April 4, 2007

Who is an Arab?

(This was written for the Defense Language Institute Alumni Association)

Although this might seem like a silly question, the issue can be quite complex. In times past, there was an accepted ethnic definition of Arabs as those Semitic people whose ancestors originally inhabited what is now known as the Arabian Peninsula. With the spread of Islam beginning in the 7th Century came the spread of the Arabic language, complicating the original definition.

In 1946, the Arab League sought to define an Arab to determine which countries would qualify for membership. The definition adopted by the organization was: “An Arab is a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples." Why Somalia and Comoros, who fail in all three criteria, were accepted as member states in the Arab League remains a mystery.

Today, the general rule of thumb is that anyone who speaks Arabic as his or her native language is an Arab, making the term “Arab” an ethno-linguistic identifier. The term encompasses between 250 and 300 million people, mostly concentrated in what are defined as the 23 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. There are also significant numbers of Arabs resident in non-Arab countries in the Middle East (Iran, Turkey, Israel, etc.) and Africa, as well as North America, South America and especially Europe.

For most people now identified as Arabs, there is no specific ethnic designation but rather a mixture of ethnic and cultural identities. In North Africa, many of today’s “Arabs” are of Berber or Moor stock. Egyptians are primarily of Hamitic origin, and the Levant has persons of Turkic, Caucasian and European ancestry. What binds them all together as “Arabs” is the Arabic language and to a large extent Islam.

In some “Arab” countries, there are non-Arabs, and also unique groups of people who speak Arabic as their native language but dispute the definition of themselves as Arabs. In Lebanon, some of the native Arabic-speaking Christian groups prefer to identify themselves as Phoenicians, while in Egypt some of the Coptic Christians avoid the use of the term “Arab.”

Iraq is certainly considered an Arab country; however, Arabic is spoken natively by only 80 percent of the population, and is only one of the two official languages. Kurdish is also an official language, and the Kurds – ethnically distinguishable - definitely do not consider themselves to be Arabs. There are other ethnic groups in Iraq that are also not Arabs, such as the Assyrians, Turcomans and Chaldeans. Interestingly, many of these people do speak Arabic as their native language.

Bottom line: there is no universal definition of who is an Arab. If you speak Arabic as your native language and want to be identified as an Arab, you are an Arab.