Prisms is an endeavour that seeks to draw light from the intractable, inter-connected questions concerning Arab subjectivity and agency in the modern and contemporary periods. What does it mean to be Arab today, and what has it meant since the Arab populations’ patchwork assimilation of the globalised foundations of modernity, such as individualism, rationalism, the nation-state model, capitalism, democracy, and consumer culture? Are Arabs today, and were they in the past, the main authors of their identity? What social and cultural functions does identity, as an ethno-nationalist category, serve in Arab societies today?
"The 'Arab Nation' would perhaps make more sense as a collective horizon of expectations rather than a tenable geocultural continuum."
Perhaps the most ambitious attempt to assert a collective Arab identity in a modern idiom is the notion of an “Arab Nation” – Al Ummah Al Arabiyah – that gained popularity during the period of pan-Arab nationalism. However, faced with the bewildering array of political, economic, social, and cultural crises affecting the Arab peoples, this notion might seem acutely, even comically, inadequate as a geocultural frame of reference and analysis.
Given the constant upheavals rattling the region across the tenacious fault lines of creed, sect, tribe, nation, race, gender, and class, the “Arab Nation” would perhaps make more sense as a collective horizon of expectations rather than a tenable geocultural continuum. These expectations might be reassuring to some Arabs due to the implied prospects of a linguistically and historically grounded identity embracing millions within its fold, and of a future solidarity that could transform their shattered hopes into a modern version of the fabled glories of the “Islamic Golden Age”.
"We recall the 'Arab Nation' to draw attention to historical contradictions inherent in the ideological vocabulary that many Arabs have adopted as the reference point for a collective identity."
That the “Arab Nation” is anachronistic nomenclature might be evident in light of Jamal Abdul Nasser’s failed attempt at pan-Arabism – a failure whose roots were planted well before Israel’s spectacular defeat of the allied Arab armies in 1967.
Here, we recall the “Arab Nation” to draw attention to historical contradictions inherent in the ideological vocabulary that many Arabs have adopted as the reference point for a collective identity. Among the most prominent terms in this vocabulary are the geographic designations of “Arab world”, “Islamic world”, and “Middle East”, as well as the narrative designations of “Middle East conflict”, “war on terror”, “clash of civilisations”, and, most recently, “radical Islamic terrorism”.
Seen through a broad historical lens, these terms and others may be traced to the profoundly asymmetrical epistemic encounters that have taken place between the Arab “Orient” and Euro-American West as far back as Napoleon’s 1798 invasion of Egypt.
On one hand, we find European and North American agents with well-developed agendas and technologies of coercion, and discourses in which “progress” and “civilisation” are conflated with “modernity,” the latter finding its natural expression in the capitalist nation-state.
On the other, we find the “Arabs”, a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional collectivity scattered across a vast geographic terrain. Yet, they are linked by a standardised language, various cultural traditions, and overlapping historical trajectories of migration and settlement.
Overcome by an external power that attempts to define, delineate, categorise, and institutionalise the fundamentals of modern Arab subjectivity, in terms adapted to colonial/imperial scripts, many Arabs have struggled with the challenge of grounding their modern identities in an Arabised context.
"In resorting to these categories while searching for their identity, Arabs write themselves into historical narratives in which they are often the antagonists or supporting characters – never the protagonists."
Consequently, they have taken to designating and perceiving themselves as part of a “Middle East,” i.e., a zone of strategic interests whose conflicts are instigated, (mis)managed, and/or (never) resolved by others. Arabs have also regarded themselves as part of a vast but circumscribable “Arab world”, where rampant poverty, illiteracy, corruption, grossly inflated public sectors, convoluted bureaucracies, and authoritarianism all supposedly stand as clear signs of a failed transition to capitalist modernity. So too have they considered themselves part of an “Islamic world” that, ostensibly ignoring or failing to absorb the globalised ethics of secular humanism, refuses to exclude religion as a central factor in the codifications and exercise of political power.
In resorting to these categories while searching for their identity, Arabs write themselves into historical narratives in which they are often the antagonists or supporting characters – never the protagonists.
Such quandaries are compounded by a host of contemporary crises. To gain a sense of their scope and complexity, one need only scan the daily headlines for news of civil wars in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Libya involving shifting constellations of local, national, regional, and international actors and alliances. Six years since the revolution that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak, Egypt continues to be in a state of flux. Elsewhere, in Bahrain, Kuwait, and the larger Gulf region, tensions between Sunnis and Shiites remain.
Other issues revolve around Daesh, whose xenophobic ideology, actions, and propaganda depend on a grotesquely cynical co-option of religion by politics, and whose geopolitical agenda has triggered profound levels of anxiety regarding the future of Arab lands.
"An alternative discourse is needed for a de-subalternised Arab identity to emerge: An identity that can come to terms with, and find its way out of, centuries of epistemic domination."
But, perhaps, the most noted crisis of them all is the plight of the Palestinian people, whose failure to break the yoke of Israel’s occupation has often been described as the most powerful symbol of the geopolitically tenuous position of “Arabness”. For the Arab collective, the Palestinian plight is a postscript of colonial rule written in bolded capital letters.
Arab identity continues to exist in a state of limbo, betraying the nebulous nature of its core every time it is used in conventional language. Clearly, an alternative discourse is needed for a de-subalternised Arab identity to emerge: An identity that can come to terms with, and find its way out of, centuries of epistemic domination, as well as decades of regional strife, ranging from armed violence and economic stagnation, to social anomie and intellectual lethargy.
In the hope of casting light on the numerous questions about Arab identity and agency in the 21st century, The Delma Institute is launching Prisms: A bilingual and multi-local project designed to raise difficult questions that demand thorough answers.
"Prisms aims to illuminate the multiple trajectories of contact and exchange, formation and transformation that have defined the region through their historically layered movements."
While Prisms takes West Asia and North Africa as the geographic point of departure for its inquiries, it does not restrict itself to this region or its primarily Arab populations. Rather, Prisms aims to illuminate the multiple trajectories of contact and exchange, formation and transformation that have defined the region through their historically layered movements.
Along with thematic inquiries into specific Arab theatres, Prisms will also look at Arab communities that left and those that arrived, or were always “here”. One such trajectory is that taken by the Arab diaspora, with Arab integration into new cultures and polities offering insight into identity formation and reformation in diaspora; a mirror for the “old country”, perhaps. Another example is the history and development of the minorities who form(ed) a core part of Arab identity(ies). How have the identities of those who do not or cannot identify as Arab shaped (and been shaped by) identities in the “Arab world”? In between these larger studies, we will also take a visual-heavy approach to exploring texts, anthems, and flags.
Prisms envisions each of its studies as a spectrum through which the light of a leading question scatters in many directions. By adopting a contextualised approach to the past, Prisms hopes to uncover the alterity of the present, finding within it signposts for a journey towards more self-critical futures.