Ethnicity, Religion, and Politics in the Middle East

by: Dr. Esmail Nooriala

from his speech at:

Colorado University - Boulder Campus Humanities

With many thanks to Dr. Nooriala



Good Evening.


Thank you for coming to my talk. I hope that, by the help and cooperation of all those nice and friendly ghosts that are roaming this room in this beautiful full-moon Halloween night, you won‚t leave this place disappointed! Any way, happy Halloween to all of you.

To be honest with you, I would rather let you talk and express your opinion about ethnicity, religion and politics in the Middle East. I could interject some ideas or historical information whenever it became necessary. But, the format of the meeting is set and I am supposed to talk first and at least for a few long minutes. Nevertheless, I look forward to the question time that comes after my talk.

But, before I begin with what I am supposed to say, I should also thank Mr. Manu Ghaffari whose persistence and enthusiasm made this gathering possible. I also thank him for introducing me to you; and, in a sheer opportunistic move, I would like you let me use this very subject of introducing people to people as the beginning of my talk.

In fact, one of the things that we usually do not think of, or take it for granted, or do not doubt about its validity is our own very identity. I actually doubt if any of the members of this audience has ever paused and asked herself or himself: „Who am I?š

Apart from people who pretend to be philosophizing, others who get trapped in such a mental discourse usually end up in institutions specially devised to keep them apart from the rest of us Ų i.e., people who do not ask such nonsensical questions.

We consciously declare who we are and confess to our identity only when we are asked about it. You ask me about my identity and I tell you who I am. Without your question I do not contemplate on such shaky subjects. We declare our identity when we face a question about us from someone other than ourselves.

The interesting thing is that, despite the certainty we have about our identity, the answer we give out, could take many different shapes, especially when we are supposed to give more information than our mere name.

Let‚s try some of these answers. You ask me „Who are you,š and my answers may be any of the following items: I am Esmail. I am a father. I am a husband. I am an Iranian by birth. I am a Muslim due to the fact that I was born into a Muslim family. I am from Middle East. I am from West Asia. I am a Farsi speaking person. I am an immigrant. I am an American citizen. I am a resident of Colorado. I am an employee of so and so corporation. I am an inhabitant of planet Earth. I am a member of the Milky Way.

I know that apart from playing in a science fiction, it is hard to imagine that to whose question I would give the last two answers, the rest of those answers are very common and are diligently tuned to questions that make us create such replies.

This shows that every one of us has a wide range of identity-tags invisibly attached to us but, each time, we introduce ourselves under a certain tag Ų a tag that is suitable to a certain question.

We evaluate every question about our identity and answer back according to the implied intentions of the people who asks the questions. If I go to my child‚s school and want to take her home and the teacher, who has not met with me before, asks: „Hey, sir, who are you?š I should not answer that: „I am an inhabitant of the planet Earth.š though my answer is far from any lies, I would have put myself in a very grave trouble if I introduce myself to my child‚s teacher in such a science-fictional way. The proper answer would be that „I am this child‚s father.š Any other answer would be irrelevant.

We sometimes even refuse to disclose our identity or respond positively to a question that implies some kind of danger for us. A terrorist surely will not tell the immigration officer at New York‚s airport that he is a terrorist. Or an American spy in Taliban land will not disclose that he is an American spy. Many people fabricate passports and IDs just to prove that they are not what they really are.

So, in all these situations, the answer we give out is shaped and conditioned by the question we receive. Since the horrible catastrophe of September 11 in New York and Washington, the people who are Arab or Muslim or merely come from the Middle East (not to say all dark skinned people and all those who have a turban on their head, notably Siekhs and Hindus who neither are Muslim nor Middle Eastern) have been trying to find an answer for an increasingly threatening inquiry into their identity.

The other day, an American friend of mine asked me about the curious and emphatic insistence of Iranians to show that they are not Arabs. Some go to such extremes as to explain that all Iranians hate Arabs. Afghans try the same. They try to show that although the regime holding the power in their country has been a host for Mr. Osama bin Ladan and thousands of his Arab flowers who have gone from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, Afghans are not Arabs and do not have anything to do with them.

Last weekend, everyone familiar with the history of the Middle East and North Africa, was set for a big surprise when Colonel Mo‚amar Qadaafi, the ruler of Libya, who for the last 35 years or so has always been a staunch defender of what is known as Pan-Arabism, declared that Libyans are not Arabs and should be seen as African.

My answer to my American friend was simple: „It is the way you ask your question, or it is the circumstances in which your question is put forward, that makes them give you that kind of an answer. For sure, none of the above utterances are wrong. Neither Iranians and Afghans nor North Africans are Arabs. Even the majority of the population of an Arab country like Iraq is non-Arab. You will also hear them telling you that őYes, we are Muslims; but not all Muslims are pre-terrorism. Islam is a religion of peace.‚ You are astonished to hear this kind of answers because you have your own agenda and assumptions about the identity of those people. You actually are imposing an identity on them that is made by you and for your convenience. At normal times they may not bother to explain to you that you and your assumptions are wrong. But, at a time when a hunt for Arab terrorists is on and allied countries‚ planes are destroying the Arab settlements of Osama bin Ladan in Afghanistan, every one who is not an Arab will spend time to prove to you that he is not an Arab. If you begin Muslim bashing, we will try to convince you that we are not that Muslim after all. And there are ample historical facts to support our claim.š


In fact, the catastrophe of September 11 has actually opened a can of worms for my friend. And he, as a responsible American, has become engaged in a research to get more information about these peoples whom he thought he knew and now are showing him new ID cards he is not familiar with.

Let me ponder a few minutes on the nature of our established knowledge that shatters away in such moments of intense social horror.

As members of human race, we have been empowered by the natural evolution, or God, the creator, (whichever you would like to recognize as the responsible party) to use „concepts.š Concepts are things that only exist in our mind and have not concrete representation in the real material word. Let‚s take an example. When I talk about a tree I am talking about a concept. In the real world out of our minds there exists only different individual trees and none of them are the same. Each has its own shape, structure and ingredients. But we have a mind that is capable of extracting the similarities common between all individual trees and make a metal „treeš out of those similarities. We know this mental tree as a „conceptš. In fact, 99 percent of the time, we are dealing with concepts rather than actual concrete entities of the real world. Language is built on the basis of concepts and functions through their usage. Without concepts we had no language, no culture, no civic life and no civilization.

In a later stage of the evolution of the human mind, concepts come together to create higher abstract concepts such as what I just mentioned: Culture, civic life and civilization. Can anyone actually point to a culture or a civilization by her finger? Of course, she can show us different material things with different shapes and functions that are similar to each other in some aspects. But the relation between those concrete things and a culture or civilization that they belong to is merely a mental entity. Indeed, culture and civilization are two major highly abstracted conceptions. They are vast fields of amalgamated facts and fictions, sensory apprehensions and imaginary creativeness.

Let‚s examine one of these highly abstracted concepts and see how it relates to our present situation.

Soon after the Soviet Union and the Communist block were dismantled at the beginning of the 1990s and the threat of the Cold war was removed from the life of the planet Earth and its inhabitants, we have been dealing with new contemplations about our future and about concepts like New World Order as well as all the prerequisites attached to them. What is the nature of this New World Order and who are the main players in its arena? Social scientists, especially political scientists who usually are involved in foreign policy making, have put forward different scenarios. Let me give you just one example that most of you should already be familiar with.

The one scenario that has captured the attention and imagination of many people has been designed by professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University who was a foreign policy advisor of Carter administration in 1970s. He believes, and emphatically says so, that, on the one hand, 20th century was the age of ideology that came to its end by the demise of the Soviet block and, on the other hand, the new world arena is becoming the chessboard of new political entities that are called „civilization.š

Professor Huntington does not go into a detailed and in-depth description of what he calls a civilization. He rather ponders about the main powerful existing civilizations on the planet Earth and comes up with his famous formulation of  „ The Clash of Civilizationsš in which the main skirmish happens between the „Westš and the „rest.š

In this regard, Professor Huntington comes up with a list of eight civilizations:

1.              „The Westš (comprised of the white Protestant Christian US, Western and Central Europe, Australia and by interference, the Jewish state of Israel) that is threaten by the ambitions of the rest

2.              Islamic civilization (from North-Western Africa to far South-Eastern Asia)

3.              Orthodox civilization (that of Russia and other far eastern Europe)

4.              Catholic Latin American civilization

5.              Hindu civilization

6.              Sinic civilization (that of China)

7.              Japanese civilization

8.              African civilization.

The West is threaten by all of these members of the „rest clubš because it is the strongest civilization on Earth and, as far as its foreign policy is concerned, tries to impose its values upon other civilizations. This kind of foreign policy has brought resentment and fury to the rest of the world. In his own words: „What is universalism in the West is imperialism to the rest.š

So, if American way of life is to survive and flourish, American should know and understand that „rest.š Unfortunately, it is in this endeavor that grand scale concepts such as „civilizationš give way to grand-scale prejudgments that appear as theoretical frameworks. In other words, once you get into a web of grand-scale theories in social sciences, you have to come up with grand-scale suppositions and assumptions that may not necessarily be scientifically provable. This is inevitable. You begin to pronounce your prejudgments and assumptions as scientific facts about grand-scale concepts, trying to show that such concepts do really have real-world and real-time representations. In other words, you enter into what is known as „essentialismš in social sciences.

In the realm of exact sciences, we can attribute certain qualities and potentialities to material phenomenon. We can comfortably say that „petroleum is flammable and has burning properties.š Flammability is a potentiality of petroleum and is an innate trait of its essence. But can we apply the same lingo to social phenomenon and look for their essences and their essential properties and potentialities? Most of the social scientists do not believe in such premises and, therefore, the concept of essentialism is considered as an aberration in social sciences. In other words, if you believe that a social phenomenon has its own unique essence and that essence manifests itself in the workings of that social phenomenon in every instance and over a range of time, you are an essentialist.

Professor Huntington believes in some perpetual and unchanging traits in a different civilization. For example, he thinks that „Islamic civilizationš is based on „intoleranceš and cannot produce democratic forms of governance. Therefore, with regards to the belief of the West about the universalism of its values, Islam becomes a challenger and a dangerous threat to the Western civilization and its democratic way of life. Islam and Western civilizations are incompatible.

This is what many influential social scientist and policy makers of the United States have advocated during the last 25 years or so. During the last days of the Cold-War era, it provided the US policy a theoretical basis for trying to inflame and inflate the conflicts that exists amongst other civilizations to reduce the effectiveness of their enmity towards the West.  The project of creating a green belt around the Soviet block by encouraging religious element of the societies neighboring that block had its roots in this mental image of the human world. It was responsible for deposing semi-secular regimes and empowering religious factions that are thirsty for power in countries around the Soviet block. Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, anti-Soviet fighters of Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic fervor in Turkey are but a few outcomes of this policy.

And although the ideological anti-hero of the Cold-War era, the Soviet block, was defeated in this way, the winners immediately lost their value and function for the West and were left to themselves to become a grave liability for the whole world. Fundamentalism and terrorism are but the twin children of such foreign policy that now have turned against their creator and threaten its values, institutions and civic formation.

Unfortunately, instead of studying this Draculian monster and trying to put it back in a sealed bottle, or instead of rectifying the situation id the Middle East that has become a breeding grounds for such dangerous political and social traits, the advocates of the theory of clash of civilizations are trying to show that both fundamentalism and extremism that results in terrorism are the natural children of what they brand as Islamic intolerance.

Many of us who do not like to be identified with Islam will agree with these suppositions. Many more, who do not partake with our Islamic heritage raise our voice and reject them.

To me both these endeavors are nonsensical because they are based on the assumption that a culture is monolithic and mono-vocal entity. I think, the question that a social scientist should be asking in such a heated periods of time is, inevitably, about the validity of any essentialist theory.

Is Islamic civilization, whatever it is, indeed doomed to be perpetually shaped within the cast of its intolerance and anti-democratic nature? Isn‚t there any other kind of traits within this civilization that may advocate tolerance, brotherhood of men, and peaceful coexistence with the members of other religions and cultures? And if there are a few of such traits, why they cannot be cultivate to bloom and lay fruit?

We already know that civilization is a highly abstracted concept. The creator of this concept, well confined within and conditioned by his own values and perspective of the world and history, looks at different societies that he wants to put together as the members of his grand concept of a civilization and tries to extract the similarities between their actions and reactions through out their history. Anything that is different from those traits under the capture of our scientist‚s focus should be sorted out as non-similarities.

The essentialist scientist, of course, accepts the existence of what he calls sub-cultures within each civilization. But he intentionally ignores the fact that having a bunch of sub-cultures necessarily mean accepting the existence of dissimilarities that will work against our concept making work. Our scientist puts his emphasis on the similarities and, in doing so, becomes experimentally eclectic and theoretically selective.

The interesting thing is the fact that the people who enjoy reading and implementing such theories are those very elements of non-Western civilizations that are today classified under the broad titles of fundamentalism and extremism. They are more than happy to be acknowledged as the sole representatives of the Islamic civilization and show how intolerant this civilization can get. Through this mutual denial of historical facts, they, thus, become the sole embodiment of a civilization and that civilization becomes identified with them.

The dangers of essentialism does not confine to this kind of reaction. It goes beyond all historical facts to create a fictional world of attractive theories for those impatient soles that do not have time and appetite for details. It is in the face of this danger (especially lurking in the corridors of foreign policy making institutions) that we have to ask a lot of necessary questions that are not necessarily very pompous and eye-catching. They are innocent question like these:

Is Islam (if not any other religion) really a unified historical and cultural entity?

Why do we hear about different sectarian fractions of Islam?

What is the difference between Sunnism and Shi‚ism in Islam?

How does an advocate of peace and love like Rumi, the poet, belong to the Islamic culture?

If , according to professor Huntington, Christianity has been able to produce three distinctive civilizations upon the basis of its Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox versions, why Islam, with its so-called 72 versions and nations, is the mother of only one civilization?

How is the Muslim world divided into Arab and non-Arab camps?
Who do we consider an Arab?

Why Muslims have fiercely fought amongst themselves through out the history, with the war between Iraq and Iran on the one hand, and Iraq and Kuwait on the other, still lurking in our most recent memory?

To answer such questions, one has to abandon the realm of grand theories and focus on the actual facts recorded in the annals of history. One has to look at the ethnic formations of those human societies that have been bundled together under the auspice of great world religions, not by self election but by many horrific and brutal acts of aggression and sword.

Large-scale religions, like Islam and Christianity, are fundamentally different from so-called local and ethnic religions. They are vast umbrellas that exceed the boundaries of ethnic groups and nation-states through imposition of a seemingly unified cover. But, this umbrella is only unifying in the eyes of the external beholders, the passengers in a high-flying plane, the aliens from another planet.

If you be patient enough to penetrate into the world that exists under this cover and mingle with variegated nations that are classified under a unified identity, you will see that there is nothing fixed and essential about human societies. Every society has a major religion and several minor ones. Every cultural has developed conflicting traits of identity through its history. Every history is full of different actions and reactions of the nations that live under the same umbrella but fight together more bitterly than with any alien army.

The majority of Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Malaysians, Turks, Tajiks, Mongols and many other ethnic groups are all Muslims. There is no about it. But Islam was created in Arabian Peninsula under the leadership of an Arab prophet. It soon expanded into Middle East, West Asia, Central Asia, South East Asia and North Africa by the force of sword that preceded the power of ideology. This conquests turned many ancient nations into Muslim peoples without being able to remove their national pride and heritage. Islam had to become a vast digestive system to swallow so many different cultural traits and values and digest them into a flourishing civilization that lasted for four hundred years and came to its demise and disintegration 1000 years ago, leaving behind a hotchpotch of Muslim nations full of enmity and hatred for each-other. Yes, once, one thousand years ago, there used to be an Islamic civilization that gave harmony and unity to a spectrum of ancient cultures. But that is long gone. What we now call the Islamic world comprises of members that their common values and perspectives are much less than those traits that put them at each-others‚ throat.

In  the first decade of the 20th century, the last semi-Islamic empire, that of Ottomans of Anatolia came to an end after several centuries of war with its Muslim neighbor, Iran. In 1950s and 60s, the Pan-Arabism of Jamaal Abd-al-Nasser, the president of Egypt, was an ambitious venture to create yet another Islamic power. It died away in the Six-day war of the late 60s. The Islamic Revolution of Iran was a new ambitious attempt to recreate a Muslim universe. But it created the worst wars between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, by emphasizing on the Arabic nature of his cause and attempting to defeat the heretic Iran, had his eyes on the leadership of the Arab Muslim world. His aspiration became also evaporated in the Golf war of early 90s in which most of the Arab Muslims ganged against Iraq through helping the West.

To me, as someone who does not believe in any innate essence for social phenomena, there is no fixed Muslim civilization. Muslim civilization is a patchwork of historical incidents as well as different, and at times antagonizing, social aspirations. Many ethnic groups and cultural entities have contributed to its formation or formations. Islam was an Arabic creation. It was successful to conquer the world 14 hundred years ago. It could wipe out many ethnic languages and substitute the Arabic language as the official language of the Islamic empire. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and all of North African nations, from Morocco to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt lost their mother tongue and accepted Arabic as their own language. They are now considered as Arab nations. But, apart from this unity in language, it is only the political manipulations of their leaders that some times bring them together under the Pan-Arabic umbrella and, in other times, denies any assimilation amongst them. To the east of the Middle East, Iranian nations reluctantly accepted the new faith but tried to preserve their language and their ancient cultural heritage too. They, and their eastern neighbors in today‚s Afghanistan, Pakistan India and further on, did not turn into Arab nations. The Islamic empire was dismantled by Turkish and Mongol warlords and they also brought their own culture and value systems into Islam making it even more scattered and disintegrated.


My American friend tells me with dismay: „Do you want to tell me that Islam is only a name?š

And I reply: „Don‚t you think that Catholicism, Orthodox Church and Protestantism are the versions of the same faith? If you believe so, why professor Huntington believes in the existence of three distinct civilization based on these Christian creeds but does not accept the existence of different Islamic universes?š

He laughs in despair: „Can I offer you a drink, Esmail?š He says.

„I sure would love a glass of Vodka - on the rocks!š I reply.