Arabs Certain Words Essay

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Arabs

Certain words must be understood not only for maximum clarity, but because misunderstanding those words can actually be a matter of life and death, especially when the meaning of those words are taken for granted. Thus, while defining the term "Arab" is not itself a difficult task, being able to precisely define the term has nonetheless remained important due to the frequent and pervasive misunderstanding of Arabs, especially in the West. In particular, Arab world and the Muslim world have been conflated in the minds on many Western commentators and citizens, such that the two terms function interchangeably despite the fact that they describe two entirely different organizations of people and ideologies. Examining the historical formation of an Arab identity alongside the contemporary development of pan-Arabism (or pan-Arab nationalism) helps to dissolve these misconceptions while revealing an important strain of political and social identity in the Middle East which has influenced many of the major developments of the last sixty years and continues to influence the ongoing revolutions today.

The formation of the Arab panethnic and cultural identity is discussed by Arthur Goldschmidt and Lawrence Davidson (2006) in their book A Concise History of the Middle East, and a look at their account alongside more recent histories of pan-Arab developments serves to help define "Arab" as well as distinguish between the Muslim and Arab worlds. Goldschmidt and Davidson begin their discussion of Arabs by mentioning "popular legends [which] identify them as descendents of Ishmael, Abraham's son by his Egyptian maid, Hagar," and in doing so, they unconsciously highlight one of the reasons behind the pervasive ignorance regarding Arabs and culture (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2006, p. 23). The "popular legend" the authors refer to is recorded in the Old Testament of the Bible, and in the story, Ishmael is essentially disowned because his birth results from Abraham disregarding Yahweh's instructions. The authors fail to investigate this story further, and are more interested in providing the concise history suggested by the title, but a look at the ideological work of the story of Ishmael actually serves to inform and contextualize this essay's effort to define the term "Arab."

This "popular legend" regarding the origin of Arab peoples serves to implicitly support a Judaic-Christian tendency to view Arabs with disdain or distrust, and the emergence of Islam centuries after the formation of an Arab identity simply gave the largely Christian ruling powers further justification for the discrimination and subjugation of Arabs. Subsequently, the ideology behind this legend has remained violently virile, because the idea that Arabs are somehow the "illegitimate" recipients of any land or natural resources and a conflation of Arabs with Muslims served as the backbone of everything from the Crusades of the Dark Ages to the United States' contemporary "crusade" in the Middle East (in the words of former president Bush). Furthermore, this legend essentially precludes Arabs from Judaism and Christianity, so while there are Arab Christians and Jews, and there were before the formulation of Islam, it is only reasonable that now the set of imaginary beliefs most heavily represented in the Arab population is Islam. Thus, Goldschmidt and Davidson's first example not only helps to demonstrate the origins of Western ignorance regarding Arabs, but also the ultimately mortal ramifications of this ignorance.

Historical evidence suggests that "Arabs are kin to the ancestors of other people who speak Semitic languages, such as the Hebrews, the Assyrians, and the Arameans," with the tribes that would eventually coalesce into the Arab people likely migrating from the Fertile Crescent into the region eventually named the Arabian Peninsula (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2006, p. 23). However, when discussing Arabs in a modern context, this geographical delineation does not sufficiently encompass the scope of the Arab population, not only because Arabs live elsewhere in the Middle East and the world, but because in a modern context the term "Arab" encompasses more than any single ethnic group. Thus, over the course of the twentieth century a kind of pan-Arab nationalism evolved arguing for the cooperation and shared national identity of Arabs from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, with the common unifying feature being the use of Arabic as a first language or tracing one's family to the historical tribes of the Arabian peninsula, which were essentially "extended families that migrated together and held their property in common" (Goldschmidt & Davidson, 2006, p. 23). The transformation from a largely ethnic and linguistic identity to a national identity largely occurred following World War II, as leaders of the Arab world attempted to retain control over the future of the Middle East in the face of Western powers intent on carving it up as the spoils of war.

Although two of the most well-known pan-Arab leaders are Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president of Egypt, and Saddam Hussein, the former president of Iraq, the beginnings of a pan-Arab national identity began when "the Arabs sided with Britain against the great Muslim empire of the Ottomans" during World War I before being summarily disregarded as an independent people and political organization through the Sykes-Picot agreement, "through which France and Britain carved up the post-Ottoman Middle East into new states that suited their interests, despite their earlier promises to create" a state governed by Arabs (Kinninmont, 2008, p. 162). Thus, when Nasser rose to power following World War II, his efforts at encouraging a pan-Arab nationalism were conducted with the memory of this earlier betrayal in mind, and Hussein's eventual use of pan-Arab nationalism as justification for his harsh rule was made possible in large part by the West's behavior throughout the twentieth century. This is not to say that pan-Arabism is by definition oriented against the West, no more than Muslims are by definition oriented against Christians (although, one may say that Islam and Christianity are in opposition, as the set of fictional rules which define either ideology are mutually exclusive). Instead, this is simply a means of noting that the continual marginalization of Arabs by the West contributed to the development of a pan-Arab nationalism, in precisely the same way that American support for brutal dictatorships contributed to the revolutions of the Arab Spring; in both cases, the political and ideological motivation was not the overthrow or destruction of Western power, but rather the establishment of an Arab political power and identity (with the overthrow of Western power being largely incidental, as the West was responsible for the subjugation of Arab identity and potential in the first place).

Although in many ways the Arab Spring might seem to be the successful result of a pan-Arab nationalism, it is important to note that the recent democratic revolutionary movement is not limited to Arab countries (as seen in the case of Iran's Green Revolution) and furthermore, that in most practical cases, pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism "present imaginary political utopias that [...] compete and overlap with each other and are at a remove from actual political practices based on nationalism and more traditional solidarity groups (notably tribes or clans)," such that to speak of a genuine pan-Arab nationalism is to speak of an idea more than a reality (Kinninmont, 2008, p. 164). The Arab Spring, although subsequently supported by established pan-Arab groups, was largely organized by young students more interested in economic and political power and solidarity than a shared ethnic or linguistic heritage. Furthermore, the actual history of pan-Arabism shows an ideology hijacked by external powers, because after the Iranian revolution in 1979, the United States protected and supported ostensibly pan-Arabic dictators on the assumption that a political system focused on Arab solidarity would help preclude the further emergence of political systems focused on religious solidarity. Of course, like all attempts at sowing discord among perceived enemies in order to maintain power, this backfired, most violently in the case of Saddam… [END OF PREVIEW]

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