Is Iraq an Arab Country?

History Q & A

Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com/ .

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.

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Tewfiq Al-Sharaiyra - 3/4/2010

"Arab" was not a Western (or Orientalist) cultural conception. Its widespread usage and application to those of non-Arab descent originates in the "mawala" system of the 7th and 8th centuries. It does denote ethnicity and language and, to a much lesser extent, religion.

It was not Western necessity to place the people of the region under one "Arab" umbrella that led to its use to identify ethnicity. The term "Arab" was in use long before there was a "West".

Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the relatively brief period of Western occupation of the Middle-East would have introduced into local popular speech the word "Arab" as a name for the inhabitants of the area. The opposite is more plausible as the British and the French adopted ancient names for the mandates they administrated (Mesopotamia, Syria, Moab); they were reintroducing names of countries and people that no longer existed.

Arab is a term denoting ethnicity. It was introduced and highly regulated as such by Muslim Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries. Its use was restricted to only those who spoke Arabic, were of Arab descent or were sponsored by an Arab clan (thereby becoming "Mawala"). Nowadays we can talk about a dilution of the term, but it is still useful as an indicator of ethnicity when used with some caution.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/1/2004

That's the problems when categories are applies to humans. They don't always fit.

"Arab" has some similarities to "Native American" and "African." The western tendency to view all the weird (to them) people in a given region as the same created new unities as it spread. In our country, Native Americans show a realtively united front now, because the actions of the United States and Eureopean countries created an "us" identity where none existed.

In the Middle East in the late 19th century, the west moved in. Part of what it brought was the growing European use of ethnic nationalism as the basis for organizing states. Some peoples in the region picked up on that.

However, the common laguage had already created a measure of common idenitity, unlike the African or Native American examples. It is hardly surprising that some people in the Middle East started utilizing "Arab" as a western style ethnicity, in order to resist western encroachment by creating a regional sense of community and unity.

Still it's awkward. There are numerous other divisions, as the article makes clear, that create other loyalties. The few attempts to create a pan Middle-East/pan Arab organizations have not faired well. (Remember the United Arab Republic?)

In short, "Arab" is used in an almost unique way. So we have to abandon the old rubrics and try to describe it as what it is.

Richard Strean - 2/29/2004

I understand the premise that, as the article says, "'Arab' is not a racial category. There are anyway no such things as races in the way they are popularly imagined." I can also accept that "Arab" can be a linguistic category for those who speak Arabic. But isn't there some intermediate ground where it functions as an ethnicity? Would, for example, the "black African" Arabic-speaking northern Sudanese call themselves "Arabs"? Doesn't the article begin by noting that Kurds and others in Iraq who may speak Arabic resist the "Arab" label?

Name Removed at Poster's Request - 2/27/2004

I concur. Thanks to Prof. Cole and HNN for posting this article.

mark safranski - 2/27/2004

We have to be skeptical about " demographic destiny " predictions as nations or peoples with unusually high birthrates have a way of eventually regressing to the mean. It was not uncommon in the late 18th and early 19th century for American yeomen farm families to have five, seven or even ten children yet the population of the United States now grows primarily through steady immigration. Similarly Germany's birthrate in the late 19th and early 20th century by itself upset the balance of power with France and partially fueled Nazi Germany's drive for Lebensraum yet today Germany and most of Europe is an aging continent.

(Islam of course, as a religion rather than a nationality can also grow through proselytizing and is currently in a race with Christianity to win converts in Africa. Islam will in any event remain a major world religion and should be studied for that reason)


Ralph E. Luker - 2/27/2004

Mr. Battle, This is perhaps not the best forum for evangelization. Professor Cole's point is that as a matter of social reality, Americans had best learn more about Islam. He doesn't aim to convert you to it.

David C Battle - 2/26/2004

>>"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."

How multi-cultural of you. How bout Americans become more familiar with christianity.

I bet those words would never cross your lips.

Brandt Driscoll - 2/25/2004

An excellent lucid primer of Iraq and more generally the interplay of language and ethnic identification. Facts such as these are most illuminating.