Friday, November 11, 2005

The Arab Identity - Is it in the process of Changing

Yesterday, the dictator of Syria played the "Arab Card." Behind his podium was an intricate arrangement of Syrian flags. That display was his signal to the region and the world. Mr. Assad had raised the "Arab Banner" and wanted everyone in the region who identified with that banner to rally behind him, the only remaining Arab Leader of the only remaining Arab State.

To push his point further, he stated it explicitly: "there is a difference between Arabs and those who communicate with 'our language.'" He then went on to define the characteristic of a true Arab - all I remember him referring to was the Palestinian cause and the remaining old cliches that basically revolve around "injustices" committed by others upon "the Arab nation."

The point of this entry is not to criticize the speech, or Bashar. Look anywhere in the Lebanese Blogosphere, and you'll see plenty of that. My point is actually to highlight a conflict that some may find abstract, yet is nonetheless of critical importance.

Thanks to the long-awaited break between Lebanon and Syria, a war has emerged in the Middle East over what exactly being an Arab entails. Bashar, the dictator of Syria, espoused the old and hackneyed definition of that identity. Fouad Seniora, the elected Prime Minister of Lebanon, espoused a new and developing version. In response to Bashar's explicit distinction between those who speak Arabic and those who are Arabs, Seniora, proclaimed that "we are real Arabs, we are Democratic and we are proud of our openness to other cultures." His speech was a little more nuanced, and it was delivered at the opening of a French Cultural Center - of all places.

I am excited by this development. Too many people in this world identify themselves as Arabs for it to be an irrelevant concept or for this brewing war of ideas to be unimportant. Yet for too long, the "Arab identity" was and remains a hollow one that is defined by the Palestinian conflict more than anything else. Do the Brits identify themselves solely by their historical animosity towards the French? Do the French identify themselves solely by their not-so-historical animosity towards the Germans? What about the Chinese and Japanese? No! None of them do. The peoples of those countries have much more to cling to than mere conflicts or injustices.

When fellow blogger Mustapha proclaims that he sees the Arab World as the Europeans see Europe, I could not agree more with him. Of course, an implicit prerequisite to that perception is that people within the states that make up the Arab World feel like citizens of their particular countries in every sense of the word. For that to happen, I recommend that the elite of all those countries take note of this quotation from T.H. Marshall:

Prefeudal societies were bound together by a sentiment and recruited by the fiction of kinship, or the fiction of common descent. Citizenship requires a bond of a different kind, a direct sense of community membership based on loyalty to a civilization which is a common possession. It is a loyalty of free men [and women] endowed with rights and protected by a common law. Its growth is stimulated both by the struggle to win those rights and by enjoyment of them when they are won.... The familiar instruments of modern democracy were fashioned by the upper classes and then handed down, step by step, to the lower....

So, I say enough with the platitudes and cliches. If the elites of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and the other countries of the Middle East desire to win and maintain the loyalty of their respective populations, they will definitely have to do more than harp at them about the poor and suffering Palestinians, or the injustices in this world caused by "Imperialist nations." Seniora has taken a mature step by countering that hollow propaganda. I hope others in the region follow his brave lead and consequently help lead the entire region out of the Dark Age it is currently mired in. Ultimately, this new conflict revolving around the defining characteristics of an "Arab" may end up being much more than meets the eye!

14 comments:

Mustapha said...

Raja, to be precise, my position on Arabism is the same as that of the Britts on Europe, i.e. not without skepticism (with a lustful eye on the huge common market nevertheless)

Also, there are indeed first world nations that define themselves by what they're not because of their cultural insecurity. look at Canada

Unfrozen Caveman Linguist said...

Right, those non-baseball-playing anti-Americans famous for their fondness of beer and funny winter hats. I also suppose that the same goes for the just-announced Iraqi national reconciliation conference sponsored by the Arab League - no Baathists allowed. Sometimes a common ground is available only to those looking for antipathy, I suppose.

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

I think that pan-arabism (or what is left of it, Islamism has taken its place in the heart of most people) is in the way of changing ,though I am still against it. It's going to transform into a more peaceful ideology that will try to copy the EU model, not the Nazi Anschluss.

Prehistoric parties such as the Baath, the SSNP or the Nasserites are out of the game.

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

And as Tony said on his blog, Bashar is an Allawi, so he can shout as much as he want, he cannot outmanoeuvre an elected Sunni by playing the Arabist card. It's not going to convince anybody.

JoseyWales said...

Let's stop importing bad ideas.

"Europe" is vague (that's the good thing about it).

EU is (was?) broken. I don't want to be ruled by Brussels/Arab League bureaufucks.

Anton Efendi said...

Raja, did you read Joseph Samaha's column today in As-Safir? If you'r ein the mood to lift your blood pressure, go right ahead. No wonder he's the Hair's favorite columnist. He just trashed your theory (of course, I disagree with him).

If you miss it, email me. I've saved it. It's that type of column. I have a feeling that Hizbullah's reaction will be along the same lines as his.

Anton Efendi said...

Who else thought Bashar's speech was good? The idiot Angry Hair of course. He in fact particularly loved the attacks on Seniora and Hariri. Also, he's eager to torpedo the government. I guess Leninism, and that Hair, does that to your brain. And this guy teaches people... and gets paid for it... from tax payers' money...

What a colossal utterly irresponsible moron.

I still think Martin Kramer's characterization of him is the most perfect one out there:

"AbuKhalil speaks for a certain brand of revolutionary, utopian secular Arabism that lost most of its following in the Middle East 20 years ago." "He is against the Arab regimes, against Israel, against U.S. policy, against the Islamists, against the liberals, against the reformists. ... He's the perfect example of the supremely principled and supremely irresponsible Arab intellectual. And so he's a luxury only America can afford."

Anton Efendi said...

I have a bit of a problem with the Marshall quote. I've talked about state as contract, and that increasingly, this is the new understanding of Lebanon that's emerging, especially with the likes of Seniora. It should continue like that, because in the end Lebanon is a polity.

By the way, it's clear that the insistence (by HA or others) on its Arabness now has nothing to do with "civilizational" or "cultural" issues. It has to do with the prism of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

So, by refocusing the outlook on Lebanon in political terms (not 19th c. volkish notions of "nation-state"), as a polity, Arabness can be reframed in cultural terms. Then Seniora's comments, which I called quintessentially Lebanese, make perfect sense in that Lebanon is at once Arab and open to Western cultures. It's much closer to the 1943 formulation than one might think, and that precisely is what is irritating the idiotic Joseph Samaha. The political primacy of Lebanon (which is what you're saying, by not narrowing the Arab identity to the political Palestine issue, or any trans-national political causes) is the underlying premise. Within this polity, Arab culture thrives, along with openness to other cultures. This is not to say that geopolitically Lebanon ceases to be "Arab." It just refocuses the definitions and concepts.

That is why Seniora's formulation will find unanimous support in Christian political circles. It's quintessentially Lebanese.

Raja said...

I love that characterization of The Hair.

Raja said...

Tony, to be honest with you, I was a bit taken aback by Marshall's reference to civilization. Keep in mind though, that what Marshall implies by that concept is a culture of the elite which the masses gradually gain access to as their political, social, civil and material conditions improve with the passing of time. Defined as such, I believe that a Lebanese Civilization does exist. Unfortunately though, "loyalty" to it is a whole different matter and, as a result of the overwhelming focus on sectarian differences, is probably not even acknowledged by the majority of Lebanese.

In that sense, Lebanon has some way to go. Consequently it remains essential, for the time being, to focus our perception of Lebanon in political terms, i.e. as a polity rather than a volk (as you mentioned above). Lebanon, percieved as such, is a polity that houses different and intersecting civilizational/cultural forces, which in turn coincide roughly with its major sects. Is such a conception inaccurate from the one you were trying to convey?

Amr said...

right, It is hight time for Arabasim to transform from a political idea into an identity based soley on history, blood, language and culture. It is well documented that maronite lebanese don't wish to be associted with arabism and chose an imaginary honory roots (phoniciens) that no educated person could ever justify. I am enthuastic about PM Senyoura comments in a sense that it could replace the supremcy of the maronites as non arabs, to asupramcy of lebanese people as democaratic and open arabs.

amr said...

I wanted to share with you an experminet i did with my lebanese girlfriend (i am syrian)... So we live in the states and we asked an american fellow to ask both of us questions that he thought define one's identity. things like music, food, language, history,dance, blood,geography..our answers were almost identical..yet my girlfriend insisted that she is mediteranian/french/ phenocian!! Our american friend sensed no difference and sujjested that our differences are as shallow as the differences between a texan and a californian. I guess I would like to ask you guys the following question, is this desire to be different normal? do you have to lie to your self just to feel different? i am yet to find an answer.

amr said...

OK, here is a serious question: My girl friend think that lebanese accent is (musical) becasue lebanese are influnced by French language!!! I personally thought maybe? but what about 100 years ago? lebanese accent had no music to it? canot we just give credit to natural local influence? she sight incidents were people thought she was french( while speaking "lebanese" !!! but that happenes to me as well (while speaking syrian!!!) and I could swear to God that no one in my family had ever spoken or was influenced by the french culture. isn't that a little over board?? I might be annoying all of you with these issues, but that is how this identity boils down to in a day to day basis bewtween who claim to be arab and those who claim to be frencho-medater-phonecians

Anonymous said...

Why would you subject yourself to having such a cartoonish girlfriend? Are you that desperate to get laid?