On Tuesday, a lecture was hosted at McDaniel College featuring Professor Shibley Telhami, a prolific author on issues in the Middle East and a distinguished professor from the University of Maryland. Dr. Telhami’s presentation covered a wide array of issues, such as the importance Arab populations place on their governments’ foreign policy and the growing inability for Arab autocracies to maintain the established order. Yet one issue that he talked about at length, the issue of identity for modern Arabs, was something that I found particularly interesting and important.
One’s identity is an integral part of how they understand their place in the world. When that identity comes under attack, an individual will cling more strongly to it; it becomes the focal point for how they perceive and respond to the world around them. Dr. Telhami provided an example of this in the rise of European Zionism as a response to anti-Semitism. He related this issue of identity to the tendency for Arabs to identify with Islam and fellow Arabs over their own nationality. This is not due to a rise of Islamism or pan-Arabism, Dr. Telhami argued, but rather a response to the West’s policies in the Middle East, which have been seen as anti-Islamic and anti-Arab. With its identity under perceived attack, the Arab world has thus rallied around its common Arab and Muslim culture, an interesting demonstration of human nature with serious implications for our policy towards the region.
The West’s policies towards the Middle East have prompted these developments, and this is indicative of a failure in policy. The United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, its failed policies towards Palestine, its support for Arab autocracy and dictatorship, and its “War on Terror” have all contributed to the perception that the West is anti-Arab. If the United States’ wishes to enjoy a relationship with the Arab world built on a constructive and cooperative foundation, it will thus need to redevelop its perspective towards and policy on the Middle East. That the last decade has been marked by a growing resentment of the West in the Middle East perhaps demonstrates Western ignorance and apathy towards Arab positions and perspectives. Arabs continually see themselves and their identity as under attack by the West, yet Western policies have not changed; indeed, if anything, they have only antagonized the Arab world further. It is clear from the information Dr. Telhami presented that a rethinking of our foreign policy is a necessary step towards fixing our standing in the Arab World.
The growing Arab transnational identification with other Arabs and Muslims is also a striking reflection of the failures of Arab governments and regimes to adequately provide for their populations in recent history. Autocracy, dictatorship, and a lack of political freedom are common in the Middle East, and most Arabs have stopped expecting positive results from their government. The state provides them with no incentive or reason to identify with it. This has important implications when considering that Arab regimes are now no longer in a position to control information and the media, another subject Dr. Telhami talked much about. With Arabs increasingly vocal and active about their demands for “dignity,” with Arab regimes struggling to contain the organization and mobilization of their populations, and with Arabs increasingly dissociating with their national identity and allegiance, I would need to agree with Dr. Telhami in his assessment that Arab autocracy cannot and will not last indefinitely.