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Is Iraq an Arab Country?

Islam Online reports a heated debate in Iraq and in the Interim Governing Council over whether Iraq should be identified in the Fundamental Law (the interim constitution) as an Arab state. Iraq's population is about 24 million, probably. Some 65 percent or 15.6 million are Shiite Arabs. Another 15 percent or 3.6 million are Sunni Arabs. That's 80 percent of the country. The remaining 20 percent is probably split this way: 2 percent Chaldeans and Assyrians, many of whom speak Aramaic as their mother tongue; 2 percent Turkmen who speak a Turkic language; and 16 percent Kurds. (Iraqi audiences don't like to hear these kinds of social statistics, but this is the best I can do right now, and it is highly unlikely that there are millions of Turkmen, or that Kurds are a fourth of the population, as both claim. If you add all the percentages up according to ethnic claims they come to 160 percent of Iraq's population!) Anyway, the point is that Iraq is probably 80 percent Arabophone, and the minorities all speak Arabic as a national language. It would not be strange to have Iraq declare itself an"Arab" country, and it certainly will be a member of the Arab League. (It is very nearly as"Arab" as Israel is"Jewish"--15 percent of Israelis are Muslim, Christian, and Druze Arabs). But Saddam did so much psychic and political damage in the name of Arabism that the Kurds and Turkmen have come deeply to dislike the concept. We may be witnessing the beginnings of the first multiculturalist politics in an Arab country....

"Arab" is actually a linguistic category, like "Romance" or "Latin". Most of the people in the arid zone stretching from Morocco east to Iraq speak Arabic and the majority is Muslim. The 2000 spoken dialects of Arabic are quite diverse and until recently not always mutually comprehensible (the adoption of a Modern Standard Arabic for the purposes of writing and public discourse has allowed direct communication throughout the region; it is as though all the Romance countries got together and adopted a modernized form of Latin as their written language, but spoke Spanish or Italian or Romanian at home.)

But the region is linguistically diverse despite the dominance of Arabic. North Africa has a lot of Berbers, who are Muslim but do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Berber is an Afro-Semitic language very distantly related to Arabic and Hebrew. Then in Upper Egypt some groups speak African languages rather than Arabic. In Jordan, there is a large community of Circassians, Muslims from the Caucasus whose language may be distantly related to Chinese, who fled Russian persecution (the Russians conquered the Muslims of the Caucasus in the early 19th century and then fought them for decades; some estimate a million were displaced to the Ottoman Empire, and lots were killed; it was a kind of genocide). The Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Maronite and Eastern Orthodox Christians of Lebanon speak Arabic as their mother tongue and so are technically Arabs, but many don't think of themselves that way.

"Arab" is not a racial category. There are anyway no such things as races in the way they are popularly imagined. But even on that level the "Arabs" are just people who speak a language. The northern Sudanese are black Africans but speak Arabic. The Red Sea port city of Massawa in Eritrea (formerly Ethiopia) is largely Arabic-speaking because of historical trading patterns, though the population is African. On the other hand, there are blue-eyed, fair-haired Arabs in the Levant, presumably descendants of the Crusaders. About a third of Israelis are Arab Jews, i.e., Jews from Arabic-speaking countries who traditionally spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. While the term is now rejected by many, it is certainly the case that in 1945 Moroccan and Yemeni Jews were "Arab." All Arabs are not Muslim, and only a minority of Muslims is Arab.

In Iraq itself, many Chaldean Christians speak Aramaic (a Semitic language) as their mother tongue, and of course the Kurds speak an Indo-European language related to Persian and distantly to English. The Turkmen of Iraq, some 500,000 - 700,000 strong, speak an Altaic language related to Mongolian and perhaps very distantly to Korean and Japanese. Probably a majority of Iraqi Turkmen are Shiites, many of them esoteric ("New Age") in orientation, though I'm told there has been a movement among them to become more orthodox, and many of the latter support Muqtada al-Sadr.

So, the Arab world has a good deal of linguistic diversity within it. But then when you move north and east of Iraq, the situation becomes really complicated. Iran is 51 percent speakers of Persian, an Indo-European language related to Sanskrit and Hindi. It also contains Turkic Azeri, Turkmen and Qashqai speakers, and smaller Indo-European languages like Lur and Baluchi. In Turkey most people speak Turkish but there is a large Kurdish minority and traditionally there were many Armenian and Greek speakers. Central Asia largely speaks Turkic languages (Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz), which, however, are not that close to the Turkish spoken in Istanbul. I studied some Uzbek and the grammar is slightly different. A very substantial minority speaks a form of Persian called Tajik (about a third of Uzbeks, and the majority in Tajikistan). There are also Chinese speakers and some long-time Korean immigrant communities, along with Russians and German speakers, who are, despite living in Muslim-majority countries, from a Christian background but most often secularists because of the Soviet past. Kazakhstan is some 40 percent Russian.

Then you have Muslim South Asia. There are four major regional languages in Pakistan: Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluchi and Pushtu. All four are Indo-European. There is also a sliver of Kashmiri speakers on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. But the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, which was the Muslim lingua franca in Muslim South Asia from the 18th century, and is a Persianized form of what we would now call Hindi. It is taught in schools and spoken alongside the regional languages, though the elite of the country still prefers English and often speaks halting Urdu. Again, it is Indo-European but with a large dose of Arabic, Semitic vocabulary. It is in fact a lot like a Muslim Yiddish. (Historically, "Hindi" is actually a result of a movement of Hindu nationalists to "purify" what was then called Hindustani of the Arabic and Persian words. The Muslims kept the words, and Hindustani came to be called Urdu. Urdu is a Mongolian and Turkish word meaning "military camp" and is the root of the English word "horde." When the Central Asian tribal warriors came into northern India, Urdu is the creole that ended up being spoken in the camps so that Hindu traders could sell the Muslim grandees their goods.

There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and by the time the global population stabilizes around 2050, theirs will be the world's largest religion. Americans had better become more familiar with it.