Between nationalism, pragmatism and indifference

For decades, the historiography of the Middle East was one of rather homogenous and clear cut national collectives, at times ethnically charged – we find ‘Arabs’, ‘Druze’ or ‘Maronites’, ‘Syrians’ or ‘Palestinians’, or ‘(Pan-)Arab’ nationalism and national movements. In 1997, the seminal volume “Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East” (ed. Gershoni/Jankowski) was a clear sign that the debate on the modern and constructed, “imagined” and “invented” character of nations had entered the historiography of the Middle East. Since then, a lot of work was done, but still with a focus on either nationalist (or early Islamist) actors, their ideas and actions, or the role of colonial powers and institutions. Studies shifting focus towards non-elite individuals far from the ‘Arab’ political public sphere or parts of the population that were disinterested, reserved, or hostile in the face of nationalist actors and politics – highlighting “national indifference”, as it was proposed in recent years by different scholars – are rare to say the least.

However, the new approach seems to be insightful also when dealing with the Middle Eastern situation. Research has shown that nationalist politics are not becoming dominant in the ‘Arab’ provinces of the Ottoman Empire before the interwar period, similar to the situation in parts of the Habsburg Empire. At the same time, many studies point out the plurality of sometimes overlapping or intersecting offers of “imagined communities” presented by nationalist actors in the political public sphere. Thus, an expectation of widespread diverse “indifference” does not seem unwarranted.

The project wants to discuss the subject based on two exemplary cases, singling out everyday and elite intra- and intergroup relations in (former Ottoman) “Greater Syria” (i.e. Syria, Lebanon, Palestine) during the Mandate period whose history has largely been written from perspectives reproducing “groupism” (Brubaker) and dichotomous, identitarian categories. The first example highlights neighbourly relations on a village level, the second example wants to take the question a step further focusing on competing nationalist actors. Far from the public sphere, quite a few of them act pragmatically to say the least, according to personal and political interests or motivations that seem to contradict their nationalist discourse and project. Based on these cases, the project aims to present potential research areas and end with reflections on the theorisation of “national indifference” and identification as well as the concept’s potential for the comparative contemporary history of the Middle East.

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