By Philip Leech
It seems that we’re never short on references to the “Arab World” in today’s headlines.
When the United States and United Kingdom decided a few months ago to ban the transportation of electronic goods larger than cellphones on certain airlines, The Economist described it as “another Arab ban” — despite the fact that Washington’s version encompassed Turkey, a non Arab-majority country, and London’s failed to include all Arab states.
On its face, the offhanded use of the word “Arab” might seem like a harmless and relatively intuitive shorthand label to describe a collection of countries spanning the Middle East and North Africa. But its overuse — and our overfamiliarity with it — can do more to obscure reality than explain it.
A Misleading Moniker
For one, “Arab World” — or indeed any term like it, such as “Latin America” or “Eastern Europe” — is problematic because it encourages people to think about the world in a generalized, simplistic way.
After all, the name groups together an array of different countries, societies and peoples stretching from Morocco’s Atlantic coast to the shores of the Persian Gulf in a way that implicitly highlights what we assume to be similar about them (often incorrectly).
On the same token, the label plays down the characteristics that set them apart from one another, and that can play a significant role in the very security, political and economic trends we hope to analyze.
Consider the region’s diversity. Though as a whole its residents are predominantly Muslim, Arabic-speaking and self-defined as ethnically Arab, there are also many different minorities who identify with only some — and sometimes none — of these attributes.
They may speak Azari, Berber, Farsi, French and English, not to mention different dialects of Arabic, and they practice faiths from Christianity to Judaism to Druze.
Even the notion of “being Muslim” is subject to interpretation. There are the obvious distinctions between Shiism, Sunnism and Ibadism, but there are also many subcategories within each. Under the Shiite umbrella are the Twelvers, Zaidis and Ismailis, while the Sunni branch can be further broken into Wahhabis and Sufis.
On top of these distinctions are the ongoing theological debates between traditional and modern interpretations of each. Then there are the countries themselves. Among the 22 states that make up the Arab League (including the Palestinian territories), there are many different levels of wealth, types of governance and alliance structures.
None of this, however, is to overlook the fact that there are important similarities present, too. As a Yemeni colleague of mine is fond of reminding me, “It is possible for me to travel across this entire region and feel comfortable with the culture and be able to communicate.” This anecdote, in fact, captures the central reason that the concept of an “Arab World” is so appealing.
The Roots of the ‘Arab World’
The “Arab World” has existed as a phrase and conceptual tool for centuries, but its contemporary use in Western media essentially fits within the same theoretical framework that famous cultural theorist Edward Said called “Orientalism.”
This idea refers to the military, political and cultural domination exercised by European empires over societies of the Middle East and North Africa. It describes how colonialism was justified and enabled through popular media, literature and art that portrayed “Oriental” (Middle Eastern and North African) cultures as inferior and exotic.
Elements of this worldview are still evident in some of today’s analyses, too. For example, popular discourse often represents the complex, multilevel conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq as parts of a broader sectarian civil war. But this narrative grossly oversimplifies reality and, as is so often the case with such narratives, generates far more heat than light.
The Singular ‘Spring’?
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the “Arab Spring” has become one of the clearest manifestations of this miscalculated line of reasoning in the past few years. More important, it continues to affect how much analysis of the region is carried out today.
According to the most widely accepted account of events, which pervades most academic and popular content on the subject, the “Arab Spring” was a series of uprisings across the Middle East that ostensibly began with the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in late 2011. His death, the story goes, went on to transform the political landscape of an entire region.
But not all for the better. The movement did indeed lead to some democratic reforms in a few places, including Tunisia. Its lasting impact, however, is often seen as mostly negative. During their early stages, the protests raised hopes of a new wave of democratization akin to the one that swept the former Soviet republics in the late 20th century.
Yet in country after country these hopes were quickly dashed; instead of Jeffersonian republics, brutal counterrevolutions and protracted civil wars took the place of stagnant kleptocracies. The spring, it seemed, was lost.
This tragic tale of the “Arab Spring-Turned-Winter” isn’t the full story, though. In fact, it isn’t a very accurate story at all because once again it is based on a flawed analytical framework. In addition to using the loaded term “Arab,” it also borrows the word “Spring” from other episodes in history, including Europe’s “Springtime of the Peoples” in 1848 and the “Prague Spring” of 1968.
In doing so, it immediately downplays the possible uniqueness of the Middle Eastern demonstrations and superimposes a Eurocentric lens on any subsequent analysis. (It’s also worth noting that Mark Lynch, who is credited with coining the term “Arab Spring,” did so in reference to Lebanon’s uprising in April 2005.)
Somewhat paradoxically, the phrase simultaneously implies that the uprisings in Arab-majority countries were entirely separate from popular protests occurring around the same time in Iraqi Kurdistan, Israel, Turkey and Ukraine that shared similar languages and features. Some analysts, including Columbia University’s Hamid Dabashi, have argued that the Arab Spring uprisings reflected the same widespread rejection of post-colonial authoritarianism that Iran’s Green Movement did two years prior.
These problems aside, the biggest issue is that the term “Arab Spring,” like “Arab World,” is singular. This logical flaw flaunts the incorrect assumption that Arab-majority countries are so alike that they can be treated as one coherent whole — a falsehood thrown into sharp relief by the uprisings themselves.
As political scientist Lisa Anderson noted at the time, the revolutions in North African neighbors Libya, Tunisia and Egypt were quite different from one another, despite initial appearances.
“The patterns and demographics of the protests varied widely. The demonstrations in Tunisia spiraled toward the capital from the neglected rural areas, finding common cause with a once powerful but much repressed labor movement.
In Egypt, by contrast, urbane and cosmopolitan young people in the major cities organized the uprisings. Meanwhile, in Libya, ragtag bands of armed rebels in the eastern provinces ignited the protests, revealing the tribal and regional cleavages that have beset the country for decades.”
The different paths each country has taken since the protests subsided highlight just how apt Anderson’s analysis was.
Escaping Established Thought
Clearly, the division between the “Arab” and “non-Arab” worlds is an arbitrary one, and reminiscent of a problem dubbed by academics Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller as “methodological nationalism.” In the bulk of social science research, they say, nation-states are simply assumed to be the appropriate unit of analysis. The two argue that this inclination is based on the “apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states.” In practice this assumption can lead to some serious analytical limitations, particularly when it comes to our ability to identify trends that are either above or below the level of the nation-state.
A similar conceptual horizon is clear in the notion of an “Arab World,” and examples of such “methodological regionalism” are easy to find in academic research. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that any scholarship in this camp should be dismissed outright. The point is merely that we should be aware of the constraints that this type of lens imposes on rigorous thought.
As an alternative to methodological nationalism, Wimmer and Glick Schiller make a tentative suggestion:
“In order to escape the magnetism of established methodologies, ways of defining the object of analysis and algorithms for generating questions, we may have to develop (or rediscover?) analytical tools and concepts not coloured by the self-evidence of a world ordered into nation-states.”
So, rather than being “coloured by the self-evidence” of the “Arab World,” we should instead be focused on the relationship between human agency and the structures within which it exists.
Keeping Ourselves Honest
The most important goal of geopolitical analysis is to find the true meaning of the data at our disposal while remaining aware that our own limited worldviews can obscure aspects of that reality. As students of global affairs, we are driven by the desire to learn as much as possible, and we can’t be afraid to ask questions about beliefs that may impact our conclusions.
The phrase “Arab World” represents the kind of conventional thinking that does just the opposite, hiding truth instead revealing it. So, just as we refrain from referring to the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit referendum as parts of an “Anglo-Saxon Spring,” we should avoid taking the same shortcuts in other parts of the globe.
Philip Leech – Board of Contributors. He is the Gordon F. Henderson Post-doctoral Fellow (2016-2017) at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis and the co-editor of Political Identities and Popular Uprisings in the Middle East.