THE idea of Arab unity, dead for a thousand years, is fashionable once again, at least for purposes of discussion. Arab union of one kind or another has become the focus of political probabilities for the whole of the Near East and even North Africa. Although the Arabs have not been an important people in modern times, the question of their unification gains a certain weight through its connection with matters of world import, notably the maintenance of British imperial communications and now the American entry into Africa and Asia. The Arab rôle, although in a sense a minor one, may nevertheless be played out in the center of the stage.

Who are the Arabs? The word "Arab" is ambiguous. That is because Islam, which has only recently become westernized, or secularized, does not recognize distinctions of nations or races as important: it is Islam which constitutes an all-embracing community for its adherents. Since the overwhelming majority of Arabs are Moslem the western concept of nationality has had to compete with the religious concept of Islam as a locus of crystallization for group feeling. The consequence is that Islam contains a welter of ethnic types which also permeate the Arab world: types ethnically distinct only to the mind of a westerner preoccupied with differences of race and nationality.

It has not been possible for a thousand years and more to speak of an Arab community which is based on any biological similarities. Even at the time the Arabs burst out of their peninsula they do not appear to have been a physically homogeneous stock; but whatever their unity may have been founded on at that time, the combined effects of Islam and the persistently nomadic movements of Arabs throughout north, central and east Africa have converted the Arab world into a genuine melting pot in which all origins are forgotten, or, rather, all origins are granted a more or less fictitious "Arab" character. At present if one were told that a given individual were an Arab one would not know in advance whether he was coal-black, blond, tall, short, or whatever. And, by way of extension, an individual representing any one of a variety of racial stocks would consider himself an Arab, and would be so considered by other "Arabs."

From the point of view of nationalism, the most concrete achievement of the Moslem conquests, initially borne abroad by Bedouin (the original meaning of "Arab"), was the spread of Arabic. The Arabs managed to create a vast cultural unity through their language and literature; the Arab language, at the height of Islam merely the learned language of the universal Islamic society, eventually contracted with the political decay of Islam to the confines of populations speaking it as a vernacular: populations in which there existed scarcely more than a few drops of "Arab" blood in the old sense.

More than four and a half million square miles in Africa and Asia are solidly Arabic-speaking; the extent of this area is the background for the equivocal character of the word "Arab."

The definition for which so many people strain is in reality a metaphysical distinction, a definition shaped to fit into some sort of logical scheme. There is no need for such a definition. What is required is precision in referring to certain living individuals and communities who often are called and often call themselves "Arabs." For most purposes it will be found that the best criterion is language (regardless of whether or not language is invariably a defining quality of nationality), with the exception of certain communities in whose case some other criterion acquires decisive importance, such as the Jews and perhaps some other minorities. It is most reasonable to consider as Arab lands all those regions in which Arabic is the vernacular and Islam the overwhelmingly preponderant religion and pattern of society. This "definition" will comprise the Arabian Peninsula, 'Iraq, Syria, Palestine (with some obvious qualifications), Transjordan, Egypt, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (with the exception of the pagan Negro region in the south), Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco (perhaps debatable, because of the strong Berber population). There are of course border-line cases, as in the Somalilands.

Every physical type is represented in the so-called Arab communities. Some of them are entirely white: some are almost entirely black. The Hijaz is one of the most racially mixed communities on earth, and Mecca has been a city of mulattoes and quadroons, of all racial blends, since the fourteenth century. Since the race question does not exist in its European and American form, racial considerations as such have no weight.

Accordingly, there is some sort of de facto ethnocultural unity among Arabs, or rather, there is enough unity to provide an ethnic foundation of political unity. What are the obstacles to a realization of this political unity?

The obstacles most commonly mentioned revolve around the lack of cohesion of the Arabs as a people. It is quite rightly maintained that the Arabs lack unity in two respects: on the one hand there are enormous cultural disparities between various levels of the Arab world in general (such as between the nomad and the cultivator, the fanatic and the free-thinker), and between the ruling cliques of one Arab country as opposed to another in particular.

The root of this is the social and economic backwardness which pervades Arab society as a whole. This is a matter of notoriety. Not only are broad sections of the sedentary population still involved in a tissue of feudal socioeconomic relationships, but throughout nearly the whole of the Arab world the problem of nomadism, solved almost everywhere else, retains considerable force. This split among the Arabs into the Desert and the Sown is very ancient, indeed it may be taken as the fundamental element in their history as a people.

It is true that nomads are now only of minor consequence numerically; they scarcely play a rôle in the more densely settled centers of Arab culture, such as Syria, Palestine and Egypt. But even here whole strata of the population are in transition from nomadism to peasant cultivation. Beyond its material weight the desert has always been a vital element in Arab society: not merely has it performed a purely economic function (as a purveyor of the products of livestock, etc.), but it has been the principal source of manpower. The debilitating effects of eastern cities have been compensated for by a steady flow of life from the wilderness via the fields. In addition, the nomads have always been the "Arabs" par excellence, the repository of traditional Arab culture, even though from a purely statistical point of view the Arabs have probably always been a predominantly sedentary people. At the very height of the Islamic State the rôle of the Bedouin was almost, though never quite, eclipsed. Since then it has been a decisive element in the pattern of Arab life.

But there is nothing in the nature of nomads as such which makes it difficult to persuade them to settle on the land as farmers; on the contrary, the history of all nomadic groups appears to be a spasmodic struggle to attain the wellbeing, security and comfort of a rural life and abandon the harshness and uncertainty of the incessant trek. Although Bedouin may sneer at fallahin as low fellows devoid of glamor, still, when the pinch comes, and it always does, they are only too glad to be able to exchange the exhausting rhythm of their own lives for the security of a mud hut.

Nomadism exists only because the technical capacities of the nomads are only just sufficient to maintain them in a sort of precarious equilibrium with the exigencies of their environment. They are stretched taut from one season to another, barely eking out an existence by shuttling back and forth between grazing grounds with not enough of a breathing-space possible to recuperate their powers and acquire enough technique for the taming of nature. They are always only just one step ahead of starvation.

Clearly, the only thing that can alter this finely drawn equilibrium would be either a sudden increase in the lushness of the environment, or else an exotically augmented power over nature, which would provide reserves for a community whose accounts at present just barely balance. It is precisely this increased power over nature which is supplied by modern technique, and which puts the final seal on the doom of the nomads. Their settlement on the land in Arabia has been begun on a grandiose scale, inspired, in Saudi-Arabia, by the religious fanaticism of the Wahhabi puritanical reform movement, and elsewhere in the Peninsula, as in 'Iraq, by more prosaic considerations.

However, the social and economic backwardness of which nomadism was a single aspect is given a concrete and institutionalized expression in the political life of the whole area. The well-known phenomenon of "leader-politics" is the direct outcome of this stagnation on a low level of economic intercommunication. Where production exists principally to satisfy restricted local needs, where there is no economic interchange of a scope grandiose enough to create a social class as its bearer, each village, townlet, valley and tribe becomes a microcosm of social activity.

This accounts for the myriads of political spokesmen for the Arab world, for the independent dignity of each petty chief and village elder. This is why it has become a cliché to speak of the disunity of the Arabs and their incapacity to coöperate with one another.

Of course, social patterns among the Arabs are manifold, and the degree of disunity varies greatly. In some countries, as in Egypt, it has been almost entirely replaced by a bourgeois society with well-defined political groups in a quasi-Western style. In others, such as Syria, it is exacerbated by religious and ethnic schisms. In still others, such as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, life is almost primordial. The more primitive communities in the Near East and Africa, in order to exist as political units, have generally crystallized around their own local bosses and wise men, sheiks and 'ulama. In the more civilized areas the tendency to split up is pushed further by the existence of the great families, who themselves constitute political units. These family fractions confront other, similar political units and compose a balance or imbalance of power around themselves. The clan, family and clique are the chief factors in the political arena.

As the increasing westernization of the region is imposed on this social fabric, these entities find themselves entering modern capitalist life and disintegrating under its impact, amalgamating with others and becoming "modernized" in varying degrees. In some cases the capital resources of an individual are supplemented by his membership in a large family, so the family as a whole is buttressed capitalistically precisely by reason of its feudal composition. By and large the family hampered the development of the requisite modern élite, but once the development was accomplished it continued existing as substantially the same entity in a strengthened position.

The recent creation of petty national states has provided another locus of concentration for the economic and political forces at work. However, these national states, tardy arrivals in a world dominated by the supra-national, cosmic interests of the Great Powers and subservient to their own backwardness as well as to these Powers, are permitted very little scope for a tendency so familiar to us. It is the infantile character of these states that provides one of the strongest drives for unity, precisely as it is, simultaneously, one of the obstacles to that unity.

In some ways the belatedness of the Arab national states has smoothed the path to national unification. For the fact is that the basic cultural discord prevailing between various strata of Arab society applies with far less force to a unitary Arab political organism than it does to the Arab world as it is now constituted. These cultural differences are found within every single Arab country; they were present during the efflorescence of Islam. However difficult the nomadic problem may be, it would be no more difficult for a unitary Arab state than it is for a handful of feeble, split-up dependent units. As a matter of fact, of course, the area of nomadism has been contracting rapidly during the past decades: the West has had its effect even on the Bedouin. The stronghold of Arabia itself has been passing under the spell of Europe. The Bedouin have been enmeshed in a relentless, organic process of settlement on the land, and even if the gap between the Desert and the Sown is never entirely eliminated it would be infinitely easier to deal with the complex relations of the Bedouin and the sedentary agriculturists within the framework of a unified governmental apparatus using similar methods than within five or six separate and often incompatible state policies.

The argument made from the enormous regional distinctions between various Arab communities and the absence of any genuine "national" consciousness in historic times merely exposes the capricious and artificial nature of most of the Arab states set up since the first World War. For while no one would deny that a man from Baghdad and a man from Mosul are Arabs, it is true that each may be more aware of his difference from the other than of their common citizenship in the whimsical and historically illegitimate 'Iraqi state. The argument from nomadism applies with even greater force here. What is artificial is not the concept of a unitary Arab state, which, regardless of the material obstacles to its realization, corresponds at any rate to the awareness of the Arabs of themselves as distinct from Europe, but the atomized states into which the Arabs are at present divided. The regional differences are much more potent between the sections of states already constituted than between the states themselves. Once again, that is, the argument against Arab union which is based on regional differences between Arabs is in reality more forceful when applied to small states than when applied to a larger union.

The problem of minorities is a well-known and basic question in the Near East, of great complexity and the source of much heat. Without venturing on prophecy, all that can be said here is that to the extent that the problems of minorities in the Arab world (particularly prevalent in Syria, 'Iraq, and perhaps Morocco) are based on religious schism and cultural particularism, they are bound to be ironed out with reasonable speed in the relatively near future. The integration of the people as a whole into a western system of government and education will no doubt bring the inevitable harvest of social similarity in its train. The fact is that the differences between the Arabs and the minorities living in their midst are generally exaggerated, not only by the foreign press, but by the Arabs and the minority leaders themselves. To a very large extent the minorities, insofar as they constitute a kink in the social fabric, are anachronisms, and in any case they are not numerically important enough to form a really serious obstacle to the unification of the Arabs as a whole. It must also be remembered that separatism is the stock-in-trade of the bulk of minority spokesmen, whose voices are the only ones heard abroad; they have a professional interest in schism.

As a matter of fact the principal obstacles to Arab unification do not lie in the profound disharmonies outlined above, but in the relatively superficial rivalries among the political élite of Arab society. In the more advanced Arab countries bordering on the Mediterranean this is a function of the character of the "Levantine" upper strata as a whole.

There is a special quality in Arabs who have been educated in a Western manner which strikes most observers at once. As an intellectual class they give the impression of being what the Germans call Luftmenschen -- rootless, feverish people.

The gap between the old and the new in the Arab societies which have felt European influence most thoroughly is so enormous and the economic backwardness of the overwhelming bulk of the population is so extreme that a difference in schooling acquires an absolute value as a specifically differentiating characteristic: the people are steeped in such ignorance (at any rate from the point of view of the West, which sets the standards) that education automatically involves elevation to an upper class, regardless of the precise economic status, which may or may not lag behind the social prestige created by education. For this reason there is an unusually high percentage of unemployment among educated people in a semi-colonial capitalistic economy such as Egypt, which combines a relatively advanced European upper crust and an extremely backward (economically and otherwise) laboring mass: there are few economic occupations for them to be absorbed into. This accounts for the persistent Near Eastern phenomenon of a growing class of these educated Luftmenschen, who belong socially to the upper strata, but exist in an economy which is too meagre to have any interstices they might squeeze into by virtue of the education which is their principal economic qualification.

Clearly, their only refuge is in politics. But even here the arena is restricted: the masses are backward intellectually (from the point of view of the élite) as well as economically; they are not receptive to the abstractions of western political thought, which is one of the ornaments of the élite.

Accordingly, even in the political life which is the principal channel left open to these bottle-necked intelligentsia, they encounter precisely the same bottleneck: they are thrown back on themselves and on those members of the rising generation in the same position. The same gulf which separates the masses economically from the narrow apex of the élite also separates them intellectually: providing no vent for the energies of the intelligentsia and so throwing it back on political activity, it also constrains this political activity into an abnormally shrunken, sterile, and self-stultifying arena.

This is largely responsible for the hectic quality, the mélange of an extreme intransigeance of form and poverty of content which is characteristic of intellectual groups in quasi-colonial areas. This instability, added to the personal and party axe-grinding inherent in this intellectual overpopulation, conceals genuine social and political needs in a mist of intrigue, factionalism, and wire-pulling, and impedes the emergence of any program organically related to actual conditions.

This description has a familiar ring. It might be applied with few changes to the German postwar generation and our own youth of the thirties. It characterizes the thousands of young people who have been educated "above their station," by which is simply meant educated beyond the economic opportunities available.

But in Western Europe and America this phenomenon can be seen in perspective, since it is balanced by a certain stability in the educated classes as a whole. In the Near East, however, it comprises the ensemble of all those elements in society which are affected by the "new life;" it is the hallmark of the modern intelligentsia per se, and so acquires decisive importance as the intellectual matrix of contemporary Arab culture.

The political problem of Arab nationalism is complicated by the variety of programs to choose from. For unification in the abstract, while it undoubtedly corresponds to general Arab sentiment, is meaningless. Dissension begins on the threshold of detail. At one extreme there are the Pan-Arabists who yearn to humble the infidel by recreating the Arab Empire: at the other there are the Milquetoasts who scarcely dare suggest more than a customs union between Syria and Lebanon. The extremes are either chimerical or inadequate. Perhaps the most practicable program would revolve around a Near Eastern Federation (Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Transjordan, 'Iraq, Egypt, with or without Saudi-Arabia), in which the constituent states would be bound together for purposes of economy, education, defense and representation abroad, while largely retaining their internal autonomy. This would create an instrument both for the resumption of Arab integrity vis-à-vis the West and for the solution of the most pressing social problems. It would be the most effective first step forward on the road of unification. Only unity can give the Arabs an adult's stature in the world to emerge from the débris of the war.

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  • JOEL CARMICHAEL, Ensign, USNR; a former Oriental Scholar at Oxford, widely travelled in the Near East.
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