Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Competing Identities in the Arab World

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Competing Identities in the Arab World

Article excerpt

The "Middle East" as a region can mean several things and can refer to a multiple set of country clusters. At the crossroads of three continents, the Middle East as a concept often incorporates three geographic clusters: North Africa, the Fertile Crescent and Southwest Asia (which includes the Persian-Arab Gulf). The British initially called the region the "Near East," because it was a midway point between themselves and the Far East. The Middle East today is for the most part a political term, describing a region whose composition reflects changing Western strategic interests and involvement in the region. In the 20th century, this interest has focused on the struggle over historic Palestine and on the West's need for access to oil, as demonstrated in the Gulf crisis of 1990 to 1991. Most recently, the Middle East has been viewed by a growing number of writers as a menace to the West, which, in a post-cold War era, could lead to a new form of conflict - a "clash of civilizations."(1)

To discuss the Middle East only in terms of its strategic importance to Western powers is quite inadequate. It leads to gross oversimplification and obfuscation of the multiple political and cultural variables that define the region. Totalizing visions that see the Middle East through "Islam," "oil" or "strategic interests" can never capture all the meanings and significations of the region. History is made by human beings; in the struggle over the reinterpretation of historical and social meaning, "each generation asks new questions of the past, and finds new areas of sympathy as it relives different aspects of the experiences of its predecessors."(2) The human geography of the Middle East - its cultures and identities - has undergone dramatic transformations. As we approach the 21st century, the Middle East is, to use Christopher Hill's apt title, a "world turned upside down."

In his exploration of the sources of radical ideas in the 17th century, Hill focuses on the "obscure men and women," rather than on those "who appear as the history makers in the textbooks" (such as Charles I or Pym).(3) These people, the "obscure," live in what Foucault calls "hetoropias," which, as "heterogeneous spaces of sites and relations ... are constituted in every society but take quite varied forms and change over time..."(4) Therefore, each space in which people actually live is highly variegated, heterogeneous, eclectic, fragmentary, incomplete, contradictory and crowded, with competing elements of unity and diversity. Writing on Los Angeles, Edward Soja notes that "totalizing visions, attractive though they may be, can never capture all the meanings and significations of the urban when the landscape is critically read and envisioned as a fulsome geographical text."(5) Simply put, each geography is filled with many human voices or players acting and interacting within a multilayered environment, one filled with similarities, variations, diversity and pluralism.

To reduce the study of the Middle East to essentialized and totalizing concepts such as "Islam," "Islamic politics" or the "Arab or Muslim mind," or to look at the region only in term of its "strategic" relevance throughout history, is to ignore the actual diversity (ecological, geological, regional, local, ethnic, religious, cultural, political, familial, tribal, occupational, or based on class or on notions of the state or of the world outside) that exists. For example, how useful would it be to study the Middle East solely through the prism of Islam? In this connection Edward Said poses several important questions:

Is there such a thing as Islamic behavior? What connects Islam at the level of everyday life to Islam of doctrine in the various Islamic societies? How really useful is "Islam" as a concept for understanding Morocco and Saudi Arabia and Syria and Indonesia? If we come to realize that as many scholars have noted, Islamic doctrine can be seen to justify capitalism as well as socialism, militancy as well as fatalism, ecumenism as well as exclusivism, we begin to sense the tremendous lag between academic descriptions of Islam (that are inevitably caricatured in the media) and the particular realities within the Islamic world. …

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