“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.
“Culture: A Rich Mosaic.” Global Connections: the Middle East. PBS. Link to resource (accessed May 7, 2010).
Fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford University
1. Compare the idea of an ‘Ethnic Mosaic’ with that of ‘the Melting Pot.’ How do these ideas place limits on the identities of individuals?
2. Is ethnicity an ‘irreconcilable and unchanging difference between people?’
3. Does your ethnicity change in different contexts? Provide examples.