This paper examines the significance of employing symbols in various aspects of life, particularly in political ones, and how these symbols are linked to individuals and groups, affecting their behavior, perceptions and impressions, so that they ultimately become an integral part of political culture.

  • Publisher – STRATEGIECS
  • Release Date – Jan 11, 2022


Man is distinguished from other beings and creatures by a numerous and varied of traits. Man is a civil, social, emotional and cultural being... Etc.  However, his privacy and uniqueness, which he does not share with anyone, is given to him “mind”, of course, as he is the only one is able to “reason” things, that is, to “understand them for what they are” and to build entire worlds through symbols, language and networks of meanings.  A human being is as "symbolic" as it is mental, living with symbols and using them in the different aspects of life, through which it establishes its system of relationships with others.

Symbols do not come out of the blue, but rather relate to the psychology and behavior of individuals and their system of perceptions and impressions, as well as to the contexts of a group, a State or a nation of nations.  Since the meaning of things and relationships can only be understood through their uses, their meaning in the lives of individuals and the meaning they take in their collective imagination...  Symbols are also inseparable from other groups of elements. If they are linked to values, customs and traditions, people’s heritage is formed, if they are associated with rituals and beliefs, religious ceremonies are formed, if they are linked to the history and political action of the State, its higher-ups and its most important events, its political culture is formed.

Political culture is a set of common views and normative provisions adopted by the population regarding their political system as a whole and the extent to which they believe in its legitimacy.  The American political scientist Lucian Pye defines it as "a combination of the fundamental values, emotions and knowledge that underlie the political process.”  Accordingly, the role of the symbol in formation the political culture moves from its narrow borders as a separate semiotic/sign system, to be used in the public sphere as a wider and more influential socio-political phenomenon.

Therefore, symbols play a major role in shaping societies, and in formulating the political model that governs them. In many cases, the role of symbols extends to include influencing the system of relationships that link societies, and in how a country deals with its immediate and distant surroundings. This does not in any way mean that the role of symbols is absolutely positive, especially when they are old and traditional and result from pre-modern societal and cultural contexts, or when they are produced by "Reason,"  which is chained up with the constraints of the past, or framed by reactionary policies whose objectives are limited to the interests of certain groups trying to maintain a status quo, at a time when stagnation means a retreat, a delay and a great departure from the accelerating pace of civilization.

To illustrate these ideas, expand them and reinforce them with definitions, examples and projections directly related to Arab reality, this research paper is divided into five main headings: The symbol and the political symbol; Arab political culture and the crisis of Arab reason; the war of symbols in the Arab-Israeli conflict; The desired Arab paradigm shift;  and finally: Between the illusion of victory and the rationality of peace?

 1. The symbol and the political symbol

First, we must go through the definition of “symbol” that it’s a language, and language itself is both a symbolic entity and a tool for transmitting symbols from one generation to another.  According to Ibn Manzur in his book “Lisan Al Arab”, a symbol is a hidden vote in the tongue like a whisper, and be moving the lips with incomprehensible words without pronouncing the voice is a reference to the lips, and the symbol was said a sign and a gesture of the eyes, eyebrows, lips and mouth. In language, the symbol is all what I referred to, which is indicated by the word anything indicated by hand or eye. " The philosophical lexicon of the Academy of the Arabic Language, which develops this concept slightly, defines the symbol as:  "A sign agreed upon to denote something or an idea, including numerical and algebraic symbols, corresponding to truth and reality.”

Although most Arabic dictionaries have included definitions of "symbol", they are all similar in content, as well as the unfairness of this deep and complex concept and its reduction only to something similar to a sign or signal.  On the other hand, it is known in the West in a more precise manner, and one of the best, simplest and most accurate definitions is that provided by "Encyclopedia Britannica", which defines “symbol” initially as "a communication element intended to simply represent or stand for a complex of person, object, group, or idea.”  So, in multiple philosophical contexts, especially in semiotics, which is one of the branches of “Metalogic”, a very precise distinction is made between the symbol and the sign, the former going far beyond the second to form a global sociological-cultural phenomenon, with individual and collective psychological and intellectual dimensions, within which the potential for influence, motivation of behavior and value systems are stored.

Symbol has different forms, it may be a letter (as in “K” to denote potassium) or a shape (as a star, cross or crescent moon in Judaism, Christianity and Islam), or as the mathematical “infinity” symbol “∞” or the dollar symbol “$”, for those who do not prefer religious examples. The symbol is a real or imagined “person”. One of the most notable examples is "Uncle Sam," which everyone knows is a political symbol to denote the United States of America, its power and its force.



Among the most common political symbols in the world are the flag, the national anthem, and the dates of national holidays and celebrations.  These symbols, and others, play important roles in the formation of nations and national identities, because they are an intense and common expression of nationalism, and an integral part of identity creation, preservation and development.

The set of political symbols reflects deeper aspects and meanings of the nation, as well as acting as integrative - and sometimes divisive - in terms of their impact on the societies they represent, and their ability to raise collective awareness by answering questions such as:  "Who are we?”  And "Where are we from?”

But the influence of the symbol in politics does not stop at these borders, despite its importance, but extends to what is farther, more complex, and more dangerous. Murray Edelman is the most prominent person who went through revealing the influence of the symbol in the political sphere. More than any other theorist, he has succeeded in demonstrating the broad and profound importance of the symbols in politics, his innovative and classic book “The Symbolic Uses of Politics (1964)” is a cornerstone of symbolic politics, and continues to have a wide-ranging influence on scientific research.

In this book, and in several books that followed, Edelman explored t the methods of using myths, rituals, and other symbolic forms of communication in shaping public opinion politics.  Edelman distinguishes between the traditional view of politics and the "reality of politics." The traditional view of politics focuses on how people get what they want through government.  In the "Reality of Politics", the role and effectiveness of the symbol is revealed to him, as political symbolism is used to influence the citizens of the state by appeasing them or forcing them to act.

According to Edelman, political reality is hidden from the public by generating of hollow symbols by political elites. This view has many Arab evidence, some of which will be presented next, after passing through the loop that transmits the symbol from the social space to the political community, which is the political culture.

2. Arab political culture and the crisis of Arab reason.

Even in dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, political culture is a major driver of political behavior. But in the Arab world, political culture suffers from a crisis of membership that, of course, inseparable from that which the Arab reason suffered by in general, discussed by Arab intellectuals in the past, most notably “Mohammed Abed al-Jabri”, “Mohammed Arkoun” and others.

The crux of this political crisis is that the political ideas and statements in force in the Arab world (political culture) and the cognitive and intellectual system that produced and produces these ideas (the Arab reason) both suffer from traditional, outdated and retrograde "religious" and "heritage" constraints, which put a spoke in sb's wheel of any attempts of development and modernization difficult (make any attempts of development and modernization difficult). Both also suffer from political leaders and cultural elites that do nothing to try to break these constraints. On the contrary, they often nurture and narrow them, keeping people mired in ignorance and underdevelopment, living in an old system of ideas, using old technologies and tools, fighting and sacrificing in old wars and conflicts...

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that this crisis political culture is re-producing its crisis by creating more symbols, or strengthening reactionary ones, to re-create a pre-modern political culture that only worsens the situation of the Arab peoples, and make the existing corrupt authorities more tyranny.  The example of the Arab-Israeli conflict can clarify much of the above, especially since most of the symbols used in the "resistance" discourse associated with this conflict are not originally political symbols, but have often been withdrawn from the religious heritage and used in the political conflict.

3. The symbol and the Arab domestic policies.

The word "Arabs" itself bears intense symbolism and is burdened with various elements, in which the religious symbol blend with the historical, the popular and the political. Since the Arabs emerged from the cloak of Ottoman authority, the political connotations of the symbol of Arabism have dominated other connotations and have been employed in two main dimensions:  First, liberation from Western colonialism, which left the Ottomans in control of some Arab societies.  Second, it is the creation of a single national political entity called the Arab State. Although the first recruitment (liberation from colonialism) has been successful in achieving its goal at different and relative intervals, the second recruitment (the establishment of one Arab State) has failed absolutely after it was proven unrealistic.

The independence of the Arabs in multiple States has led to the rise of the impact of a new surge of political symbols that were not present in the Arab minds before, such as the names of the new countries and its leaderships against the occupier, and their flags and national anthems. These symbols have contributed to the creation of a new national consciousness that is completely different from the one based on the symbolism of Islam and Arabism, to form multiple national identities, on which diverging positions were built on the concept of Arabism as a political symbol.

Despite the independence of the national political identities of the Arab States, their relative stability from the middle of the last century or shortly thereafter, and even today, Arab political consciousness remains at odds with its geographical and demographic realities on the ground, and is incapable of formulating a supranational, or transnational, political formation that would be able to Containing the new political entities within a single Arab system. This inability has represented what can be described as the narcissistic wound of many who insist that every national political presence is temporary and urgent to imperative of a one Arab State.

The symbolic presence of a comprehensive Arab identity, which has not been matched by a realistic presence on the ground, has expanded the ideological conflict between Arabs themselves, whether within the same country, or between multiple countries, especially in the countries that were founded following the departure of the Western colonizers, and in which the Republic's regimes of government succeeded the political regimes established by the colonial countries at that time. The consequences of this conflict can be reduced to the state of confusion and anxiety that left most Arab States without a stable and independent identity for their existence either seeking expansion and proliferation or looking inwards and afraid to dissolve into others, thereby decaying.

In exchange for the symbolic conflict between the national identity and an inclusive Arab identity, another conflict was generated between the Arabism and new Islamism trends, which was based primarily on the series of defeats and setbacks that Arab nationalism suffered in its conflict with Jewish nationalism and its state that was formed in the Arab depth, benefiting from Western support for its continuity and superiority.  Although the nationalist and Islamism trends agreed on naming their common enemy, the war of existence that took place between them was much greater than the war that the Arabs entered with their agreed upon enemy! 

4. The war of symbols in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Conflicts, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, are sometimes described as merely symbolic. Some people mistakenly believe that this description would make it less serious, but in fact it is quite the opposite. In most conflicts around the world, symbols have a central role and a significant weight, and therefore cannot be separated from the material aspects of the conflict, because conflicts occur within specific symbolic environments.

The political discourse surrounding the Israeli-Arab conflict uses a number of symbolic tools for expressing each side's ideas. Moreover, these ideas, organized and grouped in different ways, and expressed in a set of symbols, constitute the political culture of the conflict, and this culture is often not transient, partial, or secondary, but is enduring and embedded in time and space. Unfortunately, we have to disappoint those who believe that the original sources of political culture differ between peoples, or that symbols are used in different manners in the mutual discourse of hostility between the two sides. The difference between the two methods of employing symbols in the Arab-Israeli conflict is negligible, since there is great similarity between the two peoples, even if many refuse to admit it. For this reason, the means of political influence used by either side in order to mobilize and pit it against the other are similar.

Arabs, for example, use the symbolism of the holy month of Ramadan to give some sanctity on the October 1973 war, while the Israelis call it the "Yom Kippur War" for the same purpose. With its Islamist ideology based on politicizing the sacred, Hamas gives its military operations names inspired by the Holy Quran,  such as “Battle of al-Furqan” and “Operation Stones of Baked Clay”. Similarly, the Israelis call their operations “Pillar of Cloud,” after the pillar that God sent to guide the Israelis out of Egypt, and so on.


Hence, in the discourse or language of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there are two names full of symbols and counter-symbols for everything: “Zionism” as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and “Zionism” a racist movement as seen by Arabs; “Territories under Israeli administration” versus “occupied territories”; “the West Bank” versus “Judea and Samaria”; and so on. Each name has its own symbolism, even though they may date back thousands of years, but they still prolong the conflict, fights, and losses on both sides!

5. The desired Arab paradigm shift.

While both sides of the conflict use similar rhetoric of hostility, the biggest challenge remains with the Arabs; although many of the Israeli symbols were traditional, they also served as a tool for mobilizing and gathering around national belonging and a collective identity that bring together people from all over the world. Such national identity is necessary for reform, growth, and development because the sense of belonging makes citizens to bear the high costs. However, the biggest problem is that in Arab countries, this belonging and willingness to accept the costs, is often exploited to serve personal interests instead of serving societies, states, and people.

On the other hand, some Arab political and cultural elites, especially those who claim to be foremost advocates of the Palestinian cause —and by sanctifying certain political figures such as Abdel Nasser or Arafat, or attributing religious symbols, such as the continuous "jihad", to political agendas— try to show that Arabs are condemned to live under tyranny and be branded as terrorists until we are liberated and the status quo ends. Meanwhile, no effort is made to end this situation. It is quite the opposite, whenever things seem to be heading toward a solution, a battle is provoked here, a clash there -political or military - in an effort to perpetuate the current situation, allowing these forces and “elites” to remain in power t the expense of the people and their future. Thus, what peace do the Arabs desire, and what development and modernization do they aspire to?! This is absolutely incompatible with the spirit of “resistance and opposition” and therefore it is absolutely rejected!!

The dominance of this type of ancient symbols and traditions that can impede any radical change or paradigm shift, whether it is political, economic, or social. Researchers have also looked at cases similar to the Arab case, such as those of countries that gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For example, Astrid Sahm, made a study titled “Political Culture and National Symbols: Their Impact on the Belarusian Nation-Building Process.” The study found that the continued old and dominant Soviet heritage was often an impediment to many of the necessary modernizations in Belarus, although it was not in a state of “conflict” similar to what Arabs experienced with Israel.

Finally: Between the illusion of victory and the rationality of peace

Symbolic dimensions of politics can no longer be considered a secondary phenomenon or of marginal importance, because symbols have been at the core of the Arab political process. As we mentioned earlier, the human mind create symbols, then these symbols re-create the human minds  and play a significant role in shaping reality on various cultural, social, and political levels. Even ethnic, civil or other kinds of wars are “symbolic politics,” as described by American Professor Stuart J. Kaufman. This also applies to the Arab-Israeli conflict, as he said: “The means of mobilizing supporters is symbolic politics: Leaders frame the issues at stake to appeal to popular predispositions and rouse emotions in support of war, and they deploy organizational resources to turn supporters into an army (the means to fight) and set it in motion.” Leaders may argue that people's feelings lean toward war, but they refuse to say that these feelings were formed by social upbringing, narratives, and collective symbols. People who are constantly bombarded with propaganda demonizing another group naturally develop a hostile attitude towards that group; and repeated talk about a “victory” will create the illusion that such a victory is still possible, so efforts will be wasted in searching for it, and realistic opportunities for peace will be lost.

Thus, and since the peace-rejecting leaders are unlikely to change their methods in the near future, Arab peoples should not wait; they should break free from the chains of symbols, regardless of their level of influence. Symbols do not need to be precise to be effective, because they often convey what leaders want the people to believe rather than what can actually be accomplished. The Arabs need to realize that symbols aren't powerful by themselves, but rather they gain power from the meaning they are given. They should also be aware that the meanings ascribed to symbols and imposed on them as legitimate are nothing more than “symbolic violence,” as Bourdieu calls it. Therefore, they should refrain from turning it into violence, in any sense, because by doing so, they maintain a current situation which affects the most on all levels.






Policy Analysis Team