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Ethnicity and Identity

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Arab Identity: E Pluribus Unum

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Halim Barakat

From The Arab World: Society, Culture and State
© 1993 University of California Press
This book is available online from the publisher.


A critical study of Arab consciousness of a sense of identity begins by discarding idealist views of identity that overemphasize similarities. My analysis is dialectical, attaching greater significance to common characteristics and interests in the context of history and networks of relationships. Contextualization allows us to connect similarities as well as distinctive differences.

From this perspective, identity refers to the sharing of essential elements that define the character and orientation of people and affirm their common needs, interests, and goals with reference to joint action. At the same time it recognizes the importance of differences. Simply put, a nuanced view of national identity does not exclude heterogeneity and plurality. This is not an idealized view, but one rooted in sociological inquiry, in which heterogeneity and shared identity together help form potential building blocks of a positive future for the Arab world.

Yet the dilemma of reconciling plurality and unity constitutes an integral part of the definition of Arab identity. In fact, one flaw in the thinking by Arabs about themselves is the tendency toward an idealized concept of identity as something that is already completely formed, rather than as something to be achieved. Hence, there is a lack of thinking about the conditions that contribute to the making and unmaking of national identity. The belief that unity is inevitable, a foregone conclusion, flows from this idealized view of it.

Another equally serious flaw is the tendency among Arab nationalists to think in terms of separate and independent forces of unity and forces of divisiveness, ignoring the dialectical relationship between these forces. Thus, we have been told repeatedly that there are certain elements of unity (such as language, common culture, geography, or shared history) as well as certain elements of fragmentation (such as imperialism, sectarianism, tribalism, ethnic solidarity [ shu'ubiyya ], localism, or regionalism). If, instead, we view these forces from the vantage point of dialectical relations, the definition of Arab identity involves a simultaneous and systematic examination of both the processes of unification and fragmentation. This very point makes it possible to argue that Arabs can belong together without being the same; similarly, it can be seen that they may have antagonistic relations without being different. Furthermore, under certain specific conditions that must be consciously created by Arabs themselves, old identities may fade, and new ones emerge.

Thus, it is necessary to describe the forces of unity and the forces of divisiveness in relation to each other. These forces operate within the context of underlying conflicts and confrontations and under certain specific conditions. Arab identity is therefore developed to the extent that it manifests itself through a sense of belonging and a diversity of affiliations. Arab identity relies, as well, on a shared culture and its variations. Arabs also recognize a shared place in history and common experiences. Similarly, social formations and shared economic interests have helped to shape Arab identity. And, finally, Arab identity is shaped by specific, shared external challenges and conflicts.

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