What makes the Arabs a people?

Faisal al Yafai
25 February 2009

Every time the bombs fall, the same question is asked: where are the Arabs? When it was posed by the Lebanese musician Julia Boutros and the Iraqi singer Rida Al Abdulla in their laments for wars in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon, they were voicing a widepread and deep-rooted belief: that the people of the Arab world, from the Atlantic to the Gulf, are intimately related - even that they are in an important sense one people.

Faisal al Yafai is a journalist and writer whose work appears in the Guardian, the National (UAE) and other publications

But as with peace, so with people: the example is in the action. If the Arabs talk the language of unity, they rarely appear to walk it. As the three-week war in Gaza in 2008-09 progressed, Arab foreign ministers - torn between sympathy for the Palestinians and concerns over Hamas's galvanising effect on their own Islamist oppositions - were unable to agree a common stance. That indecision seems an apt metaphor for the Arabs themselves, bound by a language but frequently conflicted. The distinction between communication and cooperation lies at the heart of the question of Arab identity. How is it that the Arabic-speaking peoples can share so much and yet co-operate so little? Is there really anything left of the Arab nation?

The subject is knotty and the answers need to be intricate to match. On inspection, the idea of the Arab nation can be split into two separate but related ideas. The first is what might be called Arabness, a more cultural idea of identity, rooted in notions of ethnicity, language and common history, but with less political overtones. It was out of this idea of Arabness that Arab nationalism, the ideas that Arabs have a common political destiny, sprung, but the two have distinct histories. While Arabs have often seen themselves as a related people, it is only in the last two centuries - largely under the pressure of external influences - that they have come to believed that their political destiny lay in coming together.
Also in openDemocracy about the Arab world in the perspective of history:

Sami Zubaida, "The rise and fall of civil society in Iraq" (5 February 2003)

Peter Sluglett, "Iraq's short century: old problems, new perspectives" (3 June 2003)

Hazem Saghieh, "Al-Jazeera: the world through Arab eyes" (16 June 2004)

Stephen Howe, "The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation" (18 November 2004)

Fred Halliday, "Maxime Rodinson: in praise of a ‘marginal man'" (8 September 2005)

Mai Yamani, "Mecca: Islam's cosmopolitan heart" (5 September 2006) 

Hazem Saghieh, "Suez: Arab victory or Arab tragedy?" (19 October 2006)

Neil Belton, "Mai Ghoussoub in her time" (22 February 2007)

Laurence Louër, "Arabs in Israel: on the move" (19 April 2007) 

Fred Halliday, "Crises of the middle east: 1917, 1967, 2003" (15 June 2007)

Tarek Osman, "Arab Christians: a lost modernity" (31 August 2007)

Patrice de Beer, "Versailles to al-Qaida: tunnels of history" (9 November 2007)

Tarek Osman, "Nasser's complex legacy" (15 January 2008)

Khaled Hroub, "The ‘Arab system' after Gaza" (27 January 2009)

Prince Hassan of Jordan, "Palestine's right: past as prologue" (11 February 2009)

As those influences have changed, so has the concept of a common political future.

The interplay of these two ideas - the idea of Arabness and the harnessing of it for political ends in Arab nationalism - has been one of the defining characteristics of the past two hundred years in the Arab world. The way it has evolved in different periods and centres explains the shifting ideas of what makes the Arabs a people. Yet its time may be coming to an end.

A union of language

The Arab world, in its political form of the Arab League, covers more of the planet than China and encompasses more people than the United States. Yet while those countries have remained politically whole, the experience of the past generation in the Arab world has been incredibly diverse: global influence in Saudi Arabia, stagnation in Syria; a civil war in Algeria, foreign occupation in Iraq and mass immigration in the Gulf; stateless Palestinians, fledging democracy movements in Yemen and Mauritania and the iron republics in Egypt and Tunisia.

True, some things in this period have unified: Arabs across the region get their news from satellite channels in the Gulf, their music from Lebanon, their soap operas from Syria, their films from Hollywood. Religion, family and food are enduring, and broadly solidifying, social and cultural realities. But the thing that unites the Arabs, the element at the foundation of Arabness, is the Arabic language.

The Arabs have a long history prior to the arrival of Islam. But from the 7th century onwards the history of the Arabs is intimately tied up with the Arabic language, a language that in turn is inseparable from the history of Islam. The Qu'ran was revealed in Arabic and Arabic is still considered the only authentic language of the faith: Muslims in China, Indonesia and Europe, who have never set foot in an Arab country, learn the language of the region in order to understand their faith. Although not all Arabs are Muslims and less than 20% of Muslims in the world are Arabs, the two are inextricably linked.

The language is thus the starting point for an identity that, while it carries notions of ethnicity, in practice was so widely appropriated by the early Muslims that the idea of single Arab ethnicity is improbable. In his book The Great Arab Conquests, Hugh Kennedy writes: "As the [Islamic] conquest proceeded...more and more people became Arabic speakers and numerous men who had no 'Arab blood' in their veins nonetheless spoke Arabic as their native tongue. In many areas...the differences between Arab and non-Arab had become very blurred by the end of the first Islamic century."

Some Arab scholars have indeed seen the Arabs of the Arabian peninsula as the original or "true" Arabs, and those of the Levant and north Africa as merely "Arabised"; but this is often a political judgment. It would be hard, given the geography of the Arab world, not to imagine a degree of mixing between different bloodlines - and it should be recalled that is from among these "Arabised" nations that some of the greatest glories of Arab civilisation have emerged. +

The blood component still matters: Arabs greet the "western" Arabs who return to visit as brothers, even though many have very few links to the region. In this context the quasi-familial link is a metaphor for being simpatico with the Arab experience; for their food, their history, even their political alignments. A taste for cardamom-flavoured coffee, for hummous and muttabal, for baklava, can make you an Arab as swiftly as admiration of Gamal Abdel Nasser or identification with the Palestinian keffiyeh.

Arabness defies categorisation because it is an identity-concept: Arabs can be those who live in Arab countries, who speak the Arabic language, who trace their lineage to the Arab world or who identify with Arab culture and history. But none of those is essential. In the end, more than language, history, religion or culture, it is politics that defines Arabness: the assertion of an identity.

Arab nationalism

While the idea of Arabness has a long history, the political component of the idea, that Arabs are a people whose political destiny lies together, as expressed in Arab nationalism, is more recent. It has its roots partly in the ideas of nationalism that swept Europe from the 18th century and forged modern European states, and partly in opposition to the era of western encroachment that began with Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798. 

Nationalism was almost always a reaction to the "other". Identity in the Arab world has always been a fluid concept, involving shifting hierarchies among family and clan identity, national identity and supranational ethnic and religious identities. The priority each is given at any one time depends on the context and often on the political environment.

In the years following the Arab cultural renaissance (known as the Nahda) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a group of ideologies emerged, most of which posited some similarity between different groups of Arabs. There were regional nationalisms, particularly in Egypt and Syria, which looked to their own past and asserted a particular identity, against the ruling Muslim Ottomans and even against other Arabs. In Syria, nationalism even separated the lands of Greater Syria (which included modern-day Lebanon and Palestine) from the rest of the Arab world; it asserted that there was something uniquely Syrian about the people, that they were not Arabs but a different ethnic group that had become Arabised.

It was not until the 20th century that Arab nationalism started to emerge as a mass movement, gaining considerable support from Britain (as a weapon against the predominantly Turkish rulers of the Ottoman empire) and momentum after the Ottoman empire collapsed. Arab nationalism then coalesced around ending British and French influence in the region. In each case, nationalism took the existing similarities of Arabness and turned them to political purposes; the Arabs were in its vision an imagined community who had a common political future.

An understanding, but no union

But a common future requires cooperation and the various experiments at Arab political union soon dissolved. The most promising, in the form of the United Arab Republic (UAR), a union between Egypt and Syria, lasted barely three years to 1961. Although it is common to trace the decline of Arab nationalism to the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967, the root causes are more complex. Nasser's disastrous role in the North Yemen civil war and his death in 1970, the coming to power in Syria of Hafez al-Assad (who opposed the UAR) and the rise of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, accompanied by that country's rapid modernisation with oil revenues, set the four countries most keen on political union on diverging paths.

A pan-Arab nationalism no longer seemed useful at solving the Arab world's problems and, as parts of the Arab world developed faster than others, it no longer seemed a good idea to link their fortunes together. By the time Palestinians launched the first intifada in 1987, having given up waiting for external aid, Arab leaders were no longer working in political concert.

But while the reality (if not the rhetoric) of Arab nationalism has been in decline among Arab leaders since the end of the 1960s, Arabness as a consciousness has actually increased. As Albert Hourani notes in A History of the Arab Peoples, in the years after independence from the colonial powers, education in the Arabic language accelerated, strengthening "the consciousness of a common culture shared by all who spoke Arabic."

As the oil boom took hold of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, there was also a migration of professionals and workers from the more populous Arab nations of Egypt and Yemen, as well as Jordanians and Palestinians, to seek their fortunes in these new economies. "The increased knowledge of peoples, customs and dialects", writes Hourani, "brought about by this large-scale migration must have deepened the sense of there being a single Arab world within which Arabs could...understand each other." Today, satellite channels beam news, music and film across the Arab world, all in the same language.

The rise of Islamic identity

Yet despite these changes, the time of the Arabs as a political affiliation is passing. Among the shifting sands of identity, religion is increasing. Nationalisms, Arab and regional, identities that found their clearest expression in opposition to the other, are losing ground as Islamic identity rises. Although the fraternal feeling of Arabness remains, the idea that the Arabs are a people with a common political future has evolved.

Part of the reason for this change is the persistence of the problem of Palestine. But it is not the sole factor: the stifling of political dissent in the name of security in many Arab countries has changed the intellectual landscape. Nor is Palestine any longer a local Arab issue. The Saudi-funded spread of Salafi religious ideas, the Islamic revolution in Iran, and the creation of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan, all of these have heralded bigger changes in the world. Palestine has become a global rallying-cry for a resurgent political Islamic identity with the Arabs at the heart of it.

Just as the history of Islam is intertwined with the history of the Arabs, so the future of the Arabs is linked to the future of Islam. Even in former bastions of Arab nationalism like the Levant, Islamic identity is becoming more important. In the 21st century, when conflict falls on Beirut, Baghdad or Bethlehem and the wounded ask where are the Arabs, the voices that reply - in Arabic and English, in Farsi and Urdu - do so above all in the discourse of faith. Arabs may share ties of history and culture, but the Arabic-speaking peoples no longer have a shared political language.

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