Are Arabs considered to be Asians

Atlas of the Arab Spring

The Arabs, the Arab world and the world of Islam

Being Arabic really just means feeling like an Arab and speaking Arabic. It becomes complicated, however, when pejorative dream images of terrorists, harem ladies or anti-democrats obscure reality.

“By 'Arab' I mean anyone who identifies as such where they live - in their history, their memories, wherever they live, die and survive, and whatever their geographical, religious, ethnic or national origin . "
Abdelkébir Khatibi (1938-2009)


This definition of being an Arab by the great Moroccan literary critic Abdelkébir Khatibi is not based on ethnic, religious, geographical or national, but on cultural, linguistic and historical criteria and on the experiences of the people concerned. It stands in stark contrast to what the mainstream understands by "Arabs" today. The word »Arab« triggers a specific set of images, derogatory and imaginative. Because gruesome headlines have become almost commonplace, portraying the Arabs as barbarians also displaces the firmly rooted orientalist stereotypes. In peaceful times, the Arabs and Arabs exist in a harmless but exotic state of limbo, in a modern version of "A Thousand and One Nights" in which he or she has exchanged the caravanserai for the shopping center, tent or palace for skyscraper, but provincial on the Kufiya of the Bedouins or the Islamic headscarf. In times of crisis - an almost permanent state of affairs for over 100 years - »the Arab« only appears when he claims the oil and gas reserves that the world regards as common property.

The dehumanization of the Arab works either as a pure abstraction or as a threat - but it is not new. It did not come about overnight with the advance of the »Islamic State« or the attacks of September 11, 2001, but is a legacy of European colonialism. The suppression of the "angry Arab" was never limited to physical oppression, but also included its symbolic destruction. The Arab was only to be preserved as a benevolent subject who attributed and tolerated his backwardness to himself, as a politically immature being who conforms to the needs of the world economy, be it under direct European tutelage or under the rule of local autocrats.

The western world in particular did not treat the Arabs as equal citizens of the world. Firstly, the fact that many Arabs rejected the role they were supposed to play on the periphery of world society was ignored; political and social discourses in the Arab world were often simply ignored in the West. Second, the diversity of lifestyles that exist among nomadic ranchers, wealthy and educated urban citizens, humble housewives and the outspoken parliamentarian has not been recognized. For these reasons, it has never been explained how Arab societies created such breeding grounds for terrorism - be it the hijackers of yore or their most recent rebirths: the mass executioners, headhunters and rapists in the name of jihad. Second, the image of the "bad Arab" ignores the fact that this extreme violence hits the Arabs themselves first and foremost.

Where is the Arab world?

In contrast to these distinctive and false attributions, the Arab world refuses any definition, regardless of whether it is geographical, ethnic or cultural. As the venue for numerous geopolitical disputes from the 16th century onwards, the Arab world was assigned to different regions, which seldom included all areas in which people spoke Arabic and which often included other non-Arab areas. From the 16th to the early 20th century, large parts of the Arab world belonged at times to the Ottoman Empire or had to pay tribute to it. Large areas of today's Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates and Morocco, unlike the Balkans, were never subordinate to the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, the Arab world became the scene of the Great Game, a 100-year-old contest between Great Britain and Russia for supremacy in Central Asia. An American naval strategist coined the term “Middle East” for the region between “Arabia and India” and meant the Arab world, which except for Egypt lacks the North African part, supplemented by Iran, Turkey and Afghanistan, sometimes even Pakistan. The German term »Middle East« describes an area whose geographical boundaries are also not clearly defined. Sometimes it refers to the Middle Eastern Arab states and Israel, sometimes Egypt, Iran or even Turkey are included. Another name is MENA, "Middle East and North Africa"; it is used regularly by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It includes the aforementioned regions as well as the North African states of the Arab world.

The Arab world itself describes its regions as a territory that lies between sunrise, Al-Maschreq (Orient, Orient or East), and sunset, Al-Maghreb (Occident or West). Arab geographers in the so-called heyday of Islam (8th to 13th centuries) differentiated the area between the Atlantic Ocean and Persian Gulf into the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Jazira al-Arabiyya, the heartland of the Arab tribes (today's Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States), with Bilad al-Barbar (Somalia) and Ard al-Habascha (Ethiopia) marking the border at the Horn of Africa; Bilad al-Sham (today Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine); Bilad al-Rafidayn (Iraq, literally Mesopotamia); Misr or Ard al-Kinana (Egypt) and Bilad al-Sudan (an area much larger than North and South Sudan because it overlaps with Egypt and Libya in the north); Al-Ifriqiyya (present-day Tunisia, eastern Algeria and western Libya); Al-Maghrib al-Aqsa or Marrakech (Morocco and parts of Mauritania) and finally Al-Andalus (the Iberian Peninsula at the time of the Muslim conquest). Some of the terms are still used in the Arab world today, others have been used again for several years - with preference by Islamists - to make geographical claims clear, for example.

Not a monolith: ethnically, politically or religiously

Against this background, what is "the Arab world" and who are "the Arabs"? In order to grasp history and geography more clearly and to avoid the conflict of names and images, it can help to proceed in the opposite way: by first clarifying what the Arab world is not. Ethnically speaking, the Arab world is anything but homogeneous. Those who live in it today and identify themselves as Arabs are by no means all descendants of the Semitic-Arabic tribes who conquered the Sassanid and Byzantine empires under the banner of Islam in the 7th century of the Christian era. Rather, they are the result of centuries of mixing conquerors, migrants, uprooted and displaced people - at a point of contact between three continents.

The approximately 360 million people who populate the Arab world today also include non-Arab ethnicities and communities whose mother tongue is Arabic or not. They include: Iranian language groups such as the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey and the Adscham in Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq, Turkic-speaking groups such as the Turkmens of Iraq and Syria, non-Arabic Semitic language groups such as Jews, Berbers, Assyrians in Iraq and Syria, Copts in Egypt and the Armenians in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan. The non-Arab ethnic communities can also be heavily divided - the Kurds include Shiites, Sunnis, Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians as well as the independent ethno-religious group of the Yazidis.

Politically, too, the Arab world is not a single area. 22 states, in which Arabic is the official language, extend over an area of ​​more than 13 million square kilometers in North and East Africa as well as Southwest Asia. There have been various attempts by Arab states to merge, following the ideas of pan-Arabism, but never more than two or three states took part. All these attempts were unsuccessful, such as the United Arab Republic (UAR) of Egypt and Syria and its confederation with Northern Yemen in the short-lived United Arab States from 1958 to 1961 or the stillborn Arab Islamic Republic of Tunisia and Libya in 1974. Today the Arab countries are integrated into complementary or dysfunctional, rival or overlapping regional organizations, including the Arab League founded in 1945, the Union of the Arab Maghreb, the African Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The history of the Arab world is extremely closely linked to the rise of Islam in the 7th century. However, this was preceded by Christian and Jewish kingdoms in Arabia, the cradle of three world religions and meeting point of great trade routes. The Arab Jews lived all over the region - until, after the establishment of the State of Israel, they were pressured to leave their Arab homelands and emigrate to Israel or the rest of the world. And while Christianity has taken countless forms in the region, most of the Arabs in the Arab world today are Muslims of Sunni denomination. Only five percent of the population are Christians - a number that will fall dramatically in view of the ethno-religious cleansing carried out by the "Islamic State". And although the Arab world only has a quarter of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, most of the countries with the highest percentage of Muslim majority populations can be found in the region: in most of the 22 countries, Muslims make up between 90 percent (Egypt) and almost 100 Percent (Yemen) of the population. Exceptions are Lebanon, Syria and the small Gulf monarchies, where guest workers from Southeast Asia now make up a large part of the population.

A powerful bond that connects the Arabs culturally is their language. Their power is so great that they can bridge differences such as the different regional dialects and the gap between classical standard Arabic and the colloquial language. In this sense, the Arab nationalist Sati al-Husri (1882–1968) has the last word: "An Arab is whoever speaks Arabic, wishes to be an Arab and calls himself an Arab."

This article was published in: Gerlach, Daniel et al .: Atlas of the Arab Spring. A world region in transition, Zeitbild, Federal Agency for Civic Education, Bonn 2016, pp. 16-17.