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

Islamic Period:  The Concept of Ethnicity

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Examining Stereotypes

“The Middle East Is an Ethnic Mosaic”

The mosaic metaphor goes back to Carleton Coon’s Caravan: The Story of the Middle East, originally published in 1951. It is still common. It is a useful expression, but only in as much as it serves to remind people that the Middle East is not culturally, religiously, ethnically, linguistically, or politically homogenous. It is, in fact, a complex mix, just like any other region of the world. But it is also very misleading. It suggests that the separate elements of the mosaic exist in historical isolation. It ignores the role of empires, colonialism, and modern nation-states in creating many of the elements of the ‘mosaic’ that now seem self-evident units of ethnic (and therefore political) identity. It ignores the contextual nature of identity (the fact that in a given situation one’s identity, say, as a Muslim is more salient than one’s identity as an Egyptian or a Turk, but not in another). This makes efforts to identify ethnic groups in terms of population statistics and territorial units misleading at best. And it insists on irreconcilable and unchanging differences between people; the various peoples of the Middle East as much connected as divided by ‘ethnic’ criteria.

Supporting Links:

“Culture: A Rich Mosaic.” Global Connections: the Middle East. PBS. Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 7, 2010).

Next Button Off “‘Ethnic Minorities’ Are Repressed with Particular Intensity in Muslim Countries”

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