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ETHNICITY. The Qur’an states repeatedly that individuals, not groups, are responsible for what they do, stressing the unity of the Islamic ummah (community) in verse after verse and emphasizing the primacy of bonds created through Islam over those based on shared identities of kinship, descent, region, and language-bonds which the medieval Moroccan philosopher Ibn Khaldun (d. 14o6) collectively called `asabiyah (“group cohesiveness”).

Muslims say that commitment to Islam supplants ties of ethnicity, the ways in which individuals and groups characterize themselves on the basis of shared language, culture, descent, place of origin, and history. Yet from the first Muslim conquests in seventh-century Arabia, as Muslim armies spread forth from the Arabian Peninsula to peoples who neither spoke Arabic nor could claim Arab descent, such concerns frequently surfaced in practice. Under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750), persons successfully claiming Arab descent obtained economic and political benefits. To the present day, Muslims claiming descent from the prophet Muhammad, called sharifs in Morocco  and sayyids in the Yemen and elsewhere-and such claims are by no means limited to the Arab world-often enjoy religious prestige and legal entitlements. [See Sharif; Sayyid.]

As elsewhere in the world, Muslim notions of ethnicity are cultural constructions. For this reason, it is difficult to find a specific counterpart in Middle Eastern and other languages for the English term ethnicity. Ethnicity is an observer’s term, for those who assert ethnic ties often regard them as fixed and “natural.” Ethnicity is often thought to be a matter of birth, but the exceptions are as frequent as the rule: the social and political significance of ethnic and religious identities alters significantly according to historical and social contexts. For example, take the term qawm (“people”) in Afghanistan. Depending on context it can mean a tribe or a subdivision of one, a people sharing a common origin or region of residence, or more generally a shared identity of religion and language. Moreover, since the latter half of the twentieth century, the experience of large-scale migration in search of wage labor-Pakistanis to Saudi Arabia, Turks and Kurds to western Germany, and North Africans to France-or as refugees-Afghans to Iran and Western Europe and Bosnian Muslims to Austria and Germany-has had a major impact on changing the significance and political implications of ethnic identity.

In the Arabian Peninsula, claims to ethnic or tribal identity-the two notions are almost indistinguishable in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen, and the Gulf states-are usually framed in genealogical terms as descending from one of two eponymous ancestors. “Northern” Arabs claim descent from `Adnan; “southern” Arabs, including those who speak Semitic languages other than Arabic, claim Qahtan as their ancestor. The possibility for some groups of claiming either `Adnan or Qahtan as eponymous ancestors allows for flexibility in making descent claims, although genealogies are considered fixed. Indeed, since the 1960s, groups such as the Sindhi-speaking Shi’i Liwatiyah of coastal Oman have also claimed Arab descent, explaining their “temporary” loss of Arabic (and tribal identity) by centuries of residence on the Indian subcontinent. Ex-slaves (Ar., khuddam) attached to tribes and ruling families throughout the Arabian Peninsula, and other groups lacking tribal descent, have traditionally had an inferior social status, as shown by occupation and the lack of intermarriage with other groups, but modern economic conditions are rapidly eroding these distinctions. Visible African descent might suggest slave descent to some traditionalists on the Arabian Peninsula, but it might also imply descent from one of the ruling families in which slave concubines were common in earlier generations.

Contemporary Arab identity suggests how historically and contextually diverse ethnic claims can be. Many Arabs assert that they are a “race,” although for centuries populations have mixed and intermarried throughout the Arab world. Although divided politically despite the first claims to Arab unity in the early twentieth century, made as the Ottoman Empire weakened, Arabs are unified by language and culture. Nonetheless, many of the regional dialects of Arabic are mutually unintelligible. For example, Arabs from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states understand colloquial Moroccan Arabic only with difficulty, and vice-versa. The spread of mass higher education throughout the region since mid century contributed to widening the appeal of Arab nationalism and Pan-Arabism and of course facilitated communications among Arabs from different regions able to converse in a common “educated” Arabic modeled on classroom and the broadcast media. Still, major differences of dialect and situational identity remain. One is not just Muslim in the Middle East or elsewhere, but also Arab (and there are not only Christian and Muslim Arabs, but also Arabic-speaking Jews in Israel and North Africa), Berber, Nubian, Circassian, Hui, Malay, Sindhi, or Fulani.

Since ethnic and religious considerations are never the sole attribute shared by persons and groups in the Middle East, it is crucial to consider how such social distinctions figure in the overall context of social and personal identity and to not stop at a mosaic-like enumeration of ethnic group, sect, family origin, locality, and occupation. In North Africa, for example, the first Arab invaders came with the advent of Islam in the seventh century, followed by a second, larger wave of Bedouin migrations in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Nonetheless, the peoples of the region claim both Berber and Arab descent, and these claims to ethnic identity are based on language and cultural characteristics. Arabic is the dominant language of the region, and Arab civilization is pervasive, but there are still groups in the mountainous regions and in certain oases, particularly in Morocco and southern Algeria, who retain Berber languages and traditions, and some of these groups, such as traders originally from Morocco’s Sus valley, play major roles in urban life elsewhere in the country.

In Morocco, for example, nearly half the population speaks one of the several Berber dialects, although most Moroccan Berbers, especially men, speak Arabic as a second language. The most important dialect (and ethnic) clusters are Shluh, spoken in Morocco and Mauritania; Shawiyah and Kabyle in Algeria; Tamashek, spoken by the Tuareg of the central Sahara and south of the Niger; Rifian and Tamazight, spoken predominantly in Morocco; and Zanaga, in Senegal.

French colonial administrators, first in nineteenth century Algeria and subsequently in twentieth-century Morocco, sought to nurture the notion that Berber identity was distinct from that of being Arab and Muslim. For reasons of colonial control, the French in Morocco emphasized the real and imagined differences of Berbers, who in the earlier part of the century resided primarily in the mountainous regions and in Morocco’s south, from the Arab society of the towns and the agricultural plains. In 1930 the French made a major political miscalculation when they issued the famous Berber Proclamation in Morocco, which legally excluded regions designated as Berber from the jurisdiction of Islamic law courts. The proclamation set off protests throughout Morocco and the Muslim world. This decree was supplemented by policies affecting military recruitment, local administration, and education (Berbers were forbidden to learn Arabic in schools, although most students found the means to do so). Even after Morocco gained its independence from France in 1956, the issue continued to be a delicate one. Some Berber intellectuals would like to see the Berber languages written and taught in schools, although governmental officials in both Morocco and Algeria, which also has a significant Berber population, have discouraged such initiatives for fear of encouraging separatist movements. In Morocco, the categorizations Arab and Berber are often situational, and persons will stress one or another aspect of their identity depending on context. Identity as Arab and Berber is best thought of as a continuum rather than (as did French colonial officials) as a sharp, mappable distinction. Diverse patterns of occupation, residence, marriage, urban and rural origin, and other factors show that the ethnic distinctions of Arab and Berber in North Africa lack the all-pervasive typification that ethnicity takes in contexts elsewhere, including being Kurdish in northern Iraq or Muslim in Bosnia.

Assertion of an ethnic identity is often a political claim. In Afghanistan, opposition to the Soviet dominated state which took power in 1978 and to the 1979 Soviet invasion came largely from tribally organized ethnic groups, for whom attachment to Islam served as a common denominator. In Pakistan, especially after the secession of Bangladesh in 1971, the country’s ruling Punjabi elite viewed with suspicion the country’s other ethnic groups, which include Sindhis, Pashtuns, Muhajirs (Muslim refugees who migrated after 1947 from what is now India), and Baluch. The Pakistani state emphasizes Islam as an identity more important than the common ethnic ties of its minority groups, including the Baluch, who from 1973 to 1977 fought for regional autonomy. The insurgency was unsuccessful, but contributed to a heightened Baluch national consciousness that cut across tribal divisions.

Ethnic stereotyping involves shared notions concerning the motivations and attributes of the members of other ethnic groups and what can be expected of them, as well as those of one’s own ethnic group. Ethnic identities, like those of language, sect, nation, and family, can be comprehended only in the context of more general assumptions made in a given society concerning the nature of the social relationships and obligations. Such understandings can be benign, as in most Arab-Berber relations in North Africa, or they can menace the destruction of civil society.

Most modern notions of ethnicity have little to do with the notion of the mappable traits of an earlier generation. Instead, they emphasize how ethnic distinctions are generated, produced, and maintained in society. Ethnic identities are constantly adjusted to changing requirements, even if some advocates of ethnic nationalism maintain that ethnic identities are irreducible and self-evident.

The Kurds are a case in point. How Kurds construct their ethnic and religious identity, or have the label “Kurd” applied to them by others, indicates the difficulties involved in treating ethnic identities as primordial givens or as locally held aggregations of collective interests.

Kurdistan is a region that crosses several international boundaries. Most Kurds five in Turkey (10 million, perhaps 2o percent of the country’s population), although several million five in neighboring Iran and northern Iraq, with smaller numbers in Syria and elsewhere, including western Germany. The number of Kurds is itself a significant issue, with Kurdish spokespersons offering higher figures than those wishing to diminish the political importance of Kurds. For many years, Kurds in Turkey were officially designated as “mountain Turks” who possessed an incomplete command of Turkish. Although other minorities in Turkey had their non-Turkish mother tongues recorded in official censuses, Kurdish was not, and only in recent years has speaking and writing Kurdish become legal. Many Kurds in Turkey are also Alevi (Ar., `Alawi) Muslims, a sectarian group looked on with disdain by many Sunni Turks, so many differ from other Turks not only in terms of language, but also religiosity. The repressive treatment of Kurdish speakers in eastern Anatolia, combined with the region’s poverty, has led to their disproportionately high representation in the Turkish migrant community in Germany, estimated to be as large as 2 million.

Identity as Alevi Kurds in Turkey is continually negotiated. From an early age, Alevi children are socialized into seeing themselves as a subordinated people whose religious identity is suppressed by a Sunni majority, who view them as religiously deviant and backward. The memory of shared injustices and suppression is carried from generation to generation. In contrast, Kurdish-speaking Alevis in western Germany find themselves more free than in Turkey to express themselves as Kurds and as Alevis. Moreover, second generation migrants in Germany often rework their identity as Turks or Kurds in terms learned from European nationalist and ethnic discourse. Ironically, Germans tend to confuse Turks with Greeks, prompting a critical rethinking of identities by workers carrying both national labels. In a similar manner, Sunni and Alevi Turks in Germany critically rethink their differences as they interact with one another more intensely than they do in Turkey. This has had an impact on improving the situation of Kurds in Turkey.

Contemporary ethnic and religious identities in the new states of Central Asia and the Caucasus merit special consideration. During the Soviet era, Stalin created ethnic identities-“national” identities in the political language of the former Soviet Union-to weaken the possibility of resistance to Soviet domination. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Russian imperial expansion led to the forced migration of the Muslim populations of the region, creating hostility against Russians. Subsequently, those speaking Turkic languages, including the Turkmen, Kazakh, and Kirghiz (whose traditional lifestyles involved pastoralism), and the Uzbeks, primarily agricultural and urban, were considered separate for administrative purposes, as were the Persian-speaking Tajiks. The frequent displacement of populations, heavy Russian immigration to the major towns and to certain regions (such as northern Kazakhstan), and frequent shifts of language policy, including changes of alphabet and the substitution of Russian for the Turkic languages and Persian in schools, served to fragment ethnic identities. The newly independent republics are rapidly reversing this situation. In Azerbaijan, for example, schools are gradually shifting from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet and to Azeri Turkish as the language of instruction instead of Russian. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have made similar moves. In all cases, the demise of the Soviet Union has led to a growth in ethnic consciousness and ethnic conflicts linked to competing claims over land, water, and other national resources. Because the various ethnic populations often live sideby-side-many Tajiks, for example, five in Uzbekistan, and a significant minority of Uzbeks live in neighboring republics, the possibilities of conflict are enormous. Their right to cultural self-expression has varied considerably in the past and will continue to do so.

The same situation exists in China, where ethnic and religious boundaries can be seen to be cultural and political constructions rather than territorial ones. The attribution of an ethnic, or even a religious, identity to a group or an individual depends on the speaker, the audience, and the context. Such identities are constructed in competition between local communities and the state, classes, and leaders and followers. Not infrequently one answer is given when governments make inquiries, and another when scholars do. Of the fifty-five national minorities listed in China’s 1982 census, ten are Muslim by tradition, including the Hui, Uighur, Kazakh, and others, for a total of 15 million, which is probably an under representation. Some groups claim Turkic descent, while others, such as the Hui, consider themselves a mixture of Han, Mongol, and Arab descent. The decision under post-1949 communist rule to classify the Hui as a national identity rather than a religious one suggests that the authorities regarded ethnic identity as more amenable to control than a religious one. (In a similar manner, Tito’s Yugoslavia treated the country’s Muslims as a national rather than as a religious identity.) Since the 1980s, China’s Muslims have been given limited autonomy. Mosques have been opened and ties restored with Muslim communities elsewhere, so that China’s Muslims become increasingly aware of their collective identity and are stressing it more than the complementary identities which they possess. Even if such a shift does not result in demands for greater autonomy, it obliges the central government to take claims for resources and just treatment seriously.

There is a subtle interplay between ethnic and religious identities throughout the Muslim world, but this interplay is not unique to the Muslim world. The inter communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India, a formally secular state, parallel in many respects the interplay of religion and ethnicity between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese in neighboring Sri Lanka. In Malaysia, claims to ethnic identity are inextricably linked to religion and, since the islamization movement of the late 1970s, have led to economic, educational, and legal preferences and entitlements. In neighboring Indonesia, in contrast, the official ideology, the Pancasila, encompasses general principles from several world religions, including Islam, and the government frequently limits the participation of religious organizations in politics. Nonetheless, international corporations and organizations often impute leadership skills to personnel based on ethnic origin. Batak and Ambonese, for example, are sometimes favored over Javanese because of their reputation for being good administrators and for not favoring their relatives.

Ethnic identity is now trans-regional and transnational. The Yemeni grocer in Brooklyn, New York, might serve as a link for others from his tribe and village in Yemen, and the Turkish factory worker in Germany might facilitate the adjustment for others from his home region or country in adjusting to life in a foreign land. Similarly, in times of ethnic conflict, these transnational times can ease the flow of money and arms across international frontiers.

Some contemporary studies emphasize how ethnicity is embedded in a system of social meanings, an element of social identity among others. Others see ethnicity and sectarianism principally as products of global economic and political circumstances which encourage the formation of such identities, which are then used for obtaining political and economic advantage. Understanding claims to ethnic identity entails attention both to constructed collective meanings and to the economic and political contexts in which such identities are created and sustained. Ethnic distinctions, like those of region, sect, sex, language, and even tribe, are not being erased by modern conditions, as an earlier generation once facilely assumed, but provide the base from which newer social distinctions are created and sustained.

Even when there is a popular consensus or a desire among intellectual and political leaders to facilitate the reshaping of identities and responsibilities, either to mute the importance of divisive ethnic or sectarian identities or to emphasize them, ethnic identities must be taken into consideration. Some governments and political leaders, like their religious counterparts, often seek to ease possible tensions that arise from making such group definitions by officially denying their existence, but it would appear more reasonable to recognize them for what they are and constructively to seek to harness them. Shared notions of community by ethnic group or region often can provide the basis of trust and solidarity necessary for the effective functioning of and participation in modern society. Unfortunately, they can also be used to intimidate and to destroy.

[See also `Asabiyah; Tribe.]


Banuazizi, Ali, and Myron Weiner, eds. The State, Religion, and Ethnic Politics: Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan. Syracuse, N.Y., 1986. Useful collection, with an especially helpful introduction.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. Bloomington, 1986. Useful gazetteer to ethnic and religious groupings in Central Asia, Russia, and the Caucasus. Eickelman, Dale F. “Arab Society: Tradition and the Present.” In The Middle East Handbook, edited by Michael Adams, pp. 765781. 2d ed. New York, 1988.

Eickelman, Dale F. The Middle East: An Anthropological Approach. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1989. Offers an overview of factors contributing to social and cultural identity throughout the region, including ethnicity (pp. 207-227).

Eickelman, Dale F., Russia’s Muslim Frontiers: New Directions in Cross-Cultural Analysis. Bloomington, 1993. Compares ethnic and religious identities in Central Asia and the Muslim Middle East, especially Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. See especially the chapter by Gene R. Garthwaite comparing tribal, ethnic, and national identities among the Kurds and the Bakhtiyari.

Fuller, Graham E. Central Asia: The New Geopolitics. Santa Monica, Calif., 1992. Updates Bennigsen and Wimbush in suggesting possible points of conflict and the regional and external factors contributing to them.

Hussin Mutalib. Islam and Ethnicity in Malay Politics. New York and Singapore, 1990. Effective treatment of political ethnicity in one Southeast Asian country.

Newby, L. J. ” `The Pure and True Religion’ in China.” Third World Quarterly 10. 2 (April 1988): 923-947. Succinct survey of Muslim communities in China and changing government attitudes toward them.

Rosen, Lawrence.

Relations in a Muslim Community. Chicago, 1963. See especially pages 133-164 for Arab-Berber and Arab-Jewish relations in Morocco.

Tambiah, Stanley J. “Reflections on Communal Violence in South

Bargaining for Reality: The Construction of Social

Asia.” journal of Asian Studies 9.4 (November 1990): 741-76o. Thoughtful analysis of religious and ethnic violence in Sri Lanka, India, and Pakistan.

Tapper, Richard. “Ethnicity, Order, and Meaning in the Anthropology of Iran and Afghanistan.” In Le fait ethnique en Iran et en Afghanistan, edited by Jean-Pierre Digard, pp. 21-31. Paris, 1988. Hard to locate, but one of the clearest discussions of ethnicity available for these two countries.

Weekes, Richard V., ed. Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey. West port, Conn., 1978. Useful guide, ranging from Muslim communities in sub-Saharan Africa through Southeast Asia.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ethnicity/

  • writerPosted On: November 7, 2012
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