Across the Bay

Monday, September 13, 2004

Liberal Arabism?


considering that you technically didn't defend Seale, I will not concern myself with him either in this post. Nor will I deal too much with Syria and its supposed reforms. You already know my views on that. Instead, seeing as this discussion is about identity narratives, I will focus on your multiple -- and at times paradoxical -- definitions of Arabism, as well as your postulations on what form it might reinvent itself in. Seeing that my time now is much more limited, I will divide my reply to more than one post.

Here are some of your definitions of Arabism:

1- intima' (belonging)
2- ‘asabiyya (blood solidarity)
3- Not an ideology that wed itself to state power (contrast with #10-14)
4- Nationalism (cf. #9 below)
5- Imagined community (cf. #7)
6- Quasi-religious, tailor-made for (Sunni) Islam (cf. #12)
7- Organic, völkisch, from above, united umma
8- Arabo-centrism
9- Not just a national or ethnic feeling
10- Centralized Statism/Fascism
11- Anti-Western Confrontationism and Xenophobia
12- West-Oriented in ideology (secular - socialist)
13- Anti-tribalism/sectarianism
14- Central ideology of the state

I will also add your vision of a possible future Arabism as a variety of the EU model, based on liberal values that will supposedly do away with some of the unsavory elements listed above. That will also be included in the assessment.

As my list makes clear, your various defining elements of Arabism not only weaken your argument, they testify to why Arabism is such a disaster that needs to be relegated to the archives of history. Let's start taking apart those points. I won't be overly systematic, and there might be some redundancy. I ask the readers to bear with me.

First, there's an ambiguity with the issue of "belonging" that really constitutes the basic problem and tension that has plagued the region and caused most of its wars. Belonging to what? That's the $50,000 question. Your post never solves this. All you do is say that we should try to convince the various peoples of the M.E. to channel their belonging to the country they live in (e.g. Syrianism or Lebanonism) and its own history and heritage. Nevertheless, you still say that Arabism will linger on. Your synthesis: learn to live with it in its diluted form thus creating the "Arab EU." I'll anticipate the conclusion here and say that the European unity (which is not subscribed to by all European countries, and is not necessarily seen a self-evidently good thing!) is not based on an ethnic ‛asabiyya! Secondly, the people who do subscribe to the EU do not place it as their primary identifier in an ethnic sense. Ethnicity has no part in this whatsoever. Therefore, thinking of Arabism in terms of the EU is faulty at the most basic level. (There is a series called "The Making of Europe" that discusses many issues, including language such as in the volume by Umberto Eco entitled "The Search for the Perfect Language"). Instead, what you have with Arabism is closer to Sovietism with an imposition of language-based nationalism and the suppression of minorities.

Arabism always includes a supra-national ethnic element and therefore will always be in conflict with local nationalism. The EU model is not a solution because it doesn't deal with the basic, illiberal, nature of Arabism. To me, the "Arab-EU," as well as "liberal Arabism," is a contradiction in terms. The list above does not contain one single liberal element. So now you know my conclusion, now let me expand on it!

You claim that Arabism is not an ideology that wed itself to state power (then you say that it is!) and you were right the second time because that's exactly what Arabism is! It's an ideological reading of the past that was indoctrinated to generations through education, literature, and the media, by being the dominant (if not the only) discourse by virtue of its position of power. This led to statism, Arabo-centrism, and oppression of minorities.

Even the notion of "Arab" as a cultural Oberbegriff (a sort of overarching generic term) is problematic for the same reasons: the underlying premise is faulty. Why should historical memory be centered on the emergence of the Arab (from Arabia) Muslims on the scene? Why should that be seen as the unifying historical memory? etc.

This entails a radical reinterpretation of what "Arab" means. You can't force that on people, because that would make you just as bad, but you can remove its place of privilege and introduce all kinds of alternatives in the educational system and literature. You just can't rehash it minus some unsavory elements. How can you divorce it from elements that were so integral to its intellectual conception?

Needless to say, "Mediterraneanism" is no less ideological, it's just consciously more inclusive, liberal, corresponds better to historical realities, and reflects a more complex understanding of identity.

More to come, hopefully in response to your reaction to this post.