Introduction to the Middle East - The Ethnic Mosaic



The ethnic and cultural diversity exhibited by nomadic pastoralists is of course reflected in the larger "ethnic mosaic" of the Middle East. It should be noted that Western scholars have, on the whole, overemphasized the sectarian and cultural differentiation in the Middle East, thereby projecting a picture of a highly fragmented society torn apart by opposed primordial loyalties and ancient animosities. The fact is that, when compared with other parts of the world such as Russia, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia, the Middle East exhibits remarkable coherence as a culture area.

Various factors account for this coherence. First, Turkey and Iran aside, the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the region are Arabic speakers, who, despite national and regional variations in dialect, share a single standard written version of Arabic, the language taught in school and used over the radio and in the newspapers. Second, the region is predominantly Muslim and has been so for over a millennium. From Morocco to Iraq and into Turkey, the overwhelming majority of the population profess Sunni Islam; the Iranians, by contrast, are on the whole Shia Muslims. Third, the tripartite division of the population into urban, rural, and nomadic segments is a universal feature throughout the area defined here as the Middle East.

To claim a relative cultural coherence to the region is not to deny the cultural diversity that exists; in fact, each country in the area contains groups or minorities that are distinct from the larger population in terms of some cultural "marker" that is recognized by themselves and others as the hallmark of their identity. These ethnic or communal markers include religious affiliation, language, tribal membership, racial variation, and local customs. Of these, the two most important markers of ethnic and cultural identity in the Middle East are language and religion.

It is important to note that the recognition and acceptance of ethnic and communal differences have traditionally been a fundamental principle of social organization in the Middle East. This is especially the case for communities defined by religion. Until the demise of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of modern nationalism in the region, social interaction was structured in terms of the individual's membership in a given confessional or "tribal" grouping. This tendency persists today; nationalist movements and secular ideologies have failed to completely erode the more narrowly defined identities based on kinship (i.e., tribe), religion, or language.

The four major language families in the region are Indo-European, Semitic, Altaic or Turkic, and Afro-Asiatic. Persian (Farsi), Kurdish, Luri, Baluchi, and Armenian are Indo-European languages. Arabic and Hebrew belong to the Semitic Family. Turkic languages include the modern standard Turkish, Azeri, and Turkmen. Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish are the national languages of Israel, Iran, and Turkey, respectively. Arabic is the national language of all the other countries in the region. Persian is written in Arabic characters and its vocabulary includes a large number of Arabic words. Under the Ottomans, Turkish was also written in Arabic characters; following the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I, and as part of the effort to modernize Turkey, a state edict in 1928 replaced Arabic with Roman characters.

In northwestern Africa (especially in the mountainous regions of Morocco and Algeria) and in parts of the Sahara Desert, several dialects of Berber are spoken. Berber is an Afro-Asiatic language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa and parts of the Sahara.

The Kurds, who number an estimated twenty million people, constitute the largest linguistically differentiated "ethnic" group in the Middle East. The large majority of the Kurds are Sunni Muslims, many of whom also subscribe to a Sufi brotherhood, or tariqa; a minority of the Kurds adhere to an extreme form of Shia Islam. The Kurds speak several dialects of Kurdish, an Indo-European language, and inhabit a mountainous area that straddles the national frontiers of Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and Syria. In all of these countries, the Kurds constitute a significant "minority." The dismemberment of the Kurdish homeland and dispersion of the Kurdish people among a number of different countries was a legacy of the European colonial powers (England and France in particular), the policies and rivalries of whom were instrumental in giving shape to the political map of the Middle East as we know it today.

The Kurds have a long and complicated history of political activism; going back to the 1920s, secular and religious leaders have led movements aimed at achieving national independence or, in some cases, regional autonomy. The relative success or failure of these movements, whether in Iran, Iraq, or Turkey, has varied with the nature of the ruling regime and the geopolitical interests of the world powers.

The Berber-speaking groups of Morocco and Algeria, who are mostly rural dwellers living in mountain villages and desert encampments, are Sunni Muslims, like their Arabic-speaking compatriots. Berbers have a strong sense of their own distinct cultural identity, based on their separate language and on their claim to be the indigenous inhabitants of the region, predating the Arab-Muslim invasions of the seventh century. This "ethnic consciousness," however, remains at the cultural level and does not imply political cleavage. During the many years of French-colonial domination of the region, French policy was to encourage the notion that "Berber" identity and "culture" were distinct from and opposed to that of the urban "Arab" and "Muslim" Moroccan. This attempt to "divide and rule" was not a success, however; in fact, Berbers were in the forefront of the movements for national independence in Morocco and in Algeria.


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