Michael Totten

A Challenge to Newt Gingrich

Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich drew quite a lot of attention to himself, not all of it good, when he recently declared the Palestinians an “invented people.” I didn’t feel like wading into the controversy, but it hasn’t entirely quieted down yet, and I can’t resist drawing your attention to Lee Smith’s response.

But first, briefly, my own reponse: Yes, Palestinian identity is of recent “invented” vintage, but it’s no more recent or invented than Jordanian identity, and every single last person in Jordan knows perfectly well that Jordanians and Palestinians are very different indeed. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live in Lebanon and, believe me, they are not indistingishable from some great mass of Lebanese “Arabs.” The same goes for Palestinians everywhere else, including Egypt, Syria, and the Persian Gulf region. (No Arabs are more different from Palestinians than the Gulfies.)

The problem with arguing that Palestinians are “just Arabs,” as Gingrich more or less did, is that it’s Nasserist. It accepts as given the lies of Arab nationalism, a repressive ideology based on the supposed supremacism of an identity that didn’t really even exist until the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Lee Smith explains it at least as well as, if not better than, I can, so I’ll hand you over to him.

It should be clear to even the most casual observer of the Middle East that the Arabs are anything but unified. Iraq’s conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, as we now understand, was only the tip of the iceberg in a region where civil war is not an exception but the norm. The Bahraini and Syrian uprisings are effectively sectarian revolutions against the established, and repressive, orders. Even in Egypt, Muslim violence against the Coptic Christian community reveals the true sectarian nature of the region.

The theorists behind 20th-century Arab nationalism recognized the region’s sectarianism and tribalism—which is why they proposed an identity based not on sect or tribe but rather on shared attributes, like language. The inhabitants of the region, from Western North Africa to the Persian Gulf, all spoke some variation of Arabic, thus they were Arabs. Their particularities, whether ethnic (Kurdish, for instance) or sectarian (Christian, Shia, etc.) were insignificant in comparison to their Arab identity. According to ideologues like Sati’ al-Husri, they were Arabs whether they liked it or not.

Accordingly, Arab nationalism has been a coercive and repressive doctrine. Even though it was an idea intended to forestall the civil strife that arises from competing identities, in reality enforcing Arab nationalism has led to bloodshed throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Under Saddam Hussein, Arab nationalism meant Sunni supremacism and the violent suppression of Kurds and Shiites. In Syria, the minority Alawite regime has used the doctrine to keep the Sunnis as well as the Kurds in line. In Lebanon, Hezbollah waves the banner of Arab nationalism in its fight against the Zionist entity, in order to intimidate and rule over other Lebanese sects. Violence and repression are key components of Arab nationalism, because as a totalitarian ideology like Communism and Nazism, it can brook no differences, no particularity.

Respecting that particularity is not only good for the inhabitants of the region but also for the interests of the United States and Israel. The United States has bilateral relations with other nation-states and political institutions like the Palestinian Authority. But this country is ill-equipped to deal with large amorphous bodies like the “Arab people” or, alternatively, the “Muslim world.”

The latter was the intended recipient of Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009. Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to the president that the Muslim-majority Middle East comprises various Muslim sects often at odds, plus non-Muslims as well. By employing this particular fiction, the “Muslim world,” the Cairo speech happened to comport perfectly with the belief of Islamists who hold that non-Muslims and even Shiite Muslims are second-class subjects in the Sunni-majority Middle East, rather than individuals deserving of equal rights.

The “Arab people,” like the “Muslim world,” is an invention—and neither of them should hold much appeal for U.S. policy-makers.