We often project our current political concerns backwards in time in order to justify ourselves. I say ‘we’ because everyone does it. Nazi Germany invented a mythical blonde Aryan people who had always been kept down by lesser breeds. The Hindu nationalists in India imagine that Hinduism has always been a centralised doctrine rather than a conglomerate of texts and local traditions, and describe Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, Sikh, Jain and animist influences on Indian history as foreign intrusions. Black nationalists in the Americas depict ancient Africa as a continent not of hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers but as a wonderland of kings and queens, gold and silk, science and monumental architecture. To our current cost, Zionists and the neo-cons have been able to reactivate old Orientalist myths in the West, myths in which the entirety of Arab and Islamic history has involved the slaughter and oppression of Christians, Jews, Hindus, women, gays, intellectuals .. and so on.
Such retrospective mythmaking frequently goes to the most absurd extremes in young nations conscious of their weakness or of a need for redefinition (America may be one of these). Probably for that reason it is particularly evident in the Middle East.
Many Muslims go beyond adherence to those concepts and taboos that are necessary for religious belief and idolise or demonise historical figures who have nothing to do with the divine revelation. For many Sunnis, the first caliphs were ‘rightly guided’ saints who could do no wrong. During their reign there was no crime, poverty or injustice in the realm of Islam. For many Shia, the same men (apart from Ali) were decadent criminals. These secular figures were not deities or prophets but human beings working in specific contexts, with all the good and bad and moral ambiguity that implies, but Muslims frequently hold religious positions on their worth. The same applies even to later worldly figures like Haroon ar-Rasheed (saint or criminal) and Salahuddeen al-Ayubbi (likewise; as well as Kurdish traitor and hero of Arabism).
It should be a matter of pride for the Turks that they are a linguistic, genetic and cultural mixture, but Ataturk invented for his new nation a mythology of ancient Turkish (or Turanian) glory. Because the Sumerian language was, like Turkish (and like many other languages), agglutinative, kemalists held the Sumerians to be ancient proto-Turks. Ataturk even promoted an absurd ‘sun-language theory’ which claimed that Turks had invented language itself. After the cultural vandalism done to the Ottoman language to strip it of foreign influence, contemporary kemalists will not admit the presence of loan words in modern Turkish. But still the Turkish words for ideas as basic as ‘thing’, ‘ok’, ‘famous’, ‘busy’ and ‘hello’ are from Arabic. The Turkish for library is ‘kutuphane’ – a mix of Arabic and Farsi. Ask a rigid kemalist about the Arabs, Persians or Kurds, and he’ll reply “kultur yok! – No culture!” Fortunately kemalism is finally on the retreat in Turkey.
In Iran I heard someone explain that Islam was a barbaric desert religion until it reached the cultured Iranians, who then civilised it. The philosophical, scientific and artistic glories of Islam, even when these flowered in Andalusia, were Persian achievements.
Zionism has created a myth of continuous Jewish bloodlines linking Israelis back to Roman Palestine, although a more scientific approach suggests that today’s Palestinians are at least as closely linked genetically to the ancient Israelites. Even more ignorant than Israelis are their supporters in the United States, many of whom believe that the state of Israel, rather than being founded by terror and ethnic cleansing in 1948, has been there since Moses (supposedly) crossed the Red Sea. They don’t know the difference between Syria and Assyria, or between Ahmadinejad and Nebuchadnezzar.
And then there’s someone who left hysterical, racist and even on occasion personally threatening comments on my own blog (he presumed, falsely, that I was an Iranian). I shall call him Mr. X. His point of view, though a perversion of old Arabist ideas, is currently encouraged by the pro-American Arab regimes.
Mr. X says that the great Arab people invented writing, irrigation and cities, built the pyramids, and have been fighting to protect civilisation from Persian barbarians for thousands of years. Although he implicitly admits that Persians have been around for thousands of years, he says they aren’t part of the region. Neither are Turks. We must assume that Turkmen, Kurds, Armenians and other non-Arabs are also foreigners in this pure region.
President Nasser’s Arab nationalism considered any speaker of Arabic to be an Arab. Baathists in Syria and Iraq extended the definition through time to include past speakers of extinct Semitic languages – such as Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician and Babylonian – which are related to Arabic. There is no reason why Arabs should not take pride in the history of the peoples who lived in this area before us, and whose culture the Arabs have in some way or other inherited. But we need to keep this pride in perspective. Scientific descriptions of peoples are linguistic, not racial, as there is no way to keep tabs on who breeds with who. Today’s Arabs are a mixture of Semitic, Indo-European, Turkic, Mongol and African genes. (So, for that matter, are today’s Iranians). The Sumerians were probably racially very similar to the people who live in southern Iraq today, but their language was not Semitic. It was the Sumerians who invented writing and cities – so you need to stretch reality further than it will comfortably go to say that writing was invented by the Arabs. As for fighting off the barbarians – the first barbarians the Sumerians had to deal with were Semitic barbarians invading the fertile river plains from the desert. These barbarians later became supremely civilised Akkadians. Some centuries later, the Semites of Mesopotamia were fighting off Amorites – more Semitic barbarians from the desert. What is now Iran was also the scene of constant barbarian invasion. The people of present-day Iraq invaded Iran, and the people of Iran invaded Iraq. Sometimes the Iraqis were more civilised than the Iranians, and sometimes it was the other way round. The first documented use of the term ‘Arab’ is in an Assyrian text of the 9th century BC, thousands of years after civilisation rose in Mesopotamia. In this context, a narrative of glorious Arabs in a millenial struggle to hold off Persian barbarians is clearly absurd.
The idea that Arabs built the pyramids is as bad. Ancient Egyptians were not even Semites. The ancient Egyptian language was a member of the Nilo-Saharan family, not the Semitic family (modern Ethiopians who speak Amharic, however, are the speakers of a Semitic language, although they don’t speak Arabic, and so are not considered part of the Arab world). Although Egyptians have often intermarried with Semites, especially since the arrival of Islam, there is still an obvious racial difference between them and their eastern neighbours.
It is good to be proud of the peoples who came before us, and legitimate to use their achievements to remind ourselves that Arabs are not programmed to be weak and subservient. But it is illogical to suppose that Arabs are the only inheritors of these ancient cultures. Agriculture started in the Middle East (maybe not something to be proud of), and ancient Middle Eastern genes spread into Europe and Russia as the first agriculturalists colonised outwards. Culturally, most of the world has inherited irrigation, the alphabet, the gods of the Orontes and the Nile, the stories of Noah and Job.
This isn’t an attack on Arabism or the Arab identity. I am a big supporter of an intelligent Arabism which recognises and celebrates the diversity of the Arab peoples, from Morocco to Oman, as well as their commonalities. I wish there were far more unity of purpose and cooperation between Arabs. This is an attack on intolerant Arabist mythmaking which, like its Turkish variant, is fortunately on the decline. People like Mr. X are a very small but noisy minority, given more volume by the media amplifiers of the client regimes as they deflect attention from the imperialist and Zionist enemy towards Iran. In Syria the nationalist myths were never aggressively intolerant anyway, unlike in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq. But I ask the surviving dreamers: where has extreme mythical nationalism got anybody? Do you really think it will help to solve our region’s problems? Isn’t it possible to hold strong political positions and to desire true independence without being stupidly simplistic? Isn’t it possible to be proud of your people without being a fascist?