Arab, Muslim and Middle Easterner are not synonymous

How many times have you heard people referring to Iranians by using the term Arabs? Or people who have hard times in dissociating Arabs from Muslims? Or in distinguishing Arabs from Middle Easterners? Even politicians, journalists and academics themselves make these mistakes and if you have the slightest doubt, this article is what you need.

This misperception is quite common in the Western world and keep believing that these key terms are interchangeable will only promote distorted images and fabricate stereotypes that will make the big picture even more chaotic.

The noun Arab generally identifies someone who speaks Arabic as the mother tongue. In the 21st century, Arabic represents the most widely spoken Semitic language and it counts over 300 million native speakers located mainly in North Africa and in the Middle East. It is the fifth most spoken language in the world, one of the official languages for the European Union and the liturgical language of almost 2 billion of Muslims from all over the world – even if not all Muslims are native Arabic speakers.

Arab people mainly live in the territories belonging to the Arab League, the organization composed by Arabic-speaking countries and other ethnic minorities, such as the Kurds in northern Iraq and parts of Syria. In particular, Arabic is the official language or one of the official languages of this group of 25 states: AlgeriaBahrain, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, IraqJordanKuwaitLebanonLibya, Mauritania, MoroccoOmanPalestineQatarSaudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tanzania, TunisiaUnited Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Despite Arabic brings together people spread from the Atlantic coast of northern Africa to the Arabian Sea, nowadays only the Modern Standard Arabic – the direct descendant of the Classic Arabic – is widely taught in schools, universities and in the formal speaking, whereas the day-to-day communication is conducted in about 30 dialects different from each other, performing a clear indication of own nationality. The Arabic version spoken in North Africa with its singular vocabulary and structure, for instance, could result completely incomprehensible and a real challenge for the Arabic speakers of the Levant. Whereas, other dialects are most widely understood, as the Levantine Arabic of Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan and the Egyptian dialect, thanks to the Egyptian media industry which has always had a historical presence and a huge impact on the region.   

Minorities of Arabic speakers can be found in countries like Turkey, France, the United States and Iran. And it is in particular the Islamic Republic of Iran that, due to its location, is often mislabelled as an Arab country but with a few exceptions, Iranians speak Persian which is an Indo-European language and not Arabic.

The common association of Muslims with the Middle East – the land where for most historians Islam began – is quite controversial since a Muslim is a person who believes and/or practices Islam and does not necessarily belong to a country of that region. Indeed, in the Middle East lives only approximately 20% of the world’s Muslim while the largest Muslim population is concentrated in Indonesia (87.2% of its total population), followed by South Asian nations as Pakistan and Bangladesh and by Africa and the aforementioned Middle East. There are sizeable Muslim communities even in other parts of the globe, including Russia, China, North and South America and in Europe, Islam represents the second largest religion.

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In these days, Christianity is the world’s largest religion (31% of the global population) and Islam is the second one (24% of the global population) but it is important to highlight that the latter is recording the fastest growth among the major religions. According to a report published by Pew Research Center on demographic trends, the number of Muslims will increase by 70% against the 34% of Christians within in the next 30 years due to high fertility rates and if current trends continue, Islam would overtake Christianity by 2070.

Finally, the Middle Easterner (Middle Eastern is the adjective) is a person from the geographic region called Middle East. Most of the Middle Easterners are Muslims but many of whom are not and could for instance be Iranians, Turkish or Israelis. Coined in the early 20th century by the British, the Middle East referred to the territory from the Persian Gulf to Southeast Asia, between the Near East (the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans) and the Far East (Japan, China and other countries along the western Pacific Ocean). Today, the Near East and the Middle East may denote the same area due to a lack of standard and re-examined definition after the end of World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Depending on the source and the political implication of the definition, the map of the Middle East is quite arguable since sometimes countries are part of it, sometimes they belong to the neighbouring regions.

Anna Tagliapietra

Nata in provincia di Udine nel 1992, si laurea presso l’Università di Bologna in International Affairs, concentrando gli studi sul Medio Oriente, sulle interferenze occidentali nella regione e sui conflitti politico-religiosi che vi perdurano irrisolti. Curiosa e amante dei viaggi, grazie al programma Erasmus ha avuto la possibilità di studiare a Coimbra e a Budapest e lavorare a Valencia. Si definisce una cittadina di radici italiane ma con nazionalità diverse. Nutre una forte passione per le lingue straniere, per il giornalismo e il fotogiornalismo su cui ha sviluppato la tesi magistrale, per la politica estera e per tutti i problemi che affliggono il nostro pianeta, dal cambiamento climatico alle disuguaglianze di genere. Grazie alla collaborazione con SocialNews può coltivare e unire le passioni per il giornalismo e per la geopolitica. I diritti umani sono per lei un patrimonio universale, irrinunciabile in qualsiasi relazione interpersonale. 


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