The seminar was attended by a select group of Arab intellectuals from the metropolitan Washington area, including the newly appointed Ambassador of the Arab League to the United States, Dr. Mohammed Rajaa Alhussaini Al Sharif. The seminar started with welcoming remarks from Dr. Jamal Barzinji, Vice President of IIIT and Subhi Ghandour, Director of Al Hewar Center, followed by prepared remarks from Clovis Maksoud and presentations by Dr. Muhammed Finaish, Dr. Daoud Khair Allah, Dr. Mohammad Nimer, Dr. Anwar Haddam and Subhi Ghandour. Following the presentations, a lively discussion ensued, opened by comments and observations from both Dr. Jamal Barzinji and Ambassador Dr. Al Sharif.
Dr. Clovis Maksoud’s written remarks – read on his behalf – focused on the loss of immunity of the Arab UMMA and called for restoring unity through the acknowledgement of diversity and the establishment of citizenship as a basis for securing the rights of minorities and majorities as well. He contends that the spread of the Arab Spring throughout many Arab countries is a positive sign that confirmed the essential unity between Arab people in different countries.
Dr. Mohammad Finaish, economic expert and intellectual of Libyan origin, focused on three points: 1) the role of Arab American community, 2) the question of identity, and 3) the transition to democracy in Arab countries. Regarding the role of the Arab community in the US, he called for a focused attention on active participation in the political process in the US and the education of children to become good American citizens and good Muslims at the same time. In relation to identity, Dr. Finaish identified two pillars: Arabism and Islam, and contended that the Arab Muslim identity is large enough to accommodate all trends and orientations within a democratic system of government that guarantees the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. He concludes that political freedom will not be achieved in the absence of fundamental freedoms for every individual and group in society.
Dr. Daoud Khair Allah, Professor at Georgetown University, presented the conceptual framework for identity and the different forms of identification for the Arab community in the US. He elaborated on the practical challenges that result in sometimes contradictory allegiances and patterns of behavior for individuals and groups and their implication on identity. He called for promoting a harmonious framework that allows individuals to embrace an Arab American identity that does not contradict with their other forms of identification in the US.
Subhi Ghandour, Founder and Director of Al Hewar Center in Washington DC, stated that there is a particularity to the question of identity for Arab Americans that does not seem to exist for other groups that seem to have settled the issue of identity a long time ago. At the current time of division, some Arab intellectuals have blamed their Arab identity for the ills that have befallen them. He concluded that this is a misguided confusion of identity with Arab misfortunes on the one hand, and of Arab identity with the actions and behaviors of Arab regimes on the other.
After a presentation of the historical contributions of the Arabs to human civilization, he concluded that Islam gave the Arabs a value system that allowed them to make a qualitative contribution to human civilization. He focused on UROOBA as an identity formed by language, culture, history beside territory and on Islam as a frame of reference. He called for an Arab consensus on two major issues: 1) belonging to the same Arab UMMA and to Islam as a distinguishing feature of Arab civilization; and 2) flexibility in reaching a consensus on the constitutional and political system that would express the unity of the UMMA. He concludes that the American and European experiments with constitutionalism can offer good examples for the Arabs. Finally, he called for a peaceful transition to democracy and for liberating Arab countries from foreign hegemony as preconditions for unity.
Dr. Mohammad Nimer opened his remarks by making three observations: First, the Americanization of Muslim institutions (for example many Islamic centers are organized in ways that are very similar to American churches); second, the current globalization dynamics and their impact on identity; and third, the cultural hegemony of dominant groups in the US depicted as “pluralism” compared to the multiculturalism of countries like Canada.
As far as the youth movements in the Arab world are concerned, Dr. Nimer called for understanding the economic as well as the political imperatives that led to the uprisings and the appreciation of the spirit of the youth in their quest for a more balanced sharing of political power and economic resources in their countries.
Dr. Anwar Haddam raised some fundamental questions in his discussion of the issue of identity: 1) the meaning of identity within the context of our age; 2) the challenges facing a common definition of the constituents of Arab identity; 3) the points of convergence and divergence in the identity of Arabs, Muslims, and Christians in the Arab world; 4) The challenges and opportunities presented by the Arab Spring; and 5) the impact of the new policies and orientations on the Arab world and on its relations with the rest of the world, particularly the West. Finally, he focused on the role of the Arab American and Muslim American communities in the discourse on identity and on the shaping of future relations between the Arabs, Muslims, and the United States.
Dr. Mohammed Alhussaini Alsharif, Ambassador of the Arab League in Washington, DC commented on the presentations and pointed to the issue of “accepting the other” as a major challenge for many Arabs, particularly those who come from conservative societies. He also pointed to the stereotyping that many Arabs are faced with in Western societies and the impact of that in their self definition. He affirmed that identity depends on its environment and is largely shaped by it. He pointed to the policy of multiculturalism in Canada and compared it with the “Melting Pot” paradigm in the US. He concluded by stating that the practice of democracy should be viewed and judged in terms relative to the social and cultural conditions of the country under consideration and not through the application of universalized measures that evolved in other societies.
Dr Jamal Barzinji, Vice President of IIIT, made concluding remarks commending the spirit of dialogue that characterized the seminar discussions and calling for the continuation of the conversation on the issue of identity. He pointed to the centrality of educational reform as a primary area for policy discussions and work and the commitment of IIIT to lead the way in this area. He also noted the significant achievements made by contemporary Muslim scholars in the area of reform of Islamic political thought. Finally he affirmed the call for separating Dawa from political activity, particularly for groups that have now assumed prominent political roles in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. Regarding Arab unity, he called for lifting restrictions on movement between Arab countries as a significant step towards unity.