Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London: Verso, 1983.
With due credit to Benedict Anderson's insightful and unorthodox
anthropological approach to the "origins and spread of nationalism,"
Imagined Communities still proves to fall short of applying helpfully
to the study of modern Arab history. Aside from the enigmatic
French passages without translation (why?) and the alienating
exclamation points scattered throughout the text, Anderson's myopic
study of print-capitalism and dynastic cosmological world views
being the 'precursors' of nationalist identification simply would
not fit neatly in the Arab context which, ironically, is the most
prominent setting in need of examination regarding the effects
of colonialism and imperialism on popular identity construction.
That the Arab World is hardly mentioned at all cannot be explained
by the insufficient note in the "Acknowledgments" about
the researcher's geographical biases and specialties. More accurately,
Arab nationalism probably deserved (deserves) a region-specific
chapter of its own if it is to be considered at all in this academic
and lofty study about the basically "un-intrinsic" nature
of national affiliations.
How, for example, does one account for the fact that Arabic is one of the world's only languages to have stayed living throughout history, rather than deriving from a "dead" language such as Latin, which broke up into the many empowering "vernacular" forms to which Anderson's thesis clings? Arabic's existence, even from pre-Islamic times, in virtually the same classical form, has solidified the cultural and intellectual spirit of the Arab Nation from Morocco to Saudi Arabia in everything from newspapers, literature, prayer, and classroom instruction, to the more modern radio and television broadcasts by ever-popular satellite. To that end, Anderson's beautiful observation that "What the eye is to the lover.. language is to the patriot. Through that language pasts are restored, fellowships are imagined [more like felt], and futures dreamed" could not be more true, and it was true for the Arabs long before Europeans and the West knew what a nation could be or was. Furthermore, the Arab World did not fall into another of Anderson's historical truisms about embracing nationalism just when religious modes of thought were at their nadir. On the contrary; religion defined and still defines the way of life of the inhabits of Arab countries, and is reflected not just in government policies but in language and rituals. The Islamic Empire at its height also did not foster the fragile contradiction of being politically powerful but philosophically impoverished, a definition of "nation" that Anderson posits. Neither does the deep-rooted and historical sense of being an "Arab" feign or assume an antique time frame despite its presumably "modern" origins; Arab-ness goes much further back than German-ness, French-ness, the Enlightenment, the Age of Absolute Monarchs, etc., all of which included disparate groups of people (linguistically, ethnically or geographically) without the unique bonds which Arabs enjoy(ed). Arab civilization therefore embodies the spirit of the "nation-state" that Anderson and others find so slippery, illusory, and "imaginary," precisely because it existed nowhere else in such a mature and well-developed form.
Therefore, aside from the general critique about the inapplicable methodology and units of analysis for Arab nationalism(s) on which Anderson's arguments depend, and at the risk of demanding of his work something that it does not even purport to undertake, Imagined Communities misses a larger point. People are not "ready to die for these inventions" because they have been conditioned over the years to identify country with family (the "domain of disinterested love and solidarity," he calls it), because nationalist poetry has painted revolution to be something "fundamentally pure," or even because it is only natural that one defines the self in opposition to an "Other." Rather, the particular hearkening to a real (as opposed to imagined) empire and civilization where the spread of poetry, the dissemination of shared ideas, and the shared historical vision sustained life for the people who enjoyed it, pits itself against the uncertainty of globalization, the anonymity and spiritual barrenness of capitalism, the brutality of foreign military occupation, and the racist usurpation of land and life. Martyrdom is real to Palestinians, for example, not for the sake of "poetics" but as a realization of the underdogs' struggle given the tools at their disposal.
One can argue that the negative connotations associated with "near-pathological" nationalism (that Anderson delineates succinctly at the beginning of chapter 8), including zealousness and racism, are a product of the European forms of nationalism that emerged from the onslaught of capitalism and which were only officially "defined" at the end of the 19th century. The feeling of bound collectivity, very similar to the idyllic "political community, inherently limited and sovereign," with horizontal roots and collective memory, happened for Arabs hundreds of years before the European nation-state was born following the explosion of the Industrial Revolution. The petty lines drawn up by colonizing powers which now give us the artificially divided territories of the Arab World, are their own "late phase" of nationalisms, certainly less rooted and legitimate than the strangled entity from which they sprang. Why begin charting the history of nationalism for Arabs so late, and why assume a monolithic (and almost hollow) definition of what this "nationalism" entails based on a debunk European model plopped conveniently on a narrow historical timeline?
If this short barrage of thoughts seems like nothing but a defense of nationalism, then perhaps it is indeed because "nation-ness" is "the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time" and that is the fact that demands our attention now. Anderson would be well-served to distance himself from his own critique and offer an opinion about how else the world is to be conceived in modern times, or how else the struggling Third World can respond to their oppressors without using the very same language that cursed them for so many years. For the Arabs - who live in the only area on the map which still can assume this colossal title of making up a "World" unto its own - the struggle lives on even if the terminology by which it is expressed faces philological defeat.