The Middle East has been, for thousands of years, a crossroads not just of trade goods but also of peoples. The movement of many different ethno-linguistic groups into and throughout the region has created an enormously rich diversity of languages, cultures, and ethnicities. Every society in the Middle East has had layer upon layer of people leave their mark upon its cities, landscapes and cultural heritage.

While most people think of the Middle East as being Arab, the demographic reality is much more complex. Arabs are indeed the largest ethnic group in the region, but they live in more than 20 Arab-majority states, and as minorities in even more. Three other major ethnic groups are Turks, Persians, and Jews—each of these are associated with both a language and with a state in the region—Turkey, Iran and Israel, respectively. The Kurds, on the other hand, have a distinct language and culture, but no state—instead, they are spread among Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

If we think of the ethnic makeup of the Middle East, there are prominent, majority groups and a plethora of smaller, diverse communities speaking a variety of languaes, all with different histories, traditions, and geographical concentrations. Of the former we can include speakers of Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew and Kurdish.   Interwoven with these broad bands are many colorful threads representing smaller ethno-linguistic groups, including the Amazight people (often called Berbers in the West), Abkhas, Laz, Lur, Azeri, Yazidis, Gilaki, Mazandarani, Baluch, Armenian, Assyrian, and many more.

The map of these ethno-linguistic groups is not congruent with the borders of the modern states of the Middle East. For example, while we may think of Iran as Persian-speaking, in fact almost half of the country’s population is made up of dozens of ethnic minorities—although many speak Persian as well or better than their heritage language. Turkish may be the official language of Turkey, but there are also many Turkish speakers outside its borders.

A note on race and ethnicity

One has to be careful to distinguish between “race” and the concept of ethnicity as an identity defined by language, kinship ties, and culture. The American idea of race, based primarily on skin color, is of relatively little use in understanding the Middle East. Ethnicity, too, can be a very difficult concept to pin down, although perhaps its largest determinant is language. For example, an Egyptian who identifies as Arab may well have Bedouin, Nubian, Egyptian, Greek, Armenian and/or Jewish ancestors, from a variety of faiths, cultures, and lifestyles. She may be an Arab, but that identity does not necessarily separate her sharply from others in the region with whom she shares ancestry and history as well as many elements of culture.

Similarly, there can be great diversity within each ethnic group. Amongst Hebrew speakers, amongst Amazight communities (Berbers), amongst Turks—whichever ethnolinguistic group we examine—there are differences in appearance, in socio-economic class, in how people earn a living, in religious observance, etc. As with all groups, it is important to avoid making generalizations.

What Has Happened Since the Supreme Court’s 2018 Affirmation of the Muslim Ban?

On June 29, 2019, the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), NYU Washington, DC, Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative (MuslimARC), Justice for Muslims Collective (JMC), and the Arab American Institute (AAI) hosted a program to explore the history and impact of structural Islamophobia. One year earlier, on June 26, 2018, the Supreme Court upheld President Trump’s ban on travel from several […]

Who Thinks Muslim Leaders Should Condemn Terrorism? (Guest Column)

Following a terror attack bearing the hallmarks of ISIS or other such groups, it is now customary for Muslim leaders to issue public condemnations. Should that be the case? On the one hand, immediately condemning such acts preempts (and, ideally, prevents) any accusations of terrorist sympathies on the part of individual leaders and communities. On […]

Washington Post Profiles Wasted Generation of Gaza Stifled by Lack of Opportunity, Employment

In this republished article by journalists William Booth and Hazem Balousha, educated and unemployed Palestinians in their 20s discuss lives bereft of opportunity and hope. Nearly 60 percent of young Gazans are unemployed and most would leave if it were possible. With few stable job prospects and no escape, many have resorted to occasional odd […]

FAQ on the Islamic Veil and Women’s Dress

A general lack of knowledge about how some Muslim girls and women dress sometimes leads to instances of anti-Islam rhetoric, harmful stereotypes and social barriers. This is not a black-and-white issue as women's attire everywhere is influenced by family, culture and national norms, religious beliefs, personal preference, fashion trends, political views and so much more. [...]

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Arab American Stories is an Emmy Award-winning 13-part series presented by Detroit Public Television that explores the diversity of the Arab-American experience. Each half hour features three short, character-driven documentaries produced by a variety of independent filmmakers which profile Arab Americans making an impact in their community, their profession, their family or the world at […]

American Muslims and the Flint Water Crisis: A Case Study

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Race and Identity in Iran

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This is a continuation of original article 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 [...]

The Maronites of Lebanon

This is a continuation of original article 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 [...]

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 [...]

Deportivo Palestino: Arab Identity and Sports in Chile

A soccer team in Chile's top league ignited controversy in January, 2014, with its uniforms depicting the entire map of Israel as Palestine. Palestinian issues are not unfamiliar in Chile; the country has an estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees, possibly the largest number of refugees outside of the Middle East. Despite protests and pushback from Chile’s Jewish community, Deportivo [...]

Facets of Arab Identity Halim Barakat

Halim Barakat, an Arab novelist and sociologist, taught at a variety of institutions including the University of Texas at Austin, Georgetown University, and Harvard University. Mr. Barakat is of Greek Orthodox heritage, was born in Syria, and grew up in Beirut where he received his education.  His publications center on the difficulties facing modern Arab societies [...]

Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim? What’s the Difference?!

Many Americans have a hard time distinguishing between the terms Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim. Here we break down the various terms to help you distinguish between these three categories. Who is an Arab? Arab is an ethno-linguistic category, identifying people who speak the Arabic language as their mother tongue (or, in the case of [...]