Two Opposite Meanings for Being an Arab


It is not possible to understand the facts and issues related to the Arab world without having a correct comprehension of a more universal issue i.e. the concept of being an Arab. Although Arabs have many differences and contradictions among them, they still enjoy enough common points to feel completely distinguished from others. These common points cause almost the same problems and issues in different parts of Arab world. More importantly, all Arabs are aware of these commonalities and feel proud of them. This awareness causes a kind of sympathy and feeling of having the same fate and destiny. These common points and awareness of them are the strongest and the most influential factors in creating their thoughts, feelings, beliefs, goals, ideals and dreams. In order to be in contact with Arabs, it is significantly important to know what being an Arab means to them. Without such, one cannot have fruitful and constructive cooperation with them. In short, there are two different and somehow opposing meanings for being Arab.

One meaning is prevalent among the Muslim grassroots, the lay people, and Muslim thinkers and writers. The threat of the West is an element that strengthens this feeling amongst them.

The shared feeling of being disrespected and humiliated by Western colonialists for more than a century is one reason for causing these commonalities. This sympathy was stronger in the last decades and today it is the feeling of being invaded by Western culture and civilization. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and later appeal for help from the U.S was a "Great Shock" for Arabs and aggravated their hard emotional situation. In their understanding, not only Mecca but the whole Arabic peninsula is sacred and non-believers are not welcomed there. Thus, the request of the Arab rulers for  American non-believers to come there was felt by the Muslim Arabs as a great shame. This is one of the reasons that the movement of Zarqawi and his like were admired at that time and regarded as Muslim heroes Muslims fighting against the Americans in Iraq.

This feeling about being an Arab is not based on cultural or political thoughts, but is a very attractive, emotional consideration and is something like being relatives. The common religion, history, culture, and especially language are what cause this feeling. Language is of great significance here. Besides the excellent potentialities that the Arabic language has in forming the personality and psychological characteristics of Arabs, it is also a sacred language. Certainly, Arabs are the only nation that is influenced by its language to such extent. Islam as a religion is also involved in forming this feeling. Islamic unity was present in their minds over the recent century. They say Arabic unity is the key to Islamic unity, especially when they feel sorry for the loss of their power and the caliphate and golden era, and this is clearly presented in their literature. Arab Sheikhdoms appeal a lot to this concept in order to generalize their problem with a non-Arab country to be with all Arabs, and in so doing they receive support from their fellows. 

The second meaning and concept of being Arab was noticed by the enlightened and educated class in the Arab world, be it Muslims or Christians, and especially the Arab rulers and diplomats. This concept of being Arab is predominant in their university culture and the political atmosphere. Though its intensity differs from country to another, their foreign policy is first and foremost formed around this concept. Basically, this concept is the result of being introduced to Western nationalism and in many cases it was emphasized by the colonialists.

There are some problems caused by this concept, like the challenges Arabs had with Barbers in North Africa, especially Algeria, between Arabs and Coptic in Egypt, between Arabs and Africans in Sudan, or between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq and Syria.

This concept also inspired them to call the Persian Gulf Arabic and thus challenge Iran over the issue.  The colonialists emphasized this meaning of being an Arab to provoke these confrontations. Those founders of this concept, regardless of the differences they had, all agreed upon its opposition to Islam as a life-style and considered Islam to be a heritage for Arabic civilization. They consider Islam to be the result of Arabic genius and strongly oppose any attempt to make it a model of life. One meaning for being backward and reactionary in their terminology is defending Islam as a social way of life. After the archeological discoveries of the nineteenth century in Egypt, there was greater motivation to revive the ancient civilization, which meant to say farewell to Islam and later Islamic movements as reactions to this current.

These two prevalent concepts and unity of language make Arabs easily affected by each other. For instance, the vice and corruption in one Arabic country can influence others through the media, magazines, websites, and new media like social networks, while the positive features of one Arab nation never influence the others. For example, the Syrian people are hardworking, but this never influences their Arab kin and allies. This is because of the feelings that the Arab Spring's ripple effect moved into the Arab world and the revolution in Tunisia flamed up almost all Arab countries. If the super powers and Arab rulers had not directed the forest fire against Assad's regime, then today we might have had another Arab world.