By Abdulla AlShamataan*
Ever since I had become politically aware, the one thing I wanted to witness and be a part of was change in the Arab world through revolution. It had always come as a shock to me that civilians in the West had never noticed any sort of revolutionary current in the Arab stream of collective thought, since a 5 minute conversation with any Libyan, Egyptian, Jordanian, Yemeni, or Syrian (outside their country, of course) would show you the levels of mass discontent trying to knock down the façade that hides it. Aside from the famed American apathy and lack of knowledge of international affairs and geography, there are a number of reasons for this lack of awareness, some of it stemming from inside the Middle East itself.
Despite the fact American perceptions of the Arab world are shaped by negative stereotypes in the media and popular culture, we Arabs have made ourselves ignorant to a fact that any ill-informed person who has never traveled to the Arab world can recite for us: We are all one. In our modern, post-colonial state, we Arabs seem to have forgotten our shared past, language, and culture while in the West, someone who has never been to the region and who may have never seen a map of the Arab world nor studied our culture will lump us all into one group regardless of which side of the borders we fall. Admittedly, such people often confuse Turks, Iranians, Pakistanis, and Afghans for Arabs, but the fact remains that if our similarities are so obvious for the distant layman’s eye to see, why can we not see them ourselves? We, as a collective, are still caught up in the fact that we must be like the West, who exist in borders that protect them from each other, when the fact remains that our borders harm us, as they highlight our differences and foster state-centered nationalisms within countries that are not nations to begin with, but skillfully divided sub-nations of one larger nation, which is the one Arab nation that spreads from Morocco to Iraq to Arabistan.
This oneness that we as a people possess is counter-beneficial to the interests our power-hungry leaders: something that 2011 has been so clear in showing the world. This means that one way of conserving existing power structures while creating the illusion of happiness is for some of our countries to act like the advanced countries they are not and create an oversimplified image of what an Arab is. Such an act is easy, due to the parts of our culture that are universal, and it has been successfully carried out by some of the Gulf States, who despite not actually having a majority of Arab citizens, have led the world to believe that all Arab people exist only in their own image. The image that they have created is that of unnecessary profligate spending and over-extravagance as a commonality. Such images would lead anybody to think that all Arabs are leading charmed lives and would have no reason to be rebellious and revolutionary at all, while the truth is that such an image is built on the pain and exploitation of South Asians and non-Gulf Arabs and, in fact, only represents a very minor portion of Arabs inside the Gulf countries themselves, much less the Arab world as a whole.
In addition to those within our borders misrepresenting us, certain Arabs in the United States and in other places do not represent our nation either. This is because they reinforce prevailing stereotypes by repeating clichés and orientalist notions they have learned and adopted in the West. Many of the popular political pundits that have gained fame by providing supposedly Arab perspectives on political matters in the Middle East have done so through one of the following methods:
- The Hussein Ibish Method: Criticize Arab perspectives and policies thus portraying the Nation as stubborn and backwards. This enforces many orientalist notions set in place by the non-Arab media and vindicates Western governments and a certain apartheid state in doing as they please in the region
- The Mona El Tahawy Method: Have a misinformed opinion that is popular among non-Arabs and the Western liberal elites marginalizes the issues facing the Arab world and the priorities of its people. This opinion is then passed this off as being general regional sentiment. This provides non-Arabs with a completely misconstrued conception of sentiment in the Arab world and what it wants.
- The James Zogby Method: Similar to the El Tahawy method, but instead of just allying to and appeasing Western liberal elites, this method also involves selling out to the aforementioned political and economic leaders of the Gulf States. This allows the pundit to appear as being more credible and less Western-oriented, as they appear to represent Arab interests, when in truth they only represent the debauched and unrepresentative propaganda and positions of the political and economic leaders of the Gulf states.
All of the above mentioned methods are harmful in terms of creating true democracy in the Arab world. This is because one portrays the region backwards and unfit for democracy without Western support while the other two completely misrepresent the priorities and needs of the Arab people.
While it is still possible to blame the Western education systems for the fact that many believe that Egypt is still home to pharaohs, we as Arabs are also allowing ourselves to create an image that misinforms outsiders. We are allowing people to believe that we are all rich oil sheikhs. We are allowing the big families in the Gulf to speak for small tribes in Libya. We are allowing ourselves to be represented by those that do not represent us. This is a sign of two major flaws in our socio-political structure:
- The divisions between us are not based on arbitrary boundaries drawn in the sand, but in our economic and political classes.
- We do not acknowledge that the leaders of other countries as well as talking heads on TV seek to represent the people of our respective countries as well.
Both flaws point to the following conclusions:
- Unless we allow each other voting rights in ALL of the Arab world either through unity of our states, or other means such as something resembling the British electoral system, in which nationals of commonwealth nations may vote as well as British citizens, our revolutions will have been pointless in terms of creating sustainable and true democracy in the region.
- The existence of a state whose history does not trace back further than the lies that created it in 1948 in our region will forever keep it destabilized and unsuitable for democracy, no matter how much said theocratic nation refers to itself as “the Middle East’s only democracy”. (Just trying to be anti-Semitic here, you know. Its not like I’m Semitic myself at all … )
- So long as our leaders exploit the poor and widen the economic gaps that already exist amongst all Arabs within the region, we must compensate resident South Asians, who the Gulf states and the bourgeoisie of other Arab states exploit to create this image of prosperity, a say in our democratic process. Unless serious work is done to minimize the economic gaps and drastically decrease class exploitation, South Asian immigrants must be given a say in how we represent them as well since they have gained very little and lost so much in building the Arabian Gulf for us. It is only right that the government of the land they had served so dutifully serve them as well as the native people of the land.
- Unless an Arab pundit on a Western media outlet is as critical of the US, “the Middle East’s only democracy”, and the Gulf states as it is of the Arab masses, then he/she should be shorn of any credibility and power as they are hindering the push for democracy in the region.
Arab unity, whether at the state level or any other, is a necessity for our sustainability. It is the key to our democracy and the key to make that nearly impossible transition from being a “developing” nation into a “developed” one. The only way to do this is to reject the leaders and pundits that have undermined our image around the world and to abandon the false and blind nationalism of our individual states and accept the fact that we cannot live as separate sub-nations any longer. The revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria will not achieve real change until those that have created our image without representing us as a whole are called out for what they are and also fall.
* Abdulla AlShamataan is a young political thinker, writer, and poet of Palestinian origin. He comes from a family of refugees who have fled to the Arabian Gulf and to the United States after the Nakba and the Lebanese Civil War respectively. This has provided him with a strong understanding of the roles of the political institutions and the Arab people living under them in shaping the Arab World today. Follow him on Twitter @AlShamataan.