A Short Attempt to Analyze the concept of "Arab" and Arab Unity

I read an article in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Middle East and North Africa , "Languages and Peoples" which asserts that "The term 'Arab' today encompasses all those who speak Arabic". Said another way, the term Arab is a cultural and linguistic definition and not a "racial" definition. The whole topic of group identity and the validity of supposedly clear cut racial definitions such as German or Japanese is well beyond the scope of this one page critique.

This cultural-linguistic definition of self identification as Arab, which spans the entire range of Afro-European-West Asian ethnicity, can be compared to the cultural-linguistic construct "American". The main difference between the two groups is that inclusion into the group defined as "American"(as understood in the US) is clear cut since this term generally applies only to US citizens. The identity of "Arab" is much less clear cut. I cannot claim to be an Arab nor do I consider myself an Arab since I am not a native speaker. Hanan Ashrawi and Ahmad Ben Bella (the first NLF ruler in post independence Algeria) are native Arabic speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects and they are both undoubtedly Arab. We must conclude that this definition has some basis in fact.

That a person is a native speaker of Arabic is the source of the self-identification as Arab. This is a concrete thing, but as stated in the article, the various dialects are not always mutually intelligible, and are almost always taught as a separate entity from the literary language. The fact that no dialect has split off to form its own literary language is, in my opinion, evidence of the cultural importance of the Arabic language to Arabs. It is as if the whole point of someone speaking an Arabic dialect, no matter how arcane, is that then that person is an Arabic speaker, a possible contributor to literature in the language of the Qur'an. The question here is, how far can this process of linguistic fragmentation proceed before we have to call the question and declare that this or that dialect is no longer part of the fabric of Arabic? Then again, so what if someone comes along and declares that this or that a dialect is no longer Arabic? What happens if the speakers of that dialect go right on claiming that they are native Arabic speakers, and do all of their writing in mainstream literary Arabic? The point is that it seems to be important to the speakers of the modern Arabic dialects to identify themselves as Arabs. However in the context of forming a nation state, is it enough to simply identify with some idealized group identity, and then magically become a nation-state?

This same article states that the idea of pan-Arabism still has great appeal in the region, i.e. the Middle East and North Africa. There is the perception that if all the Arabic speakers united as a whole, they could form a mighty nation. Currently there are powerful forces keeping this from happening. Without getting into the role colonialism had in dividing up the map into its present boundaries and setting up certain families into power, there is the issue of who will rule and what type of government would this super Arab state have? Some of the Arab League countries are ruled by military cliques such as Iraq and Syria. Others are in great turmoil, such as the Sudan and Algeria. Still others are monarchies. Are we to expect that the Saudis will give up their power for the sake of the ideal of the Arab Super State? Better yet, would the rest of the Arab world willingly submit to rule by the Saudi royal family, for instance? Whatever the cause of these difficulties, they cannot be wished away. The political fragmentation in the Arab League was very evident during the Second Gulf war, when Arab League support for the UN campaign against Iraq was far from unanimous.

In closing the whole issue of a) what is an Arab and b) what is the Arabic language tends to force a close examination of what constitutes a nationality or a language in general. Additionally there is an unmistakable subjective factor, which seems to be ignored sometimes. You are an Arab because you perceive that you are an Arab. Your native language is an Arabic dialect because you see it that way. How do we define Arab-Americans who do not speak Arabic?

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