A question of definition

It seemed like a nice idea to start a blog on the Arab world, doesn’t it? Unfortunately this is somewhat complicated. Like everyone that has ever written a story, how small and insignificant the story might have been, I will be confronted with an enormous problem.

For example: a couple of months ago, the Occupy movement started to raise its voice on the, in their view, criminal world of banks. It all started very spontaneously and looked like an important protest. But as the protest got on and the movement grew, the goals and complaints of the Occupy-movement became less and less clear. What did these people actually wanted to achieve? What were they against? Because of the spontaneous nature of the protest, the members of the movement hadn’t had enough time to make up their mind and to set themselves a clear goal. The public (being: the people who didn’t join and saw the protests on television) became more and more sceptical. Maybe these Occupyers were only a bunch of drug addicts and unemployed?

Now what I want to clarify by giving this example, is the fact that an convincing and reliable story can only be told when clear definitions are used. In the example, some said that the Occupy movement didn’t form a clear definition as to what was the problem and how they wanted it to be solved. In my case, it is important to elaborate what I mean by ”Arab world” and ”Middle East” and ”Islam”, terms that will often be read on this weblog.

Officially, the term Arab world refers to Arab-speaking states, which includes regions in North Africa and Western Asia. Now this definition again evokes some practical problems. For example: What is an Arab-speaking state? Is Marocco an Arab-speaking state, although a lot of people who live there speak Berbers?

Moreover, what do we mean by Western Asia? And, more importantly, what do we mean by Middle East? This terms suggest that the US and Europe are the ”Western countries”, which is of course an assumption full of subjectivity and Eurocentricity. Ask an Indonesion where he lives, and he probably won’t immediately say he lives in the East.

Does your world map look like this?

The usage of this sort of terms is ofcourse inevitable- one simply has to be able to talk about certain areas and hence needs this sort of terms. But using terms like this automatically involves making value judgements. When newspapers talk about the Western world, they mean in particular the prosperous areas of Europe and the US and not the less flourishing parts of Europe and the US. In short, it is important to realise that, when reading any article, language simply limits us in what we are able to say.

Despite these complications, one can’t deny that there is some truth to be found in terms like Arab world. After all, there are cultural elements that are shared by various countries. Looking at these elements (language, architecture, clothing, etc.) one can try to define a region. In the Middle East (there it is again) there are countries that share these elements, but also differ from one another. Let’s start with the unity before adressing the diversity.


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