I belong to the 1950s generation, having been brought up socialized by Nasserite, Baathist, Communist and secular cultures. The meaning of nation for me gradually changed through time, although I have felt privately inclined to the term my good folk used, which wasn’t politically and ideologically loaded. In a word, I preferred to use “albalad” or country instead of “alwatan,” or nation. This usage explains why I understood and liked the “biladibiladi” (my country my country) national anthem more than “mawteni” or my nation or greater nation.
According to the dictionary, nation means a place where man lives, resides, and belongs, whether born in it or not. When defining “nation” politically, the term has different goals and many more implications. Except in dictionaries, the Arabic language did not include the term “nation” as a modern political concept until the beginning of the 20th century.
The various military coups in the Arab world after WW II produced tyrannical leaders dreaming of eternal thrones. Tyrants started exploiting the concept of nation, working on it through the media, politics and security, broadening its usage, and employing it as a propaganda and coercive weapon against whoever disobeyed them. Each tyrant, in turn, has reduced his nation and nationalism to himself. If you oppose him, his statements, or his regime, you become an enemy of the nation. Thus, the media, controlled by repressive regimes, subjects the politically defined term “nation” to the broadest possible “demonization”.
In my youth, I learned some of the platitudes of the “father-leader,” a title in my generation recognized as referring to Hafez al-Assad. I used to feel shame in describing that man as a father because I already had, and still have, a father whom I love and respect and who is, in every way, more than adequate. Still, I would not have allowed my father to be my leader, so how would I have allowed someone else to adopt that role? The “father-leader” confusion numbered among the many difficult issues I faced in my youth, in addition to the numerous problems with society, state and religion.
In the speeches of the “father-leader,” he exploited the nation, and the citizen, destroying the relationship between them. I recall this quote almost verbatim: “A free nation means a free citizen.”
The promise by the “father-leader,” who enslaved me and exploited the nation for his own interests, that I would be free when he liberated the nation, still remains the biggest lie or fallacy I have known in my life! By this logic, I would remain a slave until the Golan Heights is freed from occupation, an act of liberation which, it has been proven, the “father-leader” does not want. As a result, there can be no escape from slavery.
When I started to turn towards secularism and read about societies that preceded us not only in cultural, scientific, and technological development, and living standards, but also in guaranteeing their citizens rights and duties, I became convinced that anyone calling himself the “father-leader” will prove to be nothing but a swindler. Facts and events throughout history set the idea of nationalism in its proper place: “A free citizen means a free nation.” Free citizens throughout history have possessed the capacity to create a free nation or “country,” while those who have surrendered to enslavement have proven unable to either create or maintain a free nation or “country.”
When I subsequently read a definition of nationalism that indicted Hafez al-Assad, I felt comfortable. In essence, this definition shows that “nationalism means achieving independence from imperialism, politically and economically.” When Assad did not accomplish this independence, he became non-nationalistic, or unpatriotic. Because I stand against the tyranny of al-Assad, I believed this deceptive definition, which has proven its deficiency and shortcomings, as well as its dogmatism, over time. This led me to fall under the influence of the then Soviet thinking, even though I used to belong to a party which has issued many criticisms of the Soviet system.
The classification of “nationalist” in those days used to imply positive characteristics such as activism and the struggle against injustice. Determining whether an individual, a political party or a regime qualified as either nationalist or non-nationalist became a standard by which one could judge individuals or institutions positively or negatively.
Over almost 30 years, my vision of politics has changed. I have returned to what has proven closer to my intuition, that the humanist remains more noble and superior to the nationalist. I have discovered how the commercialization of the concepts of nation and nationalism, especially when exploiting the Palestinian wound, has proven a profitable business for the merchants of politics and the tyrants who control their peoples under the banner of Palestine. While Palestinians have suffered disasters at the hands of the nationalists, nationalist rulers, numbering among those who have traded most with Palestine, have declared “rhetorically” that Palestine stands as the central cause of the great Arab nation, thereby centering nationalism around the slogan of Palestine,
Only after witnessing the repression, incarceration, massacres and many disappointments at the hands of regimes claiming nationalism, did I discover Hitler to be a nationalist, but not a humanist, as were other tyrants such as Mussolini, Pol Pot, Assad, and Kim Jong-Un and his father. According to this view, the question relates to the perspective from which we judge the nationalist, and his expected political conduct, not only upon the partisans of nationalism, but also on the citizens whose rights and duties were abolished. With these implications, it became evident to me that no nation exists without its citizens, while the opposite is also true.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 20, No. 70
Copyright © by Al Jadid (2016)