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Ethnicity and Identity

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Communal Identities and Ethnic Groups

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Daniel G. Bates, Amal Rassam

From Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East
© 2000 Pearson Education
Electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.


 All contemporary societies of the Middle East have been shaped by long and varied historical processes, of which the people themselves are acutely conscious. Appeals to history often serve to validate the present as well as provide an ideological basis for unity and solidarity. Paradoxically, such historical awareness also serves to differentiate one group from another in an area and therefore contributes to cultural diversity and disunity. This diversity, sometimes visually expressed through distinctive styles of dress, ritual, and public behavior, must be properly appreciated if we are to understand Middle Eastern society. We have already seen in our discussion of Islam some of the historical processes that differentiated groups within the Islamic tradition; these differences themselves parallel, amplify, and even define group boundaries and structure intergroup relations today. In addition, there are indigenous non-Muslim populations in most countries, not to mention the Jewish state of Israel.

 This diversity has been likened to a "human mosaic" in which the members of each identifiable group emphasize their common and special identity through some configuration of symbols. These symbols may be material--in the form of dress, dwelling styles, or language or dialect; of even greater significance, however, are the underlying patterns of behavior, values, and systems of belief. The recognition and acceptance of ethnic or communal differences have historically been a fundamental principle of Middle Eastern social organization. The metaphor of a human mosaic, however, has its limits. Although it may describe contemporary patterns, it offers little insight into the many processes that underlie the formation of group identities, how these change over time, and, more important, how people use them to gain access to resources and power.

 Until the rise of nationalism, most polities comprised aggregates of bounded social groupings, either tribes or confessional communities, often held together by dynastic tradition. Whether joined for common purpose or held together by threat of force, the distinctive quality of the individual or localized grouping was maintained through the principle of collective responsibility. It is interesting to note that more than a century of Turkish, Arab, and Iranian nationalistic movements has not succeeded in eroding the significance of more narrowly defined ethnic and tribal identity for the individual. In this chapter we discuss the broad outlines of ethnicity and the sources of individual and group identities.

 Each country and region of the Middle East contains local groupings or populations that are distinct from the society as a whole and are recognized as such by themselves and others. That is to say, people recognize themselves as belonging to some unique grouping within a larger population. The elements used to signal the identity of ethnic groups include religious affiliation, language or dialect, tribal membership or shared descent, and regional or local customs.


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