The recent Arab Spring has allowed a certain revival of reflection on “the Arab world”, too often assimilated to the “Muslim world”. During these revolutions, which are taking their course, we heard a lot of things, a few wobbly shortcuts, especially with the French Revolution, and also fantasies and approximations that we often find when it comes to this Arab world, so close and so little known. A very appropriate theme for the Idées Received collection, and a very good idea from Le Cavalier Bleu editions to group together in a single volume, edited by Pierre Vermeren, articles from other works (and unpublished), which allow a view broad but remarkably rich and precise of this so complicated but fascinating subject.
The “Received Ideas” collection and the author
Edited by the Blue Rider, the “Received Ideas” collection now has more than two hundred titles. Its ambition is "to disentangle the true from the false in all areas: society, economy, environment, health, education, culture, science, etc.", by addressing a wide audience.
Pierre Vermeren, professor of contemporary Maghreb history at Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne, specialist in Morocco, is the author, among others, of Maghreb: the origins of the democratic revolution (Pluriel, 2011).
The work also benefits from the contributions of twenty-two historians and other specialists in these questions, contributions taken (and updated) from other works in the “Received Ideas” collection.
"Arab countries, Arabity, Arab-Muslim world, ..."
In his introduction, Pierre Vermeren looks back on the origins of received ideas about the Arab world in France, and the confusion and confusion that this causes. To do this, it situates itself in the historical context, and shows the evolution of this vision, from the Middle Ages to the present day. The colonial period is obviously fundamental, as is that of Arab nationalism. Partisan of the history of the present time, Pierre Vermeren does not hesitate, rightly, to go to recent events (Intifada, September 11 and war (s) in Iraq) to explain the way we consider the Arab world, and all the consequences that this entails. He insists on a lack of knowledge, due in particular to "the language barrier", which does not facilitate understanding, and therefore promotes preconceived ideas. More surprisingly, it shows that the view of the Arab world was “more reliable” and “more realistic” during the colonial period than today. Another good idea, the historian evokes the vision that the Arabs have of Europeans, prejudices not being the prerogative of the latter. And it is one of the strengths of the book that it is also interested in this look.
By revisiting these received ideas, the authors deconstruct them and put down a number of prejudices and amalgamations.
Misconceptions: the importance of history
The first large part of the book is devoted to history, taken in the broad sense, especially with regard to chronological boundaries, since we go from Pharaonic Egypt to Yasser Arafat! This part is nevertheless fundamental, and perhaps the most fascinating of the book. There are a number of very famous received ideas which pollute the debates and discussions on these themes. Let us cite two examples that could be qualified as opposites in their vision of the Arab world. The first, "Islam has always been at war with the West", is typical of the theory of the clash of civilizations, with a perpetual war between Islam and the West, from Poitiers to the present day, via Lepanto. Here, historian Paul Balta puts Huntington and Bin Laden almost back to back, and shows that things were a bit more complex (even if we would have liked an even more detailed article), ruling out the thesis of the West / Islam shock . In the same logic, we can cite the article by the same author, "The Arabs forged their empire by means of arms". Conversely, the received idea “Andalusia was the golden age” (Pierre Vermeren), explains the Al Andalus myth, and a “conviviality” that we know to be largely idealized, whether by the West or by the Arabs themselves.
This whole part is therefore fascinating, but we can also recommend burning themes such as "The Arab slave trade was more important than the slave trade to the Americas", or "Yasser Arafat did not want peace".
Peoples and Nations
The following part deals with themes that are perhaps less known and debated, but which remain important in the construction of received ideas that are difficult to dislodge from the unconscious of each other. Among them, a classic nonetheless: "The Berbers, it's not the same". This part, admittedly a little too heterogeneous, offers interesting articles, particularly with recent news, such as “Egypt is the center of the Arab world”, or “Egypt has essential strategic importance”.
Religions and society
Here we enter even more contemporary, and even thorny, themes where a number of prejudices feed misunderstandings and tensions that are sometimes recovered politically.
Religion is a fundamental element, both the Arab world and Islam are linked in the common imagination (an article is devoted entirely to it: "Arabs are Muslims, Muslims are Arabs"). There are all the received ideas borrowed from essentialism, which would "explain" the difficulties of the relations between the West and the Arab world, and in the first place this "Koran [responsible] for the violence of Islam", or which "inferior the woman ". In the same spirit, the so-called incompatibility between Islam and secularism.
This part is also interested in Shiism, with the role of Iran or Iraqi Shiites, as well as Christians and Jews in the Arab world, returning in particular to the persecutions suffered by Christians in the East.
Oil and development
This part mixes two a priori different themes: the development capacity of the Arab world, and its geopolitical role as a world oil reserve. Yet this link is consistent. The various articles indeed show that the economic development of the Arab world is largely dependent on oil, and on the will of the West to control this strategic region. This explains the received ideas such as "The Arabs live on oil rent", "The Arab regimes are corrupt", "The Americans control the oil market", ...
France and the Arabs
We are touching with these articles a very important point obviously, which constitutes another of the interests of the work. We understand much better the weight of the colonial heritage in the relations between French and Arabs. Most of the themes that can be expected are discussed: "The Blackfoot stole the land of the Arabs", "France abandoned the harkis", "France is the friend of Morocco", or "The Algeria has turned its back on the Francophonie ”. Perhaps one can regret that the authors do not insist so much on the consequences of these received ideas on the relations between French of European origin and French of Arab origin. But that is not the object of the book.
The Arab Spring
This last part obviously resonates with the news. We are here really in the history of the present time. The authors study certain received ideas widely heard since 2011, such as "Arabs are not made for democracy", but also try to give analyzes on the possible evolutions of these Arab springs. Obviously, given the rapidity with which events have followed one another in recent months, it is difficult to really predict what will happen, and this is not the role of historians anyway (it is however interesting to read today l 'article by Pierre Vermeren, “The Arab Spring has become an Islamist winter”, which allows us to take a step back from the events of recent weeks). This in no way detracts from the interest of all the articles in this part, which is as exciting as the first.
Once again, the collection “Ideas Received” publishes a remarkable volume. We can even say that by its richness and its theme, "Ideas received on the Arab world" is one of the best published in recent years. The articles are short and very clear, supplemented with some bibliographical advice.
The book is essential to understand the current world, to find oneself in the complexity of current events, and to have the elements to exercise a critical mind, as prejudices and amalgamations are recurrent at all levels (media, political) on this subject. topic.
- P. Vermeren (dir), Received ideas on the Arab world, Le Cavalier Bleu, coll “Received ideas”, 2012.