Arab identity: Truth or Fiction?

Two weeks ago I took part in the launch event for Young Arab Voices, a project that the Anna Lind Foundation is running with the British Council. It took the form of a debate in front of TV cameras in a marquee outside the Bibliothèque Nationale, in front of an audience of about 400. On the whole press reaction was good, but there was one strongly dissonant  note, in reaction to the topic that the ALF had chosen for the debate: Redefining the Arab Identity. IMAZIS  (an NGO working on intercultural exchange) headlined a press release “IMAZIS deplores the racist position of Young Arab Voices Programme and blames government institutions taking part.” It went on, rather stridently, to accuse the organizers of “a clear contradiction with the international human rights system,” and going “against the implementation of the new constitution.”  Hm.

Its objections are to the” instrumentalization of Amazigh culture,” and suggest that activities like this “are purely for consumption and leave no room for plurality and diversity.” I can dimly see a point here, and it is indeed very important that the multiple identities that make up every country in the MENA region, and perhaps Morocco more than most, are properly and substantially acknowledged. The problem is that in my short address to the conference that is exactly what I did – and I have to assume that the correspondent for IMAZIS missed it.

This is what I said:

It’s interesting to be talking about Arab identity here in Morocco where it is profoundly questioned. Two days ago a young man came up to me in the station café at Marrakech when he saw me reading a book about Moroccan history. “What does it say about Morocco?” he said. “If it says Morocco is an Arab country, it’ a LIE.” And indeed, as John Waterbury writes of Morocco, “I am inclined to accept the view that most of Morocco’s Arabs are simply Berbers that have over the centuries adopted the Arabic language or intermarried with the numerically small tribes of the original Arab invaders.”

But even if that’s true, does it make it Arab identity a lie? No, I think that makes it a myth, and like most myths it manages to both true and untrue at the same time – both useful and destructive, backward and forward-looking. As Sati’ al-Husri wrote, “The strongest and most effective tie is the national tie, which derives from a common language and history,” and there’s no doubt that in the last century, and particularly since Gamal Abdel Nasser, a sense of Arabness has been a driving force in the Near East and North Africa. It is after all, the shape of European nationalisms too.

But its assertion today seems to fly in the face of diversity of race, religion and language. Kurds and Amazigh have some trouble with Arab identity; Christians, Jews, Yazidis and Mandaeans seem increasingly to have been excluded from that sense of self, a process that rolls relentlessly on in Iraq and Syria, and even Egypt, today. The same might be said of the Shi’i in many Sunni ‘Arab’ countries, and may soon be said of the Alawites in Syria. The imagined community is busy reimagining itself.

What does an Arab identity obscure? Its focus on language and religion serves to set it in opposition to Europe – when in fact much of North Africa in particular is perhaps better understood in terms of shared Mediterranean identities. The Florentines say that ‘Africa begins at Rome,’ and there is a very real sense in which they are right. There are strong trans-Mediterranean links and affinities – also of language and culture; and if these links are historically confined to an elite, labour migration has changed that fact radically.

I would suggest, tentatively, that an Arab identity is a fine thing, but it isn’t enough. It has a way of digesting or rejecting minorities, which is terribly destructive and plants dragon’s teeth for the future. In its emphasis on Arabic, and particularly its stress on the universality of fus7a, it has imposed a linguistic diglossia on the whole cultural region which underlies, I suspect, much of the educational immobility and the obstinate illiteracy of many Arab, or MENA, countries.

So for the future I would say this. If the Arab identity is to be useful to your generation it needs to be a new Arab identity – inclusive, generous, wry, self-critical and flexible, as well as proud. And it needs to be understood clearly as one among several identities that each of you own. Arabness needs constant re-imagination, reinvention and change if it is to be a way of linking (but not necessarily uniting) and inculcating understanding (but not necessarily agreement) between, ‘Arab’ countries. Above all, it needs to look forward, not backward, to the creation of a large and powerful cultural common market where commerce in goods and ideas shape a new common future, without dictating a package of cultural and political views that come, non-negotiably, in the packet.

Amartya Sen writes eloquently of multiple identities (“I can be at the same time an Asian, an Indian citizen, a Bengali with Bangladeshi ancestry, an American or British resident, an economist … from a Hindu background, a non-Brahmin …” and so on); and of the foolishness of supposing that we have only one – a supposition that he calls ‘the assumption of singular affiliation.’ Indeed, Sen stresses that we must make a series of choices at different moments and in different contexts about which of our many identities is meaningful. We must all do so, and with sensitivity and care.

But in the end it really doesn’t matter very much what I, or André Azoulay, or Dr Benmoukhtar, actually said. The project is a project of debate, and it’s going to be run by the local partners, the NGOs and universities involved. 35,000 young people took part in Egypt alone last year, and no one told them what to say, though they were well trained in how to say it effectively. I’d like to see wider debate about subjects that include (but only if it’s what the young participants want) national identity: it is a central theme in Morocco, past, present and future, and the 2011 constitution raises Tamazight to a new level of importance as an official language.

The point is that there can be no real progress in understanding without free and informed debate – and while I am very happy to see heated engagement on difficult issues, I am less impressed by those who wish to withdraw and condemn, than by those who wish to engage, challenge and change.

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