This opinion piece does not aim to tell the history of Arabs nor define the term “Arab”. It seeks to tackle the Arab obsession with how the West views them, hear from so-called Arabs themselves, and last but not least criticize the evidencing lack of loyalty between Arabs.
After a decade of designing and analyzing DNA samples from hundreds of native Egyptians, the National Geographic Genographic Project concluded that only 17% of Egyptians are genetically Arabs, contrary to what many believed. The research also claims that 68% Egyptians are from Northern Africa, 4% from the Jewish Diaspora and 3% from Southern Europe as shown below:
It is assumed that Egypt is an Arab country, hence its official name, the Arab Republic of Egypt, the fact that its population speaks Arabic and that it is part of the Arab League. But is this enough to identify Egyptians as Arabs?
The Western View
The Roget Thesaurus defines in its 1960s and 1970s editions the word “Arab” as “roughneck, cad, clumsy, deceitful, naïve”. These stereotypical descriptions have been developed by the Western world’s accumulated perceptions, rumors and experiences with Arabs, which have contributed through the years to the loss of essence of the term. Whether it was a problem with how the West views Islam, the propagation of a negative image of Arab immigrants in Western countries or the deadly eight year war between Iraq and Iran that caused more than a million casualties, the term had explicit negative connotations which summed Western views. Arab and Muslim organizations in America worked hard to change the connotation of the term and put an end to a rumor that was now defined in academic books. In a book entitled “Media Coverage of The Middle East”, Jack Shaheen discusses the effect of mass media by giving examples of how television programs, movies, and comics have promoted the image of “deceitful” Arabs. Nonetheless, a sense of “Arabness” still exists, and has existed for a long time, albeit discussed and debated by every generation for more than a millennium. Nonetheless, Arabs have also been related to poetry, art and nomadism in some Western books, artifacts and stories.
The 21st century, marked early by the terrorist attacks of 9/11 did not pave the way positively for a different western view of Arabs. Even though dictionaries have changed definitions of “Arab” to “members of the Semitic people of the Arabian Peninsula” and “members of an Arabic-speaking people” the term adopted a direct negative connotation. The term is often aligned with “Islamism” and “fanaticism” which has been greatly marketed and branded by ISIS. The latter’s animalistic agenda of firstly executing innocent people and secondly digitizing the acts, has also drawn arguments castigating Islam, Arabism, and Arabs as a barbaric religion, a heinous movement and a violent ethnic group respectively. While populist movements in Europe have been on the rise, it is safe to say that some Arabs all over the world as well as some Muslims might not feel welcomed everywhere. Western and liberal news outlets lead the fight in stating that “Islam is not terrorism” to counter conservative news companies in the West opening up a wide range of content for them to produce and adopt the image of the tolerating European/American (think CNN vs. Fox News). But what is happening on the ground and in politics is completely different from what is happening on the television screen.
The “Arab” View: In Their Words
N. Khedr, an Egyptian woman who firmly believes she is not Arab, said: “If we are going to be labeled as Arabs because we speak Arabic, then the Americans, British and Australians should all be called English, and the Brazilians should be called Portuguese”. On the other hand, Omran, also an Egyptian, told me that he is not convinced of being categorized as an Arab, but that in the eye of the world he is one.
Aaliyah Dorda, who identifies as a Libyan Muslim, a North African second and an Arab last, describes Arabism as a “panethnicity”. Panethnicity is a new political term used to group various ethnic groups based on their related cultural origins (geographic locations, linguistics, religions, and ‘racial’ similarities). Dorda also made an interesting statement: “There’s a lot of discrimination whether it be ethnic, religious, tribal or cultural. Arabs and Africans share one poisonous trait and that’s pride. Everyone has a superiority complex. We all want to believe that our cultural, ethnic or religious methods are superior to the other when ironically enough the overwhelming majority of us share one religion,” she said. She also added that “Arabs are each other’s worst enemy”, edging us closer to wondering why it is increasingly hard to define the term today, with the lack of cooperation between so-called Arab states. Some non-Muslim Arabs might also be confused. Is a Coptic Egyptian or a Maronite Syrian an Arab? What about Jewish Arabs? There is a clear identity crisis for many young people on the Arab self and persona.
Arab Loyalty? Who? Where?
Nizar Qabani’s quote (“Are we Arabs, one big lie?”) is adding salt to the wound. Arab loyalty today is in question over many things: The intra-regional fight for hegemony between Sunnis and Shias, the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the financing and sponsoring of terrorism through non-state actors, and last but not least the ditching of Arab and Muslim refugees from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and other countries. In one month and a half of 2018, the UNHCR reports that around 382 people died while crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe. This also means that more than 15,000 people, including women and children have died in the Mediterranean Sea between 2014 and 2017. This controversial number has not been in the midst of the Arab debate enough. The debate was oriented towards Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and the Klu Klux Klan’s comments about Muslims, Arabs and other minorities.
The obsession with how Arabs are viewed in the West has troubled them deeply and disoriented them from the real debate, which is how to help war refugees and accommodate them here in the Middle East. The E.U. stated that taking in refugees is very difficult logistically and politically, but Arab countries including Northern African, Levantine and Gulf states have not focused on that nor on their direct or indirect implications in this Middle Eastern war and in the manufacturing refugees. Small countries like Lebanon and Jordan have taken in around 1.5 million refugees each, while Turkey has taken in most, around 2 million. Lebanon is unstable and faces many problems related to water, electricity and shelter. The rich Gulf countries have on another hand not done anything to accommodate immigrants. Even though Syrians can apply for tourist visas there, the process is costly and immigrants are often restricted when it comes to visas. BBC reports that in 2012, Kuwait announced a strategy to reduce the number of foreign workers in the emirate by a million over ten years, while Saudi is seeking to prioritize the employment of locals. These countries in addition to Qatar and Bahrain have also made naturalization of their nationalities almost impossible to obtain, closing many doors to refugees. These methods of isolation to prevent hosting refugees have not been discussed here in the Middle East enough.
Arabs became agitated by men and women who do not know them nor care about them. They shouted angrily at Trump for his travel ban while their own states have drafted policies to deny refugees. And yet they are attached to the term of Arabism, which is abundantly weak. In May 2017, while the Donald had been meeting up with leaders from the Arab world, he was given the opportunity to change his public image by talking about Islam and the Arab world in a completely different way than in his one-year campaign where Muslims all around the world were demonized and insulted. And once again, Arab leaders were sweeping the stage for him so he could deliver this political message in search of a placid business environment. Hence, we bear the consequences of a devastated Middle East and of a much divided Arab nation, identity and interest.
It is definitely not possible to forget centuries of war and differences overnight. But constantly blaming the “khawajah” for their problems will not solve anything either. In the words of the rebellious UK Member of Parliament, George Galloway speaking to a group of students in Lebanon: “You are more than 350 million Arabs, who speak the same language, who believe in the same God, but you are not willing to unite. In Europe we speak more than 150 languages but we are united. Unity is strength!”.