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Ethnicity and Identity

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-Ethnicity and Identity
-Arab Americans
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A website for K-12 educators featuring innovative resource on the culture, geography, history and religions of the Middle East, including essays, classroom activities, downloadable multimedia content and interactive Google Earth tours.


This unit explores two lines of inquiry with regard to the people who live in the region addressed in this site, i.e. the Arab World. First it responds to the questions: Who are the Arabs? What are the factors that unite the Arab world and what are some of the factors that make it such a rich and diverse place? There is often confusion, even among those who should know better. For example, not all Arabs are Muslims (though most are); and not all Muslims are Arab (indeed, the majority of Muslims is not). Yet even in major media outlets one might occasionally hear a reporter or pundit talk about reaction on the “Arab Street” and then proceed to speak about Kabul or Karachi, both of which are cities in predominantly Muslim, but not Arab countries.

The second issue addressed in some detail in this unit, are minority communities in the Arab World: ethnic minorities in the area such as the Kurds and Imazighen (Berbers) who are not Arab but who are Muslim; religious minorities, who are Arab but not Muslim; and a third set of often overlooked communities that are neither Muslim or Arab. Indeed, some of these communities are so overlooked that it is difficult to find academic writing that deals with them. The most accessible sources of information are probably the websites put together by these communities themselves, many of which you will find in our links list.

Also discussed are Jewish communities from the Arab countries and the process of Arabization in the African continent which is proceeding so steadily that Ali A. Mazrui believes the Arab and African peoples are two peoples in the process of becoming one. Arabization is not, however, without controversy, as it has often been forcibly imposed by modern nation states attempting to construct a monolitic identity at the expense of all else, as is touched on in the interview with Rachid Aadnani on the Amazigh communities of North Africa and a number of web sites in the links section of this unit. (The question of language in the region is, of course, further developed in the Language unit, especially readings such as Nationalism and the Arabic Language, by Yasir Suleiman.)

All of the materials in this unit are informed by the fact that identity is a process that generally proceeds in the space between a people’s perception of themselves and the way they are perceived by others and the acknowledgement that these perceptions are often not in full agreement.

The identity of the Arabs is addressed in some detail by Amal Rassam in an interview, and by Halim Barakat in both an interview and published text. Also interesting, in this regard, would be the interview with Barbara Nimri Aziz, in the unit on Arab American literature.

The status of minority communities in the region is discussed both from theoretical and general perspective by Amal Rassam and Dale Eickelman, and then with regard to specific communities by Rachid Aadnani (The Amazigh communities of North Africa); Kenneth Cragg, Andrea Pacini, and Philippe Fargues (Christian Communities in the Arab World), Norman Stillman and Ammiel Alcalay (Jewish communities of the Arab Countries); and David McDowall (the Kurds).

This unit also contains a text in Arabic on the Amazigh issue in Morocco.

The issues developed in this unit can be enriched considerably by exploring them along with materials in the unit on Arab-Americans. How does Arab identity assert itself in an American context? To what extent is the situation of minority communities in the Arab World analogous to the situation? And, of course, the issue of Arab identity informs all the materials in this site. There is much to explore.

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