Arab Nationalism and State Formation:The Maghrib Experiences

IDE Research Bulletin

March 2020

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Objectives of the project

The project analyzes the historical development of nationalism in the Maghrib countries (i.e., Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco) with a special focus on the local features of Maghribian nationalism which distinguishes the Maghrib region from other Arab countries. The reason for our choice of topic is that the academic discussion on Arab nationalism has conventionally centered on the Mashriq (East Arab) region, leaving aside the Maghrib (West Arab) region’s experiences. By studying cases of the Maghrib region, the project reconsiders some unquestioned premises and prejudices in the existing literature of Arab nationalism and thus contributes to a theoretical elaboration of studies of Arab nationalism. More concretely, we discuss the following topics: the relationship between nationalism and religion in the Maghrib; the validity of the concept of Waṭaniyya (the attachment to individual nation-states) as nested within Qawmiyya (the feeling of being part of a larger Arab people); the national historiography as a modern, invented tradition and the role of Arabism and Islam in it; and the role of regional supra-national identity (pan-Maghrib solidarity) as part of the formation of nationalism.

One of the important premises of our project is that nationalism is a modern phenomenon. Built on theoretical studies of nationalism which have flourished since the 1980s, the project supposes that premodern communitarian identities (such as religious affiliations, belongingness to certain linguistic, cultural, or "ethnic" groups, and loyalty to particular polities or governments) have been transformed into modern national identities (Smith 1998). In the Arab regions, for instance, religious identities such as membership of the Muslim community have existed and were institutionalized by religious laws long before the creation of nation-states in the region. Similarly, the notion of belonging to the Arab community has been present throughout the history of Arab peoples (Hourani 1991), whether this notion of "Arab" was interpreted as a linguistic, civilizational, or racial category. In modern times, nationalism—a new way to connect cultural, political, and social identities—appeared to incarnate a presumed correspondence between the sphere of a nation as a cultural unity and that of a state as a political unity (Gellner 1983). Moreover, modern socioeconomic developments, including the appearance of traveling technology, the creation of printed media, the establishment of bureaucracy, and the generalization of literacy, have led to the rise of a national consciousness that could involve a large number of people (Anderson 1983). Given that modern nationalism was manufactured from both old and new, and small and broader social identities, which were transformed within new politico-economic contexts, the shapes of nationalism have varied from one region to another, from one community to another. Thus, within the "Arab world," we can find multiple types of nationalism: the Maghrib region developed a particular variety of nationalism, which was different from those in the Mashriq region or the Gulf region. For instance, in Maghribian nationalism, Arab identity was tightly connected to Muslim religious identity, contrary to the secular (or non-sectarian) type of Arab nationalism observed in Ba’thism in Syria and Iraq. For the Maghribians, the Arab identity tended to be seen as a linguistic or civilizational identity, not a racial one, due to a non-negligible number of non-Arabs (especially Berbers) among the residents. Popular nationalism in the Maghrib was shaped largely by the modern anti-imperial movement which appeared in reaction to French and Spanish colonial rule in the region. The resistance against colonialism did not necessarily play the most important role in the formation of national identities in all the Mashriq countries, as some of them gained national independence as a result of British foreign policy.

Despite such internal regional differences, the Arab peoples have looked for a cultural or even political unity. The Nahda (renaissance) movement in the 19th century in the Levant called for an awakening of the great Arab civilization. The creation of the Arab league in 1945 represented the ideal of Arab solidarity at a diplomatic level. The Arab nationalist politicians such as Gamal Abd al-Naser (as president of Egypt between 1956 and 1970) advocated in the 1950s and 1960s a supranational unity for the Arab nation. This ideal led to the creation of the United Arab Republic between 1958 and 1961 (Jankowski 2002). After the 1970s, Arab states remained crestfallen in the defeat of the Arab–Israeli war in 1967, and as a result, pan-Arab discourse has kept a low profile. However, the Arab world as a cultural unity has always been alive in the peoples’ imagination. The pan-Arab media, such as the satellite channels, al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya, and the newspaper, al-Sharq al-Awsat, have had a certain constructive impact on the Arab public opinion. Moreover, different kinds of SNS have created a new public space for the Arabic-speaking audience, who are also senders of information. This relatively free space for expression allowed Arab internauts to exchange their opinions and expand their slogans and ideals easily from one place to another, as observed in the so-called Arab spring in 2011.

Given these developments, it was important for us to reexamine the historical development of Arab nationalism, its discourse, and its movement. By focusing on the Maghrib historical experiences, which have often been ignored in previous studies on Arab nationalism, our project attempts to decentralize Arab nationalism studies. It discusses the validity of conventional assumptions regarding Arab nationalism, such as the secularist nature of Arab nationalism, and the clear distinction established between Qawmiyya and Waṭaniyya. 1The Maghrib experiences indicated to us that these premises should be reviewed and a different conception is needed to reconstruct the historical trajectories of the Arab nationalism movement as a global phenomenon.


  1. See Shoko Watanabe, "Maghrib Experiences in Arab Nationalism Studies: Literature Review," in Interim Report for Arab Nationalism and State Formation: the Maghrib Experiences, (Chiba: IDE-JETRO, 2019), 5.