Robin Yassin-Kassab

The End of the Arabs? Part Two

with 3 comments

Peter W. Galbraith writes that Iraq is an artificial creation made up of different ethnic groups. This is true, but Iraq is not alone in its artificiality. All states are artificial in that they have been created by historical process and human machination, not by God or nature, and all contain different ethnic groups. More specifically, the centralised nation state in the Middle East (and Africa and much of Asia) is always artificial because the very concept of the nation state is an import from 19th Century Europe. The borders of every Arab state were determined, suddenly, by imperialism, and not by the long processes of war, negotiation and ideological mythmaking that drew borders in Europe. It is this imperialist division of the Arabs which has led to various forms of pan-Arab nationalism.

The definition of ‘Arab’ has expanded over the last hundred and fifty years from describing tribal nomads as opposed to townsmen, to describing the people of the Arabian peninsula, and then to describe all from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf who share the heritage of the Arabic language.

The Ba’ath Party went so far as to find religious significance in ‘Arab,’ as is evident from the slogan ‘One Arab Nation bearing an Eternal Message.’ The ‘risala’ or message is what Arabs would previously have assumed to be the revelation of the Prophet (more often called Messenger in Arabic) Muhammad. The word used for ‘nation’ is ‘umma’ – a word previously used to denote the international Muslim community. In fact, Ba’athism should be seen as one of the twentieth century’s many attempts to compensate for the collapse of traditional religion (Nazism, Zionism, Stalinism, contemporary Wahhabism and hedonist consumerism are others).

In its effort to spiritualise and mythologise Arabism Ba’athism surely takes nationalism to absurd extremes, but it is significant that the Ba’ath Party was founded by a Damascene Christian, and that it appealed in the main to minority communities. Arab nationalism’s potential strength was its inclusive nature, the possibility that Sunni and Shia, Christians and Muslims, urban and rural populations would all identify together as members of the Arab nation. Sadly, it is precisely this inclusiveness that has failed.

If nationalism’s definition of ‘Arab’ had been the widest possible – to engage all those who share the common heritage of the Arabic language in a cooperative enterprise – the Arabs could perhaps have overcome their underdevelopment and imposed borders more easily. They would have had increased political weight for a start, and would not have wasted so much blood and treasure on intra-Arab fighting (or rather, fighting on behalf of the little ruling classes of each state). Given that some Arab countries are blessed with fertile land but not with oil, others with educated people but not with sea ports, an intelligent sharing of resources would have been mutually beneficial.

This cooperation has failed, and there is no Arab state, but the Arab nation exists. The nation, not the state. The nation exists despite the tens of states, and now the attempt to splinter the Arabs further, into yet more mini-states squabbling over sect and ethnic variation, all of them dependent on a corporate-imperial sponsor for survival. It exists in shared language and cultural reference points. Any Arab who travels the great distances of the Arab world will find each corner foreign and also familiar. He will recognise the classic and contemporary music on the radio. He’ll see the same Egyptian films in the cinemas, the same Syrian comedies and historical dramas on the television. He’ll understand the newspaper. He’ll feel welcomed and understood, more than he would, for instance, in a non-Arab Muslim country. Wherever you go in the Arab world the ordinary people want closer economic cooperation between Arab countries, an end to foreign military bases, and justice for the Palestinians. In these times of rising sectarian conflict, it’s important to realise and remember that the Arab nation exists.

So why then is Galbraith’s thesis – that even a single unit of Arabism like Iraq needs to disintegrate – to some extent persuasive? Because the same homogenising impulse that animates both contemporary Islamism and late capitalism has perverted Arabism. I’ll repeat it: Arabism only had a chance if it recognised the diversity of the Arab world’s peoples. The inheritors of Arab history, culture and language include blue-eyed Syrians and black Africans in the Sudan. Many of the heroes of the Arabist narrative were not ethnically Arab at all. Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (Saladin) was a Kurd, Ibn Rushd a Spaniard, Ibn Batuta a Berber. In Iraq, where Arabism has failed most spectacularly, ‘Arab’ even began to morph into ‘ethnically-Arab Sunni Muslim,’ but many of the great Arabic-language writers and scientists have been Christians and Jews, Berbers and Persians.

The moral degeneration of Arabism is painfully evident on Layla Anwar’s blog. We must make allowances for the fact that Mrs. Anwar lives, it seems, in Baghdad, in the midst of a savage occupation and civil war. Many of the Iraqis I meet who have recently left Iraq are traumatised in some way or other, and Mrs. Anwar probably is too. But then, she doesn’t make any allowances for the Kurds or Shia who suffered so much under the previous regime. She calls the Kurds turds (ha ha), and denies that any were massacred by Saddam Hussain. I must say here that by now, although I don’t believe that new states can set anybody free, I understand the Kurdish desire for an independent state, at least in Iraqi Kurdistan. Perhaps Iraqi Arabs could have persuaded the Kurds to be part of an Arab state if, from the start, they had treated them as full citizens with full rights to cultural expression. What happened was that they were seen as a non-Arab security problem, and that thousands of their villages were razed, hundreds of thousands of their people subjected to poison gas attacks. True, it was a dictatorship, backed at the time by the West, that committed these crimes, and relations between ordinary Kurds and Arabs often remained good. But if people like Layla Anwar can’t accept that the oppression even happened, we have an insurmountable obstacle to coexistence. Mrs. Anwar declares in one of her postings that the Kurds are guests in Arab Iraq. How shameful that this supposed nationalist is unaware of her own country’s history. Kurds have been present in Mesopotamia for as long as Semites, and for far longer than Sunni Muslims.

Mrs. Anwar regards ALL Shia forces in her country as Persian, and therefore inauthentic. Again, exclusive national-chauvinist extremism has blinded her to her country’s reality. The Shia are of course a majority of Iraq’s people. It is both true and unsurprising that many Shia escaped Saddam’s persecution by crossing the border to Iran, where some founded organisations with Iranian help. Some of these organisations, like al-Hakim’s Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, returned to Iraq after the regime’s fall, made themselves available to the Americans as death squads, and are now in powerful positions. But other organisations, like Moqtada Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi, are Arab nationalist as well as Shia, and resent the Iranian-supported organisations. Mrs. Anwar rightly complains about the persecution of Sunnis by Shia militias, but is silent on both the sectarian repression practised by the Ba’ath regime which provoked the Shia revival, and the horrific Wahhabi terrorism to which Shia militia crimes have been retaliation.

As for more general Iranian influence in Iraq, which many Sunni Arabs are unable to accept, this is natural. The word itself, Iraq, comes from the Persian ‘Eraagh’, meaning ‘lowlands.’ The Arabs of southern Iraq have been as influenced by the cooking and religious and philosophical ideas of Persia as much as the Arabs of Syria have been influenced by the Turks and Mediterranean cultures. This doesn’t stop them being Arabs.

Nations (as opposed to states) are imaginary structures. Their borders are porous and membership in them is not exclusive. You can feel allegiance to the Arabs and also to Islam, or Africa, or Christianity, or Shi’ism. Variety and diversity should be the strength and richness of the Arabs, but many Arabs are ill with the centralised state disease, the rage for conformity which made Saddam Hussain brutalise the majority of Iraq’s people. When we replace humane, inclusive nationalism with exclusive totalitarian police states, we have lost nationalism as a positive force.

There are still glimmers of light. Important sections of Sunni Iraqi opinion have turned decisively against both Wahhabism and Ba’athism. The vast majority of Shia feel both Iraqi and Arab. But the Iraqis and other Arabs will be unable to work cooperatively until they honestly confront sectarianism and the class oppression which it usually masks, until they are able to sympathise with the history of the other, until they can think beyond the imported nation state.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

September 3, 2007 at 6:34 am

Posted in imperialism, Iraq

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3 Responses

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  1. This is excellent…


    September 6, 2007 at 7:06 pm

  2. A very interesting article.

    I think there is a deep-seated ignorance here in the west of the extent to which imperialist drawing of state borders has influenced and continues to influence events in the Middle East.


    September 7, 2007 at 1:53 pm

  3. Interesting post.

    I agree and disagree on certain points.

    Firstly, the West’s policy towards the Middle East and Arab world post-WWI until today has been one of divide and conquer.

    I agree there. Artificial boundaries drawn all over the region, and the empowerment of tribal clans/families (such as beit Saud in Saudi Arabia, the Hashemites in Jordan, Kuwait and Gulf royalties etc) and dictators (Mubarak, Morocco, Tunisia).

    Placing Israel in the heart of the Arab world was the final Western stab that has ensured the Arabs remain weak.

    The will of the people in all Arab countries has been suppressed for much of the 20th century and today.

    I disagree, however, in the notion of a single Arab nation that spans from the Zagros mountains to the Atlantic sea, and as far south as Somalia and south Sudan.

    I would argue that there exists an Arab world, much as there exists a Western world, whereby a region shares similar broad qualities, be it religion, linguistics etc.

    The US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand share a common language, a common Christian heritage, even a common British colonial ancestry. Yet, these “broad” bonds only ensure that these countries co-operate and form alliances as part of an Anglophone sphere, but they do not consider each other part of the same nation.

    A nation requires stronger bonds than the broad links of language and religion.

    Attributes such as ethnicity, socio-economics, geography and history play crucial roles in distinguishing one nation from another. This is in addition to the language and religion aspects.

    Within the Arab world, all the above factors vary substantially. The Levant, Fertile Crescent or Greater Syria (whatever you want to name it) has a clearly distinctive history to that of al Maghreb, or Somalia, or even the Gulf.

    Each nation within the Arab world has followed different historical paths that have crossed over at some point or another. For example, pre-Arab conquest of Syria, the Levant was considered part of the Hellenistic world and Greek was a prominent, aristocratic language. This cannot be said of al Maghreb, or even the Gulf.

    Therefore, in my opinion, a nation requires more than simply language and/or religion as common links, but indeed, a common history, ethnicity and defined geographical boundaries that throughout history has facilitated socio-economic interaction.

    So, the Arab world indeed has artificial states, but the respective nations have yet to be determined. We’ve heard of the 4 nations of the Arab world theory, i.e. the Fertile Crescent (Syria/Iraq), the Gulf (Arabia), Egypt (inc. Sudan), and North Africa.

    Scholars can come up with all sorts of theories, but at the end of the day, it’s what the people on the ground decide.


    November 27, 2009 at 5:14 pm

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