Across the Bay

Monday, September 13, 2004

Readers' Response

Two readers responded to my reply to Josh with a couple of interesting points that I didn't clarify well in my post.

The Syrian reader from the Far East wondered whether Mediterraneanism falls in the same trap as Arabism by being a supra-national idea. Therefore, why not just focus on a local nationalism (Syrianism, Lebanonism, etc.)?

First, I do believe that the focus should be on local nationalism. I didn't clarify that as I should have in the post, but I do agree on that point.

However, I disagree with your characterization of Mediterraneanism. It's not a nationalism. My understanding of Mediterraneanism is similar to the concept of "Europe" that Josh wants to wed to Arabism, which I think is a misfit. It's not ethnic, it's not nationalist, it's conceptual on a cultural-geographic-symbolic level. It points to an openness to the West, and an acknowledgement of several concepts such as pluralism, cosmopolitanism, mercantilism, and free exchange of goods and ideas. It's Braudelian in many ways (reference to Fernand Braudel, whose works on the Mediterranean are well worth reading). It's an attitude.

Now, on a more specific level, it fits well with Lebanon's sense of identity and its Phoenicianist elements. The merits of the Phoenicianists' worldview are those same elements I sketched above. This is also a great example of how a local nationalism (Lebanonism) can very easily coexist with a concept of Mediterraneanism. Lebanon's history and heritage is rich and complex, and much of it involves the meaningful symbolism of the Mediterranean.

For instance, encounter of East and West. In fact, the Phoenicianists' greatest myth was that of Qadmus and Europa. There is an interesting interpretation of the names (not the only one of course). Qedem in Phoenician (as in Hebrew) means "East" and Ereb (what those interpreters see as initially behind the name Europa) means "West." Whether this is true or not is inconsequential, it reflects how they understood the story and how it applies to their vision. Their whole fascination with the Roman and Hellenistic eras as a time of cross-civilizational pollenization that included Phoenicians (whom they saw as a reflection of themselves) is centered on the Mediterranean.

At the same time, this was not in conflict with their Syriac Maronitism, or their serious work on the Arabic language. It's a more relaxed dynamic than the tension with Arab nationalism.

So Phoenicianism wasn't a nationalism, Lebanonism was. Phoenicianism was a heritage and a historical addendum. It explained how they read the past and how they envisioned the present and the future. Mediterraneanism is similar in that it is not a nationalism, but simply an outlook; a prism. It's an outlook that's essentially opposite to that of Arabism in all its aspects.

Finally, with regard to your points on Tunisians and Spaniards and what have you, one can make the case that a Tunisian or Moroccan has more in common with a Frenchman or a Spaniard than with a Yemeni! The Lebanese have more in common with Greeks or the French than with a Saudi! etc.

In response to Matt's comment, I will address only two points.

1- The notion that Arabism will linger on.

I have no interest in eradicating Arabism by force or what have you. People will reinvent it in ways meaningful to them. I believe that it has enough contradictions in its make up so as the reinterpretation will continue to dilute it. One of the questions that Josh didn't ask, and that I skipped over, was not just "belonging to what?" it's also "belonging based on what?" That I think is the main driving engine of reinterpretation. Most recently polls indicate that (surprise) it's based on Islam (much as it was in the beginning anyway!) more and more, and an Arabo-centric view of Islam at that. Secondly, it's that narrow xenophobic, sometimes called anti-imperialist, outlook. That somehow "Arabs" are targets. That causes people not to actually ponder what the hell their "Arabness" means.

But lack of critical examination was never the only problem. Which leads us to the second point.

2- Arabism as dominant state ideology.

This point is one of the reasons why I think that any notion of a liberal Arabism is a contradiction in terms, and why the analogy with the EU is non-existent. If the ideology itself is based on homogeneity and the drive to eliminate or marginalize others, i.e., the negation of pluralism, I don't see how you can reconcile that with a liberal outlook. That's why Kanan Makiya in his vision of post-Baathist Iraq thought that a true pluralist, federal Iraq, cannot be officially an Arab country. (See here).

Therefore, after the first question is solved (what does considering oneself to be "Arab" mean?), the other task is to relegate Arabism to a secondary identifier in a local nationalist system. E.g. Iraq is home to people who consider themselves Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Assyrians, etc.

So your point runs counter to Josh's contention that Arabism, wed to state power, led to stability and the avoidance of sectarian war. That's the basic view on Lebanon, and needless to say i don't buy it for a minute. It was the tension with the drive of Arabism for dominance that broke the Lebanese fabric and broke the deal it was based on. It was sacrificed on the altar of Arabism and its "Palestine-first" ideology (in the Marxist sense). Read Farid El-Khazen's book The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon.