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  • Frequent Incompatibilities:Ethnic and Religious Diversity and the Nations of the Middle East
  • James Clark (bio)

Throughout its long history upon the scene of civilization, the Middle East has been the crossroads of innumerable peoples and the birthplace of countless religions and sects. Most of that time has been marked by relatively peaceful coexistence among its many groups. However, in the last seventy years, subsequent to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of the area's new nation-states, this diversity has become the source of many unfortunate conflicts. For several of the region's nations, it has become a chronic problem that constitutes one of the greatest threats to their internal stability. It is the seemingly inevitable clash of ethnic and religious identities and loyalties in the Middle East, many times between minorities and majorities, but in the case of Lebanon between groups that are all numerical minorities, that have proven important in molding its modern history.

Minorities, whether ethnic or religious, have been a constant feature of Middle Eastern societies and have played an important role in shaping those societies since the beginning of the modern era. In the twentieth century they have been an important consideration in the many nation-states that have appeared in the region because they constitute a challenge to the concept of the nation-state centered on a single identity. States have had to deal with minorities either by attempting to integrate them into the larger concept of the nation, or by modifying that concept in order to accommodate them.

Albert Hourani, one of the foremost historians of the modern Middle East, traced the transformation of the region from a multi-ethnic empire under the Ottomans into a collection of nation-states in his historical essay entitled "Race, Religion, and Nationalism." He pointedly noted that, although always existing to some degree, the conflicts arising from ethnicity have not always been as intense as they are now. First, he maintained that in the Middle East there are neither distinct races nor any conflicts based upon race. Race has never had the importance it has had in the West because there has always tended to be a propensity for peoples to intermix, whether they be Turks, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, etc.1

The principal reason for the absence of emphasis on race in the Middle East was that Islam did not consider it important. Instead, it stressed religious affiliation, which became the primary characteristic used to distinguish among the various peoples in the region. It was on the secondary level of ethnicity2 that conflicts in the Middle East came to resemble racial conflicts elsewhere.3

The Ottoman Empire provided a stable political order, one based on religion rather than race. In that respect, it conformed to the Islamic model. That is, one in which Muslims were the majority, Islam was the state religion, and the sultan was the leader of the ummah or Islamic community. Within that relatively stable environment, the millets, or non-Muslim minority communities, were allowed to govern themselves by their own religious laws.4 The social anthropologist Ernest Gellner, who devoted several books to the study of Muslim societies, believed that it was the Ottoman state's singular strength that allowed it to apportion out administrative power to the millets or "quasi-national communities."5 However, even during the Ottoman period differences increased over time such that what had been religious communities until then were transformed into nationalist ones. Inherited religious affiliation surpassed religious belief in importance, and the word millet gradually assumed the meaning of nation.6

National sentiments always existed among the many communities that comprised the Ottoman Empire, but they were not necessarily primary. Other distinguishing qualities besides religion were extant as well, such as language, common ancestry, tribal affiliation, and the long-standing distinction drawn among the three major races of Islam: Turks, Persians, and Arabs. Those various communities were scattered across the empire and intermixed to varying degrees. They tended to have close economic ties with each other. Where they were mixed, according to Hourani, they were able to achieve a kind of "symbiosis," which minimized tensions among them.7 Also, as a...


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