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Useful Fiction

Newt Gingrich says the Palestinians are an “invented people.” They are, like many others in the Middle East. It’s a useful myth the U.S. must support.

Lee Smith
December 22, 2011
Ramallah after the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in October.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)
Ramallah after the release of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in October.(Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

Are the Palestinians an “invented” people”? According to Newt Gingrich, now a top contender for the Republican presidential nomination, they certainly are. “Remember, there was no Palestine as a state,” he said earlier this month. “It was part of the Ottoman Empire. We have invented the Palestinian people, who are in fact Arabs and are historically part of the Arab people.”

Unsurprisingly, Gingrich’s comments set off a firestorm. Some thought his observations were refreshingly honest, others argued they were needlessly provocative and extremely counterproductive. But as many commentators have noted, the Palestinians are one of many peoples whose nationhood is “invented.” In the Middle East alone, invented nations include Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, and even Turkey. Like the Palestinian territories in the West Bank and Gaza, these, too, were all once part of the Ottoman Empire. None existed before World War I, after which these jerry-built states united various, and often competing, sectarian, ethnic, and tribal identities.

The real question, then, is not whether Palestinian nationalism is “authentic,” but whether this particular national fiction is useful. Gingrich’s proposed alternative identity for the Palestinians—linking these Arabic-speaking, non-Jewish residents of the territories to the rest of the “the Arab people”—is bad for the region, the United States, and Israel.

The problem is that current Palestinian nationalism is not strong enough. If it were, Yasser Arafat and, later, Mahmoud Abbas might have been more inclined to accept the peace deals offered by Israeli prime ministers and American presidents. If Palestinian leadership were more like the early champions of Zionism, who wanted a state for the Jews no matter its size, then the conflict might have been resolved at any point over the last seven decades.

Maybe the Palestinians are still waiting for a better deal. Perhaps, as some argue, the Palestinians really believe that they’ll eventually manage to drive the Jews into the sea. In any case, one of the major problems is that the decision has never been entirely in the hands of the Palestinians. Even before the United Nations partition plan of 1947, there have always been external regional forces trying to prevent a resolution to the Palestinian problem, since prolonging the conflict enhances their prestige and bargaining position.

From the 1930s to the present, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Syria, and Iran have wrestled over the Palestinian file. Those states’ rationale for interfering in the domestic affairs of a foreign people is based on the presumption of a shared pan-Arab or pan-Islamic sensibility. But even assuming that all Arabs and Muslims really do care an awful lot about the Palestinians—though the status of Palestinian refugees in neighboring Arab states and as the paltry financial aid provided by oil-producing Muslim states strongly suggest otherwise—the notion that U.S. policy should accommodate regional forces because they claim to share a common identity with Palestinians is dangerous.

A region-wide contest to represent the Palestinians not only sets regional powers against each other, but it also channels their often destructive energies against Western interlocutors, primarily the United States. Through 1973, the Saudis fought for their role with their weapon of choice: oil. The Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria’s Assad regime use terrorism, just as Gamal abd el-Nasser did when he ruled Egypt. Therefore, a key goal of American policy-making has been to de-link the Palestinian file from other regional issues and to have the Palestinians represented by one agent: themselves.

Gingrich’s vague formulation cuts directly against the grain of the U.S. regional strategy. If the Palestinians aren’t a nation, which is the Arab nation that American officials are supposed to deal with regarding the Palestinians? Or, more vaguely yet, who is the representative of the “Arab people”? Is Gingrich referring to that entity imagined by the ideologues of Arab nationalism, a single and unified Arab nation?

It should be clear to even the most casual observer of the Middle East that the Arabs are anything but unified. Iraq’s conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, as we now understand, was only the tip of the iceberg in a region where civil war is not an exception but the norm. The Bahraini and Syrian uprisings are effectively sectarian revolutions against the established, and repressive, orders. Even in Egypt, Muslim violence against the Coptic Christian community reveals the true sectarian nature of the region.

The theorists behind 20th-century Arab nationalism recognized the region’s sectarianism and tribalism—which is why they proposed an identity based not on sect or tribe but rather on shared attributes, like language. The inhabitants of the region, from Western North Africa to the Persian Gulf, all spoke some variation of Arabic, thus they were Arabs. Their particularities, whether ethnic (Kurdish, for instance) or sectarian (Christian, Shia, etc.) were insignificant in comparison to their Arab identity. According to ideologues like Sati’ al-Husri, they were Arabs whether they liked it or not.

Accordingly, Arab nationalism has been a coercive and repressive doctrine. Even though it was an idea intended to forestall the civil strife that arises from competing identities, in reality enforcing Arab nationalism has led to bloodshed throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Under Saddam Hussein, Arab nationalism meant Sunni supremacism and the violent suppression of Kurds and Shiites. In Syria, the minority Alawite regime has used the doctrine to keep the Sunnis as well as the Kurds in line. In Lebanon, Hezbollah waves the banner of Arab nationalism in its fight against the Zionist entity, in order to intimidate and rule over other Lebanese sects. Violence and repression are key components of Arab nationalism, because as a totalitarian ideology like Communism and Nazism, it can brook no differences, no particularity.

Respecting that particularity is not only good for the inhabitants of the region but also for the interests of the United States and Israel. The United States has bilateral relations with other nation-states and political institutions like the Palestinian Authority. But this country is ill-equipped to deal with large amorphous bodies like the “Arab people” or, alternatively, the “Muslim world.”

The latter was the intended recipient of Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009. Unfortunately, it seems not to have occurred to the president that the Muslim-majority Middle East comprises various Muslim sects often at odds, plus non-Muslims as well. By employing this particular fiction, the “Muslim world,” the Cairo speech happened to comport perfectly with the belief of Islamists who hold that non-Muslims and even Shiite Muslims are second-class subjects in the Sunni-majority Middle East, rather than individuals deserving of equal rights.

The “Arab people,” like the “Muslim world,” is an invention—and neither of them should hold much appeal for U.S. policy-makers. Given the nature of our own polity, Americans should take the lead promoting particular identities, even if some of them are formed more recently than others, like that of the Palestinians. This makes them no less worthy of the rights and respect due to other Middle Eastern identities, some of them ancient, like Egypt’s Christian community, or the region’s Jewish minority, which after being ruled by the Ottomans and other regional empires and powers, now enjoys its own state in Israel.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.