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world wide wednesdays :: the "arab world"

last week, i was discussing events in the middle east with a friend, particularly the emergence of the islamic state group and the threat they posed to the remaining secular governments of the arab world. syria, while it was clearly always a predominantly islamic country [by population], had been one of those and i mentioned turkey as another. my friend immediately responded "i don't mean to be pedantic but turks are not arabs".

i hate that sort of thing. not what he said, of course, but the fact that i know perfectly well that turks are not arabs, but i made the same sort of lazy geographical association for which i'm forever criticising others. i did make some feeble attempt to re-establish my credentials as someone who had something worthwhile to contribute to a discussion on middle eastern politics, but this is the sort of slip that eats away at my conscience during those long hours of insomnia. my tail hasn't emerged from between my legs since.

however, the exchange and my mistake did lead me to reflect on what we call the "arab world" and i've come to the conclusion that there's something wrong with almost every definition and the things that are wrong with it are very telling indeed. so for today's world wide wednesday feature, i thought it was worth taking a quick look at the various ways in which the term "arab world" is used.

old time religion

whether they want to admit it or not, when most north americans refer to the arab world, they are referring to the parts of the world where islam is the dominant religion. that includes lazy sods like me who know better but do it anyway. this is probably the worst use of the term, because it's so patently, ridiculously wrong.

bahareh hedayat :: not arab
with 1.6 billion followers world wide and a growth rate that exceeds all other major religions, islam is way too big to be confined to one area of the globe. however, if you want to get picky and say that the arab world is the part of the world that has the most muslims, you'd be talking about southeast asia.

with over 200 million adherents of islam, indonesia is the country with the most muslims, followed by pakistan, india and bangladesh. southeast asia has about three times the number of muslims of any other area of the world.

yes, i hear you say, but there are way more people in southeast asia than there are in other areas of the world, so it makes more sense to look at the countries where the greatest percentage of the population follows islam. that's not an unreasonable argument, i'd say and then i'd point out that you're talking about morocco.

fully 99.9% of the population of morocco is muslim, narrowly edging out tunisia with 99.8%. if it makes you feel any better, afghanistan is also 99.8% muslim and iran is 99.7%. but it shouldn't make you feel better, because you'd be hard-pressed to find an arab in either of those countries. in iran, arabs make up about 2% of the population. afghanistan doesn't even count them as a separate group, so any arabs living there are lumped in with "4% other" and they're probably not even a significant portion of that. iran is majority persian, while afghanistan has a plurality of pashtun and evidence indicates that both of those groups are more closely related to europeans than they are closer relatives of modern-day europeans than ethnic arabs. [side note: some anthropologists believe that the pashtun people may actually be descended from one of the mysterious lost tribes of israel. this was a legend in the oral tradition and it continues to garner some academic support into this century.]

now that we've started to talk about arab ethnicity, it's time we move on to the next way of defining the "arab world".

the amazing race

hamid karzai :: not arab
unpacking what is meant by the arab race is a genealogical nightmare. there are basically two things you learn when you start to look into it:

1. the term "arab" was invented by people to describe another group of people, which is always a terrible way to start thinking about a population. [side note: the term "arab" simply meant the people who lived on the arabian peninsula, who were a startlingly diverse group at the time. when muslims from north africa swooped in between the 17th and 13th century, the largely semitic peoples who had lived there [and were termed arab, at least by others] were displaced and their territory claimed by the invaders, meaning that the modern arab race is descended from people who came after the original arabs, to whom they are genetically unrelated. so-called "pure" arabs still exist. they're called qahtinites and they live mostly in yemen. i hope you're remembering all this.]

2. the term really hasn't gotten a lot more useful over time. its polyglot nature is about as useful as identifying people by what continent they live on [like i did earlier by saying "north americans"!]. it's the broadest possible generality.

i would try to explain this further, but it's entirely possible that my brain would explode. there is some logic to grouping arabs as a race- they are related to each other. but that's using a very, very big family tree. functionally, there are hundreds of arab subgroups and, because that's not confusing enough, there are people of many other ethnicities with long roots in the same geographical region. [side note: ethnic arabs have one of the highest rates of genetically transmitted disorders in the world, including ones that appear to affect no other races. there is an organisation in dubai dedicated to study this phenomena.]

but people have kept right on using the term "arab", because it's convenient, and eventually someone just decided to say "fuck it" and started using the term to refer to countries that use arabic languages.

speaking in tongues

the arabic language is part of an umbrella group called the afro-asiatic which, as you clever folk have probably figured out, is something like indo-european in scope. arabic is part of the semitic group of languages, which makes it reasonably closely related to hebrew, syriac and some of the languages of ethiopia and more distantly related to other african languages like somali and egyptian coptic. it's closest relative is... wait for it... maltese.

cenk uygur :: not arab
grouping people by their language isn't the worst idea anyone's ever had. but would it surprise you to know that this case is particularly complicated? i didn't think so.

first of all, for confusion's sake, arabic is the language of the qu'ran, which just adds to the confusion about the whole arab vs muslim distinction. but since we already know they're not the same, we can move on to the other reasons it's complicated.

arabic exists in a state called diglossia, which means that its written and spoken forms are different. there are several languages with the same distinction and in nearly every case, there is a certain level of political tension underlying the split. furthermore, spoken arabic is split into dozens of dialects and many of them are unintelligible to one another. in the interests of political unity, many arabs will tell you they all speak the same language, but there's a decent chance that another group of arabs, from another part of the world, wouldn't know what they were saying. so talking about countries where arabic is the predominant language is like talking about countries that speak romance languages. sure, they're related, but that doesn't make them homogenous. [although the written language thing helps push the argument along.]

as you may have gleaned, though, from that previous paragraph, there is sometimes a sense that arabs want to feel unified by their language, even though that might not be easy. and this brings us to what's possibly the "right" answer, or at least the one that's easiest to live with.

so political

without knowing it, when most people refer to the "arab world" what they mean is really the arab league. the arab league was founded in 1945 in order to foster a sense of unity and offer mutual support between arab-speaking countries. today, it has 21 members, including countries from the middle east [as far east as iraq] and northern and eastern africa. or it has 22. syria was a founding member, but is currently suspended because of acts of government repression during their civil war.

marrakech, morocco :: almost entirely arab
the list of countries who participate in the arab league is largely similar to the list of countries where arabic is the predominant language, although not exact. somalia's population is only about 45% arab speaking, but it is part of the league. djibouti and comoros are both members, but have only tiny arab minorities. oh, and just to fuck with your head, qatar, bahrain and the united arab emirates are all only about half arab by total population because of the massive numbers of foreign workers in those countries [although most non-arabs are not citizens]. oh and venezuela and brazil are official observers.

despite some slightly confusing bits [really, were you expecting any different?] i say that this is closest to a "correct" answer because it's the one way in which arab people have actually defined themselves. the arab league is a pan-national, pan-ethnic group which was founded with the aim of having arab states support each others' economic growth, defend each other militarily if necessary and to foster a sense of unity through cultural events and exchange. in that sense, the league has a role similar to the european union.


that folks, is about as far as i can take you in the examination of what is meant by the "arab world". i'm very aware of the irony that a term that has been around for centuries seems to have acquired a workable definition a little less than seventy years ago, but really, i think that it's just further evidence that it's a term to be used with the utmost caution. and never use it to refer to iran or turkey.

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