Monday, 28 September 2009

Who is a Real Arab!

I don’t understand your Arab culture.” 
is the phrase I overheard at a cafe as two men wearing Western clothes were discussing very animatedly in good cheer and laughing together occasionally. Then, so typically among good friends, they had the traditional argument about ’Let me pay the bill, I insist’. This set me thinking – who is an Arab?

The stereotypical perception of an Arab in many countries is that an Arab is a Muslim, lives in the Middle East and is probably loaded with oil money. Unfortunately, another totally mistaken stereotype has started to become prevalent – the Arab terrorist. All these stereotypes are totally wrong.

What is the Definition of an Arab?

In Arab schoolbooks, the Arab world ranges from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean and from Syria to Sudan in Africa. 

  • It was only in the 19th and 20th century that Arab nationalism created this concept of an Arab world. 

Before that, people usually identified themselves with tribes or with political structures like the Ottoman Empire. Pre-Islamic Arabic as a language dates back to the 4th century.

There are three methods of classifying as an Arab.
  1. Linguistic – If your first language is Arabic as for about 200 million people.
  2. Geneological – If you can trace your ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.
  3. Political - The League of Arab States or Jāmiʻat ad-Duwal al-ʻArabiyya has 339 million people living in 22 states. They define an Arab as “A person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is the citizen of an Arab country, whose father is an Arab, and who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples.”

How the Arabs See Themselves

Only 32% of the 4100 people surveyed in six Arab countries by Professor Shibley Telhami’s group at the University of Maryland saw themselves as Muslims or Arabs. 35% considered themselves primarily as citizens of their own country. Only 1% had the idea of being a world citizen.


Compare the situation to 2010.

Not all Muslims are Arabs. Arabs are only 24% of the 1,4 billion Muslims in the world. 85% of the population in Morocco and 55% in Algeria are Berbers (Famous Berbers: Zinedine Zidane, Saint Augustine, Emperor Septimius Severus) who are non-Arabs.

Most of the people living in Egypt do not consider themselves Arabs.

  • In Sudan, there are more than fifty ethnic groups and only half the population can speak Arabic.

Is Arab 'Identity' a matter of Language, Religion or Ethnicity?

Photo source:

This is a very complicated question and there are many opinions when one considers that there are so many different nation states, religious sub-divisions and ethnic variety among the 'Arabs'.

Does language and history define national identity for the Arabs more than religion?
  • There are many serious scholars, like Abu Khaldun Sati al Husari (1881-1967) the Syrian/Ottoman theoretician of Arab nationalism and author of A Day in Maysalun, who believes that language and not religion, economy and geography are important for the formation of nationalism. Language is "the heart and spirit of the nation," and history is its "memory and feeling." 
  • The British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani in his book, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, agrees by claiming that Arabs are "more conscious of their language than any people in the world." 

The contrary view, that religion does play a major role, also has qualified support.
  • Abd al-Aziz Duri, the eminent Iraqi social historian says "Islam unified Arabs and provided them with a message, an ideological framework, and a state." He goes on to clarify the link between Islam and Arabism as being "were closely linked at first, but subsequently followed separate courses."

Are Arabs Antagonistic to Western Civilization?

Many people assume that Arab civilisation is eternally antagonistic to Western civilisation. The ridiculous stereotype of the Arab terrorist in the West and the equally mistaken notion of America as the ‘Great Satan’ among the Arabs do betray a history of armed conflict. From the Battle of Tours in 732 CE through the Crusades onwards there has been no love lost between the civilisations. 

Ironically, Islam has very much in common with the Judaic and Christian traditions in the form of common religious figures, customs and traditions. They are all children of Adam, Moses and Abraham. 
  • Arabs were very instrumental in transmitting scientific knowledge from the Orient to the Occident in centuries past.
  • It was the Arabs who brought the numerals and the zero. 
  • Many words in the English and Spanish languages are from the Arabic. Most people drinking alcohol wouldn’t care to know that it is an Arabic word. 
On the other hand, a significant portion of the educated people in the Arab world dress in Western costumes, are proud to speak fluent English and educate their children in Western universities.

How People Living in Arab Countries Use the Internet

The use of the Internet has started changing Arab societies politically, socially and economically as it has done in many other countries. 

It is perhaps to hasty to draw conclusions if frequency of Internet use has any positive correlation to political freedom and dissent threshold in these countries. But frequency of Internet use most certainly has a large impact on all aspects of life for people living in these countries, unless they are immune to commercial and other forms of propaganda. 

Things have changed a lot in Arab countries. In the days of Saddam Hussein, people who could afford getting Internet connection (frightfully expensive in those days) also needed to sign the following declaration.

  • The subscription applicant must report any hostile website seen on the internet, even if it was seen by chance. The applicants must not copy or print any literature or photos that go against state policy or relate to the regime. Special inspectors teams must be allowed to search the applicant’s place of residence to examine any files saved on the applicant’s personal computer.

Currently Saudi Arabia follows a very strict approach. Every single cybercafe must install hidden cameras and record the names and contact information of each customer. Actually, this is not that uncommon around the world, even in a country like Italy.

OpenNetInitiative (ONI) reports that Saudi Arabia's 'filtering' centres on the following:
  • pornography 86%
  • gambling 93%
  • religious conversion 41%
  • sites which provide tools and methods to circumvent filters 41%
What Saudi Arabia seems to care less about are
  • Israel 2%
  • religion 1%
  • alcohol 1%
  • politics 3%
  • gay and lesbian issues 11%
Wonder why the Saudi high concern with pornography is not visible in the gay and lesbian arena (86% -vs- 11%)? 
  • Is it because they think that such matters are harmless and let them do it or
  • They do it in any case so why bother or
  • The incidence of gay sexual behaviour (but not identity) is so common that there is no point in making a noise
  • What could men do with men and women do with women? - Is there a trace of Queen Victoria's supposed attitude that "Women do not do such things!" (actually it is a myth, she never said it)

Suggestions for further reading:


Donald R said...

Interesting and balanced view of Arabs. I'm not an Arab but one of my friends is. But he says that there is so much infighting among them that Arab is a very general term.

G. Pand said...

There are Arabs in many nations and even many gay Arabs too.

Amitabh said...

Good post. Puts the word Arab in perspective. I think the word 'Arab' is as generic as the word 'westerners' used for people in Europe and US by many in India. It is wrong.
One minor point (being an Indian could not let this pass, now could I?). Numerals and zero and the decimal system reached Europe through Arab. It originated in India, though. It is, therefore, known as Indo-Arabic numerals. (Though lately some archaelogical surveys have pointed to the fact that perhaps Suerians were the the first to discover the numerals) said...

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Ali said...

A really Interesting article on Arabs. I am a non-arab Muslim from Pakistan.

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