Americans are aiding and abetting pan-Arabism.
This isn’t a joke.
The way Americans think about the Middle East is the very way that pan-Arabists and pan-Islamists want them to think about the Middle East: it’s a region of Arabic speaking Muslims who don’t drink alcohol, hate the United States, want to destroy Israel and massacre Jews, and want a revolutionary socialist government.
That’s the equivalent of non-Americans saying, “The United States is a country of white Protestants who trace their heritage back to England and Germany, listen to country music, are xenophobic but simultaneously enjoy foreign wars, go to church every Sunday and Bible study throughout the rest of the week, don’t travel, watch Nascar, drink Miller High Life, and eat only chicken pot pie, meatloaf, tuna casserole, cranberries, hamburgers, pizza, American cheese, freedom fries, and stuffed turkey.”
That description probably doesn’t even describe a single American family. It discounts massive segments of the American population that have driven American political and social life.
This is going to sound very gauche and politically incorrect in an American context, but stay with me. You’ll see how we feel when we’re categorized as a massive monoculture of uneducated Muslim Arabs.
One can’t even begin to quantify the contributions of different racial, ethnic, and religious segments of the American populace: Irish Americans, Jews, African Americans, Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, Polish Americans, etc. And different groups have had profound effects on different regions. There’s a reason why Illinois has Casimir Pulaski Day.
The term Arab is about as useful as the term American. It doesn’t tell you all that much. A recent immigrant from the Asian subcontinent and the descendent of Mayflower migrants have little in common culturally. And it’s similar here.
The Lebanese and Yemeni are worlds apart.
Catholics established many of the major educational institutions throughout the Levant (Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine). Lebanese Catholics established the most prominent newspapers in Egypt, including al Ahram, the current Mubarak mouthpiece.
The richest family in Egypt is Coptic Christian.
Muhammad Ali, the great 19th Century leader of Egypt who remains a national hero today exalted as the modernizer of Egypt, was ethnically Albanian.
Circassian Muslim migrants from southern Russia protected the Hashemite family in Jordan and continue to have a significant presence in the Jordanian government.
The Alawites rule Syria. Sunni Muslims see the Alawites as heretical.
Armenians significantly shaped the foundations of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Israel. Armenians dominated the oil industry in Iraq in the early years.
Writing this is very awkward for me. I’m picking and choosing ethnic contributions. It’s almost the equivalent of saying George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Oprah are Black. Emma Goldman, Saul Bellow, Justice Brandeis, and Betty Friedan are Jewish. The Daleys and Kennedys are Irish. LaGuardia and Giuliani are Italian. See how much minorities defined and continue to define America. African Americans and issues surrounding racism dominated 19th and 20th Century American politics. And African Americans make up a small percentage of the American populace.
The percentages of minorities in the Middle East are far greater. They’re almost all Muslim in Iraq, but look at how important sect and ethnic identity are. Lebanon has no sect that can claim to be the majority.
One shouldn’t make a claim that the difference between black and white are greater than the difference between Christian and Muslim.
It frightens many people in this region when Westerners push their form of democracy. This is because we understand what that will become in our context: demographic democracy. We begin arguing about the specifics. In Iraq and Lebanon I’ve heard phrases like, “We hate them and will take arms against them. They support federalism.”
The best way to win an election in which sects, not political parties, are competing is to reduce the number of opposing voters.
Israel worries about the same problem. Israeli sociologists fret that Palestinians will outnumber Jews in Israel by 2050. The Jewish state will no longer be the Jewish state. Lebanon, created to make the possibility of a Christian state, is no longer majority Christian.
Pan-Arabism was created to give unity in an ethnically fractured context. The concept of America brings together a Mexican American investment banker with a Dutch American dishwasher, why can’t the concept of Arab bring together a Druze Syrian goatherder with a Mauritanian doctor?
It’s a nice ideal, but not plausible. What brings Americans together is a system of laws that work, an economy that works, and dreams that sprout from combining those two.
Arab, contrarily, is a contrived identity that is forced onto a diverse people. Arabism doesn’t come with a system of laws that work, and the economy normally tanks if it isn’t supported by oil, foreign donations, or massive theft. The military dictator uses his authority, then, to support his own sectarian community. Those great pan-Arab leaders Saddam Hussein and Hafez al Assad used their pan-Arab power to empower their communities (Sunni and Alawite) and oppress and massacre other sects.
In 1958, Egyptian President and pan-Arab leader Gamal Abdel Nasser unified Egypt and Syria creating the United Arab Republic, but the whole thing broke down by 1961 because Nasser wasn’t all that interested in what the “Arabs” in Syria wanted.
Despite its many failures, the dream of pan-Arabism remains strong in certain parts of the region. Minorities see the ideology as a way to dominate the state for themselves. More frightening, however, is the way Islamists use Arabism to assert their agenda.
It is sincerely frightening to hear Americans endorse the idea that everyone in the Middle East (outside of Israel) is Arab and Muslim. Iraq has taught Americans that the Sunni aren’t the only Muslim sect out there, but Americans still see Lebanon – a country with a Christian President and more Christian members of Parliament than of any other single sect – as a Muslim country that should take up a form of secular democracy.
Americans forget how gerrymandered their own political system is, minority congressional districts and all. They forget that their very own Constitution was crafted because Virginians and Massaschusites (?) wanted to preserve their very different interests. The entire American system was created to protect states’ rights, but unify a nation.
We need to come to a similar solution in the Middle East. Lebanon crafted a very flawed constitution in 1926 that has been governing our democratic country ever since. We had our very nasty civil war, but hopefully – like what happened in America – we will rise from it unified (even though we lived under foreign occupation for the last fifteen years and are still plagued by foreign aggression).
Most countries in the Middle East don’t need to come to terms with horrific practices like slavery. However, overcoming ensconced military dictatorships with modern military arsenals, listening devices, satellite images, and massive security apparatuses will be far different than gathering Minute Men, holding up lanterns to indicate troop movements, and receiving training and assistance from foreign armies in Valley Forge.
We will need to convince our rural, feudal, estate holding elite and our urban, cosmopolitan elite educated in foreign philosophies and concepts to come together to create a document to govern a system that is good for them both in a way that still represents the interests of the people. That’s going to be very difficult given that most of the monarchies and dictatorships in the region have already unified these two groups under state authority.
There’s no need to be misguided or confused by concepts like Arab, Sunni/Shia/Kurd, liberal democracy, and freedom. You don’t need to know any of that stuff. And promoting an inaccurate ideal only hurts the people you’re trying to help.
American foreign policy should better reflect American history. The United States is the most successful example of democracy building. Asserting the potency of the American example is the greatest gift America can give us.
American Views of the Middle East