Communal Identities and Ethnic Groups

Daniel G. Bates, Amal Rassam

From Peoples and Cultures of the Middle East
© 2000 Pearson Education
Electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

In this chapter Daniel Bates of Istanbul Bilgi University and Amal Rassam of Queens College of the City University of New York consider communal identities in the Middle East from an anthropological perspective. The articles begins with a discussion of ethnicity, race, language and religion from a general theoretical perspective, followed by more detailed discussion of these issues with regard to specific communities such as the Kurds, Maronites, and several others.


All contemporary societies of the Middle East have been shaped by long and varied historical processes, of which the people themselves are acutely conscious. Appeals to history often serve to validate the present as well as provide an ideological basis for unity and solidarity. Paradoxically, such historical awareness also serves to differentiate one group from another in an area and therefore contributes to cultural diversity and disunity. This diversity, sometimes visually expressed through distinctive styles of dress, ritual, and public behavior, must be properly appreciated if we are to understand Middle Eastern society. We have already seen in our discussion of Islam some of the historical processes that differentiated groups within the Islamic tradition; these differences themselves parallel, amplify, and even define group boundaries and structure intergroup relations today. In addition, there are indigenous non-Muslim populations in most countries, not to mention the Jewish state of Israel.

This diversity has been likened to a “human mosaic” in which the members of each identifiable group emphasize their common and special identity through some configuration of symbols. These symbols may be material–in the form of dress, dwelling styles, or language or dialect; of even greater significance, however, are the underlying patterns of behavior, values, and systems of belief. The recognition and acceptance of ethnic or communal differences have historically been a fundamental principle of Middle Eastern social organization. The metaphor of a human mosaic, however, has its limits. Although it may describe contemporary patterns, it offers little insight into the many processes that underlie the formation of group identities, how these change over time, and, more important, how people use them to gain access to resources and power.

Until the rise of nationalism, most polities comprised aggregates of bounded social groupings, either tribes or confessional communities, often held together by dynastic tradition. Whether joined for common purpose or held together by threat of force, the distinctive quality of the individual or localized grouping was maintained through the principle of collective responsibility. It is interesting to note that more than a century of Turkish, Arab, and Iranian nationalistic movements has not succeeded in eroding the significance of more narrowly defined ethnic and tribal identity for the individual. In this chapter we discuss the broad outlines of ethnicity and the sources of individual and group identities.

Each country and region of the Middle East contains local groupings or populations that are distinct from the society as a whole and are recognized as such by themselves and others. That is to say, people recognize themselves as belonging to some unique grouping within a larger population. The elements used to signal the identity of ethnic groups include religious affiliation, language or dialect, tribal membership or shared descent, and regional or local customs.

Ethnicity: A Theoretical Framework

In considering ethnicity in the Middle East, we should keep in mind a number of points that together make up a framework for the understanding of both the phenomenon of ethnicity and ethnic group relations. Ethnicityrefers to a social or group identity that an individual ascribes to himself or herself and that is also accepted by others. It is the basis for the formation of categories that are rooted in socially perceived differences in origin, language, and/or religion. In many respects, ethnicity resembles descent ideology: it stresses one’s origins, or descent, as part of one’s social identity and is usually ascribed at birth. While such an awareness of the past is a source of unity, it also emphasizes that which potentially sets one segment of the population apart from others. The Alevis of Turkey, whom we discussed earlier, are a case in point. Adhering to a mystical form of Shi’ism, they constitute a distinctive and endogamous grouping among Turkish and Kurdish speakers in Anatolia, one defined by religious practice rather than language (Shankland, 1993a and b).

Because ethnic categories are culturally defined, they can be manipulated and changed. In one situation, for example, an individual might identify him- or herself as a Kurd, while in another as a Turk or a Persian or an Arab–the politically dominant identities in the countries with large Kurdish populations. There is a high rate of bilingualism in polyglot regions, and within regional or national minorities, most males, at least, are completely at home in the politically dominant language. People may adopt the language, symbols, and codes of a special grouping to which their ties are quite remote or even nonexistent. In this sense, ethnic identity may be considered a personal strategy, a means to accomplish a desired objective. For example, in Iran, educated and well-to-do members of different non-Persian-speaking groups, such as the Qashqa’i or the Azeri, assimilated into the national elite by using Persian upper-class speech mannerisms and social codes. They, nonetheless, usually maintained their original cultural identification when with their own people. The converse also occurs; Kurdish intellectuals whose mother tongue may be Turkish, Arabic, or Persian may make of point of using Kurdish even though their fluency is less (Mango, 1995) .

Ethnic identity is regularly reformulated or “reinvented” in much the same way that new nationalisms emerge, spread, and, in time, may also fade away. Still, ethnicity or local-level collective organization and identity based on notions of shared kinship, history, culture, and language, while in many respects similar to nationalism, is not simply a scaled-down or primitive representation of nationalism (Smith, 1986, p. 13) . Just as nationalism, when enshrined as state ideology, proclaims the eternal unity of a land and a people, as for example, does Zionism, assertion of a distinct ethnicity can be a potent response by those whose perceived interests and identities are threatened by this same formulation of nationalism. Here, again, the Kurds of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are a good example, as are the Palestinians. While many if not most Kurds today live outside their traditional heartlands of Kurdistan, they respond strongly to appeals phrased in ethnic terms. The most important distinction to be made between nationalism and ethnicity is how boundaries are conceptualized and operationalized. With ethnicity, the boundaries are based on perceptions of heritage and are not limited to territorial expression or claims.

Ethnic politics should not be equated with ancient, intractable animosities simply because such statements are often basic to the rhetoric of both ethnicity and nationalism. Rather, the idiom of ethnicity, like appeals to “nation” or “tribe,” becomes operative in specific contexts or environments. What gives shape and continuity to political behavior might be called ideological or moral models, and these often draw on notions that are strikingly similar in tribal, ethnic, and national expressions: they draw upon ties of affect rooted in beliefs about morality, kinship, family, and history; and they are expressed in recognizable codes and symbols, including language and religion. However, ethnic constructions need have no territorial component nor need they be concerned with the perennial problem of nationalism–reconciling who is and who is not included. Ethnic boundaries are rooted in individual self-ascription as well as ascription by others, and so are contextual, malleable, and not based on any particular set of ideas of what distinguishes the community. The usual idioms of ethnic mobilization are “survival” and “justice,” perceived collective fears and wrongs effectively creating a “we-they” divide. Thus, in at least one important respect it may be inaccurate to speak of ancient ethnic animosities and primordial ethnic hatreds, as, sadly, is so often the case with respect to the Middle East. Specific conflicts, on examination, have very specific causes however much the rhetoric of kinship, community, and culture are evoked, and a look to the past will almost invariably reveal quite different patterns of alignment and notions of community boundaries.

Even individuals who have no desire to assimilate or “pass,” as it were, frequently use the codes and symbols of others to facilitate communication or simply to show respect. Of course, there are both psychological and social limits as to how people can use or manipulate ethnic or other forms of group identity. Individuals are socialized into primary groupings in ways that encourage a psychological commitment to their close relatives and to the symbols and values to which they adhere. Rarely do individuals repudiate these primary ties. Moreover, there are practical constraints on the manipulation of sources of identity. One constraint has to do with the willingness of other people to accept the use of a particular identity.

Although ethnic identity is ultimately an individual strategy, its main social significance emerges in the extent to which it serves as the basis for political or economic organization. Throughout the Middle East there was historically a strong tendency for occupational specialization to be associated with particular ethnic groups. For example, many families of the Jewish community in Isfahan traditionally specialized in fine metalwork and in trading of gold and silver; Kurds in Istanbul and Ankara, moving seasonally into the cities as temporary residents, had a near-monopoly as porters in the bazaars; most hotels and restaurants in Iraq used to be run and staffed by Assyrian Christians; most of the long-distance truck drivers and automotive mechanics of Iran were Azeri Turks, and most of the professional cooks in Egypt were Nubians. Today, this is rapidly changing, even disappearing, due to a number of factors, including mass education, mobility, and the proliferation of new occupations.

Although these days it is not possible to identify particular tasks or occupations exclusively with particular groups, there are still some general associations. For example, Gypsies are closely identified with tasks thought to be polluting or degrading, such as dealing in animal hides and public entertainment. Christians and Jews have long been associated with forms of commerce and business, which, for religious or other cultural reasons, were felt unsuitable for Muslims. Money lending or money changing and import-export activities that relied on such transactions were dominated by non-Muslims until mid-century. Only 20 percent of business enterprises enumerated in the Ottoman census of 1913-15 were Muslim-owned (Keyder, 1999) . The role of non-Muslims in trade, of course, was furthered by their ability to use their contacts with coreligionists outside the area.

What is almost universal is for each region or community to have its locally unique patterns of division of labor along ethnic lines. There are organizational advantages in having skills and trades passed from father to son, and there are advantages in closely related individuals following the same craft or line of trade. Quite apart from facilitating training, relatives are often sources of credit or capital given on the basis of personal trust and reputation. In general, communication is also easier among kin, which probably facilitates the local prominence of one or another group in a particular endeavor. Because lines of patronage and mutual support often reflect primary group ties, it is not surprising that as new jobs or employment opportunities arise, they may be filled by people sharing a social or ethnic identity.

Ethnic group membership can structure access to resources and intergroup relations. In other words, as Fredrik Barth (1969) notes very elegantly, the cultural content of ethnicity–that is, the symbols and codes that define it–can facilitate or impede the access of people to resources. In Barth’s view, ethnic groups can be thought of as occupying unique places in the social landscape. The place or niche of any group is determined by what they do for a living, their social and political organization, and their relations to other groups in their environment. Further, this approach draws attention to the fact that occupational or productive specialization on the part of an entire group can be a very effective means of utilizing available resources, including labor and acquired skills.

This model emphasizes the complementarity of the roles and functions served by the different groups who interact with one another. For example, the Yörük of southeastern Turkey (see Chapter 5) have traditionally been nomadic pastoralists. They do not, however, own pastures and must acquire grazing rights from local landlords and villages. Thus, their niche is defined as much by the activities of other groups as it is by the needs of their animals and the grasses that sustain them. The Yörük exploit marginal areas and high pastures that local farmers are not equipped to fully utilize. The close lines of communication and mutual support among the Yörük make it difficult for outsiders to effectively compete with them in getting pastures, in organizing sales of animal products, and in moving flocks. Ethnicity, with its emphasis on shared unique social characteristics, thus facilitates access to certain resources, even the defense of them against others. As a result, particular resources or ways of exploiting them may become identified in many regions with particular peoples.

However, we have to keep in mind that complementarity or mutuality of benefits is only one aspect of intergroup relations. Groups frequently establish exploitative relationships with others in which ethnic identity may serve to organize and perpetuate inequality. The Shabak of northern Iraq (see Chapter 3), for example, were a caste-like grouping of agricultural sharecroppers who depended on politically and socially dominant urban Arab landlords. Differentiated by language and religious practices, the Shabak long remained a weak and exploited group. As Shabak, they were systematically denied access to better jobs outside their community and found it difficult to find anyone who would sell them land. The ethnic label of Shabak locally connoted poverty, backwardness, and low status. Should a Shabak family acquire wealth or move into town, it would rapidly try to disassociate itself from the rural community, which at times included changing language and customary practices.

Even when a high degree of economic mutuality exists among members of different groups interacting together, there may also be considerable mutual antipathy. For example, the Sulubba, Gypsy-like nomadic peoples of Arabia, formerly specialized in metalwork, music making, and entertainment. They regularly moved from one Bedouin camp to another or between villages, plying their trade. Despite close association with their hosts and clients, they were held in low esteem and were socially ostracized. Although at times the very values and attitudes held by members of a particular ethnic group toward others may engender overt hostility and conflict, this should not be overly stressed as a generalization. Mutual accommodation and tolerance are by far the more common basis for communal interaction. Lebanon, prior to the serious outbreak of interethnic violence in the mid-1970s, was held up as a paradigm of interethnic accommodation and mutual tolerance for at least two generations. Today it is once again largely free from terrorism and intercommunal fighting, having adopted an acceptable arrangement of power sharing.

We should reemphasize that ethnicity is an analytic concept used to describe or understand aspects of individual or group identity. While we speak easily of particular ethnic groups and their cultural boundaries, we have to keep in mind that the effective units of social action implied by ethnic labels are ever-changing. Whether or not a particular ethnic category of people or identifiable collectivity is meaningfully thought of as a “group” depends on a knowledge of the specific circumstances. For example, it is not useful to regard Arabs in the Middle East as an ethnic group. However, a small subpopulation of Arabic speakers within a Persian-speaking community may interact as a bounded group in the way that Barth suggests.

In the following sections, we look at important sources for cultural differentiation that may be utilized at any given time to define ethnic-group boundaries. These sources for differentiation constitute the raw materials for ethnic identity and group formation.


Of all the elements that may be used to define groups or social categories, phenotypic race or biological variation is the least important in the Middle East, where the vast majority of the people from Egypt to Afghanistan tend to fall within the same racial grouping, often referred to as “Mediterranean.” Where a markedly differentiated population exists, such as the ‘abid or blacks of Saudi Arabia, the Nubians of Egypt, or the Türkmen of Iran (with pronounced Mongoloid features), such phenotypic differences are locally recognized but are not necessarily associated with an ethnic identity. Even though in much of the area light skin is considered a mark of beauty and high status, there is no prevailing ideology of race based on color. For example, many would describe Gypsies as a distinguishable “racial” grouping, but in fact the clues to making such an identification are largely cultural rather than phenotypic–style of dress, occupation, manner of deportment, and the like.

While slavery was historically practiced throughout the Islamic world, it was not exclusively associated with Africans or any other particular population. In the Arabian Peninsula, as might be expected by virtue of geography, most slaves were East African in origin, and their descendants still form fairly distinct groupings within Peninsular Arabian society. One remaining frontier of contention between Muslim and so-called “pagan” or animist populations runs through southern Sudan. For over 40 years there has been a struggle amounting to civil war pitting the Arabs of the north, who dominate all state institutions, against the Nilotic-speaking populations of the southern provinces, most of whom are Christian or animist. While the course of this conflict is too complex to enter into here, one sad by-product of the anarchy it has created is the resurgence of slaving involving both Christians and animists as victims.

The Ottomans recruited slaves from both Eastern Europe and the Caucasus. In general, the descendants of these slaves today do not form either racially or ethnically distinct groups. This is because many of the “slaves” were employed in high-level administrative positions and in the military. In fact, they were not slaves at all in the sense of chattel but rather were part of the sultan’s entourage and administrative cadre. Once converted to Islam, such individuals served the government throughout the empire, married, and accumulated property. Slavery in this case meant little more than a “servant of the sultan.” Islamic law does not privilege distinctions of race, ethnicity, class, rank, or family, and the descendants of slaves, of whatever origin, are not stigmatized, nor are the descendants of converts to Islam.

Outside of a few towns in southern Arabia, slavery in the Middle East has never been a primary means of organizing menial labor. Perhaps as a consequence, the association of class and race or ethnicity and race is not well developed in the area. 1


As we have noted, under certain circumstances, linguistic differences can become ethnic markers. But, more important, language serves to establish boundaries on a much larger scale. The three major language groupings in the modern Middle East are the Semitic, Indo-European, and Altaic or Turkic linguistic families. These are broad classifications, and each encompasses a number of major languages and numerous distinctive dialects. Arabic and Hebrew are Semitic languages. Whereas Hebrew is spoken only in Israel, Arabic is the national language of the countries of North Africa, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller states of the Arabian Peninsula. The Indo-European language family is regionally represented by the many dialects of modern Persian, Kurdish, Luri, Baluchi, and smaller groups of Greek and Armenian speakers. The major Turkic languages and dialects are western or standard Turkish of Anatolia, Azeri of Iran, Türkmen, and the languages of smaller groups of eastern Turkic speakers of Central Asian origin, such as Tatars and Kazaks. In Northwest Africa, Berber, an Afro-Asiatic language, is spoken by a large number of people, especially in the mountain and desert regions of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and to a lesser extent in Libya. Berber is divided into a number of distinct, and in some cases, mutually unintelligible dialects/languages. However, Arabic is the official language throughout Northwest Africa, and the majority of the Berbers tend to be bilingual. Berber speakers, in general, do not refer to themselves as “Berber” but as “Imazighin.”

Language in and of itself usually establishes only the outermost parameters to group membership, although dialect differences may precisely identify a person as to region or even tribe. In Baghdad, for example, Muslims, Jews, and Christians all speak Iraqi Arabic, a dialect distinct from colloquial Egyptian or Syrian. However, the three groups can be distinguished from one another on the basis of distinctive speech mannerisms, syntax, and grammar.

Spoken Arabic represents a number of distinct speech communities that vary regionally; those of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are quite distinct. Even within countries, there is regional variation, as, for example, between Lower and Upper Egypt. In the extreme southern part of the Arabian Peninsula, a small number of communities speak a highly variant dialect of Arabic identified as Southern Arabian. Nonetheless, the major dialects of Arabic are usually mutually comprehensible and all are written in one form. The rapid development of mass communication and the extension of public education are facilitating the breakdown of dialect barriers and encouraging the spread of a common standardized Arabic used in publications everywhere.

Persian, an Indo-European language, is the national language of Iran and encompasses many closely related dialects spoken as a first language by about 50 million people in Iran and by over 5 million people in neighboring Afghanistan. Persian is written in Arabic characters and, as does Turkish, has a substantial Arabic vocabulary. The infusion of Arabic is due in part to the early politicoreligious domination of Iran by the Arab Muslims and at least in equal part to the use of Arabic by medieval Persian scholars and men of letters. As with Arabic, dialect variations in Persian serve to differentiate class and regional affiliations.

The third national language in the Middle East is Turkish. Of the over 150 million Turkic-speaking peoples in the world, more than 55 million live in Turkey proper where dialectical differences are relatively minor when compared with other primary language families. Urban-rural differences in speech frequently overshadow regional differences, although certain interregional linguistic differences can be easily distinguished, for example, the Black Sea coast from the Mediterranean. Until the reforms of the Atatürk period, Turkish was written in Arabic script, but since 1928 Turkish has used the Roman alphabet. Variants of the Roman alphabet, as adapted to Turkish, are increasingly used in the Central Asian Turkic republics, marking political and cultural reorientation away from Russia.

In every state, there are important communities that speak languages other than the national languages, as well as a substantial amount of bilingualism. This gives a political dimension to language and constitutes the level at which language is most salient in defining ethnic boundaries. In Turkey, for example, about 10 million to 12 million people are native speakers of Kurdish, and many other smaller groups of people speak Armenian, Greek, Ladino (a Spanish dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews), Tatar, Circassian, or Bulgarian. Perhaps as many as 100,000 people in Turkey speak Arabic. However, only standard Turkish can be used in schools (apart from a small number of designated foreign or religious institutions) and in the courts.

At one time Kurdish newspapers, books, and records were illegal. Today in Turkey there are numerous Kurdish publications, as well as some quasi-legal TV and radio broadcasting. A national organization, the Mesopotamian Cultural Club and Press Centre, has offices throughout the country and often sponsors musical and literary events. The old euphemism “mountain Turk” is no longer used, and Kurdish identity is openly referred to in the media–although it should also be noted that new euphemisms are also employed, such as “an ethnic grouping.” It remains illegal to advocate anything that the authorities might interpret as “divisive” or “separatist,” which is a powerful and much resented disincentive to free speech and even musical and literary expression. However, in neighboring Iraq, where the 4 million to 5 million Kurds form an even larger minority relative to the national population, Kurdish is the language of education in districts where Kurds predominate. This has not been the case in Iran, where some 5 million Kurds live along the northeastern border. Although an Indo-European language, Kurdish is grammatically and lexically distinct from Persian. Public education is conducted exclusively in Persian, and the use of Kurdish in public media is restricted.

Like Kurdish speakers, the Baluch are also divided among a number of nation-states: Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The Baluch, who number around 3 million, speak highly localized variants of Baluchi, an Indo-European language. Located in one of the most arid mountainous zones of southwest Asia, most of the Baluch eke out a living as nomadic pastoralists, coastal fishermen, and farmers.

The presence of these large, linguistically differentiated minorities, like the Kurds, Baluch, Türkmen, or even the encapsulated Arabic-speaking communities in Turkey and Iran, has serious political implications. It is important to note that in every country there is a strong nationalist movement underwriting the use of particular languages or dialects to promote unity in the face of considerable and deeply rooted cultural diversity. For members of local populations, such as those we have noted, this often presents a major dilemma. To participate fully in the national economy, to educate their children, and to partake fully in the national culture, they have to acquire a second language and dissociate themselves to some extent from their primary communities.

Although the educated elite in most countries of the Middle East is almost always bilingual in a European language, great emphasis is placed on the promotion of a national tongue among the masses. Bilingualism in English and, to a lesser extent, French not only serves as a sign of education and status but is increasingly a necessary tool for employment in the emerging global market.


Although language and local dialects are significant in the differentiation of people and may delineate distinctive communities, religion is the most important single source of personal and group identity–and, by extension, social divisions. The perceived rights and obligations of one person to another are strongly tempered by whether or not the parties involved are coreligionists. The assumption that, in the final analysis, an individual will turn to and favor others of his or her faith is so pervasive as to constitute a basic principle of social interaction. Religion in its many sectarian expressions sets some of the most important limits to interpersonal behavior. Of all injunctions regarding marriage expressed by the religions of the Middle East, the one fundamental to all is that marriage be restricted to coreligionists.

This is not to say that religious ties or bonds inevitably supersede all others. In fact, class differences, tribal and ethnic divisions, and the like often take precedence over any claims of religion as people organize themselves in groups for common action. Religion is more a determinant of maximal boundaries or inclusiveness, less commonly the basis for local organization. For example, a village may be composed of both Sunni and Alevi residents (Shankland, 1993a, 1993b) . This distinction is almost inevitably reflected in voluntary residential segregation. However, within each residential quarter, groups organizing for political action or other purposes are most likely to utilize more exclusive criteria for membership. Recruitment for political action is more apt to be along lines of common descent and tribal affiliation. One has only to look at the persistent conflicts in Iran between the Shi’a Azeri and Shi’a Persians, or in Iraq between the Sunni Kurds and Sunni Arabs for examples of ongoing intrasectarian conflict. Moreover, ties of close friendship, contractual partnerships, and political alliances everywhere join people across sectarian boundaries. Residence within towns and cities, while often expressing some aggregation along sectarian lines, is rarely homogeneous. In virtually every big city, Christians, Jews, and Muslims live in close juxtaposition and share apartment buildings and compounds.

Although religion cannot be evoked to explain all or even most patterns of social interaction, sectarianism continues, nonetheless, to be a factor with important political and social consequences for every country in the region. Nationalistic movements both within countries and those, like pan-Arab nationalism, which transcend state frontiers, have consistently found it difficult to reconcile sectarianism with their more encompassing national and transnational political objectives. Islamist political movements also have to contend with Muslim sectarianism.

Regional Ethnic Groups

We have stressed dissidence within Islam and non-Muslim sectarianism as important sources of ethnic and cultural diversity. In addition to sectarian-defined groupings, there are important Muslim populations that are distinguished by several overlapping claims to shared identity. Foremost among these are the shared sense of history, language, and cultural heritage associated with a region or place of origin. Such groups may range from large populations with strong territorial bases, like the Baluch, the Kurds, and the Palestinians, to smaller dispersed ones, like the Circassians. The Circassians, Muslims who fled the Caucasus in the nineteenth century, are found today on the Golan Heights, in Jordan, Syria, Iraq, and western Turkey. As a small and widely dispersed people, they appear to aspire to no more of a political future than to participate in the national order of the countries in which they live. Many, perhaps most, do not retain a distinctive language.
The Balkans, too, were a source of Muslim out-migration. With the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria, about 1 million Muslims, some speaking Turkish, others not, moved east to remain in the diminished empire. Many of those who settled in Turkey assimilated, but some village communities persist in retaining a distinct identity (Palaczek, 1993) .

Today, the Kurds, Baluch, and Palestinians are divided among a number of different nation-states. Following the collapse of the USSR, the independent republics of Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan were established, although sizable numbers of their potential citizens remain outside their frontiers in Iran. The nascent Palestinian state will also be a case where “the state disappoints the nation.” Most Palestinians will undoubtedly never be found within the borders of a Palestinian state, nor will most of the territory they historically occupied. Given their numbers and long-established historical presence in their homelands, these people can be thought of as incipient nations without states. Thus it is not surprising that all of these groups have more or less active nationalistic movements seeking political expression either in independent nation-states or as recognized entities in confederated states. We will briefly consider the case of the Kurds, as they constitute the largest single regional or transnational ethnic group and one episodically involved in armed struggles.

General Overview

Appeals to religion, tribalism, and ethnicity in situations of conflict must be considered within specific political environments. While we can easily find instances in the Middle East where intergroup conflict occurs in the absence of strong state control, the “genie in the bottle” model, wherein politicized ethnicity or religion suddenly erupts when controls are relaxed, is not particularly helpful for understanding the situation in any country. It is, of course, true that appeals to history and assertions of a community rooted in primordial ties are crucial in forging a sense of shared identity, just as they are vital to “imagining” the nation. Nevertheless this need not imply that the political salience of any particular mode of recruitment need be continual and forceful, lying as many commentators would have it, just below the surface waiting to emerge when a powerful center weakens. Many in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere use this argument to justify state policy. In fact, it often obscures the fact that strong, central government control, particularly where accompanied by single-party rule or heavy-handed central administration, very often establishes the preconditions for the emergence of politicized alternatives.

Nation-building, such as experienced throughout the region since World War I, typically involved processes of centralizing power and authority, as well as the creation of modes of political discourse that exclude or marginalize some minorities. But even fairly heavy-handed imposition of limits to linguistic, religious, and cultural expression need not automatically generate communally organized political responses. Quite apart from overt coercion, which may increase the costs of responding, it is not easy for dispersed minorities to come to visualize themselves as a unified community with common interests. However, where assimilation is forced upon individuals, leaving them no realistic hope of participating in the culture of nation-state, even the extreme application of force simply fuels the political importance of identity. Violent efforts at suppressing or denigrating the symbols and codes of national minorities will likely strengthen minority opposition. Often, one suspects, in a highly centralized political environment or in the embrace of a colonial or alien regime, ethnicity (in the absence of alternative political institutions) becomes a vehicle of last resort for expressing local interests – for example, among the Palestinians of Israel. On the other hand, it is not so much that ethnicity (as a political force) is “dormant” or “suppressed”; rather, in some political environments, it is not particularly relevant.

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