Associate Professor of Languages and Literature Hala Ghoneim spoke about the history of Arab nationalism and World War I on Monday, November 13.
The lecture was part of the Fairhaven Lecture Series: Reflections on the Great War, which began on September 18 and ends on November 27.
Ghnoeim’s lecture focused on the Arab world’s role in the first world war and the ongoing conflicts that colonialism fostered.
“A lot of the problems we are having today, this is where it started,” Ghoneim said.
Although the great war was fought between European powers, their colonial subjects around the world were forced into service.
Hundreds of thousands of arabs from North Africa to Iraq were conscripted into colonial armies, and forced to fight each other on behalf of competing European powers.
Ghoneim said for many in the muslim and arab world, being forced to kill fellow arabs for non arab rulers created resistance to the colonial order.
During the war, Britain and France supported arab revolutionaries to overthrow the Ottoman empire, promising freedom in return.
However, that promise was immediately betrayed as France and Britain conspired to carve apart the arab world for themselves, Ghoneim said, drawing arbitrary maps that still make up national borders to this day.
The national divides created by European powers did not represent any real cultural or political unity, and in some cases intentionally divided groups in order to prevent independence.
Ghoneim mentioned the Kurdish people as an example, who for hundreds of years had been united, but are now split between five different countries.
That division is still causing unrest, as Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Turkey are all currently involved in conflicts to gain independence.
“This example shows how sometimes these lines just didn’t make sense,” Ghoneim said.
Another factor Ghoneim said made these problems worse has been a conflict between nationalism and religion as governing ideas.
Nationalism was originally a western construct, and many arabs identify more with Islam than with national boundaries created by western powers.
“People think of nationalism as an ancient thing,” Ghoneim said, “but it is a relatively novel concept.”
While arab unity still resonates with many common people, Ghoneim said that rulers in the arab world who benefit from the established order stoke religious and cultural divides as a political tool for themselves.
“If there is a future for arabism it’s this feeling of brotherhood and affinity that people feel,” Ghoneim said.
The Fairhaven Lecture Series is held on Monday at 3 pm in the Fellowship Hall of Fairhaven Senior Services, and all lectures are free and open to the public.
Outreach Program Manager at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater Office of Continuing Education Kari Borne, said the lecture series was chosen to mark a century since America joined the first world war.
“It’s been a hundred years since we got involved so we want to reflect on that history,” Borne said.