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A critique of Arab critique

The Arab world is often misunderstood by the tendency to ignore or flatten its differences - through time, across states, between peoples. Challenging this essentialism is the condition of progress. 

Hazem Saghieh
28 October 2014

The deteriorating condition of the Arab world, amid widespread disillusion following the "Arab spring" uprisings, has produced a form of lament that is best described as culturally essentialist. Its voices proclaim that we Arabs, or Muslims, are doomed to fail, good at nothing, unable to replicate the achievements of other nations and peoples. Their tone is self-flagellating, pessimistic, disparaging of the collective self, nationalist or religious, self of Arabs or Muslims.

Their attitude tends to be absolutist: derisive of the Arabs' own history, which is all our own doing, and by contrast full of praise for colonialism and foreign civilisations. This shapes their approach to the world and the Arabs alike. Yet this derision and praise have no effect on reality.

Many who adopt these positions are well intentioned. The problem lies in their cultural essentialism, a kind of thinking that lumps together everything and everybody under one title in  monolithic fashion, and makes no distinctions between historical epochs. In the fields of sociology and history such essentialism was criticised from the very start, but in the Arab and Muslim world it continues to exert a baleful influence.

Evidence of difference

Here are four ways in which this way of thinking is badly mistaken. 

First, many non-Arab and non-Muslim peoples have also experienced tyranny, extremism, backwardness, and civil strife. These are not the exclusive preserve of Arabs and Muslims. The past in Europe and the present in some parts of Africa and south America carry a rich body of evidence corroborating this.

Second, the state of the Arabs and Muslims was not always as miserable as today. Some chapters of Abbasid history can be cited; more recently prominent aspects of the 1920s-50s period were open to different possibilities. By extension, would there have been no difference at all in the states of Syria and Iraq, for example, if they had not come under the tyrannical rule of Hafez/Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein?

Third, the Arabic language and Islam, or both things together, are not enough to paper over the huge differences across the region - from people's cultures to their economic systems. Do even Arabs all share a single, supposed “Islamic mind”? Among Arab peoples, even within the same Arab country, there are fundamental differences. If Malaysians and Bosnians, for example, are included, the same point applies to any notional "Muslim mind". 

Fourth, Arabs and Muslims today, setting aside the inherent generalisation and oversimplification found in these labels, are not the same as they were one, two, or three centuries ago. That is, they have been influenced - as all peoples have - by  transformations such as the industrial revolution, the discovery of oil, globalisation, and the knowledge economy. To argue otherwise would be to imply that Arabs and Muslims are a different, backwards and insular “breed”.

Two kinds of essentialism

This essentialist attitude has a political as well as cultural aspect. This too, with the failure of revolution and the falling situation in general, political essentialism spreads a counter-myth - also advanced by many well-intentioned people - that tyrannical regimes are responsible for everything bad and harmful in Arabs' and Muslims' lives. Again, its proponents ignore questions about the regime’s roots in society and culture, and about the political ideas and practices it shares with the people it oppresses. The focus of political essentialism is confined to just one dimension, namely the violence that produced, sustained, and fed the regimes it criticises.

But there are three big differences between cultural and political essentialism. First, the former is pessimistic and the latter, implicitly if not explicitly, optimistic. Political essentialism believes that ousting tyrannical regimes will bring salvation - or at worst will open the door to eventual salvation. The proponents of this view find consolation here, because thay can adopt the appearance of innocents, an innocence that would enable them to respond well to modernity and its effects. The implication is that Arabs and Muslims are not sectarian, backward, or perpetrators of harm; nor are they failing to shoulder responsibilities and tasks needed to resolve their problems.

Second, cultural essentialism can be extremely elitist, and contemptuous of people, religion, and popular culture, while political essentialism is populist in nature, and finds nothing blameworthy in these phenomena. Even when political essentialists expand their criticism of regimes towards regional or international powers and systems, they still completely ignore factors like culture and religion, but especially bonds of kinship, family, and other communal configurations.

Third, in a specific sense the criticism made by cultural and political essentialism differs in kind. The former claims that Arabs' and Muslims' history has, in effect, known "only" ISIS and similar movements, and that in the end they cannot do anything other than produce such outgrowths. Whereas the latter exonerates its proponents, and by extension the people, from any responsibility for ISIS and related phenomena, by linking these exclusively to tyrannical regimes or these regimes' regional and international extensions. Thus political essentialism dilutes ISIS’s danger, albeit obliquely, by considering ISIS a by-product of the danger of the regimes. If the root cause is removed, the argument goes, the secondary danger is removed as well, allowing the supposed pure and authentic face of the people to surface.

It will be very hard no doubt to make a transition towards better and more reasonable conditions in the Arab and Muslim world. The transition will entail  conflict with both these essentialist views, offering different perspectives on Arab circumstances and Arab history - example by example, period by period, case by case. This long, difficult, and complex process will have positive results only if in addition to toppling the despotic regimes, it breaks with the deference to essentialism of both kinds, basing itself on actual reality and history, and freely resists prevailing ideas and religious dogmas. Only this can be called a true revolution.

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