Halim Barakat, an Arab novelist and sociologist, taught at a variety of institutions including the University of Texas at Austin, Georgetown University, and Harvard University. Mr. Barakat is of Greek Orthodox heritage, was born in Syria, and grew up in Beirut where he received his education. His publications center on the difficulties facing modern Arab societies such as alienation, crises of civil society, and the need for identity, freedom and justice. His work is rich with symbolism and the impacts of contemporary events. Below is a summary of an essay by Halim Barakat, published in The Arab World: Society, Culture and State, about Arab national identity. In a conflict-ridden, post-Arab Spring era, his insights from 1993 on what constitutes an Arab is particularly prescient today. How can the multiple points of identity Barakat raises, from family, tribe, and state to religion, language and external influence be negotiated in economic, security, social, and political relationships between peoples and states 2015? ©1993, University of California.
Identity can refer to the sharing of essential elements that define the character and orientation of people and affirm their common needs, interests and goals. This view of identity, while not incorrect, does not include heterogeneous or pluralistic aspects. Conceiving of an Arab identity that encompasses both unity and plurality may seem inherently divisive. However, it is only by examining the aspects of identity that are both similar and disparate that one can properly conceive the true nature of Arab identity. It relies on both a shared culture as well as its variations. It relies on a shared place in history and common experience, as well as on the underlying conflicts and confrontations of these experiences. These defining identities include linguistic, religious, regional, tribal and ethnic affiliations.
Since its inception, Arab national identity has been seen as primarily based on language. For many Arabs, language transcends race, religion, tribe or region. Arabic; therefore, can be seen as the unifying factor amongst nearly all Arabs. Since the Arabic language also transcends country borders, Arabic helps create a sense of Arab nationalism. According to Iraqi scholar Sati’ al-Husari, “people who speak one language must have one heart and one spirit, so they must constitute one nation and therefore one state.” There are two sides to the dialectical coin, however. While Arabic as a singular language can be a unifying factor, the language is often not singular at all. Dialects vary region to region, there are vast differences between the written and spoken versions, many countries host bilingual citizens, and many Arabs are illiterate. This leads us to examine other defining aspects of Arab identity.
Since the majority of Arabs are Muslim, the two identities are often viewed as inseparable. However, there have been two divergent currents within Arabism – one religious and one secular – throughout Arab history. After the collapse of the Ottoman Islamic caliphate in the twentieth century, Arab nationalism came to the fore over religious unity. These two currents have continued to vie against one another to the present day. Now, religious fundamentalism offers an alternative to secular nationalism. Different religious sects also exist within Islam and are often valued over the religion as a whole, which leads to sectarian strife and conflict. In fact, the social-psychological distances between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims may be greater than the distance perceived between different religions. Because of this, Islam can both be seen as a unifying as well as a divisive force in Arab identity.
Arab identity can also be perceived through the lens of local or regional identity. Throughout Arab history there have been three major nationalist orientations in the Arab world. Pan-Arabism dismisses existing sovereign states as artificial creations and calls for total Arab unity. The regional nationalist orientation recognizes distinct differences in identity between the Maghreb (the North African Arab countries), the Levant (the Eastern Mediterranean Arab countries) and the Gulf States. Each act in their own regional interests and view themselves as more akin to their direct neighbors than to Arabs in other “regions”. The third is the local nationalist orientation, which insists on preserving the independence and sovereignty of existing states. Reconciling these different forms of Arab nationalism continues to be an obstacle towards solidifying a reliable concept of Arab identity.
Conflicts between tribalism and nationalism also exist. The family constitutes the basic unit of social organization in traditional Arab society and still asserts strong influence over identity formation. In addition, tribal loyalties are stressed in the Gulf States, Sudan and the Maghreb. The Saudi family has attempted to stitch together a mosaic of tribes into a nation state. Even though the ruling government is divided into the state bureaucracy and the royal family, the majority of citizen loyalty lies with the latter rather than the former. While tribalism constitutes a unifying force in Saudi Arabia, political loyalties in Yemen have reinforced sectarian and tribal divisions. Whether it’s solidifying power in the hands of a family or tribe, or fracturing political parties within a country, tribal allegiances play important roles throughout the Arab world.
Ethnicity is another determining factor in Arab identity. It can be defined in cultural and linguistic terms as well as in terms of descent from distant common ancestors. Within the Arab world there are Kurds, Berbers, Circassians, Assyrians, Chaldaeans, Jews, Armenians and the African communities of Southern Sudan. The Berbers of the Maghreb relate to each other through a common language with different dialects, as well as through claims of Bedouin and tribal origins. In Morocco, they constitute 40% of the population. During European colonization, colonizers attempted to exacerbate differences between Berbers and Arabs to keep the people divided. This made it easier to establish a more authoritarian colonial rule. The Kurds also define themselves in linguistic and cultural terms. Based on their ethnic distinctiveness, they have been fighting for self-rule for an independent Kurdistan which would include parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. In this way, imposed and perceived differences in ethnicity have threatened an overall construction of Arab identity.
It is important to note that Arab identity does not exist in a vacuum. It is also subject to external forces such as foreign conflicts, Western influence and economic conditions. Disparities between rich and poor Arabs contribute to social and political fragmentation. This exists between people of individual Arab countries as well as between richer and poorer Arab countries; namely, oil-producing and non-oil-producing countries. External conflicts can also lead to further fragmentation among Arab states. The creation of artificial states in the Arab world, as a result of the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Treaty, make it difficult for Arab countries to unify in the face of external conflict. Different factions within a country, such as Sunni and Shi’a divisions, will often support different sides to a neighboring or international conflict, making compromise extremely difficult. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also serves as both a unifying and divisive force. Nearly all, if not all, Arabs support the Palestinian right to their own state. However, different factions within the Arab world favor negotiations and a two-state solution, or armed struggle and attacks against Israelis. This split is also confounded by repressive regimes and populist movements, reactionary and progressive forces, and moderate and rejectionist camps.
Culture is rarely characterized by complete uniformity. On the contrary, its dynamism reflects diversity, pluralism, and contradictions. There would not have been any need to assert this fact were it not for the misrepresentation of reality by both Western Orientalists and traditional Arab scholars. Western Orientalists have tended to emphasize the “constant” rather than the “changing” nature of Arab culture. Similarly, traditional Arab scholars have tended to emphasize traditional values rather than focus on an evolving, contemporary Arab culture. The distinctiveness of Arab cultural identity needs to take account of a highly complex human reality that includes language, religion, regional affiliation, tribal allegiances, ethnicity and outside forces. All of these factors are constantly changing and developing, both unifying and dividing Arabs at different crossroads. It is only by examining all the nuances of Arab culture and society that allows us to form a picture of Arab identity in the modern world.