Everyday Arab Identity – First Review

In International Affairs, Vol 89 Issue 1, pp220-221, by Alan George, University of Oxford, author of Syria: Neither Bread nor Freedom and Jordan: Living in the Crossfire

Everyday Arab identity: the daily reproduction of the Arab world. By Christopher Phillips. London and New York: Routledge. 2013. 224pp. £85.00. isbn 978 0 41568 488 0. Available as e-book.

Identity—and, too often, fantasies about identity—lie close to the heart of almost all conflicts, not least in the Middle East. Whether at the level of family, tribe, ethnic or religious group, state or subregion, it is almost always at least partly about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Periodically, dictators—actual and putative—often with distinctly maniacal tendencies, have sought to hijack identity-related sentiment to suit their ends. With Arabism, there were Nasser, Assad (senior and junior), Saddam and Gaddafi; with Islam there were Khomeini and Bin Laden.

Especially in the dying years of Ottoman rule and during the colonial period, the Arab peoples of the Middle East developed a range of Arab identities. By the time of independence these had evolved into organized political movements centred on Arabist sentiment and demanding the unification of the region’s disparate states. Syria’s Ba’ath Party and Egypt’s Nasserism became the lead types of this ‘Old Arabism’, as Christopher Phillips terms it.

Alas, Old Arabism had scant room for Kurds, Berbers and other non-Arabs; and scant room for the multiple varieties of ‘Arab nationalist’ programmes. The autocrats’ solution was straightforward: dissenters within their grasp had to fall into line, on pain of torture and other horrors. However idealistic these nationalist currents might have been at their outset, they became corrupted by the exigencies of power. Many of these difficulties arose from a fundamental problem: the notion of a homogenous Arab ‘nation’ extending from Morocco to Iraq was a myth—not a complete myth, perhaps, but enough of one to divorce nationalist programmes from reality. The humiliating Arab defeat in the 1967 war with Israel struck Old Arabism a fatal blow. But then the same urges that had led to this nationalism found a new outlet in religion. Suddenly, and starting with the Iranian revolution, it was the region’s Islamist identity that was going to triumph—never mind that there were Shi’a and Sunni, Druse and Alawi, Ismaili and Yazidi (and that is far from all); never mind, too, the significant Christian communities, especially in the Levant, Iraq and Egypt. To date, Islamist grand designs have succeeded no more than their Old Arabist equivalents.

Phillips’s central contention is that, beyond the fanfare of these pan-regional political movements, a variant of Arab nationalist sentiment that he terms ‘Everyday Arabism’ has persisted and is now dominant. It is a form of Arabism—closely akin to the original nationalist sentiments—that poses no threat to individual ‘nation’ states or their regimes, in the way that the old pan-Arab projects did. It is an identity that is much less contrived and much more attuned to realities. People in Damascus and Cairo see themselves as having characteristics and interests in common; but not to an extent that there is any pressing need to unify their states. It is analogous, as Phillips points out, to the growing sense of a European common identity that transcends states but does not demand their abolition. At the same time, though, Phillips stresses that this Everyday Arabism is flexible—and tolerant—enough to coexist with other identities. He argues correctly that individuals’ sense of themselves is complex, and identities are multi-layered: at one and the same time one might be a Kurd, a Sunni Muslim and a resident of Aleppo; or an Arab, an Alawi and a resident of Lattakia.

Placing his fascinating work firmly in the context of nationalism theory, Phillips probes, via original research in Syria and Jordan, how identities are reinforced: via the discourses and personality cults of the ruling regimes, and via state-controlled television stations. He then examines the impact of transnational satellite television, and goes on to examine, by conducting over 50 interviews, the extent to which ‘everyday’ Jordanians and Syrians have absorbed the multiple and often subtle identity-related messages directed at them. Phillips’s broad conclusion is that ‘it is through the everyday, routine reproduction of identity in Syria and Jordan that a strong supra-national Arab identity has been sustained despite the failure of Nasserite Arab nationalism. At the same time, state identity is gradually strengthening in the same manner and evolving into a nationalism that encompasses, not opposes, this supra-national Arabism’ (p. 7).

This book originated as Phillips’s doctoral thesis at the London School of Economics, and it shows. At times, especially when dealing with the theoretical background, it is heavy-going. But the heaviness stems from the sheer weight of the subject-matter, rather than from a turgid style. In places, this book demands concentration, and it is worth the effort. Indisputably, however, this is a work for specialists rather than for the general reader.

The research was undertaken in 2009, when no one imagined the tumultuous changes just around the corner. The Arab Spring has opened a Pandora’s Box of identity issues: just how much might the identity sentiments of a Libyan militiaman in Misrata overlap with those of a middle-class Egyptian pro-democracy activist, a Syrian Alawi shabih from the mountains behind Lattakia or a jihadist fighter in Aleppo? But Phillips’s key findings hold: not for nothing is it termed the Arab Spring. From Tunisia, it spread like wildfire precisely because of the vitality of Everyday Arabism.

Phillips’s first thesis supervisor was the late Fred Halliday, who died in Barcelona shortly before the work was completed. In his introduction, Phillips hails him as ‘a fantastic teacher whose imprint can be seen throughout this work’; he expresses the hope that Fred ‘would be proud of what follows’. In his last years, I came to know Fred well. I have no doubt that he would indeed have been proud.

Alan George, University of Oxford, UK