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Shifting Attitudes on Arab Identity

Talk of the Nation: October 2, 2006

Shifting Attitudes on Arab Identity


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Michel Martin in Washington.

And from time to time on TALK OF THE NATION we check in with Beirut based syndicated columnist Rami Khouri for a conversation about events occurring in the Arab world. In his latest column that appeared over the weekend, Rami Khouri wrote about his recent visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He described a shift in attitudes among younger Arabs.

Rami Khouri joins us on the phone from Beirut, Lebanon. Welcome.

Mr. RAMI KHOURI (The Daily Star, Beirut, Lebanon): Thank you.

MARTIN: In your column you wrote, if you want to get a sense of which way the wind is blowing in society you should consult its youth or its best opinion pollsters. You had a chance to do both in Dubai. Tell us what you found.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, I spent the day in Dubai only, but it was an extraordinary day because I was with 50 young - relatively young - middle aged and young at heart Dubai citizens, United Arab Emirates citizens, who were - most of them were government officials. And they were there for a one day seminar at the Dubai school of government, which is newly set up and was helped to be established by the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government. So it’s a very serious project.

And what I felt with these citizens of Dubai was really quite clear in terms of their identity, the changing nature of their world view, their view of themselves and their own citizenship and their place in the Arab and Islamic world and the wider world.

And then I was talking to John Zogby, this very prominent American pollster - one of the leading American pollsters now - and he’s been doing surveys in the Arab world and his surveys have been showing the same results. So it was nice as a journalist to have social science research evidence to back up my hunch.

And both from what John was finding in his surveys and what I was finding talking to people is that young people are changing their attitudes. They’re being more confident about their own national identity as citizens of United Arab Emirates or Kuwait or Jordan or Syria or whatever. That the national identities of people are becoming a little bit more firm as the regional identities and regional political issues and wider Islamic sentiments become more complex and in many cases, problematic politically and because of the violence and the unsettled issues.

And there’s a middle class emerging. This is the other important thing. There are a lot of people who are middle class in their values and their commitment to education, to rising expectations, job satisfactions, citizenship rights. And this is a very important change that’s happening in different parts of the Arab world. Not all the Arab world, but certainly in the one of the region of the Gulf you can see it.

MARTIN: If you have questions for Rami Khouri or if you’ve recently visited the Middle East and want to share your experiences, give us a call. The number is 800-989-8255. E-mail is

Rami, why is it that you felt encouraged by what you saw as this shift in identity from a pan-Arab view to an identification with one’s own individual country? As you know, we know, you know, nationalism is not, you know, always a force for peace and so forth, why did you find that an encouraging sign?

Mr. KHOURI: Well, I think it’s an encouraging sign because what you’re getting is a better balance I think between the three primary identities that define people in this region, which is their national identity as citizens of a certain country, their wider Arab or pan-Arab identity, and their Islamic identity because most people are Muslims in this region. There’s a 7-8 percent Christian minority, but most people are Muslims. And there is a wide Islamic identity, which is very strong.

But what you’re getting now is a balance between them. What pollsters had found in all previous years that they’d been polling in the last say 10 years or so - which is only the period that polling has been allowed in the Arab world - but they always found that they Islamic and the Arab identities were far stronger than the national identities. Now you’re getting a more balanced view. I think it’s healthier that you can – people feel more proud of their own countries. They’re more committed to working in their own countries.

And that forces them to manifest their rights and their obligations and their expectations as citizens of a country. And they demand certain rights and political terms and economic terms and human rights terms. And they speak out more.

One of the things I found was that the citizens in the Gulf and Dubai and other of the countries I’ve been to, Bahrain, Qatar and other places, they’re much more nuanced in their views.

You know, 10 years ago when you’d meet people in the Gulf they would say, oh, everything’s fine, everything’s great, and we have no problems and the world is fine. And Allah will take care of us and the great leader will take care of us. And the Americans, our friends, will take care of us.

You don’t get that kind of simplistic one dimensional view anymore. People are much more nuanced about what’s good and what’s bad in their societies, in American policy, in other Arab policies. And this is all very healthy, I think.

MARTIN: Do you see, though, perhaps a clash emerging between the views of these folks who you describe as, you know, more modern, financially better off, better educated? You didn’t say secular, but of those – and versus those who believe that Islam should play a stronger and more prominent role in their societies? Do you see a conflict emerging? I mean, that conflict would have to be there inherently, wouldn’t it? Or not? I don’t know.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, there is certainly tension, of course, by – among people who want their societies to be ruled almost totally by Islamic values and people who are very strong in their Islamic values in terms of their moral behavior and the definition of public order and the conduct of public official, but who feel also that they want to enjoy the fruits of modernity.

For instance, wider rights for women. This was a very striking finding in the John Zogby poll, how – and this cuts across most of the region and among men and women. There was very little difference that people felt women should have the right to work outside the home.

Sixty-five, 75, 80 percent, you know, big majorities felt that women should have the right to work outside the home. And not only because it brings in extra income but because it brings the woman fulfillment. And it’s her right as a human being.

And so this was a very important new finding. This is something that the polling that’s being done now and in the near future will try to pin down a little bit more. Is this really a historic change taking place or is this just a little blip and there’s a change for some reason.

But the evidence is quite strong that you’re getting these middle class values that are emerging. And the next question, obviously, in my mind is will this lead to political reform and to political changes, because historically all over the world, as you saw in the Western world in the last 150 years, you saw in eastern Asia in the last 25 years in places like Korea and Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, you saw that economic prosperity brought with it a demand for political participation.

And we’ll have to see if that happens in the Arab world. But there is a tension about people who say that Islamic values are the only way to go. And others who are saying, no, we need to be guided by the moral dictates of Islam. But we need to be also defined by the citizenship rights of constitutional systems of government.

MARTIN: Let’s go to a caller. Let’s go to Centerville, Utah, and Matt.

MATT (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to ask your guest if – I understand that charity and the fighting of inequality and interest, not charging interest economically in loans, are some of the important beliefs of Islam.

Do you truly believe that Middle Eastern and Islamic countries could convert to, quote, unquote, “capitalist democracy” when it so violates their core principles of their religion much as the public policy in America is trying to be led by Christianity? And then I’ll take my answer off the air.

MARTIN: Okay. Thank you, Matt. Thank you for calling.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, I wouldn’t phrase it exactly the way you did. I mean, you know, Islam has been a religion that has accommodated free market enterprise and capitalism for many years. And then the Prophet Mohammed himself was a trader and was involved -

MARTIN: A trader – not a traitor but a trader, like a businessman.

Mr. KHOURI: Trader.


Mr. KHOURI: Like trading, commercial trading. And he was, you know - he would go with caravans and buy and sell. And he was a commercial man.

So what Islam did – what the Islamic religion doesn’t like is that money should make money without any human effort or risk. They feel that it’s wrong to just take lots of money, invest it, put it in a bank account and get 10 percent interest without any risk at a guaranteed return.

They feel that breeds inequality, that money is a function of human effort and human endeavor and creativity and a certain risk. So there’s – so this is a system now that is being very widely developed, Islamic banking, Islamic finance principles, which try to respect the dictates of Islam while at the same time capitalizing on the inherent attractions of free market enterprise and capitalistic finance, so that you get investments and bonds and loans and equity and all the things that capitalism does.

It’s very – it’s a very fast-growing sector of the financial world and the Islamic world. And many people, like the major western banks, Citibank and all the, Chase and all the big banks, are getting into this sector as well.

And this is one of the – really what you’re seeing now more and more in the Arab world and certainly in places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and other Islamic countries is people who are trying to adhere to their Islamic values because they really believe in them and they’re very good values.

And they’re very similar to Christian and Jewish values. There’s not much difference if you read Koran and the Old Testament and the New Testament. They’re pretty similar in their moral values.

They’re trying to find a way to affirm those values in the Islamic context and at the same time enjoy the fruits of modernity, citizenship, human rights, constitutionalism, due process of law, rule of law, all the basic strictures of what is now Western political life.

MARTIN: Let’s go to a caller in Des Moines, Iowa. And Laura.

LAURA (Caller): Oh, hi there. Thanks for taking my call. I want to say hello to the guest and ask a question.

MARTIN: Please do.

LAURA: When you were in Dubai, did you get any sense – you know, here in the states there’s sort of this progressive voice of sort of in the middle reasoning. And I know – I have many Muslim friends. And I know this voice is here in the states, not very loud but this sort of in the middle progressive voice of, you know, sort of condemning, you know – we’ve had these problems with what the Pope has said about Mohammed.

And of course, it kind of – some people sort of ended up turning into that violence that they were saying was not a truth about Islam. And I’m wondering if you found voices there in Dubai that really did understand that that – we need to hear that. I mean especially people in the West need to hear those voices of kind of a progressive Islam, you know, that is -

Mr. KHOURI: Yes. I think those voices are there. And I don’t know if progressive Islam is the way to call it but certainly a moderate, mainstream, normal, everyday decent middle class citizens who are just like people in Des Moines, Iowa, or Salt Lake City, Utah, or Peoria, Illinois. I mean they’re just normal average people who don’t get into political violence, who love their neighbors, who are merciful to everybody and then who try to live by their moral dictates.

The vast majority of people in the Islamic world are like that. The problem is that you only really hear of the small minority of extremists. So you hear of Bin Laden and Zarqawi and these characters a lot more than you hear of the millions and millions of other people. Just like in the U.S. now you hear about, you know, the congressman who carried out unpleasant and unacceptable sexual behavior with their pages.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, let me just stop you right there, Rami, because we don’t know that that occurred. I was – just as a point of clarification.

Mr. KHOURI: Right.

MARTIN: We know there are allegations. We don’t know that that’s actually occurred.

Mr. KHOURI: That’s accusations. Exactly.

MARTIN: They’re accusations of inappropriate contact. Okay.

Mr. KHOURI: Yeah. Right.

LAURA: And just you stating these things I think is important for people to hear here that, you know, the majority of Muslims all over the world are really, you know, just like we are. I think it’s important that you’re bringing that back.

MARTIN: Okay, Laura. Thank you so much for calling. We need to take a pause here. Laura, thank you for calling.

You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Rami, I think the earlier caller does raise a question that would be of significant interest to Americans which is that if there is this trend that you identify toward more of a national identity than a Pan Arabis(ph) identity, what are the implications for the policy questions that most engaged Americans like, for example, the Middle East peace process?

Mr. KHOURI: I think the implications are - we’ve already seen the implications to some extent over the last 10, 15 years which is that people in more and more Arab countries would like to find a way to resolve the Arab/Israeli conflict that is based in law and is fair to everybody, the Arabs, the Israelis, the Palestinians, everybody.

People don’t want this region to keep succumbing to wars and extremist political views, terrorism. I mean, you have to remember terrorism has hit the Arab countries a lot more than its hit the United States. And tens of thousands of Arabs have died because of terror carried out either by their own governments or by terror groups.

So there’s a sense that we need to find a way to solve the Arab/Israeli question because it’s a real major constraint and even a setback to normal national development in most of the other Arab countries, not just in material terms, but in political terms as well that a lot of the autocratic and dictatorial Arab regimes are able to keep those kinds of systems going because they can claim that, well, we are threatened by Israeli and we need to, you know, focus on security more than anything else.

MARTIN: Okay, Rami. I’m going to interrupt you just a minute because I just want to get, see if we have time for one more call. Let’s go to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Steve. Steve, what’s your question?

STEVE (Caller): Hi, Rami. This is Steve Ross here from Baton Rouge. You may remember the name.

Mr. KHOURI: Yes. Hello.

STEVE: How you doing?

Mr. KHOURI: How are you, Steve? Good.

STEVE: I was interested to hear what you had to say about the people getting more and more of a sense of national identity, particularly in the Gulf States that you were talking about.

Mr. KHOURI: Yes.

STEVE: And since you’re from Lebanon, or you live there now, I was wondering what your sense was of the national project in Lebanon.

MARTIN: Okay. Steve, thank you for calling.

Mr. KHOURI: Well, that’s a good question because what you have in Lebanon, especially after this recent war, is a greater polarization. You have the different religious and ethnic and national groups - the Drus, the Armenians, the Christians, the Shia, Sunni, etcetera. All the different groups are much more polarized now.

And the internal tensions in Lebanon are a little bit greater. But the interesting thing is that everybody remains – they keep saying that they remain committed to resolving their internal disputes politically, peacefully, and democratically and not through going back to civil war.

Lebanon’s a peculiar case because it has been since the 1950’s the arena where regional and even global conflicts are played out. And therefore it never can really get on with the nation building project fully until the regional and global tensions are solved.

Before it was the Cold War and Arab/Israeli issues. And now you still have Arab/Israeli issues. Now you have the Iranian/American dispute. You have the conflict in Iraq. You have Hezbollah and Hamas being part of a wider anti- American/anti-Israeli coalition in the region.

So there’s three or four layers of regional and global tensions that play themselves out with surrogate actors inside Lebanon, which is a real problem for Lebanon. And again it forces everybody to focus on trying to resolve the regional issues, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict and also now the Iranian- American nuclear issues.

So what you’re seeing is, I think, a certain maturity and -

MARTIN: Okay, Rami? Rami? Rami, I’m sorry.

Mr. KHOURI: These countries are…

MARTIN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. KHOURI: Pleasure.

MARTIN: Rami Khouri writes a syndicated political column and is editor at large of The Daily Star newspaper. He spoke to us from Beirut, Lebanon.

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