarily by liberty (putting aside for the present philosophical disputes as to what true liberty or freedom must entail), we may say then that consent, properly understood, indeed rests on and necessitates the securing of life, property, and liberty.

We Americans, because of the principles of our Constitution and its unique success, tend to think that constitutionalism resting on consent can rest only on individual rights. We do not recognize group rights as inherently just. Despite the considerable element of truth in this view, it is unreasonable to insist on individual right as the only foundation of a sound constitution. The need for consent applies to communal arrangements as well as to individuals. It is in this sense that the modern liberalism of individual right, founded upon self-proclaimed anti-utopian foundations, has itself a Utopian element—it does not take men as they are.

Universal individual right, or what we may call modern natural right, is not a complete solution to the political problem, since it cannot adequately address the question of “primordial communities” as indissoluble elements of political heterogeneity. Indeed, it is precisely this weakness of the immune system of liberalism that the virus of nationalism exploits, as we can see, for example, in both black and “Aryan” expressions of nationalism in the United States.

Nevertheless, the modern political problem cannot be solved without recognizing individual right. Modern natural right radicalizes the political problem of unity and diversity in two ways. First, heterogeneity is radicalized by identifying it with individuals, not with groups and their claims to ethnic, religious, territorial, or racial antiquity. Second, homogeneity is radicalized by identifying it with rights. People are the same not in respect of the circumstances of their birth, but by having the same—equal—rights, irrespective of their many other differences. Although the doctrine of natural right is often criticized as leading to “atomized” individualism, it also must be appreciated for the solution to the political problem that it makes possible. An individual may have rights that constitutionally derive from those of his community, but his rights in some sense must also be understood in law as prior to that community. This recognition becomes a principle of justice in the constitutional regime, necessary for continuing—and universal—consent. Moreover, insofar as a constitution recognizes the free association of individuals beyond their respective communities for political ends, the principle of individual right transcends (but need not supplant) communal rights.

In this twofold way—the assurance of justice and free voluntary association—may be discovered the modern notion of the citizen. All liberal constitutional regimes implicitly must recognize and secure the natural individual rights of life, liberty, and property. This is accomplished by the mechanisms by which government is limited in its powers. The political implementation of the doctrine of natural rights thus requires them to be axiomatic in the construction of successful liberal constitutions, as Alexander Hamilton observed when he wrote that the U.S. Constitution, even without the proposed Bill of Rights, “is itself in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, a BILL OF RIGHTS.”

Thus, although consent may be either communal or individual, it seems to me that the condition of global modernity requires the presence of the latter even in the most traditional of societies. The divisions in traditional societies brought about by the consequences of modernity, primarily between secular and religious, between religions (which under the conditions of modernity have a claim to legal and political equality), and finally even between the individual and society, are inevitably a part of the diversity for which constitutionalism represents the only possible unity.

It is, of course, easier to speak of consent than to implement it. The implementation of consent requires the greatest of political virtues and the most prudential political science. There are specifiable and rational conditions for seeking and granting consent. But there are other considerations, not always specifiable or rational, for withholding it. Honor, ancient tribal and religious differences, and revenge come to mind. This reminds us as well that not all human customs and traditions favor constitutionalism, much less modern or liberal constitutionalism. Modernization may be inevitable, but liberal constitutionalism is not. The paradox of liberalism in the “old” world is that in order to be liberal—that is, to secure universal rights—the regime must first be particular. The modern dream of full human autonomy and freedom cannot finally escape human nature.


We are now a certain theoretical distance from the conflict between Arabs, Palestinian Arabs, and Jews. Nevertheless, we may say that we have recast the problem from an insoluble conflict of nationalisms to that of a common need for constitutional solutions to their respective problems. This common need cannot, however, have a common solution. It is nevertheless possible to speak to the practical issues from the theoretical perspective.

For Israel to remain in the occupied territories can have only two justifications: nationalism and security. The former denies the very premise of Israel’s own political legitimacy The latter cannot finally be solved unilaterally by Israel, but requires that the security interests of the Palestinians—which are in the end also their fundamental political interests—be secured as well.

Toward this end, Israel might withdraw—either unilaterally or through a negotiated settlement—from much of the territories. There will surely be great pressure for some solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem in the aftermath of the Gulf crisis. In any proposed solution, much will depend on the internal capacity of the Palestinians to resolve their inherent constitutional problems. Israel cannot solve the Palestinian constitutional problem, although it has been suggested that a combination of federal and confederal arrangements between Israel and the territories might be possible. Indeed, this might be the best possible outcome.

But neither this nor any other solution can be brought about without prior Palestinian political development. The true grievance of the Palestinians—indeed, of the Arab world in general—is not “humiliation,” but the inability to establish a just regime. No matter how difficult this will be, it is the necessary next step if the Arabs are to reconcile themselves to modernity. For there is no alternative to such reconciliation. That reconciliation must precede any between Arab and Jew, or the Arabs and the West. In this sense, Israel may be said to be a blessing to the Arab nations, since Israel truly is the outpost of liberal constitutionalism, that is, of healthy modernity, in the region.

Robert A. Licht is Resident Scholar and Director of the Constitution Studies Project at the American Enterprise Institute.