Michael Totten

The Rise of White Arabism

Chibli Mallat writes in Lebanon’s Daily Star about an important new liberal movement on the rise in the Middle East, which he calls White Arabism, to counter the fascist (his characterization) “Black Arabism.” He even mentions, at the end, that White Arabism should not limit itself merely to Arabs. It should be expansive enough to include neighboring Jews and Kurds, too.

For the past 20 years, so-called Arab civil society has been slowly denting the status quo. Initially, questions were defensive and focused on human rights, while participants in human rights gatherings were incapable of mustering the courage needed to name those leaders responsible for all kinds of violations, even the more egregious ones like Saddam Hussein. In part this was understandable, and the level of repression meted out against dissidents was uniquely high: Scores of dissenters were brutally assassinated, thrown in jail and tortured, while the usual “higher national interest” argument was put forward whereby Arab liberals saw their reform efforts condemned as giving sustenance to Israel. This trend was reinforced by the brutality of Israeli repression of Palestinian dissent and the inexorable shrinking of Palestinian land.
As time passed, however, the connection between brutality at home and the inability to stand up to anti-Israel rhetoric became increasingly apparent: From the condemnation of the Arab record in general, typified by the United Nations Development Program reports since 2002, particulars of repression were linked to people at the helm of power in every single Arab country. Local Arab democrats are still hesitant to accuse the emirs and kings in the Gulf, but the taboos have fallen in the Levant and North Africa: Tunisia’s Zein al-Abidin bin Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Lebanon’s Emile Lahoud and Syria’s Bashar Assad are being openly challenged, and the perceived weakness of the hard-liners in Israel, leading to the withdrawal from settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, will accelerate the trend of decoupling Arab domestic reform from the fig leaf of a united front against Israel.
The Arab nationalism that has prevailed since the Nasser revolution is increasingly being dubbed “black Arabism” by those of us who do not want to abandon a yearning for closer integration between societies separated by arguably artificial colonial borders. Black Arabism, in this perception, is characteristically fascist, and is epitomized by the former Baath system in Iraq and the present one in Syria. Against it we propose “White Arabism,” which harks back to such figures as Saad Zaghlul in Egypt, Kamel Chadirchi in Iraq and Kamal Jumblatt in Lebanon. At the core of the message is the need for democratic, non-violent change at the top in the Middle East, with Arabism read as a liberal call that unifies people irrespective of their religion or sect: in Egypt Copts and Muslims; in Lebanon the various communities that form the country; in Iraq Shiites, Sunnis and non-Muslim sects.
The example of Iraq, where Arabism is not capable of giving Kurds their due of equal citizenship, is particularly telling of the more advanced thought needed to accommodate all citizens – hence the surge of the concept of federalism as a further trait of White Arabism. Only federalism can allow forms of Arab identity to be preserved while Kurds are treated as equal both on the individual level and as a collective community.
Perhaps the greatest challenge of White Arabism will be to review the Palestine-Israeli conflict in the light of new parameters, guided mostly by visions of federalism and where human rights are no longer regarded passively, but are, instead, seen as an offshoot of democracy. While the establishment of a Palestinian state appears inevitable in the short to medium term, White Arabism may have far more to offer both Jews and Arabs in Palestine and Israel.