Nuseibeh (1959) traces the genesis of Arab nationalism to three major foundations which coincided with three main periods. The first one started in the pre-Islamic era and ends in the seventh century of the Christian era; the second period is the Islamic era which started with the rise of Islam and lasted until the nineteenth century. The third period is the modern era which extended from the nineteenth century and it is still ongoing. Understanding that delving into the complexities of the great antiquity of Arab nationalism before and during the Islamic era is beyond the scope of this paper, this section briefly introduces the modern era of Arab nationalism which started in the second half of the nineteenth century and witnessed the birth of the modern Arabic media that ushered the development of modern Arab nationalism.
An attempt to examine the modern period of Arab nationalism necessitates an analysis of the historical factors that have contributed into transforming Arab societies, allowing the Arab nationalist movement to emerge and flourish. Choueiri (2000) differentiates between three developmental factors; namely, cultural, political and economic which played an important role in developing three phases of modern Arab nationalism. The first phase is cultural and extended from approximately 1800 and 1900; this phase was characterized by a rediscovery of the golden age of Arab civilization when Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, was used as the symbol of cultural identity in the Muslim world in general and the Ottoman Empire whose Ottoman language borrowed extensively from Arabic. To put it differently, cultural Arabism entailed a literary and ethnic movement that adapted the myths, memories, symbols and values of Arab civilization to new circumstances through giving them new meanings and functions in the Ottoman context (Smith, 1986 p.3). This cultural awakening involved three different social groups which include religious scholars who claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, allowing them to become prominent leaders and custodians of Arab culture and values. The second social group was the Christian intellectuals, especially in Syria and Lebanon, who were disseminating their ideas through forming literary associations, publishing newspapers, and founding schools which instilled a sense of pride in a rediscovered Arab culture. The third group constituted the urban notables and landowners who were officials of the Ottoman state institutions and later emerged as the leaders of political Arabism. Despite the religious difference between these groups, they all shared the same goal; that is, to revive Arab culture based on language and ethnicity.
The second phase started from 1900 until 1945 and took a political aspect, especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. This phase witnessed consecutive rebellions against European colonialism; these rebellions were either totally vanquished or attained limited and transient success; additionally, the failure of the Palestinian Rebellion against the British occupation along with the Zionist settlement accelerated the need for unity and solidarity among Arabs throughout the region. These critical political circumstances provided a fertile land for the notion of Pan-Arabism to flourish and grow, calling for restoring the Arab Caliphate as a genuine solution to fight colonization (Al kawakibi, 1931). Clearly, this phase of Arab nationalism emphasized the political aspects of Arab national revival bounded together by ties of patriotism, resulting in a smooth transition from cultural to political Arabism. Moreover, the most important event in this phase was the foundation of the Arab League in 1945 with seven countries which aimed at promoting economic, cultural and political cooperation between its member states. Today, the Arab League comprises 24 member states including Palestine as an independent country and Somalia and Djibouti which are not entirely Arab but they were admitted upon request in 1974 and 1977.
The third phase extended from 1945 to 1973 within which most Arabs gained their independence and joined the Arab League. This latter was considered a coordinating agency rather than a federation or confederation. The Arab League was deemed as a weak organization by many Arab nationalists as it was and still unable to meet the economic, political and social challenges of the Arab World (Khodr, 2004). Consequently, there were many projects to unite more or two Arab states with no concrete and lasting outcome. The third phase observed another transition in the notion of Pan-Arabism; it was associated with socialism and characterized by one-party rule as well as the resistance to liberate Palestine from the Israeli occupation. This last phase originated in Egypt under the leadership of Jamal Abd Nasser who dominated the Arab World by his policies, initiatives and speeches.
A close analysis of Choueiri’s phases of Arab nationalism or Pan-Arabism indicates that each phase has a symbol which embodied its central premise; these symbols are a language, an institution, or a person; that is, Arabic, the Arab League, or Jamal Abd Nasser. However, none of these symbols sustained and none effectively served as a catalyst to achieve Arab unity. First, the fact that there was a changeover from a cultural to a political focal point for Arab nationalism implied that speaking a common language or belonging to the same ethnic group was not a strong enough symbol to unite Arabs. As a result, Arab nationalist thought that establishing a Pan-Arab organization would solve the deficit of focusing on language and ethnicity. Nevertheless, the Arab League was nothing more than a coordination agency which represented the utmost degree of cooperation between colonized countries that could be tolerated and approved by colonial powers such as Great Britain. Today, the Arab League’s summits have mostly been characterized by ‘political brawls and near-fisticuffs’ between Arab leaders. Thus, such a limited and weak organization cannot live up to its potential in being a symbol of Arab nationalism.
The last declining symbol of Arab nationalism was Jamal Abd Nasser, the second president of Egypt and a source of inspiration for the anti-colonial and pan-Arab revolutions in many Arab countries. The image of Jamal Abd Nasser as the symbol of Pan-Arabism soon collapsed after the devastating defeat of Arabs, led by him, in the Six Day War with Israel. The shocking defeat was a mortal loss of Arab nationalism which went into a state of decline after 1973. As a result, Saudi Arabia emerged as a regional power that accentuates the Islamic values and Islamic concepts of governance. The symbols of pan-Arabism declined without achieving anything worth noting, leaving Arabs without nationalist symbols that unite them. This paper argues that Al-Jazeera is the new symbol. Before venturing into examining this argument, I briefly discuss the role that Arab media played in the awakening of Arab nationalism.