Saturday, May 17, 2003

Freund on letting Arabs choose an identity

Chuck and I have decided to inject predictability into our exchanges, so from now on they will take place on weekends.

In his May 7 entry below, Michael asks the intriguing question, "Can we find a formula that blends the undeniable (if often toxic) power of Pan-Arabism" with Arab liberalism? My reply is that a successful liberal regime in the region is in fact Arabism's hope, because liberalism has the power to transform the concept. Pan-Arabism, as many of its critical historians have been observing for decades, is finished politically. At this point, its cultural role has become almost entirely a negative one: It provides the narrative structure for the Arab story of victimization at the hands of those non-Arabs who are more powerful, more conniving, richer, etc.

Why? I'd argue this: Arabism's early proponents assigned it a role it could not fill, and it has ended up filling the only role it can. "Arabism" is a legitimate and appealing communal identity, but it cannot be a foundational political identity. The group involved is too vast, occupying too many places, with too many historical and cultural differences, and too many competing local interests. While it has been strong enough and romantic enough to remain a rhetorical distraction, it has been too weak to overcome the realities of the natural regional and local polities. Having helped run recent Arab history off its rails, it has since served to tell an excuse-making version of the train wreck to which it was a primary contributor.

How can liberalism come to its rescue? Liberalism invites its citizens to fashion themselves as they wish; that's one of its essential points, and the secret of its enormous material success. Liberal regimes are communities of large and multiplying communities based on varying identity choices. This is identity-building on one's own terms, not (as is often the case in the Mideast) identity hinged on group enmities. If "Arabism" became an issue of chosen identity (as it inevitably would in a liberal system) rather than remain a failed political scheme (or worse, a politics of failure), it could rid itself of its negative baggage. In fact, it would have to, because its proponents would find themselves competing for adherents.

Arabism in a liberal system would soon morph into numerous kinds of Arabisms competing with each other and with all the alternatives. It would still have at least latent political significance, but more important, it would go from dead rhetoric to a living concept, and from toxicity to the enrichment of the region and beyond.

No comments:

Blog Archive