Originally Published 2005-09-15 05:31:52 Published on Sep 15, 2005
Al Quds al Arabi is a respected daily and the opinion of its editor, Abdul Bari Atwan, carries weight. For this reason, his op-ed on September 7 on "Talabani and Arabness of Iraq" is to be taken note of. The point of departure is Iraq's isolation in the Arab world and Mr. Atwan,
An Old Debate Reopened
Al Quds al Arabi is a respected daily and the opinion of its editor, Abdul Bari Atwan, carries weight. For this reason, his op-ed on September 7 on "Talabani and Arabness of Iraq" is to be taken note of. The point of departure is Iraq's isolation in the Arab world and Mr. Atwan, replying to President Jalal Talebani's complaint about the failure of the Arab states to send ambassadors to Baghdad, responds with a comprehensive list of Arab grievances pertaining to the aftermath of the invasion and occupation of 2003. The concluding sentence is reflective of anger: "When new Iraq leaves the American fold and returns to the Arab one then, dear sir, the Arab ambassadors would return individually and collectively, without urging from anyone. Before that, no! A thousand times, no!" 

What had been simmering came to a boil with the details of the proposed new constitution: Iraq is to be federal in the sense of a confederation, bilingual, and with more emphasis on ethnic and sectarian identity than on national one. The latter is to be reflected even in Iraq's diplomatic missions. Arab Iraqis are to be part of the Arab nation; others would be "a part of the Islamic world." This deletion, by the pen, of Iraq's Arab character has enraged the region. While the Arab League's Secretary General has reacted, Arab governments have maintained a studied silence. 

Widely-shared anguish 
Mr. Atwan's anguish is widely shared in the Arab world. "The country is losing its national cohesion to ethnic rivalry," said Al Ahram; the sectarian twist "sets non-Arab Muslims against Arab Muslims." The emergence of "an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq," said an op-ed in Al Hayat, "threatens every country and every people in the Arab Levant"; it will set in motion a domino effect through which existing regimes will be replaced by religious parties; "Iraq as we know has ended ... the Arab east as we know it will end if we don't defeat the plan of a religious state in Iraq." 

The living memory of the Arab world records two previous disasters: Palestine (1948) and the Six Day War (1967). Both induced trauma; the response in both cases was inadequate. The Moroccan historian Abdullah Laroui attributes this to an infra-historical rhythm, to alienation leading to loss of the self "in the absolutes of language, culture and the saga of the past." 

The historical movement is to be noted: the notion of Arabness, based on a community of language, transformed itself into Arabism with its focus on Arab nationalism and Arab unity. The cultural and linguistic base for the latter however was not matched by a social and political one; it therefore failed to produce a support-structure of legitimacy. Instead, the Arab states developed nation-state identities. They sought a community of purpose in the Arab League but failed to make it into a genuine regional organisation. The duality of word and deed thus became the central paradox of Arab nationalism. 

A central question in the theoretical paradigm of the debate pertains to being and becoming. Are the Arabs one people, or do they wish to attain oneness? How is oneness to be defined? How does it differ from identity? How do we accommodate diversity? How and in what measure is regional, ethnic, linguistic or sectarian otherness to be adjusted - the Kurds in Iraq, the southerners in the Sudan, the Berbers in North African states? 

The mainstream discourse in Arab lands has been in terms of uniformities. Diversity, however, is a fact of life. The region has suppressed majorities and minorities as well as dominant majorities and minorities. The nature of its ruling elites is varied: hereditary, regional, sectarian. It is acutely lacking in participatory governance. 

Pluralism in social and political thinking, and in social structures at all levels, is therefore a categorical imperative. The recent accord in Khartoum shows that such conceptual adjustments are possible and capable of being implemented. Are there any lessons there for others? 

In the case of Iraq, what is wrong is not the principle of federalism but the procedure of bringing it about. Some may relish cartographic engineering for geo-political gains; their intent is far from benign and should be resisted through the offer of practical alternatives. New Iraq may well be bilingual but the difference between the levels of development between Arabic and Kurdish would ensure the primacy of Arabic. 

As for Islamist political parties they are, like centrist or Left-wing ones, an unavoidable concomitant of democratic functioning. Experience shows that Islamist groups, apart from highlighting the shortcomings of existing regimes, have little to offer by way of alternate programmes of development. The public discovers this soon enough. 

A crisis does confront the Arab world, but every crisis offers opportunities. The answer to it would seem to lie in re-defining Arabness by making it more inclusive. 

Baghdad did it in the classical period of its history; there is no reason why it cannot be done in the world of the 21st century. 

The writer is a former Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations, and former Vice Chancellor, Aligarh Muslim University. He is presently Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Source: The Hindu, Chennai, September 14, 2005.

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