Wither the Arab World?

By Yachir, Faysal | Social Justice, Spring-Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Wither the Arab World?


Yachir, Faysal, Social Justice


Introduction: What Is the Arab World?

Let us begin with a naive question: What is the Arab world? The most common answer is that it is a cultural rather than an ethnic reality. Indeed, the Arabs lack real ethnic unity, just as the Spanish or French, commonly called Latins, cannot be considered to be ethnic Romans. Physical types and skin colors are probably more diverse than in any other part of the world, since the Arab peoples, or their ancestors, have been mixing for thousands of years with Mediterraneans, Africans, Indians, Turks, Mongols, Persians, and Europeans. Still, if we look at the cultural elements used to define Arab identity, we are left with a very complex picture.

The Arab world has a common language, but if written Arabic is the same everywhere, the spoken language differs markedly from one region to another. In addition, there are linguistic minorities - the Kurds in Iraq and the Berberophones in North Africa, not to mention the African languages spoken in the south of Mauritania and Sudan. Because of this diversity, communication can be very difficult for illiterate people who have no access to written Arabic. On the other hand, Arabic has strongly influenced a wide array of foreign languages, from Spanish in Europe to Swahili and Amharic in East Africa and Urdu in Pakistan.

The Arab world has a predominant religion, Islam, but if the Shia Moslems are a minority, there are four different rites within the orthodox "Sunni" tradition, and these four rites correspond more or less to four different regions, the Maghreb, Egypt and the Sudan, the "Cham" (Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine), and the Arabian Peninsula. Moreover, there are important Christian minorities in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Besides, Moslem Arabs are only a minority within the Moslem world.

The Arab world displays common cultural features, such as respect for the elderly, a sense of hospitality, strong community and religious values, and a low degree of participation by women in social life. Still, against this common background, the Arab peoples display quite different cultures, and these cultural differences are reflected in every aspect of social life, from gastronomy, traditional dress, and aesthetic taste to attitudes toward social hierarchy and forms of political identification. Besides, many common Arab cultural elements can also be found in the "Mediterranean" culture of Spain, Italy, and Greece, in the "oriental" culture of Turkey or Iran, in the "African" culture of sub-Saharan countries, and even in Pakistan, Indonesia, and Latin America.

The Arab world has a common history, which begins with the Islamic expansion in the seventh century, although its different parts were already linked during pharaonic times. It has been constituted by the Arab conquests of the Middle East and North Africa, but while its political unification has not lasted much more than one century, it has been developing as a cultural entity up to present times. Indeed, behind the adoption of Islam and the Arabic language, the different Arab peoples very soon reasserted their originality, due to historical, ecological, or geographic factors. Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Morocco (and Andalusia), and Yemen followed quite different historical paths from the outset of the making of the Arab world. Only in the 16th century did the Arab world enter a long era of political unification, albeit under Ottoman rule. Even then, countries like Morocco or Yemen were not included. Still, within the Ottoman Empire, the Maghreb (Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) followed quite a different route from that followed by Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, which were much closer to the imperial centers.

This unique combination of cultural unity and diversity gives the Arab world a "soft" meaning, because the elements of differentiation seem to be as important as the factors of identification. On the other hand, the deep cultural interchanges between North African and Middle Eastern peoples and their neighbors make it quite difficult to rigorously draw the frontiers of the Arab world.

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