Muslim or Arab? Political stereotypes in the Middle East.

I have to listen, quite often, news of the Arab world shaped by terrible simplifications, especially in the media but also in lectures, conversations and gatherings. Nowadays, it is not difficult to hear that there is no Arab political thought outside the Koran and a rigorist interpretation of the sacred text. Sometimes I even perceive that “arab” and “muslim” are used as synonyms. Moreover, it may be the most widespread opinion in western societies.

In order not to take any aspect of this matter for granted, I will point out – without the need to go into detail – the differences between the Arab world and the Muslim world. The first one being composed of all Arab citizens belonging to Muslim and Christian origins, no matter what their current faith if any. The Muslim world, however, is much broader and varied, including countries (or parts of them) as diverse as Indonesia, Philippines, China, India, Pakistan or Malaysia. Particularly, some Arab countries have been the traditional home of important and influential Christian communities such as the Copts of Egypt or the Maronites of Lebanon, amid many others.


It is true that in the 70’s a strong reinvigoration of conservative Islamic values arises. After the decolonizing process that puts an end to the last European influences of Africa and the East, arabs seeked an independence not only politically but also culturally, in the most “Gramscian” sense of the term. Other factors were the failure of the secular and socialist pan-Arabism embodied by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the successive defeats of the Arab armies before Israel, the American support for the resistance against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by the “muyahidin” and the triumph of the religious revolution of Khomeini in Iran. Note that last two mentioned factors, of a religious nature, are produced in non-Arab countries of Muslim majority (Sunni and Shiite) supporting my thesis that the current stereotype of Arab societies as traditionally conservative and profoundly religious cultural environments is partially wrong and mostly due to factors exogenous to the traditional Arab culture. Another element of an economic nature has also a great importance: the increase in oil prices after the 1973 crisis and the emergence of powerful economies based on oil revenues in the Gulf region supported by the United States of America and western countries as a barrier against the Soviet Union.

This new “fascination of Islam”, in the words of the historian and economist George Corm, quickly expands through the Arab world (and beyond) thanks to the incessant flow of money from the Gulf countries with the enthusiastic support of one of the superpowers during the cold war, erasing at one stroke over a century of evolution towards national secular societies and burying the movement of religious renewal known as “Islam of lights” that the Arab world undergoes between 1820 and 1950 its origins being the prestigious Al Azhar University in Cairo that seeked a reconciliation between reason, science and faith. Still in the 50’s, if we watch the performances of the great diva of the Arab song, Um Kulthum in Youtube, one can see how, every single woman, including herself, was unveiled. Even Nasser moked Hassan Al Banna when he asked him to enforce the use of veil in egyptian women in a famous speech still today remembered. “How am i going to enforce the veil on all women in Egypt if Mr. Banna cannot do it with his own daughter that attends university unveiled” he roared before an exhilarated audience. How much things have changed, right?

Arab thought, far from being historically anchored in the stereotyped religious conservatism is complex, varied and effervescent but certainly underwent an evolution from the 70’s heavily influenced by petrodollars that altered the balance in detriment of the urban and Mediterranean societies in favor of the Bedouins of the Gulf. This shift has had an enormous influence on current Arab political stereotypes to the point of making us forget a long and fruitful tradition of secular political thought. It would not be fair to forget the long and complex history of Arab political thought – lights and shadows – especially at a time when a new political orientation seems to take shape in the still powerful and influential Gulf countries. If anyone is interested, I strongly recommend the reading of “Penseé et politique dans le monde arabe” of Lebanese writer Georges Corm.

But change it’s under way. Dubai is marking the pace at this time and, abstraction made of certain contradictions of a past that cannot be completely forgotten in a stroke, it seems to be an attractive model for the rest of the Arab world. In fact, a recent survey conducted among more than 3,500 Arab youth from 16 countries unveiled Dubai as their preferred destination to live, ahead of European countries or the US. These results allow us to conclude that a new generation of Arabs desires safe, prosperous and open societies such as the United Arab Emirates rather than those that preserve the purity of the religious precepts that, although still important as elements of the tradition to be respected, are secondary in the scale of concerns of young Arabs.

Dubai women


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