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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  The Concept of Ethnicity

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Ethnicity, Territory, and Religion

National movements in the Middle East emerged in response to European colonialism, and in response to the fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire. Often such movements started out as claims for increased autonomy, developing only later into fully-fledged nationalist movements, some of which had vast territorial claims (pan-Arabism, pan-Turkism). Debates over the origins of Middle Eastern nationalist movements are complex. We should note, though, the constitutional movements in the Ottoman capital and Egypt in 1876 and 1879 respectively, marking the beginning of efforts to wrest political and economic control away from European military and commercial forces; the national independence movements in the Ottoman Balkans provinces, beginning with Greek independence in 1832; and the Arab revolt against the Ottomans in 1916-18 (described vividly in English in T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom). The Treaty of Sevres of August 10, 1920, divided up the defeated Ottoman empire into zones of colonial influence; anti-colonial independence movements in ensuing decades created the modern map of nation-states, most of which attempted to forge a common language, common senses of racial identity, common senses of national culture, and so forth. Only Iran could claim an ancient lineage for these distinctly new forms of ethnic belonging. In many cases, the effort to impose national uniformity alienated marginal populations. Tribal groups who had been granted a degree of autonomy and sometimes even created under imperial systems (for instance, the Kurds under the Ottomans, or the Berbers under French colonialism) found themselves under unwelcome pressure to speak the majority national language, and defer to new symbols of national authority. Nation-states have often been fragile and modern constructions in the Middle Eastern political landscape. Where ‘ethnic’ and tribal divisions have proved almost overwhelmingly strong, as in, for example, Pakistan and Afghanistan, nation-states have claimed Islam as an overarching principle of belonging.

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