07/11/2014 - 00:00
Arab Supremacy

By Jihan A. Mohammed*

When we hear the term supremacy the first thing that comes to our mind is the white supremacy, especially from an Americancentric perspective. But there are other patterns of supremacy that are not addressed as well as it should be, such as the Arab supremacy. It is dramatic how Arab supremacy is legitimized under the name of Arabism and pan-Arabism, while minorities living within the Arab states are simply not recognized, and brutally incorporated into the dominant Arab world.

The emergence of the Arab supremacy was a reaction to the Western powers, Western colonialism, and imperialism in the early 20th century. Western domination was/is heavily critiqued and rejected by the Arab states, yet, the Arabs do not acknowledge their supremacy over minorities living within their States. Very few Arabs critique the Arab supremacy, the exploitation of the minorities in the Arab states. Amazighes in North Africa, Black-Sudanese, the Kurds, as well as many other minorities are victims of forced assimilation (Arabization), genocide, displacement, and ethnic cleansing.

The origin of Arab supremacy dates back to early 20th century after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism. Arab supremacy emerged as a movement holding behind the ideological dream of unifying all Arabs into one single state. Pan-Arabism dominated the consciousness of Arabs and reached its highest forces of dominance in 1960s to then collapse in 1970. The dream was to eliminate nation states and build a unified Arab coalition, spreading the Arab culture, the Arab language, Arabic history, and planting Arab nationalism into the heart of the citizens. In the 1970's the historian Walid Khalidi defined pan-Arabism as "the Arab states' system is first and for most a "Pan" system. It postulates the existence of a single Arab nation behind the facade of a multiplicity of sovereign states" (Khalidi, 1978, p. 695). The idea of a unified regional integration of all Arab states failed due to many reasons. Lewis summarizes some of the reasons of the collapse of pan-Arabism:

Pan-Arabism...for long was a sacrosanct ideological principle in all the Arab countries, some of which even incorporated in their constitution. But as the various Arab States established themselves more firmly and defined and pursued their various national interests with growing clarity, their commitment to pan-Arabism became more and more perfunctory. At the present time, after a series of bitter inter-Arab conflicts, even the customary lip service is often lacking (Lewis, 1998, p. 140)

It is difficult to think of a new pan-Arab regional integration at the present time, especially after the Arab spring and the rise of radical Islamism in the Middle East. However, at the down of the pan-Arabism in 1970s it does not mean that the ideology of Arab supremacy was collapsed as well. The emerged single Arab states inherited the Arab supremacy from the pan-Arab ideology. As a matter of fact, terms such as al-qawmiya al-Arabia (Arab nationalism), al-Uruba (Arabism), al-Wuhda al-Arabiya (Arab Unity), and al-Ittihad al-Arabi (Arab union), and al-Watania (state patriotism), these terms appear constantly in the Arabic texts, for instance in leaders speeches, radio, newspaper, in political and school books, and in pamphlets. The pan-Arabism was exercised by two institutions. It was exercised by parts (single Arab sovereign state institution) and by the whole (the pan-Arab institution). But what matters instead is that Arab supremacy is still exercised whatsoever.

Delegitimizing the Arab supremacy?

Minorities perceive the pan-Arabism ideology as Arab supremacy. One should be aware of the connotations of the term supremacy. It does not mean that the whole conception of the pan-Arabism must be delegitimized. As a matter of fact and if we step back to look at pan-Arabism in its original framework, the pan-Arabism and the Arab identity was flourished as a legitimized and necessitate ideology to strengthen the desire of the Arab nations for independence from the European colonies. Arab leaders were suggesting that Arab states should be:

One nation having common interests and security priorities districts from those of the West. ... The countries of the areas, which enjoyed unity of language, religion, history and culture should-indeed could-create their own system to counter any threat from whatever source (Heikal, 1978, p. 719).

Indeed, the moral authority of such ideology was driven from the fact that Arab states share one common language and one cultural heritage. But whenever this moral authority of pan-Arabism ideology is legitimized at the expense of non-Arabs, then it must be delegitimized.

In the case of white supremacy in South Africa and North America, whites converted the indigenous populations to Christianity, educated and adapted them to the white culture. Whites were successful in many ways to assimilate indigenous populations to the white culture, but the skin color kept indigenous distinguished and visible to the world. Since then a bi-racial and a multiple-racial community emerged in both South African and the United States based on the phenotype. Nevertheless, in the Arab world we do not see a hierarchy created based on the phenotype to separate Arabs from non-Arabs. The purpose of the Arab supremacy, I argue, was to hide non-Arab minorities and, in case of resistance, to eliminate them, for instance the persecution of the Kurds in Iraq because they resisted to the Arab assimilation policies. Since there are no significant differences between the phenotypical traits of the Kurds and the Arabs, or between the Amazighes and the Arabs in Morocco and Algeria, then hiding and eliminating becomes an easy task. By eliminating the minorities, I refer to the persecution of non-Arabs in Darfur, and to the Iraqi systematic program to get rid of the Kurds in north. The chemical attack on Halabja city and the Anfal campaign are two good examples to support this argument. By hiding the minorities, I refer to the reduction of the Amazighes and the Amazigh's culture, by the two Arab States Morocco and Algeria, to a little historical residue or to a cultural oddity that belongs to a simple backward rural festivals and folklore.

The fact that the minorities are hidden and oppressed in the Arab world it took them a long time to reach the international community to ask for help. In fact, only in early 1990's the international community became more aware of the persecution of the Kurds in Iraq. And only in late 1990s the Amazigh, used globalization as an amplifying and mobilizing instrument for international pressure, while blacks in the United States had already gained an international attention in 1950. In South Africa the African National Congress (ANC) in 1950s started across the nation to build a political program in which democratic ideas where demanded.

Who can delegitimize the Arab supremacy?

Delegitimizing the supremacy must come from the dominant group itself. The idea of equal rights, recognizing and protecting minorities must be acknowledged by the Arabs. We learn from the history of North American and South African that whites played a significant role in the abolition of the slavery and in the civil rights movement. We learn about the 19th century US constitution placing the right of "free Negros". We learn from the three Reconstruction Amendments, as well as the role of the philanthropic and missionary activists in South Africa. Furthermore, we learn from the Europeans and how they overcame the system of racial, ethnic, and minority subordination after World War II, and how they built a pluralistic society based on the concept of citizenship, membership and inclusion.

Hence, If Arabs do not acknowledge the dramatic consequences of their supremacy on non-Arabs and if they do not embrace more liberal and democratic policies, then overcoming their supremacy will become very complicated.

Minorities also can play a key role in all that. The African-American civil rights movement (1954-69) in the Unites States and the antiapartheid movement in South Africa are two good examples that minorities in the Arab world can learn from. In addition to this, international pressure on single Arab states can contribute to improving the situation of the minorities in the region. In fact, one crucial factor that contributed in ending the apartheid era in South Africa was the international pressures and constraints imposed on South Africa because of its racist internal politics. We can also think of the creation of the 'safe heaven' zone in northern Iraq by the Unites States in 1990 to protect the Kurds from Saddam Hussein's persecution.

Heikal, M. (1978) Egyptian Foreign Policy. Foreign Affairs 56 (July):714-727
Khalidi, W. (1978). Thinking the unthinkable: A sovereign Palestinian state.Foreign Affairs, 695-713.
Lewis, B. (1998). The multiple identities of the Middle East. Schocken.


* Jihan A. Mohammed is a PhD student in sociology at the Michigan State University

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