Arabs by Mark Allen, Continuum, 147pp, Price €22.05

This is a timely book written by a sympathetic, expert commentator. Allen, a British MI6 “Foreign Office” Arabist, spent almost 30 years in the Arab world. His book, Arabs, not The Arabs, is an attempt to explain “the Arab as a person” as “the strong feeling of the Arab world is that it is personal”.

Allen sees the personal as defined primarily by religion, power, the family and Arabism.

He explains the increased focus on religion, showing that it is anything but recent, attributing much of it to Khomeini’s revolution in Iran in 1979 and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Both were blows against secularism and in different ways revealed the schisms within Islam. His summary here helps understand current events – “The underlying issue…had shifted from Arab identity to religious identity. The region was retuning… The political reference points were not left or right, monarchical tradition or the promises of socialism, but fidelity to the example of the early Muslim community.”…

“The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, however signalled … that Arab governments could not be trusted to prevent tensions breaking out into internecine Arab conflict. Rejection of fitnah (conflict in the community) is a religious imperative as well as a social interest. It’s outbreak in the ummah, the Muslim community, was an affront, like the arrival of foreign armies in a Muslim country”.

On Power, after the initial democratic style governance in the ummah, absolutist trends were soon established. Showing how equality has always been a key consideration for the ummah he explains the apparent contradictions: “Structures engineered and maintained by fear are apparently tolerated, for all their contradiction to the principal of equality between individuals. The intellectual and emotional grip of a strong leader is far more powerful than we usually recognise and to those in the system it is also, to all appearances, welcome. The strong leader absolves responsibility, frames hopes and fears. He reinforces solidarity, so often something which the city dwellers miss. Importantly, he is a bulwark against social chaos which would impinge on the interests of family life, on society at a good remove from the centre of power. He is adept at working the religious anxieties about social conflict, or fitnah”.

Discussing the family he explains an attitude which is misunderstood in the West: “Arabs who still consider themselves tribal look on those who do not maintain a tribal connection, like farmers, villagers and townspeople, as being not free. These detribalized people are believed not to know their origins and therefore their identity is qualified by uncertainty. They submit to the power of rulers, foreign or not. They have no purity or honour to defend.”

On Arabism he details the divisions in the Arab world and explains the current movement from Arabism to religion – “the to-ing and fro-ing, the tidal relationship, between the ocean of faith and the mainland of genealogy, is thematic to the Arab’s story. Today, the flux seems to be going in the direction of faith, as the Arab vogue comes to the end of its current phase”.

Analysing modernity, he explains concisely why moderates are not more active. The difficulty of dialoguing with an anonymous terrorist explains how the “broader search for dialogue is snagged psychologically by sharply differing points of departure. Attitudes to death and violence in the Middle East are quite simply different to our own. There, the violence of warfare, civil strife, physical abuse by family members or law-enforcers, and judicial penalties are home truths which are in the common stream of experience. Revulsion felt by individuals – by no means rare – at continuing capital punishment if affected by sensitivity about the plain religious prescription of the death penalty in certain cases”.

On different attitude to suicide attacks he explains– “What is clear is that suicide, both very rare and considered dishonourable in the Arab world as a personal act, does not, as a political act, necessarily impeach honour. This says something about a comprehensive enmity toward the world of the victims and everything to do with it.”

Defining Islamists as those who seek to impose a radically conservative vision of Islam on society, he explains why the majority appears silent and incapable of confronting the extremists. “Outside security circles that have to take a more operational stand against extremists, it is hard not to notice a general sense of impotence, a simple inability to know how best to counter the Islamist trend. When Islamist’s commitment is seen to move across the border into politics, (a border defined by our terms, not theirs), the local individual reaction is often a deep detachment.”… “Thus, to ordinary people, the Islamists seem to pose a deep-reaching challenge about the life of the community and, at the same time, to be an official problem which only the regime is in a position to address. Detachment is of course endemic about the interests of governments and the muddles governments get themselves into.”
This detachment is usually a retreat into the family and/or religion and then the circle between religion, power, the family and Arabism is complete.

Commenting on the position of women in the Arab world he notes the troubling statistics such as female illiteracy of 60% across the Arab League. He sees women as adjusting to modernity with greater ease than men and eventually as a key part of the solution: “The situation of women in the Arab world is dynamic, but the season is early Spring, the first shoots, and not early Summer”.

On democracy he emphasises tribal attitudes and explains important differences to the West: “The mainstream religious antipathy to fitnah (social discord and strife) is one major obstacle for a genuine adversarial party system and the wider culture of consensus which to a good extent derives from it, is another”.

This short book is written in an easily accessible style that works well at the personal level. It is not a complete picture and presents no easy solutions. It does however give a much better appreciation of Arabs, and particularly why they are not reacting to current events as we might expect or wish.

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