The Search for a New Arab Nationalism

Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was hero of the day last week when in tough discussions with the United States ambassador, he adopted a "resolute Arab stand," as a Beirut newspaper editorial put it.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was hero of the day last week when in tough discussions with the United States ambassador, he adopted a "resolute Arab stand," as a Beirut newspaper editorial put it.

Hariri said Lebanon's position is that the resistance movement [meaning Hezbollah] "must not be touched under any cause or pretext, including the war on terrorism." Hezbollah, said Hariri (after checking with Syria's President Bashar Assad) is a national resistance movement. It is not a terrorist organization and therefore Lebanon will neither freeze its bank accounts nor block its activities.

Hariri cannot be suspected of harboring any great sympathy for Hezbollah. His past declarations about the damage the organization was causing to Lebanon's development caused a bitter dispute between Hariri, Hezbollah and the Syrian leadership. Hariri is also well aware of the harm his statement last week may have on relations between Beirut and Washington, and on foreign investment. What, then is the source of this strong Lebanese position?

The explanation would seem to lie in some new Arab nationalist thinking because of the war in Afghanistan. Last Thursday, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, was called upon to formulate the league's position on the American offensive. He said "if there is an attack on an Arab state, the coalition for the war on terrorism will cease to exist."

This means that so long as the United States is fighting a Muslim, but not Arab, nation it is possible to accept the situation - but woe betide America if it turns against the Arab world. The comments of both Moussa and Hariri delineate the border line between Arab identity and the Islamic identity of the Arab states, and digs the last trench in defense of pan-Arabism.

From the depths of that trench an old, faded flag still rises, waving for Arab identity and retaining for the Arabs a modicum of control over decision making at international level. This is an identity that does not need the religion of Islam or its movements, because they stand on their own and don't have to justify their existence repeatedly anew.

Moreover, the central current of Islam feels more secure when the fight is against a non-orthodox form of Islam, such as that represented by the Taliban. But when a cultural power as potent as the United States tries also to set national rules of the game for the Arab states - to dictate what a legitimate struggle is, to define as terrorist groups organizations that are perceived by others as nationalist, and to set an agenda that runs contrary to the Arab agenda and detracts from the importance of the Arab national struggle - tectonic shifts begin in the Arab states.

Islam, the Arab leaders are saying, is strong enough to withstand the Western assault, and at most it will find it a worthy enemy. National affiliation, on the other hand, is still vulnerable, perhaps too young, and therefore needs to be well-padded. Thus, we can expect that United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, who is now searching for a compromise between Islamic bodies and the United States with respect to the definition of terrorism, will encounter newer obstacles on his path than American diplomats who are trying to prevent the unraveling of the coalition by the Arab states.

An orthodox Islamic leadership has no problem declaring that the murder of innocent people conflicts with the religion. However, in countries such as Lebanon and Syria, and even in Egypt or Saudi Arabia, and certainly in Palestine, such a definition could undermine the conceptual universe to the point of denying the legitimacy of national struggles.

The position of Lebanon on the question of Hezbollah is thus an Arab position in the national sense, even if this is an organization with a religious mission that sometimes threatens the very sovereignty of Lebanon.

The problem is that the posture assumed by Lebanon, a small country that has placed its right to make decisions in Syria's hands, is now also setting an all-Arab line because no Arab state will be able to deviate from it. And if Hezbollah enjoys Arab legitimacy, then why not other organizations as well?