Deep thoughts on Arab identity…

I just started an open learning course on Arabic from Carnegie Mellon University. There I found an article that I found deeply interesting about Arabs and their identity…. I hope you enjoy it too!



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Barakat, Halim. “Arab Identity: E Pluribus Unum,” from The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State(University of California, 1993),


A critical study of Arab consciousness of a sense of identity begins by discarding idealist views of identity that overemphasize similarities. My analysis is dialectical, attaching greater significance to common characteristics and interests in the context of history and networks of relationships. Contextualization allows us to connect similarities as well as distinctive differences.

From this perspective, identity refers to the sharing of essential elements that define the character and orientation of people and affirm their common needs, interests, and goals with reference to joint action. At the same time it recognizes the importance of differences. Simply put, a nuanced view of national identity does not exclude heterogeneity and plurality. This is not an idealized view, but one rooted in sociological inquiry, in which heterogeneity and shared identity together help form potential building blocks of a positive future for the Arab world.

Yet the dilemma of reconciling plurality and unity constitutes an integral part of the definition of Arab identity. In fact, one flaw in the thinking by Arabs about themselves is the tendency toward an idealized concept of identity as something that is already completely formed, rather than as something to be achieved. Hence, there is a lack of thinking about the conditions that contribute to the making and unmaking of national identity. The belief that unity is inevitable, a foregone conclusion, flows from this idealized view of it.

Another equally serious flaw is the tendency among Arab nationalists to think in terms of separate and independent forces of unity and forces of divisiveness, ignoring the dialectical relationship between these forces. Thus, we have been told repeatedly that there are certain elements of unity (such as language, common culture, geography, or shared history) as well as certain elements of fragmentation (such as imperialism, sectarianism, tribalism, ethnic solidarity [ shu’ubiyya ], localism, or regionalism). If, instead, we view these forces from the vantage point of dialectical relations, the definition of Arab identity involves a simultaneous and systematic examination of both the processes of unification and fragmentation. This very point makes it possible to argue that Arabs can belong together without being the same; similarly, it can be seen that they may have antagonistic relations without being different. Furthermore, under certain specific conditions that must be consciously created by Arabs themselves, old identities may fade, and new ones emerge.

Thus, it is necessary to describe the forces of unity and the forces of divisiveness in relation to each other. These forces operate within the context of underlying conflicts and confrontations and under certain specific conditions. Arab identity is therefore developed to the extent that it manifests itself through a sense of belonging and a diversity of affiliations. Arab identity relies, as well, on a shared culture and its variations. Arabs also recognize a shared place in history and common experiences. Similarly, social formations and shared economic interests have helped to shape Arab identity. And, finally, Arab identity is shaped by specific, shared external challenges and conflicts.

The Arab Sense of Belonging

Pre-reading questions:

  • What role has the Arabic language played in unifying the Arabs’ collective consciousness of their identity throughout history?
  • Have religious identity and Arab national identity always been complimentary, defining one another? How have Arabism and national identity evolved?

The great majority of the citizens of Arab countries view themselves and are viewed by outsiders as Arabs. Their sense of Arab nationhood is based on what they have in common—namely, language, culture, sociopolitical experiences, economic interests, and a collective memory of their place and role in history. This sense of nationhood is constantly being formed and reformed, reflecting changing conditions and self-conceptions; together these exclude complete separation as well as complete integration. In all instances, the way communities relate to one another is reinforced by shared images and conceptions, and not merely by what they actually are. As a result of the combined influence of these conditions and orientations, identity may acquire narrower or wider meanings in particular historical circumstances.

Since its inception, Arab national identity has been seen as based primarily on language. Albert Hourani began his most famous book, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, with the statement that Arabs are “more conscious of their language than any people in the world.” 1 This notion is asserted even more strongly by Jacques Berque, who points out that “the East is the home of the word,” that “the Arabic language scarcely belongs to the world of men; rather, it seems to be lent to them,” and that “Arabic writing is more suggestive than informative.” 2

It has often been stated that the great majority of Arabs speak Arabic as their mother tongue and thus feel that they belong to the same nation regardless of race, religion, tribe, or region. This explains the tendency to dismiss the existing states as artificial and to call for political unity coinciding with linguistic identity. The prevailing view is that only a small minority of the citizens of Arab countries do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue and lack a sense of being Arab; this minority category includes the Kurds, Berbers, Armenians, and the ethnolinguistic groups of southern Sudan. 3 Fewer still are those who speak Arabic as their mother tongue without sharing with the majority a sense of nationhood, a trend that may exist among the Maronites of Lebanon in times of conflict. Most other minority groups, such as the Orthodox Christians, Shi’ites, Alawites, and Druze, consider themselves Arabs with some qualifications and reservations.

There is, in fact, unanimous agreement among theoreticians of Arab nationalism on the great significance of language. The Iraqi historian Abd al-Aziz Duri has observed that it was language that historically contributed to the development of Arab consciousness prior to the emergence of Islam. 4 Initially, Arabism “had an ethnic focus, but [it] later took on a linguistic and cultural connotation. The two currents, Islam and Arabism, were closely linked at first, but subsequently followed separate courses. While both remained important to Arab development, it was the successes and failures of Arabism that determined the eventual geographic and human boundaries of the Arab nation.” 5

This relationship between language and national identity is stressed more emphatically by another Iraqi scholar and ideologue, Sati’ al-Husari, who dismisses several other elements, including religion, economy, and geography, as irrelevant to the formation of nationalism. For him, only language and history define national identity. The former is “the heart and spirit of the nation,” and the latter is its “memory and feeling.” Consequently, those “people who speak one language must have one heart and one spirit, and so they must constitute one nation and therefore one state.” 6 (Language, it should be noted here, is not a mere instrument of communication or container of ideas and feelings; it is the embodiment of a whole culture and a set of linkages across time and space.)

The conception of Arab identity as being primarily linguistic lends itself to several criticisms. First, some other basic elements have to be taken into account in any serious and systematic attempt at defining national identity. These other elements are many and varied; they include social formations, economy, geography, culture in a broad sense, ethnicity, regionalism, external challenges and conflicts, and religion. (I shall have more to say about each of these in the following chapters.) Second, a definition of Arab identity in linguistic terms would have to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Arabic language in comparison to those of other societies in which groups shared the same language but evolved into different nationalities. Third, a definition of Arab identity rooted primarily or solely in language tends to ignore several aspects of the present state of the Arabic language — such as the continuing gap between written and spoken Arabic, the different Arab dialects, the bilingualism in some Arab countries, and the limited literacy of the Arab masses. It is true that literary Arabic “tends to become the spoken language of the whole of the Arab world” 7 — a development that took Arabic in the opposite direction from Latin, which evolved into separate languages — but these aspects cannot be ignored. Fourth, the Arab sense of belonging has to be assessed in the light of overlapping and conflicting affiliations. Among the most significant of these overlapping identities are religious, regional, kinship or tribal and ethnic affiliations. Let us look briefly at each of these identities in turn.

Since the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Muslim, the two identities are often viewed as inseparable. Indeed, the people of the Maghrib hyphenated the two in an attempt to assert their distinctive character vis-a-vis the European invaders. In the eastern Arab world, however, there have been two divergent currents within Arabism — one essentially religious and the other more secular. In comparison to Islamic reformers like Jamal Eddin al-Afghani, Muhammed Abdu, and Rashid Rida, early Muslim and non-Muslim Arabists viewed Arab nationalism as a secular alternative to the Islamic Ottoman caliphate. The concept of umma (nation) began to lose its religious meaning and to refer to solidarity based on common language, territory, economic interests, culture, history, and destiny. As the demand for Arab rights within the Ottoman caliphate grew, some of these early Muslims, Christians and Jews were ‘Arab’ before they were members of their respective religious communities.” 8

Yet, most Arabists, especially today in response to the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism, continue to assert the complementarity, if not the synonymity, of Islam and Arabism. For example, Abd al-Aziz Duri has concluded that “Islam unified Arabs and provided them with a message, an ideological framework, and a state.” He also noted that “the Islamic movement came about as Arab in its environment and leadership,” and that Arabs in the formative era of Islam had “a strong sense of their unity and distinctiveness, for the state was Arab, the language was Arabic, and Arabs were the carriers of the message of Islam.” 9 As pointed out earlier, Duri himself has indicated that Islam and Arabism “were closely linked at first, but subsequently followed separate courses.” 10

Another prominent Arab historian, Constantine Zurayk argues that tensions have existed between Islam and other forms of solidarity throughout its history. Tribal, ethnic. and nationalist loyalties have remained alive, undermining the establishment of genuine unity within the umma. With respect to the relationship between Islam and Arabism, Zurayk concludes that “from the beginning a certain ambivalence existed between Islam and Arabism. Islam is a universal religion, but it was revealed to an Arab prophet through the Arabic tongue, and its rise and early spread beyond Arabia were due to Arab zeal, energy and struggle. The Umayyad rule in Damascus was, to a large extent, Arab in attitude and policy. The non-Arab converts, largely of Persian stock, were reduced to the ranks of clients (mawali), which caused them to become disaffected, to seek to vindicate (in the name of Islam) their claim to equality with the Arabs, and to work for the overthrow of Arab dominance.” These very conditions contributed to the emergence of shu’ubiyya (peoplehood or ethnicity). Islamic political life became “an arena of conflict between Arabs, Persians, Turks, Kurds, and Berbers.” 11

Such developments, Duri points out, “furthered the idea that the umma was something based on the Arabic language and Arab culture. This was often stated by writers of the third/ninth century and after. Jahiz, for example, considered Arabic the most important tie…. Ibn Qutaiba defended Arabic and the Arabs as being a nation before Islam and after. Farabi found that language, natural traits, and character comprised formative elements of the umma …. He distinguished the human umma from the milla based on religion. Mas’udi talked of the major nations (umam) in history, and indicated their formative elements: (a) geographic conditions … and (b) language… Ibn Khaldun … generally used umma to mean nation and milla to mean religious community.” 12

What does “community” mean in the distinction between Arabism and nationalism? The twentieth century witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Islamic caliphate and the rise of nationalism. The conflict between the two currents, however, has continued unabated to the present time, when Islamic fundamentalism is posing itself as an alternative to secular nationalism […]. Indeed, the new emergence of fundamentalism has now problematized the relationship between nationalism and religious identity. The predominance of Islam (90 percent of Arabs are Muslims) and the rise of religious fundamentalism since the Iranian revolution in 1979 do not in the long run mean a downgrading of secular nationalism. Religious fundamentalism lends itself to many conflicting interpretations. It is also responsible for the creation of opposition forces within its ranks, and for internal and external as well as conservative and radical manipulations. Furthermore, as will be demonstrated in a separate chapter on religious behavior, social analysis reveals the predominance of sect over religion per se. The prevailing socioeconomic structures and political arrangements promote sectarian and communal affiliations within the same society at the expense of a more general and shared religiosity, as well as of national and class interests.

Thus the relationship between sectarianism and Arabism is also important to sort out. Persons and groups in the eastern Arab world see themselves and are seen by others in religious terms — as Sunnis, Shi’ites, Druze, Alawites, and Maronites. They are not merely members of a certain religion, however, but first and foremost are seen as Arabs. In fact, the social-psychological distances between some sects within the same religion may be greater than the distance perceived between different religions. This situation is not exclusively confined to Lebanon. The Kuwaiti sociologist Muhammed Rumayhi detected such distances between Sunnis and Shi’ites in the Gulf states even before the Iraq-Iran war, noting that in the 1970s “no Sunni candidate who ran for elections could win in electoral districts inhabited mostly by Shi’ites. Similarly, no Shi’ite candidate could win in Sunni electoral districts…. It has become a tradition that electoral districts are closed circles for specific tribes and sects.” 13 These sectarian solidarities have to be examined in the larger context of social and political organization, as well as patterns of hierarchical arrangements. As will be shown later, sectarianism is a mechanism for maintaining certain privileges or for redressing grievances.

What is the place of minorities in the use of sectarianism as identity? It may be argued that the above analysis cannot be applied to the Maghrib, because only Sunnis are present there. Instead, a more abstract characterization is made in the Maghrib of its identity as Islamic-Arab, using the motto of the Algerian revolution, “Islam is our religion, Arabic is our language, and Algeria is our homeland.” Yet, on an intra-Arab or intra-Islamic level, even an open-minded and enlightened Moroccan intellectual and political leader such as ‘Allal al-Fassi could not transcend sectarianism. This is shown in his explanation of why the Fatimids (a Shi’ite dynasty that ruled portions of northern Africa in A.D. 909-1171), who maintained that the caliph must be a descendant of the Prophet through his daughter Fatima, did not last long in Morocco. He says it was “because the idea they supported disagrees with the spirit of freedom that the nature of the land required … as well as with the Islamic model … which does not recognize the racial supremacy of a family or an individual.” 14

Beyond sectarianism is local or regional identity. A persistently strong affiliation undermining Arab national identity is wataniyya (regionalism or patriotism). Even artificially created countries seem to be developing identities of their own. Jordan, Kuwait and the Gulf states, Lebanon, and others have managed through the formation of sovereign orders and socialization to create separate identities. Increasingly, citizens of these countries define themselves and are defined by others in terms of their local affiliations. Nonetheless, they continue to assert their Arab identity and lament Arab disunity and divisiveness, while clinging to their existing local identities. In times of crisis and intra-Arab conflicts (such as the 1990-91 Gulf crisis), however, local identities tend to prevail only at the expense of Arab nationalism. In this context, local ruling families and classes lack legitimacy. Nevertheless, they have become increasingly entrenched through regional and international alliances and through the development of vested interests among influential segments of population who want to preserve the status quo. On normative and rhetorical levels, local leaders continue to assert their Arab identity and the need for Arab unity. They refer to the Arab world, and not their own countries, as constituting the umma. Yet they follow their own separate courses at the expense of Arabism.

Another ironic development is the peculiar brand of Arabism practiced by some pan-Arab regimes. Roger Owen has observed that control over mass media and education by these pan-Arab regimes was used to promote a “brand of Arabism designed to suggest that only the local regime was properly Arab or capable of acting in a truly Arab interest. Little by little the vocabulary of Arabism was altered to accommodate ideas and concepts designed to highlight regional difference and local particularity.” 15

Thus, besides the gap between words and deeds, there have been throughout the modern era three major nationalist orientations in the Arab world. As we have seen, one is pan-Arabism, which dismisses existing sovereign states as artificial creations and calls for Arab unity. Another is the local nationalist orientation, which insists on preserving the independence and sovereignty of existing states. In between these two is a regional nationalist orientation that seeks to establish some regional unity, such as a greater Syria or a greater Maghrib, either permanently or as a step toward a larger Arab unity.

The presence of these various national trends and the emergence of conflicts between wataniyya (patriotism) and qawmiyya (nationalism) have encouraged the development of scholarly investigations of the relationship between “Arab personality” and “regional personalities.” For instance, the Egyptian sociologist El-Sayyid Yassin asks: “Is there one Arab national personality in spite of the multiplicity and variance of Arab regions from the [Atlantic] ocean to the Gulf? What are the characteristic features of this Arab personality? If there were an Arab national personality, how can we explain the psychological, civilizational, and social differences between the Iraqi personality and the Egyptian personality and the Tunisian personality?” 16 Attempting a normative and conciliatory conclusion, Yassin says that the Arab personality constitutes “the primary pattern,” while “regional personalities” constitute “the secondary patterns.”

Reconciling these varieties of nationalism continues to be the most challenging task confronting Arabs in their attempt to achieve the nahda . So far the efforts made to legitimize the status quo continue to work against an ability to transcend and to synthesize conflicting or overlapping affiliations.

The fact that the family constitutes the basic unit of social organization in traditional contemporary Arab society […] may explain why it continues to exert so much influence on identity formation. At the center of social and economic activities, it remains a very cohesive social institution, exerting the earliest and most lasting impact on a person’s affiliations.

Tribalism, too, continues to undermine the unity of the umma in both its Islamic and secular nationalist versions. As the prominent Lebanese Shi’i spiritual leader Muhammed Mahdi Shamseddin has pointed out, Islam has “attempted to destroy tribal solidarity by diverse means in order to establish a community based on unity of belief.” 17 The triumph of Islam in unifying conflicting tribes into an umma of believers does not mean that it has managed to eliminate tribalism. Tribes themselves have also managed to use Islam in diverse ways. The Egyptian scholar Muhammed ‘Amara notes that since the earliest period of Islamic history, the state has tended to resort to tribalism as a means of balancing society’s conflicting forces. 18 A similar conclusion is reached by Zurayk, who writes that whereas Arabs were able to transcend their old religious beliefs in favor of Islam, “it was not as easy for them … to rid themselves of their loyalties to tribe and clan for the sake of the new loyalty to the umma . During the whole of the formative period, and indeed throughout Islamic history to the present day, tension has persisted between tribal and Islamic affiliations.” 19

The same tension exists between tribalism and secular nationalism in contemporary Arab society. Both popular nationalist movements and ruling regimes have attempted to combat or use tribalism to advance their causes. This is particularly true in Arab countries that are more tribally constituted than others, such as Arabia, Sudan, and the Maghrib. The Saudi family, itself a branch of the ‘Aneza tribe, has attempted to stitch together a mosaic of tribes into a nation-state. Through all sorts of inducements, and confrontations, tribes have been contained in a stable political system. Yet the tribes continue to distinguish between two aspects of this political system: the dawla, or modern state bureaucracy, and the hukuma, or members of the Saudi royal family. Their allegiance is to the latter rather than the former. 20 A second example is the Arab Maghrib, where process of transition from tribal societies to nation-states is evidenced by the disappearance of the traditional circles of power referred to earlier, the Bled el-Makhzen, or intermediary tribes allied with the central government, and the Bled es-Siba, or dissident tribes. Yet tribal organization has continued to “constitute an obstacle to the political unification” of Maghribi societies. 21 Another case in point is the unique coincidence of sect, tribe, and political movements in the Sudan. The Umma party has represented the Mahdiyya or Ansar religious order of the Mahdi family. Similarly, the National Unionist party has represented the Khatmiyya religious order of the Al-Hindi family. This recalls the coincidence of religion (Wahabi sect) and family (Al-Saud) in Arabia and of the characterization of the various Lebanese religious sects as “tribes in disguise.” 22

The intensity of the conflict between tribalism and nationalism, as well as the coincidence of sect, regionalism, tribe, and rural-urban divisions, is highly acute in Yemen, where political loyalties have coincided with and reinforced sectarian and tribal divisions. The former socialist order in southern Yemen could not avoid the transformation of political rivalries into violent tribal confrontations. These illustrations and others attest to the continuation of tribalism as a force opposed to the concept of the umma in both its Islamic and secular nationalist versions.

Ethnicity is defined in cultural and linguistic terms as well as in terms of descent from distant common ancestors. Occasionally, Arab identity is linked to the descent of the Arabs from the ‘Adnanites Qahtanites, and other tribes, and to their constituting an ethnic group. Once this definition is made, however, the dilemma emerges of reconciling it with other ethnic groups within the Arab world – such as the Kurds, Berbers, Circassians, Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Jews, Armenians, and the African communities of southern Sudan. For example, there are about 572 tribes and 56 ethnic groups in the Sudan. In “each region there is one major ethnic group dominating the others, i.e., the Arabs in Blue Nile, Khartoum, Kordofan, Northern and Kassala provinces, the Fur in Darfur province, the Nilotics in Bahr el-Ghazqal and upper Nile provinces and the Nilo-Hamites in Equatoria province.” 23

The Berbers of the Maghrib, who call themselves Imazighen (singular, Amazigh), are related to one another by a common language with different dialects as well as by claims of bedouin and tribal origins-claims that facilitated Islamization and Arabization. Some estimates indicate that they constitute about 40 percent of the population of Morocco and two-thirds of its rural population; they are about 30 percent in Algeria. The Islamic conquest resulted in the total Islamization of the Berbers and their partial Arabization. Attempts at imposing an Arab identity on the Berber population led to its seclusion in the Rif and Atlas mountains. This isolation “allowed the Berber language to survive and preserve its vitality and folklore.” 24

By contrast, European colonization cultivated Arab-Berber differences. This included attempts to de-Arabize Algeria and to establish a separate Berberistan, while maintaining Islam. As noted by the Tunisian sociologist Elbaki Hermassi, the French policy “developed the Kabyle myth in Algeria. The Algerian Berbers were considered more assimilable than the Moroccan Berbers because they were assumed to be more ‘superficially Islamic.’ Because of this distinction, the French permitted them their local assemblies, their customs, and representation . . . the whole policy was designed to prevent the two peoples of Algeria from growing accustomed to contact with each other.” 25

The Kurds also define themselves in linguistic and cultural terms. Their tribes speak different dialects and form the local majority in northern and north-eastern Iraq. Based on their ethnic distinctiveness, they have been seeking self-rule for Kurdistan (including parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran). This desire has put them in open conflict with the states of the area, which insist on their own national territorial integrity. Though several plans have been proposed to accommodate them, Kurdish grievances continue to foster their restlessness and efforts for independent self-expression. 26 Their uprisings have collapsed amid desperate feelings of betrayal by Western and regional instigators.

These kinds of ethnic and other affiliations coincide with several vertical and horizontal forces undermining Arab national identity. Religious, regional, tribal and ethnic, and other cleavages have been constantly exacerbated by conditions of underdevelopment, socioeconomic inequalities, political repression, and foreign intervention. Constituting a unique system of multiple affiliations, they have hindered efforts at Arab unity. We turn now to other variables and affinities before reaching relatively definitive conclusions on the nature of Arab identity and prospects for social and political integration.

Shared Culture and Its Variations

Next to language, a single, shared culture has often been cited as the most basic element in Arab national identity. One implicit assumption here is that the great majority of the population in the Arab world “is Arabic in language and therefore to a great extent in culture.” 27 Another basic assumption of this literature is that a common culture is derived from the fact that more than 90 percent of Arabs are Muslim by faith. Implicitly, then, Arab culture is viewed as basically religious in form and literary in expression. It is what most Arabs share, regardless of their diverse affiliations.

Yet in assessing the role of such common culture in the formation of Arab national identity, one needs to take note of some special considerations. First, the most commonly accepted operational definition of culture in the social sciences refers to three aspects: (a) the entire or total way of life of people, including a shared social heritage, visions of social reality, value orientations, beliefs, customs, norms, traditions, skills, and the like; (b) artistic achievements; and (c) knowledge or thought and the sciences. (These aspects of culture are acquired through human association or communication with others in society. […]) Second, the culture of any society is characterized by specificity and distinctiveness or uniqueness owing to social formations, patterns of living, modes of production, socialization, and adjustment to the environment by a community of people. In other words, culture represents the complete design for living of a community of people inhabiting a particular environment.

Culture is rarely characterized by complete uniformity. On the contrary, its dynamism reflects diversity, pluralism, and contradictions. In the Arab case, this includes several different levels of cultural foci. Not unlike others, Arab society has its own dominant culture, constructed from what is most common and diffused among Arabs. In addition, it has its subcultures, those peculiar to some communities, and its countercultures, those of alienated and radical groups. Arab dominant culture is derived from interaction among these levels of culture, and from Arab collective memory, but it is constantly reinterpreted and cultivated by those in control of the resources of society, at the expense of others. The process of socialization in this case is often based on repression and inducements. Subcultures are represented by different patterns of living (such as rural, urban, or bedouin); by social formations (such as mercantilist or agricultural); by social class differences and contradictions (such as high, bourgeois, and mass cultures); by religious and sectarian affiliations (such as Sunni, Shi’ite, Druze, Alawi, Isma’ili, Copt, Orthodox, Maronite, Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish); and by ethnicity (such as Kurd or Berber). Countercultures are represented in Arab society by alienated intellectuals, uprooted communities, and radical movements.

Thus Arab culture is in a constant state of becoming. This state results from internal contradictions, new social formations and the utilization of resources such as oil, encounters with other cultures, and innovativeness. There would not have been any need to assert this fact were it not for the misrepresentation of reality by both Western Orientalists and traditional Arab scholars. Western Orientalists have tended to emphasize the “constant” rather than the “changing” nature of Arab culture and the “oneness” of the “Arab mind” rather than the “pluralism” inherent in a distinctive Arab culture. Similarly, traditional Arab scholars have tended to emphasize some sort of traditional values and to focus on conforming to a traditional model rather than what actually exists. In such a traditional view, authenticity is deprived of creativity, genuineness, and open-mindedness. The contemporary discourse in Islamist circles reduces authenticity to a dismissal of ideas and innovations considered alien (dakhil, wafid, majlub, bud’a) to Arab culture. Notions such as nationalism, democracy, socialism, class analysis, secularism, and several others are dismissed as being borrowed or imported from the West. The Egyptian scholar Tariq al-Bushri, for instance, has described secularism as an alien plant, nabt wafid, which did not begin to grow in the Arab “intellectual and civilizational environment” before the beginning of the twentieth century. 28 Using more sophisticated notions, the Moroccan scholar Muhammed Abed al-Jabri describes secularism as originating in European civilization and hiding “behind the mask of nationalist discourse.” 29 In reply to these characterizations, I would argue that the distinctiveness of Arab cultural identity needs to take account of a highly complex human reality as it now exists.

Pre-reading question:

  • In the next three sections, which elements have weakened and strengthened a unified Arab national identity?

The Place of Arabs in History and Their Common Experiences

Intra-Arab conflicts and the reinforcement of the boundaries that separate Arab countries stand in sharp contrast to the place of Arabs in history and their sense of common historical experiences. All sorts of barriers have hindered the free movement of people, products, and ideas across heavily guarded artificial borders. More often than not, the closer Arab countries are geographically, the greater the conflicts and the less the communication between them. Political disagreements over minor and major issues may develop into open conflicts even at times of external threat and acute national crisis. Domestic as well as foreign policies are increasingly being determined by immediate rather than long-term local interests.

In fact, one of the obstacles to Arab unity is the growing social-psychological distance resulting from a lack of communication. First, there has been a process of economic disintegration. Each Arab country is being increasingly – and separately – integrated into the world capitalist system. So the greater the dependency of the peripheral Arab countries on the centers of this capitalist system, the less the economic exchanges and links among the Arab countries themselves. Second, except for decreasing labor migration between oil-producing and non-oil-producing countries, travel across Arab borders has been made extremely difficult. Even when allowed, travel between Arab countries has been frustrating and humiliating. Third, a strict process of censorship undermines cultural exchange among Arab countries. A policy of cultural self-sufficiency is in effect almost everywhere. Governmental control over the mass media and culture is accompanied by the banning of publications produced in other Arab countries. Each government has its own publishing houses and publications. Unlike in earlier times, when literature in Arabic was discussed and referred to as Arabic, increasingly it is being presented and promoted by literary critics as Egyptian, Iraqi, Syrian, Lebanese, Algerian, Jordanian, Kuwaiti, Saudi, Tunisian, Qatari and the like. Fourth, censorship is encompassing ever-broader areas and topics. Lists of taboos are growing to include wider political, religious, and sexual topics and terms or even criticisms of other rulers and governments that are friendly.

These instances of lack of communication cannot be explained by the absence or weakness of Arab national feelings among the people. On the contrary, they might be interpreted as indicative of the strength of such feelings in the face of the insecurity and illegitimacy of the Arab regimes themselves. Evidence supporting this interpretation is the gap between the words and deeds of Arab rulers and officials and between their public and private statements. On a normative level, their words and public statements continue to proclaim their unwavering commitment to “the causes of the Arab nation” and to lament deteriorating relationships. They do so without acknowledging their own responsibility, instead blaming the deterioration completely on other Arabs and antagonistic external forces. This disunity occurs despite the fact that the Arab people themselves share common historical experiences. National disasters such as the exile of the Palestinians in 1948, the defeat of the Arabs in the Six-Day War of 1967, and the Gulf War have become an integral part of the Arab psyche and its collective consciousness. The same is true of both ancient and contemporary victories. In recent times, the heroic Egyptian defense of the Suez Canal in 1956, the Lebanese resistance following the Israeli invasion of 1982, and the Algerian war of liberation of 1954-62 have been sources of inspiration and pride for the great majority of Arabs. Contacts with fellow Arabs, no matter how geographically distant, almost always lead to the development of strong negative or positive rather than neutral feelings toward one another. This strong feeling can only be attributed to the identification and mutual expectations generated by a common history and destiny. Moreover, the sense of common identity has been strengthened in modern times by opposition to Western penetration.

Shared Economic Interests

Studies of the nature of the relationship between economic life and the emergence or weakening of Arab national identity have reached almost diametrically opposed conclusions. Defining Arab nationalism in linguistic and cultural terms, Sati’ al-Husari warns against “the consideration of economic interests as a basic element in the formation of nationalism,” which he considers contrary to “requisites of reason and logic.” 30For him, the assignment of the country into agricultural, industrial, commercial, and tourist areas sets them apart. The assumption here is that national unity is based on similarity, rather than on the interdependence or complementarity of a division of labor. Another Arab nationalist, Adib Nassur, has warned that notions of economic inequalities and class analysis will eventually lead to splitting the ranks of Arab nationalists into opposing camps. 31

In contrast, another body of literature on the formation and decline of Arab nationalism highlights the relevance of the economic variable. Samir Amin, for instance, emphasizes the historical significance of mercantile relations and long-distance trade in the formation of the Arab nation. It was this urban commercial class that controlled the central state apparatus and ensured economic and political unity. Once the power of this social class faded, the nation began to “regress into a formless conglomeration of more or less related ethnicities”; the decline of commerce “had caused the Arab world to lose its previous unity.” 32Similarly, Walid Kaziha concludes that Arab nationalism represents “an expression of the ambitions of certain social forces” and that its decline came about as a result of the weakening of those forces. 33 Zurayk also stresses the significance of the economic variable as a unifying force. The future trend of human development, he points out, “is toward larger and larger societies, and not toward narrow, powerless, and confined societies which cannot confront the complex economic and political situations and necessities of the scientific and technological revolution. Modern life . . . requires accumulation of natural resources, human skills and expertise . . . . Hence the limitation of small states . . . in meeting the necessities of modern life.” 34

Cultural and economic analysts might agree, however, that certain economic conditions can contribute to social and political fragmentation. For instance, growing disparities between rich and poor Arab countries have created further rifts between them, notwithstanding labor migration and other forms of interdependency between oil-producing and non-oil-producing Arab countries. 35 Another instance of how economic factors may contribute to Arab national fragmentation is the expansion of European commerce in the nineteenth century to the benefit of certain minorities at the expense of the majority of the population. Philip Khoury has pointed out that during the twenty years leading up to the events of 1860 in Lebanon and Syria, the economic impact of Europe was heightened in that some religious groups “enriched themselves by serving as agents of European interests.” 36

External Challenges and Political Unity

A classic sociological principle proposes a positive relationship between external conflicts and internal cohesion, but an exclusive focus on the integrative function of external conflicts represents a one-sided analysis. 37 One such exclusive focus is the constantly expressed view that the only thing Arabs agree on is hatred of Israel. A more systematic application of the theory of conflict to the Arab situation has been attempted by Nadim Bitar, who holds that the Palestinian problem has generated movement in the direction of revolutionary Arab unity. 38

A closer reexamination of the Arab situation would, however, show that under certain conditions, external conflicts and challenges may actually lead to further fragmentation and disruption. The creation of artificial states in the Arab world has rendered it more vulnerable to disruption when confronting intense external challenges. Furthermore, against the background of continuing Arab dependency on the West, as well as the emergence of nation-states and established ruling groups, external conflicts have proved very disruptive. the coincidence of sect, regionalism, tribe, and rural-urban divisions, is highly acute in Yemen, where political loyalties have coincided with and reinforced sectarian and tribal divisions. The former socialist order in southern Yemen could not avoid the transformation of political rivalries into violent tribal confrontations. These illustrations and others attest to the continuation of tribalism as a force opposed to the concept of the umma in both its Islamic and secular nationalist versions.

Contrary to repeated claims, events have demonstrated that the establishment of Israel and the ensuing related conflicts contributed to further political fragmentation. Both Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership have been divided over such issues as the nature of the confrontation with Israel and the resolution of the Palestinian problem. One source of divisiveness since the inception of the Palestinian problem has been the split between those who favor negotiations and a peaceful solution (in spite of dim prospects) and those who favor armed struggle against all odds. This split is further compounded by accompanying conflicts between old and new orders, repressive regimes and popular movements, pro-Western and nationalist and well as reactionary and progressive forces, and moderate and rejectionist camps.


A critical approach to the study of Arab national identity, such as that attempted here, reveals that it has been undergoing a process of continuous change. The presence of conflicting affiliations and threatening challenges may attest to its dynamism rather than to its static nature. This very dynamic quality means, however, that Arab society may or may not succeed in its struggle to achieve political and social integration. Success will be determined by the will of Arabs to attend precisely to this historical task. Although they have failed miserably to achieve their objectives so far, their struggle has not necessarily been in vain. It is a fact that the nahda continues to be unfulfilled and that a gap separates the dream from reality. Hence, one witnesses deep and comprehensive alienation. Strong feelings of anger and cynicism have emerged over the marginalization of the Arab world, once located at the very center of human affairs. Arabs feel strongly, too, about deprivation in the midst of unprecedented wealth, and about the impotence of ruling groups in times of trying challenges. True, the Arab world in its present circumstances does not constitute a single coherent system or civil society as much as a multiplicity of societies. Besides the growing development of local and regional identities at the expense of a more comprehensive nationalism, all the existing nation-states function independently of one another and rarely in terms of Arab national interests.

These conditions of alienation and the lack of civil society do not necessarily constitute an Arab retreat from historical challenges. (I say this because there are those who see expressions of alienation on the part of Arab intellectuals as a sign of retreat: the bewilderment with which contemporary writers have been looking at their society has in recent years prompted some scholars to announce the death of Arab nationalism.) 39 On the contrary, I see such expressions of bewilderment as a sign of vitality and dynamism in Arab culture.

It is out of deep identification that these writers speak of the stark reality confronting Arab society. The world for them always indicates a new beginning. Each genuinely expresses the outcry of the Arab people, searching constantly for unity and the will to change in order to attain true nationhood. They know full well that it is not impossible to transcend the present reality and to remake their society.

Credit: Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture and State © 1993 University of California Press


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