- Everyday Arab Identity: The Daily Reproduction of the Arab World by Christopher Phillips
The question about whether "Arab politics is still Arab" as Jerrold Green once put it, constitutes a classic issue in Middle East scholarship. The question has often been framed in terms of whether the idea of a special bond existing between Arabic-speaking peoples is a spent force or not. Most recently, it has been debated whether the Arab Uprisings mark the "end of" or a "return of" Arabism. However, another trend in recent scholarship about Arabism is less concerned with the question about whether Arabism is dead or alive and more interested in how Arabism has been transformed, how this has happened, and how new forms of Arabism relate to other collective identities based on Islam or the territorial state.
Everyday Arab Identity belongs to this trend, but is at the same time critical to some of the recent studies about "New Arabism." The overall puzzle of the volume is why Arabs have maintained a sense of Arab identity despite the frequent proclamations for the last 40 years of the death of Arabism. Christopher Phillips asks against this background what Arabism means today; why the ruling regimes have maintained Arab identity; how the current form of Arabism interacts with state identity; and how Arabism and state nationalism are (re)produced.
In the five analytical chapters of the book, these research questions are examined by means of an analytical strategy consisting of a critical review of the existing literature on "Old" and "New" Arabisms; a constructive engagement with classic and more recent nationalism theory, specifically Michael Billig's notion of "banal nationalism;" the employment of a comparative case-study of the daily reproduction, in particular in state and transnational satellite media, of Arab and state identity in contemporary Syria and Jordan involving ethnographic interviews; an in-depth analysis of a week of television as well as of Al Jazeera's coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games; and finally, a historical overview of the official national identity discourse under Hafiz and Bashar al-Asad as well as Kings Husayn and 'Abdullah II.
The specific argument advanced by Phillips is that Syrians and Jordanians retain a strong sense of Arab identity because Arabism has been a central component of each ruling regime's nationalist discourse [End Page 329] for decades. While this identity may have been reenergized by the new transnational Arab satellite media, it is not at the expense of the state identity. Contrary to the failed "old" unitary Arab nationalism of Nasser and Sati' al-Husri, this kind of Arabism should be perceived as supranationalism in the Benedict Andersonian sense of an "imagined community," but without any aspiration for a sovereign nation. Instead, it operates alongside and in support of individual Arab state nationalism to which it is subordinate, though still politically and culturally salient. A final feature is that these multilayered identity discourses, while consciously constructed by elites, are now reproduced every day in largely routine and everyday manners.
Everyday Arab Identity engages in and contributes to a number of debates and should be of interest to several audiences. One is obviously area specialists with a particular interest in (comparing) Syria and Jordan. Although the general historical account about the state/nation-building process will be well known, including the point about a Hashemite Arabism different from the Ba'thi version, it is interesting to learn, for instance, how state television in Jordan in some senses appears more Arabist than in the Ba'thi Syria.
Besides Jordan or Syria aficionados, the volume also deserves attention from those interested in the general debate about how Arabism may have been transformed rather than terminated. In addition to a number of conceptual innovations — supranationalist Arabism, nationalist Arabism, and everyday Arabism — useful to grasp different kinds of Arabism, Phillips also provides a nuanced critique of some of the widely held assumptions about "New Arabism," including its "newness," its relationship to Islamism, its market-driven nature, and its impact on state sovereignty, and he offers against...