Woodrow Wilson and the United States of Arabia

David Gardner,

Woodrow Wilson commissioned a group to see what the Arabs wanted post WW1. The outcome of this King-Crane report: the Arabs wanted a United States of Arabia. Instead they got the European Nation-State, a distinctly different creature, imposed upon it by the victorious French & British.

The nation state is a European invention, it is a construct of identity. In many European nations we so strongly identify with it that we need to actively learn to understand that in other countries the national identity isn’t strong (Spain) or largely nonexistent (Somalia). Nations are social compromises, they do not exist beyond human agreement and only are as strong as the people who empower it. Few in the Arab world empower their own and in the Arab world few actually agree that their nation is geographically fixed, even if they believe in it they may not believe its current borders are permanent.

I’m glad to see someone is using a tad of anthropology and places people’s identity first.  Sykes Picot never gained traction with the Arabs, like in Africa it were the elites that happily inherited the imperialist fist and abused the nation state as a means of self-promotion and repression. Lebanon was created as a Christian vassal to France, it was largely meaningless as a carrier of identity. The vast majority of Syrians are Sunnis (more than 75%) and have repeatedly and violently been repressed by their state which is largely  meaningless as a source of identity. Iraq was a, literally, unholy alliance of what still are geographically distinct groups (Kurds, Sunnis, Shia) with a traditionally liberal melting pot capital at their crossroads; the capital Baghdad: only in Baghdad does one still find true Iraqis. Jordan does not offer a  unique, compelling identity either. Egypt is an exception but the weak national identity continues south and westwards into Africa. Even Morocco with its continued ruthless occupation of Western Sahara isn’t certain of what it actually is.

The area needs new nations, based on shared values and identities. Lebanon can be expanded northward along the coast, taking in the Assad-Syrians. The Syrian Sunnis and their brothers in Western Iraq form a common identity if not “nation”. The Shia of Iraq are entitled to plotting their own course without having to choose between their Arab or Shia identities. As for Israel, the largest cultural identity group in Israel are “Arab Jews” (Mizrahim) who are entitled to be secure in their identity in their own region. The other Jews equally are largely refugees returning to the land of a profoundly held identity and security. As for the Arab peninsula the oil wealth there hides another complex of identities that the nation state profoundly misrepresents.

Ideally everyone in the Arab world wakes up and discovers what they have in common and returns to Woodrow Wilson’s idea: a United States of Arabia; one that would hold liberal values high, guarantees separation of powers, freedom of religion, assembly and all the various other vital liberal rights. Then there would be no need for nations protecting identities because the law would protect them. I know some people who cherish that outcome.

And it is the outcome that all three religions who found their genesis in the area predict will prevail in the end. The only thing preventing it is sheer human stubbornness. Is stubbornness to this degree a survival quality? Or is Darwin wrong?