The Arab World
©2000 Reem Regina Tatar

In Halim Barakat's book, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State, Barakat provides a scholarly and informative analysis of the Arab world. Barakat examines Arab society and culture by explaining and defining its diversity. He uses examples of various Arab countries and patterns of living, as well as political and social thought to illustrate the rich culture and history of the Arab world. Barakat also examines the major issues of Arab identity, social structures, politics, and religion. These elements culminate in an enlightening, interesting, and thorough presentation of Arab society.

In analyzing Arab identity, Barakat states the most fundamental element that brings Arabs together is the Arabic language. The nahdha, or renaissance, represents what many Arabs hope to achieve in their society: political and social integration. Barakat argues that although the Arabs have not been successful in doing this so far, he still believes there is hope. Barakat leans toward secular society as being more beneficial to the Arabs. However, he acknowledges that there are various religions within the Arab world that play a tremendous role in the lives of Moslems, Maronites, Druze, and Alawites, to name a few. Another important theme describing Arab identity is group relations and how Arabs relate to one another. Barakat states that it is very important for Arabs to identify with eachother in groups. Also, the society is a patriarchal one, which means the father has authority in the family and men dominate the power in society.

Barakat classifies Arab society as homogenous, pluralistic, and mosaic. An example of a homogenous society, one that is mainly the same throughout, is found in Egypt and Tunisia. The main population in these countries is Moslem. The pluralistic society, which has one main community taking precedence over a few smaller ones, can be found in Syria. Seventy percent of Syria is Sunni, while the Alawi, Christians, and others have a much less percentage. The mosaic society, which has no majority and contains strong communal cleavages, is in Lebanon. Lebanon contains Maronite Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Moslems, Druze, and others. Barakat describes attributes of Bedouin, rural, and urban societies in the Arab world. He also examines the various classes within urban society: traditional bourgeoisie, national bourgeoisie, and the impoverished masses. Ultimately, one common bond that Arabs share, regardless of religion or nationality, is that they all have experienced national disasters, faced rejection from the west, and experienced unsteady relations with Israel, which has been a relentless political conflict.

I will now discuss the Arab family and Arab politics. I will examine family first because the family is the "basic unit of socio-economic strength" in society and has seniority over all economic, social, and political matters of society. Barakat goes into great lengths about the strong Arab family bond, and the various elements of it: the actions of the children affect the family's image for good or for bad, and the mother is often in self-denial, putting her family's needs before her own. It is undeniable that the family is the center of Arab society. However, Arab society as a whole has suffered because of the family's devotion to one another instead of putting the needs of the state first.

This now brings us to Arab politics and movements. Barakat describes three major movements, which have attempted to put the state first and reform the Arab world. The nationalist movements are local, regional, and pan-Arab. Influential revolutionaries involved are the pan-Arabists, the Ba'th party. Nasser of Egypt played a tremendous role in "umma:" bringing the Arabs together as one nation. However, Barakat argues that the nationalists failed in their attempt because they contributed much time toward the conflict with Israel and not enough devotion to the support of the Arab people. Also, they abused the power that their positions as rulers brought them, which contributed to their decline. Aside from the regimes mentioned above, there is also the radical Moslem Brotherhood. This group does not approach the unification of society in the way that pan-Arabists or other nationalists do. Many conflicts have arisen due to the fact that there are various political approaches, each with their own viewpoints on how to unify Arab society.

Barakat explores value orientation: the symbols, ethics, norms, concepts, beliefs, and difference in values that characterize the Arab world. He states that social class and where a person lives has much to do with Arab value differences. Barakat gives many examples of how orientalists and westerners have tried to characterize and generalize Arab values. He uses the examples of an orientalist named Patei, in order to debunk the myths that orientalists have created. Barakat examines the values of fatalism versus free will, shame versus guilt, and conformity versus creativity, among many others, to show that Arabs are not fatalism-shame-conformity oriented but that their society contains all elements of the dual values mentioned above.

For example, Arabs should not be characterized as only believing in "fate" (meaning that they believe in a predestined life course formulated by the divine rather than the ability to choose their own path and life actions.) Arabs are capable of making their own life decisions and determining their own actions. Arabs have also been stereotyped as being heart-spirit-faith oriented people. Barakat suggests that westerners should not characterize the Arab world as a culture of the heart, which lacks reason and logic. While it is true that many Arabs are emotional and religious, it is not fair to disregard their logical and rational minds. Barakat also discusses Arab creative and literary pursuits. Literature often reflects the social issues of the Arabs. Barakat mentions writers such as Naguib Mahfouz who portrays Egyptian society "more comprehensively and accurately than the works of all the social scientists put together."

The final topic I will discuss in Barakat's book is religion in Arab society, primarily Islam. Barakat uses a sociological approach in studying the elements of religion: its social origins, religion and sect, official and popular religion, and its functions. He uses the viewpoints of various philosophers, psychologists, and others, including Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud to examine religion and its purpose. Ultimately, Barakat concludes from their examinations that religion is an "expression in one form or another of a sense of dependence on a power outside ourselves." Barakat comments on the function of the sect, which is a social organization of people in a community that are affiliated with each other. He says that sects have more power in the eastern Arab world than religion does. Some examples of sects are the Druze, Sunni, and Catholic Christian communities.

Barakat asserts that religion does not play a strong role of "spiritual, moral, or integrative force" to Arabs anymore. Religion has not been used by traditional governments for its spiritual nature, but has been more of a political tool for controlling the people. He states that rulers in the Arab world have often used religion to control the masses and to prevent people from rebelling. Also, an interesting point that Barakat adds is that religious believers view the image of the father in the family in association with the image of God. God and father are given opposing traits, such as being both merciful and authoritarian. Barakat also explores how Arabs have tried to unite the Moslem world by returning to the fundamentals of Islam. However, he sites the problem with this approach is that Arabs return to tradition and the past. Barakat concludes "what religion lacks in the contemporary context are a vision and a program for the future."

Halim Barakat provides an extensive well of information about the Middle East. He goes into careful detail about the Arab culture, family life, religion, politics, and more. Barakat has also done an excellent job of debunking the myths that some orientalists and westerners hold about Arabs. He uses many factual examples about the Arab world with an unbiased approach. Barakat proves that careful examination of various credible sources will bring true knowledge and wisdom, rather than relying upon quick and superficial stereotypes.