The problem is that they are all valid. There are many ways to describe who the Arabs are, but no universally accepted way to identify them. Capturing the essence of what makes an Arab person “Arab” is a difficult task. It calls for an understanding of how Arabs see themselves, as well as how others see them. For example, a person from Morocco may identify himself as Arab because of the language he speaks, while others may regard him to be African, because of his ethnic background. Which perspective is the correct one?
It can be safely said that Arab identity is by no means a homogenous one....
It is made up of a range of cultural, political and social facets used to describe a varied group of people. Within the Middle East, being Arab can mean many things. It represents both a national identity and a cultural one. At the state level, Arab identity is very much tied to ideas of citizenship and a shared history from countries across the Middle East, the Arab Gulf and North Africa. Notions of a cohesive region, such as those expressed by the League of Arab States are primarily based on the political ideologies associated with the pan-Arab nationalist movement that followed World War II. The main purpose behind this movement was to mobilize Arab states, and the various groups of people living within them with the intention of intimidating and preventing foreign forces from occupying the area. In addition to its political interests, the Arab League also acted as a platform to improve economic and cultural cooperation between countries. Thus a campaign for one identity fits this purpose well.
While it may seem idealistic, a shared identity at the national level also has its problems. One issue is that it fails to recognize the heterogeneous characteristics of the population living within it, and the identity of its non-Arab minorities. For example, in a country like Iraq the majority of its citizens speak the same language and share the same history. However, identifying Iraq as an Arab country ignores the presence of the Kurdish and non-Arab populations that also live there.
But how is Arab identity defined by those living in the Middle East? And, does it resemble the one defined by the state? To most, being Arab is associated with the heritage people share in the region, as well as the ability to speak the same language. So, a Palestinian person is able to communicate with a Yemeni, in the same way that he can communicate with a Libyan. But apart from this, the similarities are limited. Palestinians have different histories and social experiences from Yemenis. As a result, a Palestinian’s visit to Yemen for the first time may make him feel just as alienated from the local culture as he would if he was visiting Uganda.
In reality, the way in which Arab identity is defined at the national level does not necessarily correspond to how it is defined at the local level. Arab identity, as expressed by nation states and used to promote shared political and cultural ties between their populations, has proved challenging for people to identify with thus far. Therefore, any efforts for the state and its people to communicate over commonly agreed goals are difficult. For example, bilateral relations between Libya and Lebanon may be useful politically, but will have very little effect on the way the Lebanese and Libyan people relate to one another.
Outside the Middle East however, Arabs are often perceived to share the same identity. Who the Arabs are and how to identify them is based on pan-Arab homogeneity as reflected by Arab nation-states. It is also based on ideas of a shared ethnicity suggesting that Arabs are ethnically the same people. So, an Australian person is likely to see very little difference between an Egyptian and a Tunisian, particularly in their understanding of Egyptian and Tunisian culture and history. While this perspective is not inaccurate, it does not coincide with the way in which Egyptians and Tunisians actually identify with each other, or what they understand Arab identity to be.
Clearly, views on what constitutes an Arab at the global, national and local levels do not necessarily match. This is primarily because a universal definition for Arab identity does not actually exist. So, any person’s attempt to define Arab identity as they know it, is ultimately an accurate one.
Are there benefits to finding a single concept for Arab identity? Such a concept could reduce the differences between the way Arabs are perceived and what is actually happening on the ground. Promoting a single concept that people can agree on may also help to improve how Arab states relate to their populations. It demands for people and politicians to believe in the same ideas and values that make up who they are, regardless of their differences. A process such as this is featured in the development of religious identities. Muslim people for example vary in ethnicity, race, and language. However what unites all Muslims is a shared faith and belief in the religions’ principles. As a result, Muslims and non-Muslims, are able to identify who is a Muslim equally in the same way.
The truth is that achieving a single Arab identity is not realistic. There are too many ideas for what makes up an Arab, and they vary globally, nationally and locally. Attempting to bridge these ideas is practically impossible, but also has its benefits. It allows countries in the Middle East to develop unique identities independent of each other. For example, an Arab country like Egypt is recognized as a country that is distinctly different from another Arab country like Algeria, and is appreciated for its unique history, culture and traditions. Not having a single identity also gives people the freedom to identify themselves in the way that they choose to, and not see themselves as a single type of people.
Despite the differences in views about identity, Arabs have been able to maintain strong relationships with each other and a connection that brings people together. This bond will continue to exist for generations to come.
By Dwan Kaoukji