Arab World : Fractured or United

The executive board of the ASO poses for a picture before an event. Pictured left to right: Vice President Nour Aljowaily, President Aliaa Kamal, and Vice President Dorsa Faraji.

ASO’s Arab Unity Talk by Celeste Abourjeili.

When it comes to the question of identity, most students have a straightforward answer based on citizenship, cultural background, or place of birth. For European students, identification with Europe is clear-cut based on geographic location and, in many cases, EU membership. For Arab students, however, the answer is not so simple. Which students identify as Arab, and do they feel a sense of belonging or unity to this group? Is the idea of a formal Arab union at all feasible? On December 6th, the Arab Student Organization (ASO) hosted Arab Unity Talks to find out.

“I would like to believe in Arab Unity as this magnificent and powerful dream where we all unite for once and for all against the western world and take our fate into our hands,” said ASO President and 2A Aliaa Kamal. However, she thinks that “it’s impossible for [Arab countries] to unite because [they] would be harnessing the most powerful resource in the world.” In addition to Arab countries’ dominance in the oil industry, Kamal pointed towards the current state of Arab nations as a weak link in potential unity. “The UAE is destabilizing Yemen, Saudi Arabia is blockading Qatar, and everyone is signing deals with Israel. How can we even speak of unity at this point?” Kamal said.

1A Maryam Alwan shared similar concerns on the political feasibility of Arab unity, but she stayed optimistic about the possibility. “I’m not sure how feasible it is given the incredibly corrupt nature of the governments and the divisiveness of recent years. It doesn’t mean it’s not something to strive for, though,” said Alwan.

Many students shared further sentiments that the Arab world is too divided for complete unity. “I believe in Maghreb unity and more economic and cultural unity like free trade zones, student exchanges, etc., but I feel like the Gulf and Levant are very different so I don’t see this happening,” said an anonymous respondent. Alwan agreed, stating that “realistically, [an Arab union] might have to be divided based on Middle East and North Africa.”

The disparity between the appeal of Arab unity and the fear of infeasibility is stark among SciencesPistes. In a survey of 16 SciencesPo Menton students, 9 of whom were Arab and 7 of whom were non-Arab, the vote was split with 50% believing that there should be a formal Arab union of some kind and 50% believing that there should not. 

Politically, I do not think that an Arab union is plausible or would be efficient for guaranteeing rights and protections of values ​​to the people. That being said, I think that cultural similarities are a unifying feature that can be celebrated and embraced, as well as recognition of the nuances and differences between Arabs of different backgrounds,” said 1A Ines Ben Taher in response to the prompt.

Others posed the question: what even qualifies as Arab? Many Arab immigrants or descendants in other countries expressed confusion regarding their self-identification. 1A Sania Mahyou, who is of mixed Arab descent but was raised in Belgium, does not identify completely with Belgian or Arab culture. 

Ben Taher, who is Tunisian but has not lived in Tunisia, grew up in many Arab countries but “truly did not relate to the culture.” She blamed her lack of identification with Arab culture on the language, and on belonging to a “white-washed” class. More specifically, Ben Taher claimed that westerners and locals were totally segregated, and that North Africans were separated from that population, having a superiority complex. 

The opposite is true in countries like Lebanon, where 3A Emmanuel Houalla claimed that there is “a superiority complex from the French-Lebanese perspective… that Levantine culture is better than Maghrebi culture, which is treated as ‘less-civilized.’” 2A Nour Aljowaily, who is the Vice President of the ASO, cited the longer duration of Maghreb colonization as a potential reason for this. 

In the Arab world, religious divides also provide for class distinctions. 2A and ASO Board Member Nesrine Zribi noted that, in Lebanon, “the French tried to bring Maronite Christianity to [the] elite,” as a possible explanation. 

This also raised the question of whether an Arab identity is connected to Islam. Emmanuel Houalla, who is a Lebanese Sunni, said : “I think that it really depends on the political-social context in which we grow up, the different influences to which we may be subject, but also our adherence or rejection to them. We have to go beyond the religious identity stereotypes that we sometimes use too systematically. As an example, Michel Aflaq was surely one of the greatest thinkers of pan-Arabism, he is nonetheless of Christian origin. Issues of identity and belonging are complex”.

Does that then leave only Muslims as the main Arab-identifying group? 2A Zaidie Long, who is not Arab, put the question in an American perspective, stating that, “in America, it’s a grouping by race, so Arabs are instead differentiated by Islam because they are considered white, and this is really ignorant towards the religious diversity that exists [in the region].” It is true that, on the American census, Middle Easterners and North Africans are told to define themselves as white despite many Arabs advocating for a separate MENA category in recent years. As a result, “Islamophobia” is commonly used to describe discrimenation against Arabs, and the Arab and Muslim identities are increasingly merging as one in the public eye.

Perhaps when the goal of a “MENA” demographic is achieved worldwide, Arabs will unify as one racial/ethnic group, or perhaps only Arabs on the outside of the Arab world will then feel a sense of unity to each other. Maybe the political differences are too strong for unity to ever exist, as many have argued, or maybe some kind of cultural if not political union will one day be formulated to bring Arab countries strength. In the end, as Ben Taher said, “we should still strive towards Arab unity because if we can’t agree on culture we can’t agree on anything.”

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