Arab nationalism emerged in the 19th century as the ruling Ottoman Empire continued its long decline. Arabs, who constituted the single largest ethnic group in the empire, were particularly resistant to the program adopted by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress stressing Turkish history, language, and ethnicity after 1908.
Arabs were particularly opposed to the teaching of the Turkish language as the first language in schools. Both Arab and Turkish nationalists such as the Young Turks grappled with the questions of what to do about the Ottoman Empire and whether separation along nationalist lines or decentralization was preferable.
Prior to World War I, when many still hoped that the Ottoman Empire might be reformed, a number of Arab intellectuals and activists formed clubs and published essays dealing with the problems of the empire and offering possible solutions to its problems.
In 1905 Negib Azoury (d. 1916), a French-educated Syrian Christian, published Le Reveil de la Nation Arabe. Azoury separated religion from government and openly demanded Arab independence from the Ottomans. He envisioned one Arab nation with the full equality of Muslims and Christians; however, Azoury did not include Egypt or North Africa in the projected Arab state. Amin al-Rihani and others emphasized Arabism over either Christianity or Islam.
A number of small nationalist clubs and political organizations were also established. Al-Qahtaniyya, formed in 1909, was made up of Arab officers in the Ottoman army who discussed the issues of ethnic and national identity. Many of the same officers joined Al-Ahd (the Pact), led by the Egyptian major Aziz Ali al-Misri. Misri was anti-Turkish and aimed for full Arab independence.
In 1911 Al-Fatat (the Youth) had several hundred Christian and Muslim members who called for the decentralization of the empire under some sort of dual monarchy along the lines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. An Arab congress met in Paris in 1913 and recommended the decentralization of the Ottoman government and that Arabic be the official language in Arab provinces. All of these groups aimed for the creation of a secular, democratic state.
When the Ottomans joined the Central Powers in World War I and declared jihad, or holy war, in the fight against the Allies, most Arab Muslims rejected the call, arguing that both sides of the European conflict were predominantly Christian and that it made no sense to fight on religious grounds.
Sherif Husayn of the Hashemite family used the war as an opportunity to gain what he believed to be British support for an independent Arab state after the war in the Sherif Husayn–McMahon correspondence. Sherif Husayn's son Faysal met with Arab nationalists in Syria to secure their backing for his father's efforts.
Misri and other Arab nationalists supported the Hashemites and in the Damascus Protocol of July 1915 agreed to AngloArab cooperation in the war. Consequently, the Arabs raised the standard of revolt in June 1916 and fought with the British against the Ottomans and Germany for the duration of the war.
Misri and another Arab Ottoman officer of Iraqi origin, Jafar Pasha Al-Askari, were among the most notable soldiers to join the fight against the Ottomans. In 1916 Ottoman Turkish soldiers commanded by Ahmed Jemal Pasha publicly hanged several known Arab nationalists in downtown Beirut.
However, during the war the British made two other conflicting agreements, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration, regarding the future of the Arab world. After the war the Arabs did not receive national independence. The Arab provinces of the old Ottoman Empire, including presentday Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel—none of which existed as independent states at the time—were divided up between the British and the French.
Egypt, the Sudan, and North Africa also remained under French, British, or Italian control. When the Arabs failed to achieve self-determination, one Arab nationalist reputedly remarked, "Independence is never given, it is always taken."
In Syria representatives had gathered at the General Syrian Congress in 1919, and in the spring of 1920 they declared Syria's independence governed as a constitutional monarchy under Emir Faysal.
To enforce their mandate over Lebanon and Syria, French forces attacked the fledgling Syrian army, defeating it at Maysalun Pass, near Damascus. Faysal was forced into exile but was subsequently made king of Iraq by the British.
During the interwar years Arab nationalist parties from Morocco to Iraq adopted a wide variety of tactics including economic boycotts, strikes, demonstrations, and negotiations in the struggles against imperial control.
When all of these failed some turned to more violent methods, joining armed paramilitary groups. There were also periodic and often spontaneous revolts and insurrections against the European occupiers from Egypt, to Iraq, to Syria. The Syrian revolt in 1925 was a major grassroots uprising against the French occupation.
The revolt failed, and the French retained control of the Syrian mandate. Although the British granted facades of independence to Iraq, Transjordan (later Jordan), and Egypt, most of the other Arab territory remained under direct or indirect Western control until after World War II.
Sati al Husri, a Syrian, was one of the foremost theoreticians of pan-Arabism. An Ottoman official prior to World War I, Husri supported Sherif Husayn and his son Faysal in the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. In the 1940s Husri was responsible for the Iraqi educational curriculum that emphasized Arab history and culture.
A prolific writer, Husri argued that the Arabs were a single people, including Egyptians and Maghrabis (North Africans), and that their common identity was based on a common language and history. His books included In Defence of Arabism.
Husri and other Arab writers recognized the importance of Islam for Christian as well as for Muslim Arabs in their history and culture but foresaw the creation of one unified secular democratic Arab state. After World War II Husri became director general of cultural affairs of the League of Arab States, where he continued to champion pan-Arabism.
With the encouragement of the British, the first Arab conference was held in Alexandria, Cairo, in 1944; it resulted in the formation of the League of Arab States, ratified in 1945. The league was headquartered in Cairo, and Egypt often dominated the organization. Member states were usually represented by their foreign ministers at meetings.
Abd al-Rahman Azzam, an Egyptian who had fought in the nationalist Libyan war from 1911 to 1912, became the first secretary-general of the league and remained in that position until 1952. Azzam was a tireless champion of the league and of a pan-Arabism that would be all inclusive. As Arab states became independent in the postwar era, all joined the league.
The league supported the Palestinian cause and, as part of the struggle against Israel after the Arab losses in the 1948 war, implemented an Arab boycott of Israeli goods. The boycott was administered from Damascus, but individual Arab governments enforced it in a haphazard fashion; it had minimal impact.
In 1950 league members signed a Joint Defence and Economic Cooperation Treaty as a cooperative effort to protect members against Israel. Pan-Arabism reached its apogee during the Nasserist era in the 1950s and 1960s, when there were numerous efforts to unify the separate Arab states.