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Schumann Christoph, Radikalnationalismus in Syrien und Libanon: Politische Sozialisation und Elitenbildung 1930-1958, Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut, 2001, 354 p.

Peter Sluglett
p. 333-335

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1This is a large and original undertaking, involving several different levels of intellectual enquiry. It is an attempt to understand the phenomenon of radical Arab nationalism by writing a prosopography, or collective biography, of some seventeen of its adherents, based primarily on an analysis of their memoirs (the individuals and their works are listed on  pp. 319-324). Most of the memoirs were published in the 1980s and 1990s, that is, several decades after the events they describe, and Schumann is sensitive to the kind of post hoc justification in which some of his authors may have indulged. He  concentrates particularly on the careers and writings of four radical nationalists, Sa ‘id Abu al-Husn, Mustafa ‘Abd al-Satir, Hisham Sharabi and Ahmad ‘Abd al-Karim, who come from a variety of confessional, career and “national” backgrounds and had a range of different political loyalties. Thus Abu al-Husn, a Syrian Druse, was a member of the League of National Action; ‘Abd al-Satir, a Lebanese Shi‘i, was a member of the PPS/SSNP;  Sharabi, a Palestinian Sunni (who lived mostly in Lebanon before migrating to the United States in the 1950s) was also a member of the PPS/SSNP, and ‘Abd al-Karim, a Syrian Sunni, was a member first of the Ba‘th Party and then of the Arab Liberation Movement.

2The collective biography is fleshed out by excursions into recent philosophy and criticism, including discussions of Foucault on “discourse” and Bourdieu on “habitus” and “espace social”, as well as some reflections on the use of autobiography as historical source material. In addition, Schumann has two long sections on the new social and political circumstances  - Prägung[en], which has the meaning of “minting” or “coining” – which came into being in Syria and Lebanon during the period. Most of the discussion of social change concerns the effects of the adoption of “modern” educational systems on the socialisation process, and the formation of a new intellectual milieu, while the discussion of political change charts the development of new political structures and formations, notably the new tendencies in Arab nationalist parties and organisations.

3The originality of this book is that it is less concerned with ideology and history than with the experiences of those who participated in the various movements, and how and why they came to be associated with them. While other “more normative” recent histories of Arab nationalism, such as Youssef Choueiri’s, Arab Nationalism: a History (2000) and Adeed Dawisha’s Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: from Triumph to Despair (2003) expound the creeds of the principal ideologues, and, especially Dawisha, dovetail ideology and political history, Schumann is working at what is arguably a much less abstract level. Given that his subjects are sufficiently articulate and organised not only to have written their memoirs but to have had them published means that his account is something more than, but perhaps the closest we are likely to get to, a history of the nationalist rank and file.

4Both Greater Syrian nationalism (the designation of the area between the Taurus mountains and the Suez Canal, post-1920 Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan – and Cyprus – as a “natural” political entity) and pan-Arab nationalism (designating the whole of the Arab world in the same way) posed a challenge to the status quo. That is, they called into question the legitimacy of the existing – and at the time newly established – Middle Eastern states. Both nationalist movements also questioned the legitimacy of the existing socio-political order, then characterised by a partnership between the colonial power and a group of more or less compliant members of the “Old Social Classes”. Finally, both movements (and especially the Syrian nationalists), were, for their time, almost uncompromisingly secular in outlook, and both claimed as their objective the restoration of  an allegedly concrete or pre-existing historical reality. In the context of the latter, it is useful to recall Eric Hobsbawm’s wry observation that ‘[n]ationalism requires too much belief in what is patently not so.’

5Schumann’s brief does not extend to the other major “radical” influence on intellectuals in the Middle East and elsewhere in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, socialism or communism. There are only two page references to socialism in the index, one to Marx (and none to Marxism) and only six to communists or communist parties. Reviewers often irritate authors by chiding them for not writing the book which the reviewers themselves would have preferred them to have written, so I must emphasise that I thoroughly commend both the originality and the extraordinary comprehensiveness of this book. However, I hope Schumann’s unique familiarity with the sources may enable him to tackle broad questions of motivation, why any particular (in this case radical) ideology should appeal more to an individual or group than any other. There is another interesting question, of origins and rationale: as far as I know, Greater Syrian nationalism and pan-Arab nationalism has no parallels among what may be called the generic political patterns current elsewhere in the colonised or developing world at the time. “Pan-Africanism” was a generalised call to resistance against the colonial occupier, rather than a call for unity, and while the viability, or the logic, of the colonial boundaries might be questionable, it was believed to be wiser to let them remain in place. Again, given that large parts of Central and South America have shared a common colonial history since the sixteenth century, there never seems to have been any widespread local belief in, or advocacy for, the notion that the “imagined community” extended beyond the boundaries of the national state.

6I have profited greatly from Schumann’s book, and I very much hope that it will be translated into English to reach the wider audience that it deserves. Apart from the body of literature which the author himself has surveyed, which consists of personal records and testimonies, there is no study of Arab or Syrian nationalism “from the ground up”. In addition, Schumann provides an acute and perceptive analysis of the intellectual and political climate of the time: as a whole, he has embarked on an ambitious, and largely successful, enterprise.

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Peter Sluglett, « Schumann Christoph, Radikalnationalismus in Syrien und Libanon: Politische Sozialisation und Elitenbildung 1930-1958, Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut, 2001, 354 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 105-106 | janvier 2005, mis en ligne le 03 mars 2005, consulté le 25 avril 2017. URL : http://remmm.revues.org/2769

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Peter Sluglett

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