Since the pro-democracy uprisings first broke in Tunisia, Arab and Muslim culture has been intensely reported throughout international media.
While international media outlets are mostly concerned with news and portraying a certain image that appeals to their regional media markets, I thought it is necessary to draw 10 points that average people may not know about the Middle East.
Throughout this article, I will use the words Middle East to refer to the whole Middle East/ North Africa (MENA) region.
1) Arabs Are Different Across the Region
Arabs act differently across the region. The Middle East region is geographically divided into six blocs, each having many cultural distinctions from the other. These blocs are: North Africa, the Gulf, Israel, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and Iran.
Culture and folkloric customs are different across these borders. Western influence and openness to the world plays a big role in these distinctions. Culinary traditions are very different across these blocs. Each bloc has its own specialty.
Lack of media coverage in the region contributes enormously to these cultural differences. Think if there was not enough media and communication technology to bridge between the East and West Coast in the U.S.; generally, MEers don’t know how other Arabs live their day-to-day lives unless a war or a bloody terrorist attack breaks in.
2) The Most Common Point Between Arabs is Not Islam, But Paranoia
One habit that you may notice about Arabs across the region is that they often respond to a question with a question. Because many Arab nations are police states and anybody can be an informer or a spy from the intelligence agencies, people are extremely paranoid and in constant fear of arrest by government forces. The chain of fear goes all the way up to dictators in power who fear any form of uprisings against their rule. Perhaps, the thousands of people killed in the Arab Spring are the perfect example of the amount of paranoia in the Arab world.
Muslim Middle Easterners are known for buying into many conspiracies, many of such combine the U.S., Israel, and War on Islam. Some of these conspiracies, strangely, are that the Tsunami which hit Indonesia in 2005 was the work of Indians and Tom and Jerry is a Zionist Cartoon conspiracy.
3) Muslim Arabs are a Minority in the Muslim World
Muslims are a majority in the MENA region but they’re only a minority in the Muslim World. Arab-speaking Muslims count for 19.9% of total Muslim populations, whilst Muslims in Asia-Pacific count for 64%. However, generally, the term "Muslim" in many Muslim countries refers simply to "culturally Muslim." Muslim Arab countries – being mostly dictatorships – have a hard time reporting data. Because it isn’t in their interest to admit realities, many Muslim countries lie about their economic growth, unemployment rate, etc., to suppress more claims and possible riots. They also lie about percentages of sectarian religious affiliations to suppress claims for more rights by these minorities. Conversion is impossible, administratively, even in countries with indigenous Christian population, like Egypt. Apostasy is punishable in most other Arab Muslim countries, by prison if not by death.
4) Arabs Are Not the Only Ethnicity in the Middle East
Arabs are certainly not the only ethnicity in the MENA region and certainly not the majority either. Some 1,400 years ago, Arabs were newcomers from the Arabian Peninsula. They’re expansion was rapid, though, and they soon made it to far places such as Mesopotamia, the Levant, and North Africa. Berbers – native inhabitants of North Africa – still certainly constitute a majority in countries like Libya, Algeria, and Morocco. Other primary ethnicities are Persians – living mainly in Iran – and Kurds – living in Kurdistan, northern Iraq and Syria. Other ethnicities are indigenous Jewish populations outside of modern-day Israel, Assyrians, Egyptian Copts, and Samaritans. Most Arab states in the MENA now are populated with groups of mixed ethnicities between Arab and local ethnics at the time of Islamic expansion.
5) There Are Other Indigenous Religions in the Region besides Islam
Islam is certainly one of the youngest religions in the Middle East, the older religions in the MENA region being Judaism and Christianity. Judaism existed not only in Israel, but also in North Africa. Many indigenous North African Jews still live in the region. They are related to the Israelite tribe of Judea and Judaized Berbers who had been living in the area at the time when Jews were expelled out of Jerusalem by the Romans. Other denominations of Christianity and Islam exist throughout the MENA region including Protestants, Shia, Druze, Alawite, Maronites, Presbyterian, etc. Most non-indigenous Arabic groups have converted to Islam, such as Berbers and Kurds.
6) Arabs Don’t Speak Arabic On a Daily Basis
Middle Easterners and North Africans don’t simply speak the same language that they learnt at school. Actually, the Arabic language is often underrated at public schools. Few students take it seriously and, generally, there is no incentive by the state to encourage young students to learn Classical Arabic in comparison with the French language. Each bloc in the MENA region has its family branch of dialects. North Africans certainly use more French words – due to the European colonial influence – than Middle Easterners. Younger generations in North African countries and Lebanon are not even fluent enough in Arabic. Most of these states reserve little importance to the Arabic language comparing to the French language which still is the language of instruction in many subjects in both secondary and tertiary educations.
7) How Arabs View the World
Apart from the upper classes, Arabs generally don’t travel frequently because of their low income. As a result, these populations can have an erroneous view of the world outside of their own regions, one mainly depicted by the media. Therefore, Arabs know little about Pacific Asia, Latin America, or Oceania, three sub-continents that are almost absent from the Arabic media scene. Through my knowledge of my own society and conversations with other Arabs in other Muslim countries, I can attest that Arabs’ main attention focuses on peoples with Abrahamic religions because they somehow were mentioned in the Quran. People do still have tense relations with the Jews because of their ideological and political beliefs. It seems that most governments in the Middle East have softened their views towards the existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East, while the people who had been indoctrinated for decades haven’t forgotten about their grudge. Muslims’ views on Christians are conflicting, especially on indigenous Christian populations in the Middle East and in the Levant. Arab Muslims view their Christian compatriot differently than other “white” Christians who they still association with oppression and colonization.
8) Why is the Area Marred With Armed Conflicts
Sectarianism is the main cause of all conflicts in the Middle East. Islam in the Middle East encompasses many schools of thoughts and different interpretations of Islam that may argue the supremacy of one country to invade the other. Tense relations between Sunni and Shia have caused many an armed conflict between Arab nations. Sunnis view Shiites as heretics, which justifies attacks against them, e.g. the 2006 Iraqi insurgency. The fact that there is an obvious lack of democracy in the region further creates tension between the peoples and their governments. Terrorist groups have found the region to be a great strategic location to help entice insurgence and fuel more conflicts. The Lebanese civil war occurred because of a lack of consensus between sects of the same people on how to handle a situation.
9) Most Muslim Countries Don’t Apply Sharia
Islamic law – or Sharia – is a set of fundamental laws having been interpreted from the Quran. Because it is merely a human interpretation, Islamic scholars may differ on several points in the Sharia. For instance, the Tunisia legislature bans polygamy and allows adoption, which is unheard of in countries like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Yemen. Sharia law applies to several domains in everyday life, including commerce and banking. Yet, most Muslim countries prefer Western banking in lieu of Islamic finance. It is basically up to each state to dictate its own interpretation of Islam. Such actions were feasible in the past considering the region’s high rate of illiteracy and determination of governing bodies to impose their views on the population. More generally, most Muslim countries pander to tourist interests despite Islam as a state religion: Tunisia and Morocco, for instance, allow pork, alcohol, and legal brothels, all being forbidden by Sharia law. Homosexuality is also legal in Jordan whilst punishable by death – public beheading – in Saudi Arabia. Honor crimes are certainly not tolerated in Tunisia in contrast to other parts of MENA.
10) Who is the Most Influential in the Region?
Influence in the Middle East rhymes with money and military influence, not religious notoriety. While small countries like Tunisia, Bahrain, or Kuwait have no say on Arab foreign politics, richer countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Iran have major influence over the region. Some other countries like Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, and Jordan, prefer to just mind their own business. Gaddafi’s Libya was irrelevant for decades as he was hated by most other Arab leaders. Lebanon was patronized for more than a decade by Syria and Iran’s influence. The result is that there is not a single country that is the most influential in the region. Sunni and Shiites have almost equal power to fight each other, and have major regional influences in the U.S., Russia, and China.
11) Which Countries are the Most Liked in the Region?
Saudi Arabia is the least liked country in the region. Arabs may differ in views, though, on which could be their favorite country in the MENA region. Conservative Middle Easterners can find it unpleasant to live in North Africa, where people are generally less religious and speak a different dialect often laced with the French language. In contrast, secular Arabs may enjoy countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco who push for a more cosmopolitan image to attract tourists and investors. Gulf countries, like Kuwait, Qatar, and the Emirates are by far more liked by richer Arabs who can afford it.