National identity underlies the formation of many modern states. Identity has historically been called upon to unite people, mainly in opposition to other dissimilar communities. This is the duality of this phenomenon – on the one hand, it generates cooperation and political power, and on the other, it leads to misunderstanding and conflicts.
The concept of identity was brought to the Middle East from the Western world, but its ideas did not quite fit into the reality of the nationally fragmented Eastern region. After all, even the common religion Islam is divided into very different and opposing confessions of Sunnites and Shiites. The state boundaries imposed after the First World War that followed the Ottoman Empire’s division contradicted the indigenous peoples’ interests and led to the formation of a conflict climate in the region (Hinnebusch, 2016). However, elements of nation-building are still present in the Middle East. This paper aims to investigate the problems of irredentism, pan-Arabism, and the national identity of Middle East countries.
As a result of imposed borders, irredentism has been conflicting with the national and religious fragmentation of the states. This discrepancy provokes the proneness to wars and armed conflicts that are so characteristic of the Middle East. In Israel, which became the Jewish version of Western nationalism, political parties with a clearly expressed ideology were formed even in the pre-state period. In Turkey, under the influence of the Western European model, the state-building process, although it had specific features, did not generally reject the recipes for building a system when political identity was realized through ideological affiliation with various parties and movements. At the same time, both Israel and Turkey face (albeit to varying degrees) both the challenges of politicized religious identity and the problems of ethnic politicization (Arabs and Kurds, respectively). From the point of view of the topic under consideration, Iran is one of the most striking examples of the coexistence of political, religious, or confessional identity and modern institutions and political systems.
Numerous regional conflicts have contributed to the fragmentation of societies and the politicization of identities in the countries that have been their victims. Belonging to a particular confessional, the ethnic tribal group provides protection, security, support, and loyalty to the environment. The spectrum of factors in forming political identity also includes external influence from the West aimed at promoting institutions (often through the overthrow of regimes), which rarely take root on local soil in their original version (Hinnebusch, 2016). An assessment of the influence of political identities on foreign policy shows that these identities, being even more politicized, open up exceptional opportunities for building relations at the interstate level and connections with culturally close proxies (be they communities or individual organizations and groups).
A characteristic feature of the development of international relations in the Middle East after World War II was strengthening the propaganda of Arab unity, which found its expression in the ideology of pan-Arabism. In its pure form, pan-Arabism is the idea of the need to overcome the artificial, in the opinion of the supporters of this ideology, division of the Arab world into independent states (Hinnebusch, 2016). It was believed only through Arab unity that it was possible to return to the natural development of Arab civilization, interrupted by four centuries from the beginning of Ottoman rule and then by several decades of European colonial rule. The formation of the ideology of pan-Arabism took place in the search for national identity by young Arab states in the context of the collapse of world colonial systems.
However, historical enmity between Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia will not allow the implementation of a single pan-Arab plan (Hinnebusch, 2016). Disagreements soon emerged within the UAR, while authoritarian methods of government could not fail to maintain the integrity of power. Analyzing the historical path of the movement of pan-Arabism, which runs through the creation of the United Arab Republic, it can be concluded that a state association based on national identity does not yet guarantee the success of a political regime. The existence of the UAR in 1958-1961 remained the only serious attempt to integrate the established Arab states (Hinnebusch, 2016). The failure of this attempt can be explained by the departure of Nasser from his original vision of pan-Arabism. The realities of inter-Arab rivalry did not allow the Arabs to overcome the consequences of the colonial past.
Overall, In the Middle East, customs, traditions, religion, and historical memory, to a decisive extent, affect the ideas of states about their international significance, rivals and enemies, and the available opportunities to promote their influence. With insufficiently developed or absent independent expertise and a system of checks and balances that help form an effective foreign policy strategy, informal institutions successfully compete with formal ones.
The widespread incongruence between national and religious identity and a particular territory is the most crucial challenge for nation-building in the Middle East. Despite the defeat of pan-Arabism in 1961, no other option for achieving unity in the multi-confessional Arab society was put forward. This, in part, along with existing irredentism public sentiment, has led to the spread of more radical ideological forms, including Islamic fundamentalism.
Hinnebusch, R. (2016). The politics of identity in the Middle East international relations. International relations of the Middle East, 155-175.