Update: This post appeared in The National Interest on February 1, 2011.
With the recent Tunisian uprisings—now termed the “Jasmine Revolution”—and the ensuing giddiness about some impending copycat revolutions soon to be sweeping the “Arab World,” very few voices of reason are being heard. Troubling as this may sound, one is on solid ground suggesting that there are no “coming revolutions” in the Arab World’s horizons, and that there isn't even a distinct uniform "Arab World" to begin with, let alone one gearing up for en masse popular uprisings and regime changes.
Despite many religious, cultural, and linguistic similarities among Middle Easterners, the modern Middle East, like the ancient Near East, lacks the requisite historical uniformity or continuity to warrant the reductive appellation “Arab World”—and by inference, it lacks the conditions justifying all the premature talk of a “coming Arab Revolution.” Instead, like Europe or, say, Latin America, the “Arab World” is a patchwork of varied identities and language-communities that may have a great deal in common, but which can also boast a wealth of distinctive national features honed by different historical experiences. And so, it would be neither presumptuous nor defeatist to suggest that the news of a looming “Arab Revolution” has been grossly exaggerated; what happens in Tunisia or Egypt is very likely to stay in Tunisia and Egypt. As Robert Kaplan aptly put it in a recent New York Times essay "as the situation evolves in Tunis, and as we watch other Arab capitals expectantly, we would do well to focus less on what unites these places than on what divides them... The more we focus on the particularities of each place, the less surprised we will be by political developments."
This revelation is nothing new. It is unorthodox and unfashionable, but it is hardly an earth-shattering discovery about the Middle East. Indeed, Kaplan had been speaking in those same terms since at least the early 1990s. No stranger to the cultural and linguistic complexities of the region, Kaplan’s work underlined the obstinate devotion of America’s Middle East experts to dogmas and archetypes with exclusive Arab biases; faulty standards that depicted tens of millions of autochthonous Middle Eastern minorities as remnants of European (Crusader) intrusions, and the State of Israel as a modern incarnation of that same (Crusader) colonial enterprise; both schemes ostensibly designed to ever keep disrupting Arab consensus and Arab unity.
The conclusion of Kaplan’s remarkable book, The Arabists, spoke ominously of America’s failures of policy, comprehension, and interpretation in the Middle East. He attributed those flops to the vain persistence of an “Arabist” paradigm that underestimated (perhaps even undermined) Middle Eastern diversity, and spoke of (perhaps even concocted) a glamorized Arab uniformity and harmony. Kaplan wrote that traditional State Department bureaucrats have consistently dismissed the Middle East’s ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity in favor of a monochromatic “Arab World.” Arabists—as he dubbed 20th century American experts who defined America’s Middle East policy—have been known to despise Middle Easterners who deviated from the comme il faut Arab-Muslim praxis.
The Arabists’ prescriptive Middle Eastern model as a homogenous “Arab world” was not an honest ideologically neutral depiction of the region; it was a caricature and a chimera reflecting European examples, not Eastern, and certainly not Arab parameters of identity. On this point, Joel Carmichael wrote that:
It was in fact the Western habit of referring to Arabic-speaking Muslims […] as ‘Arabs’ because of their language—on the analogy of German-speakers as Germans, French-speakers as French […]—that imposed itself on an East that had never regarded language as a basic social classifier. It was natural for Europeans to use the word ‘Arab’ about a Muslim […] whose native language was Arabic; they were quite indifferent to the principles of classification in the East.
The oddity of these sorts of typologies is that they induced an illusion of a uniform Arab identity out of a patently European abstraction that had no foundations in a Middle East defined by time-honored polyglot multi-cultural traditions. Yet the European creators of Araby stuck to their guns and worked feverishly to turn their fuzzy fairytale of a mono-cultural “Arab World” into a politically soothing reality. In the process, they stunted and delegitimized pre-Arab Middle Eastern narratives, branding them alien, subversive, isolationist, reactionary.
Arabists “have not liked Middle Eastern minorities,” wrote Kaplan in 1993; they “have been guilty […] of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which roughly translates as ‘Arabism’. He mentioned hearing American officials at Foreign Service functions during the 1970s and 1980s refer to the Maronite Christians of Lebanon as fascists. In this same vein, Lebanese commentator Michael Young wrote that “[w]hat pro-Arab Americans couldn’t stomach was that the [Middle East’s] Christians were often estranged from […the Muslims] and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered.” Never mind that those same Christians had been calling that “region” home (in Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, and Hebrew no less) for some seven century prior to the coming of Islam and the Arabic language into the Levant and Northern Africa.
The profoundly flawed assumptions about a monolithic “Arab world” need to be unpacked before rushing to herald a “coming revolution.” The Middle East’s cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity deserve recognition, and the distinctive “micro-climate” that might have given rise to Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” should not be expected to afford the same conditions for a Cairene Rose, a Lebanese Cedar, or a Damascene Lilac. People with a common literary language do not necessarily share similar values, aspirations, or destinies. Although native English-speakers, Scotsmen, Irishmen, Americans and Nigerians are not Englishmen and are hardly shaped by the same identity and the same historical experience as Englishmen. Similarly, the hundreds of millions of users of Arabic are a vigorously disparate and diverse lot, “divided by the same language,” to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw. The idea of “Arab uniformity” or a coherent “Arab world” throbbing in unison is illusion and folly similar to “English-speaking” unity conceded T.E. Lawrence in his later years. Even Edward Said, one of our times most committed advocates of Arabness dismissed the assumed adequacy of the Arabic language as a definer of some uniform Arab identity. “Var[ying] considerably between one […] country and another,” wrote Said, Arabic is a “written language [that] is quite different” from the bevy of speech forms used in the Middle East; it is a textual, not a spoken language; the equivalent of “Latin for the European colloquial languages […]; i.e. a dead and forbidding language.”
Yet this illusion of Arab harmony, constructed on a presumed linguistic unity, is the sole prism through which the Middle East continues to be viewed today. It is also through this same prism that the hyped, looming, “Arab Revolution” is expected to erupt. Alas, what was lost in all this frenzy of oversimplifications is arguably one of the most moving moments in Tunisia’s march to freedom. The people’s joyful cries “we are happy [the deposed autocrat] spoke our language” were overlooked and drowned in a rush of speculations as to where might the “Arab Revolution” make landfall next. Why should it matter that the tyrant “spoke our language,” the language of the people? Why should it matter that Ben Ali spoke the vernacular speech-form of Tunisia instead of customary textual Arabic, a foreign tongue to most Tunisians and, at best, a second-language to the literates among them?
Why, it matters because Nicholas Sarkozy, David Cameron, Barrack Obama, and Silvio Berlusconi address their people not in Latin, but respectively in vernacular French, English, and Italian; it matters because Christian Reformation was triggered by a Martin Luther hammering his 95 Theses in vernacular German, not in Church Latin; it matters because Dante’s La Divina Commedia, Descartes’ Discours de la Méthode, and John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (among other works that paved the road to the Age of Enlightenment) were, again, written not in elitist inaccessible Latin, but in the languages of illiterate commoners; in vernacular Italian, French, and English. The Middle East is certainly heading in that same direction, and a “coming revolution” is, no doubt, lurking in the Middle East’s future. But the “coming revolution” will remain idle talk and empty speculation so long as the autarchy of Arabic continues to be hallowed, so long as the languages of the people continue to be shunned, and so long as the Middle East’s wealth of Luthers, Dantes, Descartes and Lockes (in-waiting) continue to be muzzled, stunted, and shunted.
Until the “Revolution” comes, and until the people dare begin speaking their languages, they will continue to merit their chains and the whips bruising their backs, to the same extent that Rome was worthy of its Nero. And until the “coming revolution”, G.E Borgese’s words will continue to ring true: “all servitude is voluntary and the slave is more despicable than the tyrant is hateful.”