contributor perspectives

Finding the Arab World

Anisa Mehdi
Board of Contributors
12 MINS READMay 3, 2017 | 08:54 GMT
Finding the Arab World
At a time when many of us seek to find more in common than that which divides us, the terms "Arab" and "Arab World" may be neither helpful nor accurate.

The New Jersey-based Palestinian American Community Center has announced the first educational initiative of its kind: The Homeland Project. Subsidized participants will explore and experience the Palestinian territories — a bit like Taglit or "Birthright Israel," an organization that aims to give every Jewish young adult around the world an opportunity to visit Israel. The primary qualification for applicants is to be "an American citizen of Arab descent." Not American citizens of Palestinian descent. The program welcomes people with heritage from 22 different nations, including Algeria, Comoros, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. People of "the Arab World."

Having grown up Arab-American with Iraqi heritage, I've long wondered about the term "Arab World." I understood my American identity, but what distinguished Iraq from the broad term "Arab"? Which superseded the other and why, I wondered. Now I bring this question to you: What is the Arab World? And more important for Stratfor readers: Is the concept still suitable today? Or is it possible that it's out of date, a relic of 19th- and 20th-century worldviews that no longer serves us into the 21st century and beyond?

What It Means to Be Arab

At a moment in history when nativism, populism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia are on the rise in "the West" (another construct that may be worth examining in the future), and civil wars, conflicts between neighboring nations and splintering religious alliances are on the rise in the Middle East, it may be useful to rethink this label.

Why do we call people "Arabs" to begin with? What do Arabs share in common? Anthropologically and politically speaking, Arabic is the national language — the mother tongue — of the states identified as Arab. "At the core of being Arab is the language itself," writes the late Los Angeles Times reporter David Lamb in his detailed book The Arabs: Journeys Beyond the Mirage.

"Indeed, the most accepted definition of Arab today is one who speaks Arabic. None other seems to work. The real Arab comes from one of the 13 tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, but what of the millions who don't? Most Arabs are Muslim, but what of the six million Egyptian Coptic Christians? A European lives in Europe, an Asian in Asia, but does an Arab live in Arabia? So after decades of fruitless debate among the Arabs themselves, Middle East scholars generally agree that an Arab is one who speaks Arabic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew."

Yet even the Arabic language they may treasure as a common link is deeply divided by dialect, mixed with French in the West and Farsi in the East. My Iraqi father and his Moroccan-born colleagues regularly resorted to English so they could understand one another.  

Geographically, Arabs are citizens of the member states of the Arab League founded in 1945, which comprises territory across North Africa, a large cluster in Southwest Asia and on the Arabian Peninsula. That's a wide swath of the planet. Ethnically, the people we call "Arab" are Bedouin, Berber, African, Arabian and Circassian. They share DNA from India, Europe, Persia and many nations along the Silk Road.

Arab nations may be developed or developing, with fossil fuel stores and historical sites for tourists. They may be eager to purchase modern weaponry and invite state-of-the-art technology firms to consider business, or still-fragile economies struggling to right themselves after years of colonial control, domestic tyranny and conflict. And they may be all of the above.

Religiously, Arabic-speaking populations include Christians, Muslims, Jews, Yazidis, Mandaeans and Druze. As British diplomat Gerard Russell writes in Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms:

"I encountered religious beliefs that I had never known before: a taboo against wearing the color blue, obligatory moustaches and a reverence for peacocks. I met people who believed in supernatural beings that take human form, in the power of the planets and stars to steer human affairs and in reincarnation. These religions were vestiges of the pre-Christian culture of Mesopotamia but drew as well from Indian traditions that had been transmitted to the Middle East through the Persian Empire, and from Greek philosophy."

Culturally, Arabs display vast differences in cuisine and costume, distinct customs regarding relations between men and women, and varied appreciation of hip-hop, Western European music and any number of local styles of singing, drumming and playing stringed instruments.

Politically? Just look at the headlines to see some of these nations increasingly alienated from one another: attacking neighbors, refusing refugees and failing to come to an agreement on how to deal with the ongoing crises in Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria. Not to mention Israel.

At a time when many of us seek to find more in common than that which divides us, the terms "Arab" and "Arab World" may actually be unhelpful and inaccurate. Might they unconsciously promote division, I wonder, rather than interconnection? It behooves us to explore more nuanced identity options for those with whom we are engaged in business, trade, war and diplomacy.

The Myth of the Monolith

Historically, "Arab" may have been a more correct identity than it is today. In the early 800s, when Abbasid caliph Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Ma'mun appointed astronomers who began to systematically check the accuracy of Ptolemy's star charts, scientists from surrounding regions were drawn to Baghdad's emergent House of Wisdom. There they were encouraged to track the heavens. Jim Al-Khalili writes in House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance that the pursuit of sciences in the ninth century "marked the beginning of seven hundreds years of Arabic astronomy and provided the bridge from the Greeks to the Copernican revolution in Europe and the birth of modern astronomy."

Jonathan Lyons, a 20-year foreign correspondent for Reuters, notes that because of Koranic injunctions to heal the sick:

"Major medical schools were established in [the Arab cities of] Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba and Cairo. The Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna's eleventh-century Canon of Medicine served as the leading medical text in the West for more than five hundred years."

In The House of Wisdom, Lyons explains, "Unlike the medieval Christian West, which tended to view illness and disease as divine punishment, Arab physicians looked for imbalances or other physical causes that could be treated as part of their religious mission," and that "Many medieval mosques and other public buildings featured sophisticated water-delivery systems, a field in which early Arab engineers excelled."

However, in his 1937 tome History of the Arabs, Philip K. Hitti hints at the actual complexity of the construct "Arab" dating back to the Golden Age of Islam in Andalucia, today's southern Spain. Even in the 10th century, he points out, there was no monolithic Arab.

"In the purely linguistic sciences, including philology, grammar and lexicography, the Arabs of al-Andalus lagged behind those of al-Iraq. Al-Qali (901-67), one of the eminent professors of the university of Cordova, was born in Armenia and educated in Baghdad. His chief disciple, Muhammad ibn-al-Hasan al Zubaydi (928-89), belonged to a family that hailed from Homs [Syria], but was himself born in Seville."

Indeed, there was no monolithic religious Arab construct, either. Hitti writes of the only major Shiite caliphate in Arab history, established in Tunisia in 909. The dynasty lasted less than 300 years, struggling unsuccessfully to "challenge to the religious headship of the Islamic world represented by the Abbasids of Baghdad." Yet today, North African Muslim-majority nations are reported to be Sunni, and the former Abbasid center — Iraq — is known for its Shiite population. Religious affiliation is not geographically consistent. Politics are. Key to engaging Arabic-speaking Sunni and Shiite communities today could be consideration of power, access to power and equity of power rather than real religious dispute.

Albeit political foes, the Fatimid Caliphate's governance structures emulated the Abbasid model, leaving to historians a "manual intended for the use of candidates for governmental posts a sketch of the military and administrative systems… At the time of the Crusades, the Arab World, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet's most advanced civilization," writes Amin Maalouf in the epilogue to his page-turner The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.

"Afterwards, the center of world history shifted decisively to the West. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Can we go so far as to claim that the Crusades marked the beginning of the rise of Western Europe — which would gradually come to dominate the world — and sounded the death knell of Arab civilization?

"Although not completely false, such an assessment requires some modification. During the years prior to the Crusades, the Arabs suffered from certain 'weaknesses' that the Frankish presence exposed, perhaps aggravated, but by no means created."

Following the Catholic conquest of Andalucia and the subsequent shift of trade routes from trans-Asia to trans-Atlantic, the "Arabs" lost their primacy and Europe found its legs. The Ottoman Empire rose and fell. "We could credit the hammers of Mark Sykes and Francois George-Picot with nailing the geographical coffin of the sick man of Europe," I wrote in this space a year ago, "but in truth its demise was already well underway."

In his analysis of the post-World War I Arab awakening, George Antonius wrote in 1939:

"In the [Arabian] Peninsula, the essential change was the replacement of Ottoman suzerainty by Arab sovereignty. Five new states came into being, in which former vassals of the Sultan of Turkey assumed in fact the prerogatives of independent rule."

 Antonius notes dissension among the houses of the new rulers.

"Ownership of a strip of border territory threatened to lead to a serious trial of strength between the acknowledged leader of the Arab Revolt and a chieftain whose ability and determination had revived the Wahhabi movement and endowed it with military power. Whatever blessings the advent of the Peace may have brought to Arabia, it was clear that peace was not among them."

Almost 800 years after the Fatimid dynasty declined, Egypt suffered a humiliating defeat by Israel in the 1967 War; its leader, Gamel Abdel Nasser, died three years later. "The extraordinary scenes at his funeral, with millions weeping in the streets, certainly meant something; at least for the moment, it was difficult to imagine Egypt of the Arab world without him. His death was the end of an era of hope for an Arab world united and made new," British historian Albert Hourani writes. Forty years later in Tunisia, a fed-up fruit vendor set himself on fire when authorities forbade him to sell his goods. Was he an Arab, a Tunisian or simply a man that needed to feed his family?

Lamb observes:

"The Arab World is full of contradictions that seem to defy a Westerner's logic. It is a separate entity in the global community of nations, and simple categorization is difficult… At every turn the game rules were different. In the Arab world it is understood that hospitality is given freely to friend and foe alike, that the blessings of family and religion are to be cherished above all else, except possibly money, that what is said is not necessarily what is meant at all because, in the richness and imagery of the Arabic language, style counts more than substance."

Claiming a Modern Identity

As a historical term, "Arab" may play. But is it in the best interest of analysts and policymakers of the 21st century to box these diverse communities into a contained category called the Arab World? Even with separate country chapters, the term "Arabs" minimizes discrete pride of place; it may lump together rich nations and poor, diminishing the needs of each.  

In a day and age where identity is increasingly claimed rather than donned, I also wonder if, back in the centuries of the Golden Age, they actually called themselves Arabs? Were they Arabs in the Maghreb, Al-Andalus and pre-Saudi Arabia? Or did Baghdadis, rather than Arabs, populate the House of Wisdom? Would the 10th-century Cordoban professor Al-Qali, born in Armenia and schooled in Baghdad, have claimed Andalusian identity, as I have claimed New Jersey identity having been born in California and grown up in New York? Or would he be Armenian? Or perhaps tie himself instead to his alma mater in Abbasid Baghdad?

Was he an Arab? Was my father? With which identity are we — as individuals and as a group — most effectively engaged when it comes to foreign policy and international business? The broad brush "Arab" in America encompasses a century of negative media stereotypes and myriad modern tragedies, some of which include the unforgiveable attacks of 9/11, the Munich Olympics and the rejection of the U.N. Partition Plan. That history colors current relationships. When I say I'm an Iraqi-American, that label sometimes elicits compassion for the destruction of my father's homeland. But being Iraqi-American is just as likely to invite the question, "Aren't you glad we went in?" Nevertheless, at least those are specific questions to consider. I certainly can't answer questions that start with: "Why do Arabs …?"

I wonder if Al-Qali could.

One might argue that today there is no coherent, cohesive Arab World and that the concept of "Arab" is obsolete. I will continue to ask the question and look for answers. But even as I distinguish "Iraqi" from "Arab," I grant that the term remains a point of connection for people in the diaspora. To say "I am an Arab" here in America links individuals to cultures of long ago and far away; cultures that live in our parents' stories, pieces of pottery, gold bracelets, incense and prayer rugs. And young people, like those applying for The Homeland Project trip to the Palestinian territories, may embrace the term Arab-American to claim a proud heritage, cultural identity and intellectual roots.

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