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10.1: History and Demographics

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    Defining the Middle East

    In 1902 the term "Middle East" was coined in order to designate the area residing between Egypt and Singapore, comprising major access points to Asia, such as the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, etc. West Asia, where most of the countries of the Middle East reside, used to be called the "Near East," but the newer term Middle East" came into usage in the early part of the 20th century.

    The term "Middle East" reflects a European worldview, originally imposed on the Middle East through colonization. This is why, if you decide to study the Middle East further or visit there, you may encounter conflicting geographical definitions. Often the term "Middle East" is employed, while at the same time some may choose to speak about their country as part of "West Asia," "North Africa," or even "Europe" (in the case of Turkey).

    The term "Middle Eastern" has been used as an umbrella term to encompass the large numbers of people in the region who are in fact incredibly diverse. This diversity includes race, language (Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew), culture (Arab, Persian, Israeli, Turkish) and religion (Muslim, Jewish, Christian). The goal of this chapter is to focus on the unique and immense diversity of the groups of the region, rather than succumb to the temptation of a single broad generalization.

    Map of the Middle East in 1993.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): The Middle East, 1993. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Terri L Beal via Flickr)

    Nation-States and Stateless Nations

    In the Middle East, there were always concepts of cultural community, somewhat synonymous with nation, or people, but national identities were not defined by a particular state. Let's take an example from Arabic speaking communities of the Middle East. A nation, or a people, is usually referred to as qawm in Arabic. Thus, qawmia is usually how the word nationalism is translated.

    Likewise, the word umma, which means community and is used by Muslims to refer to their global community, is also sometimes translated as "nation." Traditionally, cultural communities were also based on a particular religious tradition. National identity is therefore a complicated topic in the context of the Middle East. For the sake of this discussion, however, it is important to know that various cultural communities, whether they called themselves qawm or umum (plural for umma), came to consider themselves nations. At the same time, many of those, did not possess a state of their own, and some continue to be without a state. They are thus "stateless nations."

    Examples of stateless nations:

    • The Kurds currently reside in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, but they have not established an internationally-recognized state based on their national identity.
    • The Jews were a stateless nation until 1948 when they declared Israel a state, which immediately gained recognition from the U.S., followed by the rest of the world.
    • Palestinians are currently members of a stateless nation, although the sovereignty of Palestine has been recognized by 135 member countries of the U.N. The term "State of Palestine" is only used officially by Sweden.

    In the Middle East, the formation of nation-states created numerous marginalized groups in each country, whose cultural, linguistic or religious identity doesn’t match with the official nationality of the country. The examples are too numerous to list. The key aspect to be aware of is that the identity of the most powerful group of the country – which is usually also the majority group but not always – does not represent the entire population. For example in Iran the majority identity is Farsi-speaking, Shi’i Muslim. There are numerous Kurdish, Arab, Azeri, Assyrian, Jewish, Iranians, among others, and each may be speakers of a different language, and/or adherents to a different religious tradition.

    Persian Americans

    Iranian American is used interchangeably with Persian American, partly due to the fact that, in the Western world, Iran was known as "Persia." Most Iranian Americans arrived in the United States after 1979, as a result of the Iranian Revolution and the fall of the Persian monarchy, with over 40% settling in California, specifically Los Angeles. Unable to return to Iran, they have created many distinct ethnic enclaves, such as the Los Angeles Tehrangeles community. Today, the United States contains the highest number of Iranians outside of Iran.

    I am a Persian Girl! Picture of a young Persian woman.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "I am a Persian Girl!" (CC BY 2.0; Hamed Saber via Flickr)

    There is a tendency among Iranian Americans to categorize themselves as "Persian" rather than "Iranian", mainly to dissociate themselves from the Islamic regime of Iran which has been in charge since the 1979 Revolution, and also to distinguish themselves as being of Persian ethnicity, which comprise about 65% of Iran's population. While the majority of Iranian Americans come from Persian backgrounds, there is a significant number of non Persian Iranians such as Azeris and Kurds within the Iranian American community, leading some scholars to believe that the label "Iranian" is more inclusive, since the label "Persian" excludes non Persian minorities.

    Arab Americans

    If ever a category was hard to define, the various groups lumped under the name "Arab American" is it. After all, Latinx or Asian Americans are so designated because of their countries of origin. But for Arab Americans, their country of origin—Arabia—has not existed for centuries. In addition, Arab Americans represent all religious practices, despite the stereotype that all Arabic people practice Islam. As Myers (2007) asserts, not all Arabs are Muslim, and not all Muslims are Arab, complicating the stereotype of what it means to be an Arab American.

    Video \(\PageIndex{3}\): Don't Erase Me: The Modern Arab American. (Close-captioning and other YouTube settings will appear once the video starts.) (Fair Use; TEDx Talks via YouTube)

    Geographically, the Arab region is made up of the Middle East and parts of northern Africa. People whose ancestry can be traced to the area or who primarily speak Arabic may consider themselves to be Arab. There are 22 Arab Nations including: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

    The first Arab immigrants came to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were predominantly Syrian, Lebanese, and Jordanian Christians, and they came to escape persecution and to make a better life. These early immigrants and their descendants, who were more likely to think of themselves as Syrian or Lebanese than Arab, represent almost half of the Arab American population today (Myers, 2007). Restrictive immigration policies from the 1920s until 1965 curtailed all immigration, but Arab immigration since 1965 has been steady. Immigrants from this time period have been more likely to be Muslim and more highly educated, escaping political unrest and looking for better opportunities. The Arab American community in the U.S. is concentrated in five regions: the Detroit/Dearborn area, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, Chicago, and Washington D.C., but segments of the population live in all 50 states.

    According to the best estimates of the U.S. Census Bureau, the Arabic population in the United States grew from 850,000 in 1990 to 1.2 million in 2000, an increase of .07% (Asi & Beaulieu, 2013). By some estimates, there are as many as 3 million people in the United States today with Arab ancestry. Among those that identify as Arab American, the largest group is from Lebanon, followed by Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.

    Muslim Americans

    Islam has approximately 1.7 billion followers worldwide, and is the second largest religion in the world after Christianity. Most Muslims belong to one of two denominations: Sunni (87–90%) or Shia (10-13%). Muslims make up 24% of the world's population, compared to 33% for Christianity (Pew Templeton 2015). About 13% of Muslims live in Indonesia, the largest Muslim-majority country; 31% of Muslims live in South Asia, the largest population of Muslims in the world; 20% inhabit the Middle East–North Africa region, where it is the dominant religion; and 15% reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sizeable Muslim communities are also found in the Americas, the Caucasus, Central Asia, China, Europe, Mainland Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Russia.

    Islam is monotheistic religion and it follows the teaching of the prophet Muhammad, born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in 570 C.E. Muhammad is seen only as a prophet, not as a divine being, and he is believed to be the messenger of Allah (God), who is divine. The followers of Islam, whose U.S. population is projected to double in the next twenty years (Pew Research Forum, 2011), are called Muslims.

    Islam means "peace" and "submission." The sacred text for Muslims is the Qur’an (or Koran). As with Christianity’s Old Testament, many of the Qur’an stories are shared with the Jewish faith. Divisions exist within Islam, but all Muslims are guided by five beliefs or practices, often called "pillars:" 1) Allah is the only god, and Muhammad is his prophet, 2) daily prayer, 3) helping those in poverty, 4) fasting as a spiritual practice, and 5) pilgrimage to the holy center of Mecca.

    A man dressed in white is shown from behind looking down over the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred site. Hundreds of other people, dressed in all Black or all white, can be seen circling a large Black cube-like structure on the floor of a stadium-like structure.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): A cornerstone of Muslim practice is journeying to the religion’s most sacred place, Mecca. (CC BY-SA; Raeky via Flickr)

    In the United States, Muslim Americans are a very diverse group that represent different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It is estimated that the Muslim population in the United States is as follows:

    • 20-42% African American
    • 24-33% South Asian (Indonesian, Bangladeshi, Indian, Pakistani)
    • 12-32% Arab
    • 15-22% "other" (Iranian, Turkish and white and Hispanic converts)

    African Americans who embrace Islam represent a large segment of the Muslim community in the United States. There are about 1 million Black American Muslims in the U.S., and they are thought to account for 90% of all converts to Islam in the country (Pew Research Center 2015).

    Jewish Americans

    After their Exodus from Egypt in the thirteenth century B.C.E., Jews, a nomadic society, became monotheistic, worshipping only one God. The Jews’ covenant, or promise of a special relationship with Yahweh (God), is an important element of Judaism, and their sacred text is the Torah, which Christians also follow as the first five books of the Bible. Talmud refers to a collection of sacred Jewish oral interpretation of the Torah. Jews emphasize moral behavior and action in this world as opposed to beliefs or personal salvation in the next world. With between 14.5 and 17.4 million adherents worldwide, Judaism is the tenth largest religion in the world.

    Today, the largest Jewish religious movements are Orthodox Judaism (Haredi Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism), Conservative Judaism, and Reform Judaism. Major sources of difference between these groups include their approaches to Jewish law, the authority of the Rabbinic tradition, and the significance of the State of Israel. There is a wide spectrum of devotion, practice, and even appearance within Judaism, but the most visible are Orthodox Jews because they are recognized by their outward appearance.

    Orthodox men are expected to wear a ritual fringe called Tzitzit, and the donning of a head-covering for males at all times is a well-known attribute distinguishing Orthodox Jews. Many men grow beards, and Haredi men wear Black hats with a skullcap underneath and suits. Modern Orthodox Jews are sometimes indistinguishable in their dress from general society, although they, too, wear kippahs and tzitzit; additionally, on Shabbat, Modern Orthodox men wear suits (or at least a dress shirt) and dress pants, while women wear fancier dresses or blouses.

    Satmar Family, Brooklyn
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\); Satmar Family, Brooklyn. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; johnwilliamsphd via Flickr)

    What exactly makes someone Jewish? Is it the Jewish faith? Although Jewish religious practices and beliefs continue to be very important, a large number of adult Jews today do not regularly practice the Jewish religion. Is it physical features? Although some Jews can be distinguished by physical features, Jews today come from all parts of the world and thus can have tremendous variation in appearance. Is it culture? Jews share important cultural traits, however cultural identity can be very different from one Jew to the next as degrees of cultural assimilation vary. The Israeli Law of Return specifically defines who is Jewish and extends Israeli citizenship to all Jews. Jews are defined as "any person who has at least one Jewish grandparent or whose spouse has at least one Jewish grandparent." Israeli law also recognizes all converts to the Jewish faith. Thus, the question of whether the Jewish people are a race, religion or ethnic group, is not one that is easily resolved.

    The largest migration of Jews to the United States occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. This was synonymous with the great European migration to the United States. European immigration, particularly from Eastern Europe, was halted as a result of immigration laws in the 1920s. However, Jewish migration to the United States began to rise again beginning around 1933. At this time, Jews arriving to the United States were not only immigrants, they were refugees, attempting to escape the tyranny of the Third Reich in Europe. The most distinctive feature of the Jewish population in the United States today is its concentration in three areas: New York City, Los Angeles, and South Florida. These three areas account for 60 percent of the nation's entire Jewish population. In these areas, many public schools observe major Jewish holidays including Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, and Passover.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Works Cited

    • Asi, M. & Beaulieu, D. (2013). Arab households in the united states: 2006–2010. U.S. Census Bureau.
    • Myers, J.P. (2007). Dominant-Minority Relations in America. Boston, MA: Pearson.
    • Pew Research Center. (2015, May 12). America's Changing Religious Landscape.
    • Pew Research Center. (2011, January 27). The Future of the Global Muslim Population. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
    • Pew Research Center. (2015, April 2). The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050. Washington DC: Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures.