Arabists: The Romance of an American Elite 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” on 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 twentieth-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 multicultural traditions. Yet the European creators of Araby stuck to their guns and worked feverishly to turn their fuzzy fairytale of a monocultural “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.