Israel Journal of foreign Affairs VII : 1 (2013) Pp. 174 – 176
Everyday Arab Identity: The Daily Reproduction of the Arab World
by Christopher Phillips
(London: Routledge, 2012), 224 pages
Reviewed by Nir Boms
Much has already been written about the “Arab Spring” that erupted some two years ago following the dramatic self-immolation of the unemployed Tunisian university graduate Mohammad Bouazizi. That action sparked a wave of protests throughout the region. Indeed, there is much to say about these protests and revolutions that have wrought significant political changes in the region and is expected to bring even more. The “Arab Spring,” a name coined at the beginning of these events, was accompanied by genuine hopes that this Middle Eastern wave would follow earlier “springs” such as the Spring of Nations in Europe, the Prague Spring of 1968, or the Seoul Spring of 1979.
In some ways, the “spring” terminology appears entirely appropriate, especially considering the fact that the liberal forces in the region have found themselves, as did their counterparts in Europe and Prague, overtaken by reactionary forces. This might imply that these seeds of “spring” need a few more seasons until they blossom or, alternatively, that the current discussion about the deeper meaning of the unfolding events might lack a certain perspective. Much of the writing on the subject that has emerged thus far has focused on the nature of the “Arab season,” which, according to many, quickly turned from spring to winter and from Arab to Islamic. Phillips’ work is an exception in this regard. Rather than concentrating on the current political climate, Phillips, lecturer in the international relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London, chooses to use this wave of uprisings as a springboard for a much-needed discussion on identity and its core role in shaping the changing realities around us.
Pan-Arabisim, an ideology once championed by President Gamal Abd al-Nasir of Egypt, appears to have made a comeback, partially thanks to the pan-Arab networks and satellite television channels. The “pan-Arab” dynamic may help explain, in part, the domino effect of the “Arab Spring.” But it fails to explain why Syria and Jordan promoted such supra-national ideas much before the era of satellite TV in a way that intuitively might be perceived as undermining their own political power.
Phillips lived in Syria for several years and was formerly the Syria and Jordan specialist for The Economist Intelligence Unit. In his book, an adaptation of his recent doctoral dissertation, he attempts to answer this question by focusing on the issue of Arabism and its meaning today. He analyzes Arabism within the framework of nationalism theory and, in particular, by drawing upon the work of Michael Billig on the reproduction of national identity. The author further attempts to explain how Arab identity was formed and maintained over the last forty years in Jordan and Syria and how it has recently changed and developed both locally and throughout the Arab world.
The “identity factor” is crucial to the understating of the modern Middle East, which was largely created following the quick collapse of the British and French Mandates. The challenge of identity was certainly true for Jordan, a country that was created, according to Winston Churchill, “with the stroke of a pen on a Sunday afternoon in Cairo.” Likewise, Syria acquired artificial, colonial-drawn borders that had no historical basis. Hence, the ruling elites in both countries needed to construct state identity and, at times, fight distracters (like the PLO in Jordan) who threatened to challenge it. The first chapters of the book focus on the earlier attempts at identity-making in both Syria and Jordan. When Syria emerged as a state, the majority of Syrians had no particular or common identity. At the same time, Jordan consisted of 350,000 inhabitants, mostly desert nomads. The territory had a single railway line and hardly any roads (p. 42). Both countries— which Phillips analyzes at great length—are faced with the enormous challenge of identity-building.
It is important to note, as Phillips reminds us, that the Arab leadership of the time consisted of a few ruling families who sought to exploit the changing times in order to establish their domains. The Hashemites (Emir Faisal, a key leader of the 1916 Arab revolt, and his brother Abdullah) emerged as the winners in both Jordan and Iraq, while Syria established a democratic system that quickly collapsed as the country continued to struggle for its stability (there were no fewer than five military coups and twenty different cabinets in Syria in 1946–1958). Hence, identity formation appears to be not only a national challenge but also a personal project of the two main figures discussed in the book: King Hussein of
Jordan, who assumed power in 1953, and Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian president who took office in 1970 (in yet another military coup).
The rise to power of these two leaders is also indicative of the respective challenges of identity formation in the two countries: King Abdullah of Jordan, Hussein’s grandfather, was assassinated by a Palestinian extremist in Jerusalem (and Talal, Hussein’s father, was declared unfit to rule).The Palestinian presence in Jordan continued to pose new challenges to the Hashemite Kingdom that at a later point (1970) culminated in a civil war. In Syria, the coup that brought Assad to power was the third since the socialist Ba’athists rose to power in 1963. The Syrian elite remained divided between the pan-Arabists, Islamists, the minorities, and the secularists. The repeated coups, both failed and successful, presented the urgent identity challenge—the establishment of a common base for a country that desperately needed a degree of stability. Uniting minorities, tribes, and groups was not an easy task. To a certain degree, the notion of pan-Arabism proved useful to both Hussein and Assad since it served as a unifying identity factor that was common for all. Although the Nasirite model of pan-Arabism eventually failed, its early incarnation served as an opening for a new type of supra-national Arabism that would emerge again following the satellite revolution.
In the second chapter, Phillips discusses the attempts of Ba’athist Syria and Hashemite Jordan to construct these identity discourses. He focuses on the attempt to establish identity in a variety of ways, including using personality cults, a phenomenon that became central in both Syria and Jordan. Phillips also looks at the changing identity discourses that needed adjustment in order to tackle the evolving local and regional politics. In the subsequent two chapters, Phillips focuses on the role of the media and, in particular, satellite TV, in the formation of both local and pan-Arab identity. The author conducted a study of state television in 2009 and illustrates how these TV channels were used for the purpose of identity reproduction in both countries. As expected, the study reveals the careful selection of language, content (for example, on state-sponsored dramas), and a particular approach to domestic and foreign coverage. Despite the changing media environment and the fact the viewers in both Syria and Jordan understand the propagandistic role of their state media; it appears that state television still plays an important role in the construction of national culture and national identity. The discussion on satellite television is more interesting, although much of the text is dedicated to the review of scholarly arguments about the nature, scale, and scope of the “satellite factor.” Phillips reminds us that despite the fact that much of the literature focuses on the power and influence of pan-Arab news networks (Al Jazeera and Al Arabia), the most popular shows in the Arab world are drama series (Musalsalat), followed by music and reality TV shows. Unfortunately, these dimensions of media were not studied enough and Phillips attempts to argue with scholars such as Khalil Rinaawi or Marwan Kraidy, while contending that there is no dichotomy between state nationalism and pan-Arabism and that both can be promoted in tandem. “Superstar,” an ultra-popular music reality show, can serve as a good example of this dynamic: On the one hand, Jordanian and Syrians (as well as Lebanese and Egyptians) are encouraged to cheer for their own candidates, in a similar fashion to that of a national football team. On the other hand, the show itself is an excellent example of a pan-Arab dynamic that sets a broader Arab context divorced of any other non-Arab influence.
In the fifth chapter, Phillips examines the previous assumptions by analyzing field interviews of “everyday” Syrians and Jordanians. Fifty-one such interviews were conducted, including twenty-nine in Syria (a difficult task in its own right). The interviews offer a more nuanced perspective on the issues discussed—identity, personality cult, media, and satellite television—and appear to strengthen the
core argument of the book—that state identity and pan-Arab identity can be strengthened in tandem.
Everyday Arab Identity will be of interest and utility to academics and practitioners whose work is devoted to the Middle East and the Arab world. It will also be very valuable for students of these disciplines and those interested in Syria and Jordan. Phillips’ book may also be useful to policymakers, although its academic style leaves little room for a real policy discussion. Phillips’ main argument— that state identity and pan-Arab identity do not contradict each other and can be promoted in tandem—is both relevant and useful to the understanding of some of the “Arab Spring” dynamics. Once the unrest erupted in Tunisia, the Tunisian flag was waved in Egypt, and soon enough, twenty-one other flags, representing the entire Arab world, were waving as well. These pictures, along with the spread of both news and events, reminds us how “Arab” the spring was and how current events in one Arab country are likely to reverberate in the entire Arab world very quickly.
Phillips’ book sheds light on this “Arab” dimension, which remains a constant factor as well as a changing reality in the region. Following the death of Nasir and his pan-Arab vision, and now that the era of the Arab autocrats is drawing to a close, Phillips demonstrates that Arabisim is still alive and kicking, adjusting to new realities and happy to live along state nationalism that is not about to fade either. The new Middle East, perhaps, has just gotten a bit more familiar.