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Inventing Cultural Diversity in the Arab World

Wednesday 22 March 2006, by Webmoudir

(Text in Arabic, Armenian, French and English in IV parts, written for the )

I. Traditions

Cultural and social identities are the result of both natural and intentional development. Nations construct themselves out of the bits and pieces of their members’ common past and mutually imagined future. Identity, be it singular or multicultural, is invented.

Throughout the Mediterranean, people have been working on multicultural projects literally for millenniums. The Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Arab-Muslim, Ottoman, British and French empires were uniquely diverse blends of the various cultural traditions they inherited and were confronted with on their borders.

II. Globalisation

Globalisation has led to an encroaching predominance of North American and Western European culture in the Middle East and North Africa. Membership in the World Trade Organisation and the integration into the global market for goods and services threatens to turn local and regional culture into a commodity.

When music, cinema, literature, theatre, and the graphic arts are reduced to goods and services to be traded in economies of scale, diversity is lost and sovereignty threatened. Commodification of culture turns citizens into statistics and individuals into consumers. I shop therefore I am.

III. Cultural Exception

Protecting cultural diversity in the Arab world means defending local and regional artists and industries against the predominance of global conglomerates. It requires both funding and planning from the public sector and civil society NGOs. Today, cultural protectionism is still permitted under the guidelines of the WTO.

The World Trade Organisation is now negotiating a weakening or even elimination of the so called "cultural exception." If US and British interests get their way, the subsidies, quotas and tariffs now protecting cultural diversity will be banned as of next year. The already struggling Lebanese film and music industries will be fully exposed to the vagaries of the global market.

IV. True Cultural Diversity

Cultural diversity does not only mean protecting regional culture from the dominant market influences of North American and European corporations. It also means supporting diversity within the Arab world. Counter-hegemonic subcultures and ethnic and religious minorities must be protected against the pressure to conform, so common in the region.

Cultural diversity also means positive action in support of minority cultures in the area of broadcast media, education, the fine arts and social and religious discourse. Societies must be judged by the way the treat their weakest members. Cultural diversity in the Arab World means embracing and subsidising non-Arab and non-Muslim culture as part of the region’s rich mosaic traditions.

Attac Lebanon, April 2005)