Commentary Magazine

Where Arabism and Zionism Differ

Arabism and Zionism are ideologies. In other words, they offer a blueprint for political action based on historical arguments which purport to establish the true character of, respectively, Arabs and Jews. They are, then, nationalist ideologies.

Nationalism, generally, gives an account of human society, and a vision of the good life based on it. For nationalism, the primordial human reality is the nation. The nation, it holds, produces national values. One, but only one, among these many national values, the product of the national genius, which identify and help to preserve a nation, is that nation's religion. For nationalism, also, a national religion has simply instrumental value, and the truth of a religion is subordinate to its value as the badge or emblem of the nation.

There is, then, prima facie a conflict between religion—as religion views itself—and nationalism. For a religion, the supreme consideration is the claim that it is true, not whether it can serve to provide a sense of identity and continuity to a group such as the nation. Still less is religion disposed to look upon itself as the mere product of the genius of a nation. Again, for monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, belief in a divine revelation is taken for granted by the believer, to whom it does not occur that it could be questioned. Believers refuse to see their religion diminished by allegations—such as those made by some writers of the European Enlightenment—that it is a deliberate fraud concocted by priests in the service of kings, or an unconscious piece of fetishism, as Feuerbach and his follower Marx claimed, or the product of hidden psychological drives, as Freud argued. Nationalism, we may note in passing, comes from the same intellectual stable as these modern European ideologies.

Such being the believer's outlook, there is incompatibility and conflict between religion and nationalism. But to leave matters there is not adequate or satisfactory. Religion is, typically, not simply a belief, or a rule, or a practice followed by isolated solitaries like the cenobites. It is rather a social affair: religion is postulated upon, and assumes, a community of believers. Moreover, religious beliefs held in common do generate—even if this is not their primary purpose—the social cohesion and solidarity on which nationalism itself relies. They do constitute a badge of group identity such as nationalism desiderates for the nation. Thus—to take a clear contemporary example—the social cohesion generated by the Greek Orthodox faith provides a basis for enosis, i.e., the argument that the Greeks of Cyprus are part of the Greek nation and should become part of the Greek state. Here, to be Greek, and to be an adherent of the Greek Orthodox faith, seem to be interchangeable, if not identical, states of being.

This leads to the conclusion that between religion and nationalism the relation is not always one of outright opposition and conflict. Religion and nationalism may be seen, rather, as linked in a dialectical relation, now opposing and now supporting one another.

The relation between Islam and Arab nationalism further illustrates and clarifies this dialectical relation. The ideology of Arab nationalism derives from precisely that European thought of the Enlightenment and the first half of the 19th century which made revealed religion problematic for its traditional and hitherto uncomplicated believers. The same development may be seen when Arab nationalism began to impinge on traditional Islam.

Islam had been the focus of loyalty for Muslims who believed that they could lead a fully Islamic life only in a Muslim state ruled by Muslims. The only Muslim theory of politics is that of the Caliphate or Imamate—namely, that the Muslim umma, or community, should be under one ruler who is the apostolic successor of the Prophet. It is of course the case that the theory quickly ceased to be true in practice, since there came to be, fairly early in Islamic history, more than one Muslim ruler. The theory, however, did not take—did not know how to take—cognizance of this state of affairs. It is thus striking that until the very end of the Ottoman empire, a Muslim who came from outside into the Ottoman domain would be taken by this theory to have automatically assumed the status of an Ottoman subject.

Much less did Islamic political theory take account of, or in any way accommodate, diversity of tongue and culture, or the habitual existence of a diverse society of states. The only distinction which the theory recognized was that between Muslim and non-Muslim territory. This is in great contrast to the European situation where the diversity of territorial sovereignties was recognized quite early and given theoretical expression in such legal maxims as that the king is emperor in his kingdom, or in treatises like Jean Bodin's Six Books of the Republic (1576), with its discussion of the concept of sovereign power within a particular territorial community.


To the Islamic theory, nationalism posed a challenge and a threat. In the cases of Greek, Balkan, and Armenian nationalism, the challenge was that of non-Muslim subjects rising up against a Muslim ruler. One response to such a challenge was the invention, by Westernized Ottoman officials, of the theory of Ottomanism. This theory implicitly dismissed the Islamic cohesiveness on which Ottoman rule had rested, and substituted for it loyalty to the Ottoman ruling house which was supposed to transcend religious differences, and to do away with the traditional subjection of non-Muslim to Muslim. Ottomanism, however, had no attractive power. It went against the traditional attitudes and loyalties of the Muslim masses.

Still less coherent or concordant with Islam were two nationalisms which appeared in the empire almost simultaneously, namely, Turkism and Arabism. Turkism, or the theory that the Turks constitute a nation which should have a state of its own, had no way of dealing with Islam except by denying its importance in, or relevance to, politics. It simply asserted that the Turkish nation was the proper unit of political organization. This line of thought culminated in the doctrine which Mustafa Kemal (known as Atatürk, 1881-1938) forced on the country he ruled, one of the elements of which was laicism—i.e., the strict separation of state and religion, the holding of Islam at arm's length, and even, at times, its persecution. Islam here could not come to terms with nationalism and vice versa, even though Turkism rested on, and benefited from, the cohesiveness which Islam had, over the centuries, inculcated.

Did the same hold true of Arabism, or was it possible for it to be compatible with Islam? An attempt to argue that the two are compatible is associated with the Syrian Abd Al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, writing at the turn of this century. Muhammad, the argument went, was an Arab prophet, the Qur'an was revealed in Arabic, and it followed that Islam had a special place and peculiar reverence for the Arabs. Kawakibi was a radical who believed that the Ottoman empire, especially under Sultan Abd al-Hamid, was despotic and corrupt, and that a new, and more wholesome, political order had to replace it. Kawakibi envisaged the establishment of a federation of Islamic nations, with Mecca as its spiritual center and a “spiritual” Caliph from Koreish, the Propet's tribe, superseding the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph. But the notion of a “spiritual” Caliphate was nonsensical in Islamic terms, and a federation of Muslim nations found no place in Islamic political theory.

What was true of Kawakibi was also true of his much more eminent fellow Syrian contemporary, Rashid Rida, who in his youth was also a radical, and quite discontented with the condition of Islam and the Ottoman empire in the last decade of Abd al-Hamid. The Sultan's deposition by the Young Turks in 1909 did not improve matters. After a brief flirtation with them, Rashid Rida decided that the Young Turks were both anti-Arab and anti-Islamic. For a brief moment he thought that salvation lay in the anti-Ottoman rebellion led during World War I by Husayn, the Sharif of Mecca, who himself justified his movement by denouncing the Young Turks' irreligion. But ultimately Rashid Rida offered no satisfactory resolution of the tension between traditional Islam and modern conditions.

Increasingly after 1918 the ideologies of Arab nationalism came to the fore and, like other nationalisms, argued that the Arabs were a nation entitled as such to a state of their own. The signs by which the Arabs were held to be identified were their language, their culture, and their history. Religion, thus, had seemingly no bearing on the question of who was an Arab. However, if history was one of the dimensions defining Arabism, then this very history showed that the Arabs first made their mark on the world with the appearance of Muhammad and the spread of his message. Muhammad was thus an Arab cultural hero whom every Arab, regardless of his religion, had to revere—so argued one of the founders of the Baath party, the Greek Orthodox Michel Aflaq. The Iraqi Sunni Muslim, Abd-al-Rahman al-Bazzaz, put it somewhat differently, declaring that in the Muslim world the Arabs held the same position as the Communist party of the Soviet Union holds in the Communist world.

But whatever the worth of such arguments, it remained the case that the social cohesiveness on which Arab nationalism could build was still that traditionally instilled by Islam. And with the increase in the importance of Saudi Arabia in inter-Arab politics, the congruence of Arab nationalism and Islam, not to say their actual identity, came to be considered natural. For in the Arabian Peninsula, where homogeneity of language, race, and religion was more or less complete, it was natural for Arabism and Islam to be considered one and the same thing. To this day, however, this congruence, not to say similarity, between the two, though taken for granted, has not been justified or theorized, nor does there seem to be recognition of the real tensions and conflicts between Arab nationalism and Islam as a revealed, worldwide religion which recognizes only one legitimate kind of rule, and makes no provision for cultural, linguistic, or racial differences.

That there is tension, and that this tension is unresolved, is nevertheless quite evident. One has only to recall the polemic between Sati 'al-Husri, the eminent ideologue of Arabism, and Shaykh Mustafa al-Maraghi, the rector of al-Azhar university in the 1930's. Husri argued that Arab unity had primacy over Islamic unity, and Maraghi the contrary. The two positions are diametrically opposed, and there was no way of reconciling them. Nearer to the present day, Sayyid Qutb and the Muslim Brotherhood both in Egypt and in Syria have delivered a reasoned, sustained, and ferocious attack—for which they have paid with their blood—on Arab nationalist doctrine in its Nasserist and Baathist form, which they have denounced as a regression to pre-Islamic paganism. The murder of Egyptian President Sadat by members of an extremist offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in October 1981, and the repeated clashes between the Brotherhood and the Baathist regime in Syria, culminating in an uprising in the city of Hama—large parts of which consequently suffered destruction at the hands of the authorities in February 1982—attest to the abiding tension and violent conflict between two irreconcilable world views.


Just as Arab (and other) nationalisms in the Muslim world are an outcome of the encounter between the West and Islam, the penetration of modern European views about history and culture, and the adoption by the Muslim world of the categories and concepts of European politics, so Zionism is the outcome of the penetration at about the same time of the same influences into the Jewish world. The differences, however, between the historical experience of Jews and Muslims, and between the political notions respectively associated with Judaism and Islam, could not have been greater.

From its beginning, Islam was associated with political power. Soon after Muhammad's revelation, the Caliphate became a great power, and successive Muslim states remained powers to reckon with until modern times. The ancient Jewish state, by contrast, was a very small state trying to survive on the margin, and in the midst, of the formidable powers which surrounded it. More than once, the Jewish state came to grief in its encounters with the great powers of the ancient world.

The last of these disastrous encounters, that with the Romans, led to the destruction of Jewish autonomy in the land of Israel. Henceforth Jews were deprived of a territorial base and of any political power. But they survived, and continued to do so, in a remarkable, almost worldwide network of communities held together by common religious beliefs and the social solidarity which these beliefs produced, and by a rabbinical leadership which stood guardian over these beliefs and maintained the solidarity which was their outcome.

It is interesting to note that in the period when European dominance over the world of Islam seemed well-nigh complete and irresistible, some Muslim thinkers held up the Jews as an example to their fellow Muslims of the disastrous consequences of political powerlessness. To my knowledge, however, no Muslim thinker has ever pointed to the remarkable survival of Jews and Judaism, even when deprived of political power, as something to ponder upon, and from which to draw a moral. Perhaps this would have been too much to expect, since from the very beginning, and up until now, there has been a tight, unbreakable connection between state and religion in Islam. The Sassanid maxim that rule and religion are twins was taken over and justified by Muslim divines on the score that Muslim power was indispensable to the safeguard of Islam. If indispensable, then it followed that, whatever the character of this power, it had to be obeyed. This is a far cry from the Jewish situation both before and after the dispersion.

The occupation of the land of Israel by the progeny of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was the outcome of a covenant with God, and conditional upon its fulfillment by individuals and the collectivity. Another remarkable feature of the political life of the children of Israel was the highly pejorative view of kingship which is to be found in the Bible. This is manifest not only in the famous passage in which, through Samuel, God itemizes for the benefit of the children of Israel the oppressive burdens of the kingship for which they were yearning, but also in the manner in which the prophets address, and speak about, kings. One may go so far as to call the ancient Jewish polity a dyarchy in which the authority of the prophets rivaled that of the kings, and was sometimes superior to it. This dyarchy preceded by a great many centuries the similar distinction in Western Christianity between regnum and sacerdotium.

After the disastrous clash with Rome, the rabbis (who were the heirs of the prophets) added two significant features to Jewish political theory, namely, not to go up to the land in a column, and not to calculate or to hasten the End. The End was, of course (in the words of the Hebrew blessing), the restoration to his throne of “the anointed one the son of David Your Servant”—a restoration which was to come about not through military power but by divine action and in God's own good time.

This was the traditional Jewish position before the impact of modernity. There were, however (as Moshe Idel has pointed out in a recent paper), many conflicting tendencies within Jewish thought regarding the related question of whether it was a religious duty to live or to seek to settle in the land of Israel. In the Middle Ages Judah Halevy and Moses Nachmanides insisted that the land had a particular numinous quality, and that living in it was necessary for the performance of the commandments. But Abraham Bar-Hiyya, Ezra of Gerona, and Abraham Abulafia held very different views. They affirmed that salvation was easier outside than inside the land; or that exile itself was a substitute for living in the land and for the Temple sacrifices; or that political conditions in the land were such as not to be conducive to study, and thus aliyah was to be discouraged.

Zionism, in any case, meant a radical overturning of a universe of discourse hallowed by the authority of those whom for centuries the Jews had accepted as their guides and leaders. For Zionists did believe in human beings taking their fate in their own hands, and engaging in political, and then if necessary in military, action—did believe, in other words, in going up to the land in a column, and did conceive of a secular End. This end was the establishment of a Jewish state which, whatever it was, could not mean the restoration to his throne of the anointed one the son of David, and was not founded on a covenant whose transgression would infallibly destroy the state. This new ideal had innumerable consequences for the manner in which Jewish society was to be viewed, and all kinds of implications for the traditional structure of authority and belief against which the Zionists revolted.

Zionism, then, like Arab nationalism, was incompatible with the traditional religious view of the world. To be sure, reasons for the incompatibility, as well as its character, were different in the two cases, but the fact of incompatibility remains.


As with Arab nationalism in its relation to Islam, the relation of Zionism to Judaism could not be a simple one of outright conflict and opposition. There is what may be called a necessary ambivalence in the attitude of Zionism to Judaism. Zionism depends on the existence of Jews—and there is no way of being a Jew without, in some way or another, being affected more or less deeply by Judaism, which in its institutions, systems of belief, and modes of behavior is preeminently the handiwork of the rabbis.

Some, and particularly Zionists, have dreamed of a modern, cohesive, and purely secular Jewish society. Societies, however, in which the secular outlook is dominant are a very new feature in world history. The anarchist slogan, ni Dieu ni maître, “neither God nor master,” sums up well the aspirations and ideas of this kind of society. The question arises whether such a society can sustain itself for any length of time and provide fulfillment to its members; the question must remain an open one. The United States is as secular a society as can be imagined, but many have wondered whether the market on its own, and without a common religious basis, can continue to sustain public and private morality, and whether material prosperity does not go hand in hand with a spiritual and moral void. As for other, militantly secularist societies, which proscribe the free pursuit by each individual of his own economic betterment, the spectacle they offer is such as to render comment superfluous.

In any case, whatever hopes secularists have entertained, Israel is not now this kind of society. And even if it were, so long as it is not secure it will need the support of Jews who are not Israelis—and Jews have, by definition, some connection or other with Judaism. The Arab nationalists have also found that they cannot do without Islam. And like Arab nationalists, Zionists for their part have not been able to come to terms intellectually with the assumptions and categories of religious thought. When necessary or expedient they have either made practical compromises—which have left the theoretical conflict unresolved—or else have sociologized religious categories for secular purposes.

Islam, as the Muslim Brotherhood has argued, can do very well without Arab nationalism (or any other kind). So-called fundamentalists like Sayyid Qutb, Maududi, and Khomeini have propounded coherent and cogent arguments in support of this position. There was a similar coherence and cogency in the traditional rabbinical response to the Zionist world view. This response was at its most intellectually vigorous among the East European Jewries which are now gone. A pale image is found in the views of the Neturei Karta sect in Jerusalem, who have made no attempt to grapple theoretically with the situation brought about by the establishment of the state but who give an impression of ineffective, and impotent, disapproval. The Agudath Israel movement, once militantly anti-Zionist, adopted the expedient of keeping Zionism at arm's length and, after 1948, decided to make a kind of cold peace with it.

There remains religious Zionism and the Bloc of the Faithful (Gush Emunim) it inspires. This current of thought seems, at first sight, not only to recognize the problem, but also to provide a reconciliation between Zionist ideals and religious values. But one suspects that the reconciliation remains fragile, since when all is said and done, religious Zionism, like secular Zionism, does not confront or surmount what the injunction not to hasten the End implies and requires. To hasten the End, or simply to facilitate it, or to prepare for it, requires us to take active political and, if need be, military measures. To do so is to engage in an enterprise both hazardous and broken-backed—hazardous because no one embarking on a political or a military venture can possibly ensure or foretell a happy outcome, broken-backed because the most successful outcome of such a venture must always leave something to be desired, must always contain dissonances and disharmonies, and can never provide total satisfaction. And absolute peace and harmony, total satisfaction, are what characterize messianic days. Hastening the End is, thus, a paradoxical and self-contradictory enterprise.


For us who do not live in messianic days, to engage in this hazardous and broken-backed activity of politics is a necessity. But we are less likely to suffer from shattered illusions, and more likely to avoid shipwreck, if we recognize politics for what it is, and keep in mind what it can and what it cannot accomplish.

Politics serves to attend to the common concerns of a society. It is remedial and mediatory. It can best do what it is fitted to do when there is least divergence between the public interest articulated by the state and the interest of the private citizen. When this is the case, the citizen's loyalty to the state is in effect his loyalty to institutions, procedures, and traditions which mediate between the public and the private interest. Where public and private ends pull in opposite directions, then a polity becomes oppressive and a political ideology is resorted to in order to instill a loyalty which institutions in their ordinary workings are powerless to supply. This is the condition of Arab countries where the ideology of Arabism is used to compensate—vainly as we might think—for the absence of institutions which are not simply the engines of compulsion, and for the loyalty which existing regimes are powerless to evoke.

But Israel is, happily, not a polity of this kind. Its institutions emanate from, respond, and seek to minister to the body politic. It is, politically, a going concern. This condition is not the creation of an ideology, for ideologies exactly similar to Zionism we find to coexist with tyranny and worse. It is thus a moot question whether Zionism, however it arose, whatever its role in the establishment of the state (and the relation among ideology, political action, and political outcomes is always complicated and equivocal, and often downright ironical), with all its ambiguities and difficulties, is vital for the survival and continued welfare of Israel. This survival depends ultimately on the patriotism of its citizens—a patriotism which makes possible the functioning of a citizen army—and their trust in institutions which they themselves have set up, and which they have to work; and it depends on the support of fellow Jews abroad—a support which derives from solidarities much older and loyalties more tenacious than any modern ideology.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.