Monday, November 14, 2005

The Arab Ideology - Good or Bad for Minorities?

There is a very interesting discussion going on in the Lebanese Political Journal thanks to a post by LP titled Sunday Blogging: The Orthodox Dilemma. Hummbumm’s comment pertaining to the Arab ideology caught my attention because it pointed to something that is true, yet simultaneously false.

The Arab identity, according to him, was once treated preferentially by non-Sunni and non-Muslim minorities because it was and remains the secular alternative to religious nationalism in a predominantly Sunni Muslim region of the world. Yet, on the other hand, academics like Fouad Ajami and fellow blogger Toni Badran accurately point to how certain Sunni political elites used the Arab ideology to persecute and dominate religious minorities across the region.

Prominent examples are the treatment of Shi'as, Kurds, and other minorities by the Ba’ath regime in Iraq, as well as the political marginalization of Shi'as in Lebanon prior to the civil war. Let us also not forget the tense relations between the PLO and Shi’a communities, most of which suffered as a result of the PLO’s defacto and relatively unchecked occupation of Southern Lebanon in the 1970s.

This apparent contradiction of religious minorities supporting the Arab ideology on one hand yet suffering from it on the other is one that is extremely interesting, and also one that can even be observed in action today.

  1. Wintess Bashar's speech and his uber-emphasis on Arabism. Of course, even though I am about to do it, I need not point out that Bashar is a member of the Alawite sect, one that is not even considered to be Muslim by many practicing Sunnis (an "honor" shared with the Druze community among many other "quasi-muslim" sects in the region, of course)

  2. Also witness Hizballah's obsession with "Arabism" even though you'd think that Hizballah's status as an exclusively religious organization would exclude it from salivating over a secular ideology as much as they’ve done over the past couple of months.

To a certain extent, you feel that both these non-Sunni political nodes of power attempt to shame their Sunni co-religionists by "out-bidding" them in a test of willingness to give to causes that have defined Arabism over the past fifty years, namely the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and some manifestation of anti-Imperialism.

So, one could come to the conclusion that both Ajami and Badran are not completely accurate in their assessments that the Arab ideology has been a curse for minorities in the region. Rather the picture appears to be much more complex and ever-changing. The quintessential example that highlights this complexity is actually provided to us by Lebanon’s Shi’ite political elite. Whereas the community suffered politically, militarily and materially from the PLO’s activities which were conducted under the umbrella of the Arab Cause, today, the most powerful Shi’ite political entity in the region (other than Iran itself) perceives the Arab ideology as an indispensable weapon in its propaganda arsenal.

An interesting dichotomy indeed!


Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

As I said on LP's blog, the so-called secularism of the Arabist ideology is a vast joke. Arab nationalism was a fraud from the beginning. Minorities know this now and are not likely to support it, including the 'arabist' orthodox.

Anonymous said...

Arabism I think is secular by definition. It was hijacked by the Baathists and others. That does not mean that Arabism can't be succesful in a country like Lebanon. Arabism tearing down the borders I think is dead though..

Charles Malik said...

Arabism is completely about minority oppression. What you and hummbumm have put your finger on, though, is the minority response to this.

Arabism is hypocritical, and minorities thrive in the gray area created between stated ideology and practice. The same goes for anti-Israeli rhetoric. In both, what matters most is the devotion of your values, not where you came from or your independent ideas. That's why "Arabs" compete for who-can-give-the-best-speech instead of resolving problems.

Minorities found the loophole. They can protect themselves if they are more Catholic than the Pope. If they give the best speech, then they can succeed. Kamal Jumblatt did this the best to devastating effect.

The problem emerges when the member of the minority thinks that his ability to give the best speech means that he should be placed in charge. It's then that the majority stops being "Arab" and starts being "Sunni."

Unlike the Jumblatts, the Orthodox have found the perfect niche for themselves. They don't want to take complete control. They're happy being the intellectual leaders or the "Vice Speaker of Parliament" like Michel Murr. No reason to shoot for the top and risk it all when you can spend eternity as second best.

sam said...

Arabism, at the beginning, was not all about minority opression. What Raja and hummbumm put their finger on is not only the minorities' positive response to it, but that the movement was mainly founded by monirity figures.

Minorities, in particular many Maronites and Orthodox Lebanese, have had a leading role in founding the Arabist political, economic and literary ideals since the beginning of the 20th century. It was not only a way to preserve a place in the Sunni muslim world, but also an alliance against the greatest evil at the time: Turkey which had occupied them for 400 years. That idea stuck, and later served as support against France and UK. Their bet was that one way to protect minorities (as was pointed out in several posts) is to replace religious alliances with Arabism. They lost. Arabism turned into a speech contest as LP pointed out, where not only did the minority leaders gladly adopt the most Arabist positions, but they were expected to. The Arab "sisters" were always very quick to accuse leaders of these communities of treason for every opinion that's the slightest bit critical of any Arab issue. As if they didn't have the right to a free opinion since they are just "guests" as in the Umayyad days. They unanimously condemned the Lebanese militias fighting the PLO in the 70's, while their reactions were far from unanimous when Sadat, Arafat and Hussein signed unilateral deals with Israel, or when Saddam invaded Kuwait.

Still more interesting than the minorities endorsing Arabism, was the Maronite decision to root for the creation of a bigger Lebanon including the North, the Bekaa and the South...
any comments?

hummbumm said...

to expand on my take, minorities are indeed expected to be plus royalist que le roi, because as Sam mentioned they are quickly labeled traitors otherwise. They also can't get too uppity either as LP highlights. But it still provides a rhetorical cover, flimsy as it is, cause lets face it, if minorities in the region did not talk about Arabism, they would not be allowed to talk period. They certainly can't talk about blatant discrimination, no we have this myth that muslims christians and Jews all lived happily together in the past, people of the book etc... when reality is that perhaps in comparison to europe way back things were maybe better, but they were far from ideal, and non muslim, specifically non sunni were clearly second class citizens. It is so interesting when listening to the travails of the Copts in Egypt (who are not some colonial implant) you get these responses from other Egyptians: there is no discrimination, one of my best friends is christian... Eddie Murphy once did a SNL skit where he was a white guy, and how he was treated, well one should do a skit in Egypt and other countries where a christian goes around as a muslim.

Ramzi S said...

"Maronite decision to root for the creation of a bigger Lebanon including the North, the Bekaa and the South..."

Correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that the Maronites where not thrilled about the inclusion of Tripoli into the Lebanese borders by the French?

JoseyWales said...

Heavy and academic subject.

My 2 cents:

The Arab Ideology - Good or Bad for Minorities?

I'd say bad for minorities and everybody else. Why? Just look around you. (PC-police back off, I am not talking about Arab culture or Arab identities, but ideology or political culture, though there's also a relation between all of these)

LP Kamal Jumblatt did this the best to devastating effect. Akh, if only the opponents and adversaries of Joumblatt understood that (talk Palestine/Uruba 24/7 and do nothing about it). We could, perhaps, have avoided a civil war.

LP about the Orthodox: They're happy being the intellectual leaders or the "Vice Speaker of Parliament" like Michel Murr

Not good enough LP. VP of Parliament is a joke. As to the intellectuals, those who came up with the bad ideas of Arabism, Baathism, and pan Syrianism (and support of communism) ought to be pilloried. We love to play cute parlor games in Lebanon: the sunnis are like this and the armenians are like that...

But in the end everyone; individuals and communities, including the orthodox, ought to be judged on the ideas and actions they espoused), period.

Abu Kais said...

I don’t think it’s fair to generalize about minorities in the Islamic world. Each had its own case, defined and shaped by different political and social circumstances. They each reacted differently and made different choices. You cannot lump Maronites, copts and Shias into the same category. Each community had different aspirations and ideas of identity. Before we hold Arab nationalism responsible for their woes, we must look at the specific context.

While I am no believer in any form of nationalism, I think lambasting Arab nationalism (as it’s correctly called, and not Arabism) as an ideology and holding it alone responsible for the evils that befell the region is rather simplistic. What the dictators wanted was to invent something to stay in power, and if you study their speeches, you will not only find traces of Arab nationalism, but other narrower nationalist ideas. Saddam, for example, used Arab nationalism against the Shia and the Kurds, but he also used Iraqi nationalism to lure them into the concept of Iraq.

As for the minorities, are we talking about religious minorities here? Ethnic? Are we saying that if it weren’t for the destructive forces of Arab nationalism, they would have been able to have their own countries with different religious identities? See, we can bash ideologies all we want, but we must also know what alternative they killed and what exactly they prevented from happening. If a secular pluralistic society is what we’re after, then what kind of force was needed? And is such a society realizable and sustainable in a region full of religious and ethnic minorities? Also take into consideration other forces, political and historical, local and foreign, that led to today’s problems. There have been wars, foreign intervention and colonialism in addition to the internal failings of the Arab states. Arab nationalist ideas are not the only culprit.

The way I see it, all have suffered, regardless of religious or minority affiliation. Those dictators made minorities out of all of us, and it was never about religion, it was about staying in power.

Raja said...

Qais, you've taken this discussion into a deeper level of analysis that incorporates the nuances and contexts that make up reality. I especially like your example of Saddam using Iraqi nationalism and Arab nationalism interchangeably depending on what exactly he was trying to achieve. Professor Hilal Khashan of AUB, for example, conducted a survey of all of Jamal Abdel Nasser's speeches and consequently published a paper based on the results of his study. It turns out that Abdel Nasser referred to Egyptian Nationalism much more frequently than he did Arab Nationalism in his speeches to Egyptians. Let me point out that certain individuals were not too happy with his conclusions, and actually sent him death threats.

The point of my entry though, was not to prop up or criticize Arab Nationalism so much as it was to highlight its nature as a tool that could be used by any and all parties - whether they belonged to ethnic or religious minorities or majorities. I do not want to restate what I wrote in the entry so I will stop here.

However, I will raise the following point:

I believe that this competition around the issue of "who-can-give-the-best-speech" is damaging in and of itself. Unfortunately, I disagree with LP with regards to the nature of the problem that arises from this dilemma. When politicians belonging to certain minorities give their Arab Nationalist speeches they force their Sunni counterparts to radicalize their own positions in order to remain legitimate in the eyes of their constituencies. The irony here is that the reason minority politicians give those speeches in the first place is merely to appear "more Catholic than the Pope," and not necessarily to convert to Catholicism. Consequently, Sunni political leaders radicalize, and we all end up with a radicalized street and radicalized policies all because minority politicians wish to remain politically relevant.

My point here is that Arab Nationalism, in its current narrow definition, has a potential for considerable harm. Kamal Jumblatt did it in his time, and now Hizballah has taken his place. Fortunately, PM Seniora is comfortable enough politically to not cave in to this pressure, and is basically telling the Sunni street that Arab Nationalism is not necessarily defined by conflict with Israel. I don't know if there is a precedent to this, but we now have a case of a Sunni leader redefining Arabism rather than caving into popular demands which were instigated by non-Sunni elites. He has brought up concepts of Freedom, Democracy and Openness that I have alluded to before in this blog, and which in my opinion may ultimately have benefits that span generations.

I would also like to keep the point Hummbumm raised within this discussion.

Is he correct in claiming that “if minorities in the region did not talk about Arabism, they would not be allowed to talk period?” Maybe minorities could never come out and say that “Israel is a reality, let’s get this conflict over with and make the best out of this situation,” because they would be labeled traitors. Compare, for example, how the Arab Street treats Druze conscription in the Israeli Armed Forces with the way they treat Sunni Bedouin voluntary service.

Despite that glaring reality, I seriously doubt that minorities would “not be allowed to talk” on other issues just because the Palestine-Israeli conflict was one that they had no say in. If Jumblatt today totally abandoned the "Arab causes," I doubt he would lose any political clout; and the same goes for Hizballah. On the contrary, no matter how much Copts scream for Palestinian Justice, I doubt their situation in Egypt will improve significantly. Again, it appears that much more is at stake than a mere ideology.

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

Raja you try to differentiate yourself from Kais or Hummbumm, but your conclusion is the same : minorities must embrace Arab nationalism because they don't have any other choice. Having family in other regional countries (more then one), I've heard enough non-sense about this ideology.

Arab nationalism was never anything else than a 'light' Sunnism. You can even see it as a pre-Islamist ideology at a time when European rationalism was the norm and Islamism looked too retarded to be acceptable. The fact that people coming from the minorities participated in developping this ideology is irrelevant. Minorities tried to create a common identity with the majority. The majority tried to use Arab nationalism as a mean to evolve from colonial 'liberalism' to religious society. Minorities lost, majority won.

Arab nationalism is secular the way the Soviet constitution was democratic. It was secular only in form, not in substance. Even if you look at the form, it's not 100% secular. Even among minorities, this ideology was never popular except among the orthodox. Alawites, Druze, Shias made Arab nationalism their new taqqiya: they adopted in form, but rejected it in substance. Maronites had the honesty to reject it both in form and in substance - thus the word 'Maronite' became synonymous of traitor from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

To summarize my opinion about Arab nationalism: it's a lie, it's a fraud. At least Islamism is frank about its objective.

Raja said...

Vox, you are wrong about my conclusions. Two days ago, I wrote the following:

"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."

So, personally, I could not care less about the Arab Nationalist ideology. However, it is a pertinent topic of discussion because it remains extremely relevant in the political discourse of our region. Furthermore, if it is being used as a medium to transmit values and ideals that I do care for, like freedom, openness and democracy, then I applaud the effort.

JoseyWales said...

Furthermore, if it is being used as a medium to transmit values and ideals that I do care for, like freedom, openness and democracy, then I applaud the effort.

Ok Raja, I must have missed it. A big "if", have you seen those values anywhere near arabism or arab nationalism?

I mean in "reality", not in the words of some obscure intellectual or some self-aggrandizing blogger.

Anonymous said...

Lately I've been thinking a lot about Arab Nationalism with respect to events in the region in the last 50 years or so, A very few egs include 1) the occupation of Gaza by Egypt and The West Bank by Jordan. 2) The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. 3) The Syrian occupation of Lebanon 4) Fatahland 5) Sabra and Chatila 6) Iraqis killing Iraqis en masse. I think you all get my point. Don't break your backs over Arab Nationalism.

With respect to Arab Nationalism and minorities, Arab Nationalism was actually an ideology that was used by minorities like Maronite Christians, many of you popularized the concept to create a political venue in which they can be included. An Islamic identity in the region excludes minorities. If you look at the PPS, which has a strong Arab ideology, Anton Saade, the founder is a orthodox Christian, and many of the other co- founders were Druze, Maronites as well as muslims so Arab nationalism served more to include minorites rather than exclude by overwhelming the Islamic State.

Raja said...


those values are being transmitted by Seniora's attempt to redefine Arab Nationalism. I've mentioned this point several times already!

In his speeches, most recently the one in which he responded to Bashar's polemic, Seniora acknowledged the traditional "causes" of Arab Nationalism but then went on to add that "We are Arab and Democratic," "We are Arab and Free" and lastly "We are Arab and Open to other cultures."

This rhetoric may be new and budding, but I hope it lasts... for God's sake, I hope it lasts! I may consider myself to "beyond" and even against, the myth of an Arab Nationality, but I doubt that I am representative of the majority of Lebanese. In fact I'd bet that even most Sunni Lebanese don't identify themselves as having an "Arab Nationality," rather they merely identify with the causes that it has come to represent. Ask yourself: what do you think the first time you hear "Arab Nationalism"?

Raja said...


and Josey, thanks for the complement. ;)

JoseyWales said...


Your Seniora example is interesting, though it'll take more than 2 sentences to overturn "established" Arabism.

Also, let's be careful. Seniora said "We are Arab...." He did not say we are "Arab nationalists". Cuz if we "are", then any Arab/Syrian can interfere in our affairs and we're back to square one. One of he problems with this slippery debate is we hear "arab" and we infer or understand "nationalist"

Anyway. No jibe intended at you Raja by my "self-aggrandizing blogger" comment. That was meant for the know-it-alls who invariably show up to tell us: Baathism/Nasserism is not "real" Arabism, but rather what their idea of it is.

Sorry guys, there's a 50-year reality on the ground which outweighs your little ideas.

Now for a real compliment: Looking good in the new pic.