The most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict spurred protests around the world in support of Palestinian statehood. Some have been peaceful while others, notably those in many European cities, have not. In the Sarcelles suburb of Paris, rioters violated the government’s ban on pro-Palestinian protests by burning trashcans and cars, attacking police, and targeting Jewish-owned businesses and synagogues. There have also been arrests for anti-Semitic speech.
Although not widely noted in media reports, many of the protesters in France are Arab Muslims, most of them originating from the former French colonies of North Africa. But this is not unique to France. Support for Palestinian aims is strong among Arabs in many countries, particularly in Europe. Why, then, is there a shared sense of solidarity among the Arab diaspora, and what are its effects beyond protests in Western cities?
Part of the answer lies in the Arabic language, which goes to the roots of this solidarity. Arabic, in particular Classical Arabic, has a strong and enduring relationship with Islam. It is the language of the Qur’an and the Hadith, both of which refer to it as the language of heaven, the language chosen by God, and the language of the Arabs. The Prophet Mohammed directed his people to learn it, and throughout the Arabic intellectual tradition theologians and historians have argued for its superiority. Knowledge of the language was considered tantamount to being Arab, and it is further required to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam, prayer.
Muslims everywhere participate in Classical Arabic via religious ceremonies even if they do not speak it or only speak a dialect. There are many Arabic dialects, which differ so much as to be mutually incomprehensible. What binds them together is Classical Arabic. Arab sociolinguists report that most Arabic speakers refer to “Arabic” without distinguishing between the Classical and colloquial varieties. The sense of a shared language remains even if an Arabic speaker in Morocco and an Arabic speaker in Syria are unable to understand one another.
The language is deeply embedded in what it means to be a Muslim. Its roots in the history of Islam give it a heightened prestige and help to maintain the powerful language ideology surrounding it. Arabic connects Muslims in different parts of the world, so that a French man of North African origin who speaks little Arabic has something in common with Hamas fighters in Gaza or the soldiers of ISIS.
Arabic is also connected to the Arab nationalist movement of the 20th century. For Sati’ al-Husri, an early influential Arab nationalist thinker, the primary goal of Pan-Arabism was to unite all Arabic speaking people under one state. It was the language that bound them together, regardless of nationality. Arab nationalism was modeled after German nationalism, where nationality is based on cultural and linguistic heritage, rather than a contract with the state. If you are born German, or Arab, you will remain as such regardless of where you live or what nationality you legally claim. Although Arab nationalism was not originally based on a claim of religious unity, the majority of Arabic speakers are Muslim, reinforcing their linguistic sense of nation.
Although Nasserism as a political project has failed, a sense of Arab nationalism among Arabs remains today, bound together by a shared ethnicity, language, and religion, but without the goals of an Arab state—what some scholars refer to as Arabism. Having a strong national identity does not require territorial sovereignty, and far-flung immigrant communities can therefore lay claim to it. This is not to be confused with Islamism, best exemplified today by the Islamic State, or ISIS, where Islamic law is enforced through the apparatus of the state.
Arabism focuses on Palestinian statehood because the Arab nationalist movement of the 20th century had its foundation in a resistance to Jewish newcomers. It was this reaction to the demographic changes that galvanized the movement and organized Arabs in a joint cause against Zionism. Arab nationalism did not gain much traction in the first few decades of the 20th century among the leaders of Arab states. However, a significant shift occurred with the Zionist movement in the 1920s and ‘30s and the subsequent Arab revolt in Palestine (1936-39). According to Adeed Dawisha, a leading scholar on Arab nationalism, these events united Arab leaders:
The one issue that consistently found an echo among the urban, educated Arabic-speaking populations of the Middle East was the increasing danger of Jewish immigration into Palestine. Here was a concern that would unite the Arab nationalist, the Islamist, and the believer in Greater Syria. From their different loyalties and perspective, they all would agree on the need to resist the demographic changes that were under way in Palestine.
This latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict has found Arab leaders less supportive of Palestine; however, the conflict still stokes support with Arab individuals and provides a proxy land for which the Arab diaspora can make a territorial claim. They can fight, via protests, for territory that they feel entitled to based on the roots of Arab nationalism. Unfortunately, this manifests itself today in anti-Semitic acts in Europe, as a substitute for anti-Zionism, which spike whenever the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heightens.
However, Arab solidarity is not limited to support for the Palestinians. Muslims are the fastest growing demographic in Europe. Their linguistic and religious loyalties draw them toward a pan-Arab identity that is causing many to turn to Arab causes not only in Palestinian territories but increasingly in Syria and Iraq. It is estimated there are now nearly 2,000 European Muslims fighting for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. These young men have been radicalized in countries like Britain, France, and Austria, and have pledged themselves to the expansion of a territory based on a shared religion and language.
We may be witnessing the expression of a new kind of Arabism among the Arab diaspora in Europe. Unemployment and marginalization on the fringes of society have left many disaffected, with a sense that the country they live in is not their home. So they look east to find belonging, and a land to fight for. What are European countries to make of their citizens who fight for other countries—or worse, for terrorist enclaves like the Islamic State? And what happens when these men come home?
M. G. Oprea is a PhD candidate in French linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin.