Arabs, Arab-Americans and Globalization

Dr. Houda Gamal Abdul Nasser

The Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) held its 30th Annual Convention at Georgetown University, October 31-November 2. Dr. Houda Gamal Abdul Nasser presented the following address as the keynote speaker at the Saturday evening banquet:

Your choice of "Arabs, Arab-Americans and Globalization" as the topic for discussion in your society’s 30th annual convention was quite stimulating. So much has been written about globalization and there is such a broad diversity of opinions on the course of its future development and its effects on the international map.

Globalization is not a new phenomenon. We find models for it in the past in both traditional and economic colonialism. However, the incredible complexity of this phenomenon today and the intricate interplay between its variables gives weight to your society’s initiative in examining this topic from a new angle. I also anticipate that these discussions will extend beyond the treatment of the Arab perspective on globalization to produce possible solutions for contending with the national problems generated by globalization, now and in light of the future potential of the Arab world.

Arab Americans occupy a unique position in the context of globalization. They are living at the hub of the rapid changes that are taking place in the world today and, at the same time, they maintain a deep emotional attachment to their countries of origin. This attachment, moreover, has been enhanced by the very products of globalization. I refer, above all, to the advanced communications technology which has functioned, on the one hand, to transfer the forces of globalization to the rest of the world and, on the other, to strengthen the bonds of language, culture, customs and tradition between Arab Americans and their original homelands.

I believe that Arab Americans, in light of their vantage point at this crossroads, are capable of playing a constructive role in the dialogue that is now taking place in the Arab world on globalization. They have a unique perspective to contribute with regard to the effects of globalization on the Arab World and how best to devise the means to benefit from it and to counter its most detrimental aspects. Simultaneously, because of their influence inside America’s multicultural society, they are in an excellent position to communicate to the West the other side of the picture: the difficulties which globalization creates in developing societies which have not yet been able to reconcile the material demands of globalization with their social and economic circumstances, as well as cultural and moral values. Even more, I believe that Arab Americans, with some organization, can bring some of the benefits of globalization, notably the infinite opportunities it offers for influencing opinion, to the service of the Arab cause, thereby countering Israel’s attempts to take advantage of these channels of communication.

From my standpoint in Egypt, I perceive a sort of contradiction between the forces of globalization and the material and moral realities in the Arab World, with consequent disparities, disequilibrium and stagnation in many aspects of life. It is a situation that demands careful thought and speedy action. Otherwise we will find ourselves lagging far behind other countries, still wrangling over concepts that had been controversial in the beginning of the 20th century and have been brought to the surface again in order to distract us from fundamental issues that should occupy the focus of our attention.

The first problem which the Arab World must contend with in the face of globalization is how to protect Arab national identity and Arab culture. The U.S. is seeking to project American culture as a model for a global culture that should be disseminated over international communications networks, with no restrictions whatsoever. This process is indicative of logic that presupposes that national cultures — such as Arab culture — inherently pose an ideological obstacle to any fundamental change fostered by the global capitalist system.

The situation gives rise to an age old question, but one that is now all the more compelling because of the nature of technological progress and globalization. How does Arab culture stand in face of the western cultural invasion which is becoming increasingly pervasive in the contemporary world? How does the situation today at the end of the 20th century differ from that of the beginning of the century?
Firstly, while the western cultural invasion of the Arab World has precipitated isolationist tendencies, cultural factors have not always been the impetus for the spread of this form of reaction. Economic factors as they reflect social imbalances and injustices have been at least as operable as the ideological rejection of Western culture and the Western life style.

Secondly, the predominant thinking in the U.S. and the West in general is the spread of global culture through consumerism, global market strategies and advanced media capabilities will radically alter people’s lifestyles and ways of thinking. In other words, global culture will liberate people from place and time. I believe that this perception is unrealistic. The change generated by these processes does not necessarily spell the end of localized culture. Nor does it ordain that every locale will undergo the same changes in life style. Additionally, the perception overlooks how the process will vary in its effects within different social classes and at different educational levels. Moreover, it cannot be assumed that the course of change will parallel that which has occurred in Western culture.

Thirdly, there is a marked difference between the evolution of cultural identity in the Arab World and the U.S. In the Arab World culture evolved around dominant ethnic centers in which an array of common values, myths and legends, and cultural symbols facilitated the formation of Arab identity. The U.S., by contrast, is a nation which was not forged from a common past. The U.S. was built predominantly by immigrants who acquired American nationality; the process of building bonds of national and cultural affiliation within America’s geographical boundaries began afterwards. Against this background, is it possible to reconcile national culture with globalization? How will Arab culture define itself with respect to global culture?

Here the forces of globalization themselves must be taken into account. These forces function to disassociate culture from place, which constitutes a primary challenge to national cultures. Yet they are the selfsame forces which bind Arab minorities abroad to their countries of origin. Advanced communications technology has permitted what has been termed "long distance nationalities," a phenomenon that has regenerated the emotional bonds of Arab communities abroad to their homelands and intensified their sense of Arab cultural identity. This means that two forces are at work. Not only is their centrifugal flow of culture outwards from the core countries to those countries in the periphery; but there is also a centripetal flow of culture that can contribute to reaffirming and strengthening Arab culture.

But the Arab world faces a second dilemma — the encroachment of the forces of globalization on the authority of the nation state. Increasingly, we risk the transfer of the decision-making process regarding many aspects of life away from our countries to foreign governments, international organizations, multi-national companies or NGOs. The state in the Arab World is extremely important as a symbol of national identity. Not only does it have the task to steer the country towards domestic economic and social equilibrium, it also takes the lead in the expression of national culture. The deliberate weakening of the forces of the nation state may well give rise to chaos and domestic strife and further the spread of extremism.

Arab Americans have an important role to play here. They understand the American mentality and therefore can serve as an effective channel for conveying to the U.S. public opinion the reactions of the Arab World and for advocating ways in which Western policy can accommodate these reactions. Arab Americans are in an excellent position to press home the message that the so-called "one world" is in fact a dynamic and complex one. There is much more involved than merely linking up to the material means of a global order consisting of leading nations and dependent ones. Indeed the most threatening indication of how things can go awry is the fact that advanced communications technology has provided radical fundamentalist and ethnic groups a way to rock stability in the West itself.

I believe that the Arab World can and must move toward turning globalization to the advantage of its national interests. What encourages this course of action is the presence of the Arabs’ main enemy - Zionism - which exploits the forces of globalization to further its own ends. Zionism has the advantage of having developed and enhanced its international organizational mechanisms since the turn of this century. Among the many ways Israel seeks to press its current advantage is by trying to use capital market mechanisms in order to make itself an intermediary between the Arabs and the West. It is also seeking to dominate the channels of international media in order to constantly project the Zionist point of view.

In order to counter this, the Arabs should try to maintain direct economic relations with the West without intermediaries. At the same time, we should develop our capacity to influence events in the world, particularly as we possess the human potential, the material capacities and the strategic advantages to facilitate this task.

Towards this end, the Arab countries must move quickly to organize a regional bloc that can counter the form of global economic division of labor which the countries at the core of the globalization process want to impose on the countries of the periphery.

I believe that the Arab World has a distinct advantage in this regard as any steps we take toward Arab unification will serve to enhance Arab nationalism. As we move toward this course, however, we should not overlook the many difficulties and contradictions that surround the process of reviving the notion of a united Arab bloc in the world of today in which economic and cultural boundaries are falling by the wayside and in which the number of actors are increasing at both the international and domestic levels. We also have to contend with the pressures that the West is exerting on Arab governments in order to hinder the creation of such a geographical grouping, as well as the challenges of the Arab-Israeli conflict, not to mention the problems that some Arab governments fabricate with one another.

It will be a difficult enterprise at both the planning and implementing phases. However there is no other alternative. As we move forward in this direction, we should keep in mind the pan-Arab enterprise that was revived in the sixties at a critical phase in the struggle against colonialism. This historical experience, in spite of its setbacks, still offers many important lessons that can guide us. We are now at another very critical phase in our history, one that has brought new dynamics into play. To meet the challenges of this phase, we must revive the Arab national enterprise in a new format that conforms with the demands of this age in which we are living, if we are to protect the Arab World in the long run.

An Arab bloc is the most valid framework — not only because of our historical and cultural heritage but for very practical reasons — for safeguarding Arab interests in a world that is heading towards a global order based on an inequitable division between its member nations. I believe that they key to overcoming the obstacles that hinder the creation of such an Arab bloc lies in each Arab country developing the conviction that, on its own, it is too weak to stand up against the forces of globalization. Unfortunately, time is not on our side. We must move quickly and intellectuals, politicians, and NGOs in the Arab World must double their efforts. It is a major undertaking and Arab Americans, too, have an integral and constructive role to play.

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