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Ethnicity and Identity

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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 section contains full-text readings from a variety of sources. Many of these texts have never been offered online before. They represent a range of scholarly views and interests, and are intended to offer a more in-depth view of selected topics covered in this module. Please be aware that these texts may not be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the original copyright holder, as indicated at the head of each reading.

The readings listed in grey are currently unavailable, as we work toward renewing copyright permission from the publishers.

Theoretical Considerations

  • Arab Identity: E Pluribus Unum
    Halim Barakat

    This essay by Halim Barakat, novelist and Professor of Sociology in Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, deals with the factors that give a sense of unity to the Arab World. He points out that although there is considerable cultural diversity within the region, the vast majority of its inhabitants view themselves and are viewed by outsiders as Arabs. Rejecting what he calls “idealist views of identity that overemphasize similarities,” Barakat examines factors such as a shared culture, language, and external challenges that, nonetheless, from strong bonds throughout the region. In the interview, also continued in this unit, he elaborates further on these themes and also addresses the factors that challenge this sense of unity.

  • Communal Identities and Ethnic Groups
    Daniel G. Bates, Amal Rassam

    In this chapter Daniel Bates of Istanbul Bilgi University and Amal Rassam of Queens College of the City University of New York consider communal identities in the Middle East from an anthropological perspective. The articles begins with a discussion of ethnicity, race, language and religion from a general theoretical perspective, followed by more detailed discussion of these issues with regard to specific communities such as the Kurds, Maronites, and several others. Though the book is a fine introduction to the peoples and cultures of the region, we should note that the definition of the Middle East employed in the book includes Egypt, Iran, Turkey and all the Arab countries from Yemen and Oman on the coast of the Arabian Peninsula bordering the Arabian Sea to Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories on the Mediterranean coast. As such, many of the countries discussed are not Arab and the areas west of Egypt are left out as well. That caveat aside, the issues raised in the piece can also be applied to the remaining Arab countries to varying degrees.

  • Ethnicity and Cultural Identity
    Dale F. Eickelman

    This essay is a section of the chapter called “Change in Practical Ideologies: Self, Gender and Ethnicity” from the book The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach, by Dartmouth College Professor of Anthropology Dale Eickelman. The essay begins with a brief, theoretical consideration of ethnicity and the role it plays in social organization, and then goes into a more detailed analysis of specific communities in the Middle East, including Kurds, the Druze, the Imazighen (Berbers) and several other communities. Eickelman’s definition of the Middle East is broad, encompassing all of the territory between Morocco and Mauritania to Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Turkey, Iran and the Sudan. As such, it is a superset of the areas focused on in this project.

Diversity in the Arab World

  • The Arab Christians: From the Eastern Question to the Recent Political Situation of the Minorities
    Joseph Maïla

    This essay by Joseph Maïla, a Lebanese political scientist and Dean of the Institut des Sciences Économiques et Sociales of the Institut Catholique in Paris, is a historical survey of the status of Christian Communities in the Arab countries since the pre-Islamic era. After brief remarks in which the author acknowledges the difficulty of writing such an essay and defining the populations in question, the author proceeds through a periodized account of attitudes by the Romans, the early Muslim empires, the Ottomans, and the independence era, paying particular emphasis to the West's attitude toward the Christian communities of the Arab World, and the extent to which they tried to use these communities as “pawns” in the struggle for influence in the region. The essay ends with a conclusion reflecting on the status of these Christian communities in the contemporary Arab World and the strategies the author believes they should pursue with regard to participation in political life. For a great deal more on these communities, we invite you to explore the A/V portion of this unit.

  • The Arab Christians of the Middle East: A Demographic Perspective
    Philippe Fargues

    Philippe Fargues, the author of this essay is director of the Centre d’Etudes et de Documentation Economique, Juridique et Sociale in Cairo, and a specialist in the religious demography of the Middle East, provides a demographic analysis of the Christian Communities in the Arab World, particularly in relation to the Muslim populations of the region. The numerical analysis it provides make it an excellent companion piece to the essay by Joseph Maïla. The author argues that four processes have affected the Christian populations of the Arab World: conversion, the fusion of population groups of different religions, differential population growth and massacres and exoduses-both of which he deems “exceptional.” The approach is also historical, with the discussion being divided into historical periods.

  • The Nineteenth Century and the Impact of the West / Social Transformations
    Norman Stillman

    Norman Stillman’s books The Jews of Arab Lands and The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times are possibly the only book-length historical studies of Jewish communities from the Arab world available in English. As such, they are invaluable resources that provide not only historical analysis, but also a large fund of actual historical documents translated into English. The two chapters here are both from The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times, and deal with Jews from the 19th Century through the First World War, a period of increasing interaction with the “West” focusing on the Jewish response to this phenomenon, especially in comparison with Muslim populations of the region. A wider historical context can be quite useful in understanding this reading, to which end you may want to consult the timeline and the history unit. For another take on the history of Arab Jews consult the interview with and texts by Ammiel Alcalay.

  • Social Transformations
    Norman Stillman

    See the introduction above.

  • Kurdistan Before the 19th Century
    David McDowall

    This Chapter of David McDowall’s A Modern History of the Kurds begins with the Arab conquests of Kurdistan and surrounding areas in the 7th century. It was during this period that the Kurds “emerged from historical obscurity, rapidly confirming their reputation for political dissidence". The chapter then traces the manner in which subsequent dynasties, such as the Safavids and the Ottomans, were forced to reckon with the Kurds and, in most cases, work through tribal structures in order to maintain nominal authority in the region. See, also, the section on the Kurds in the reading "Communal Identities and Ethnic Groups".

  • The Tragedy of Lebanon
    Kenneth Cragg

    This essay by Kenneth Cragg deals with the tragedy of Lebanon and the status of Lebanese Christians throughout it. The book is a historical survey of Christians in the Arab world from before the arrival of Islam through the present day, and the Christian struggle to define an identity in a predominantly Muslim region. The three topics that are examined in detail in the book are Coptic Christianity and its role in forming Egypt’s national identity, the impact of Israeli Zionism on Arab Christianity, especially in Palestine, and the trauma of Lebanon, the subject of this essay. Though the book is very much informed by Christian theology, the author sees the Lebanese crisis as “a desperate indictment of religions and their role in the bankruptcy of politics and the strangling of hope". The causes of the shattering of Lebanese civil society are traced back to the 1940’s. The essay focuses exclusively on Christian communities, in particular the Maronites, during the conflict.

  • My Mediterranean
    Ammiel Alcalay

    This short essay by Ammiel Alcalay is a poetic and lyrical attempt to evoke a Mediterranean that has ceased to exist in the modern era. Using his name and childhood memories as a departure point, the author considers "ancestral myths" that had “spun glorious tales of Sepharad, or al-Andalus, of Jews and Arabs, philosophers and poets,” and juxtaposes these against the reality of the Middle East today.

  • Israel and the Levant
    Ammiel Alcalay

    This essay, by Ammiel Alcalay, a professor at Queens College of the City University of New York, is a critique of the tendency to “collapse the intricate history of Jews and Arabs in the Middle East into two streamlined, easily recognizable blocs.” He pokes holes in the rhetoric of such tendencies by referring to cultural productions in the areas that undermine them, particularly in the fields of music and literature. In a few pages, the essay foreshadows many of the conerns Alcalay would address in much more detail in his 1993 book After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture.

  • Nawda (in Arabic)
    Abdelhaq Lebied

    This text, written in Arabic, gives a detailed account of the proceedings of a roundtable organized by Al-Adab magazine as part of their series on how minorities in the Arab world view the concept of ’uruba. In this issue the participants are from Morocco and the topic under discussion is the Amazigh Cultural Movement and its impact on the cultural and political scenes. Moderated by Abdelhaq Lebied, the roundtable brings together Mustapha Elmesaoudi representing a moderate Islamist standpoint, Ibrahim Akhiat from one of Morocco’s oldest Amazigh cultural associations, Amina Bent Shaykh editor of Le Monde Amazigh newspaper and Ahmed Arehmouch an activist in the field of Amazigh cultural and political rights. Teachers of Arabic will also find comprehension exercises in the unit of this site on the Arabic Language.

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