Ethnic and Linguistic Groups

Ethnicities and languages also help define the region. For example, you can easily tell if one person is from an Arabic background and another is Swedish. Even if both are speaking English, characteristics such as skin tone, hair color, and facial structure indicate that each is from a different region. Similarly, it doesn't take a linguist to hear the difference between languages such as Russian and Swahili.

Ethnic and linguistic similarities and differences help determine whether someone is European or Southeast Asian. Despite the many ethnic and linguistic differences within Europe, some groups share certain connections that make them all European. As you begin to explore the Middle East, you will find three major groups:

  • Arabs—Numbering somewhere around 300 million, they are in the majority in the area from Syria (north) to Yemen (south) and Oman (east) to Morocco (west).

  • Turks—Also known as Turkic peoples, this group numbers over 100 million. They are in the majority in the area from Turkey and Azerbaijan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

  • Persians—Over 30 million Farsi-speaking people are in the majority in the area from Iran to parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Many use the term “Arab world” interchangeably with “Middle East,” but the region cannot be so easily defined. A portion of the Middle East can be called the Arab world, but with significant Turkish and Persian populations in predominantly Arabic lands and vice versa, in the end the lines cannot be so neatly drawn according to ethnic and linguistic groups. In addition, minority groups such as the Kurds, Jews, Armenians, Circassians, and Berbers complicate the issue even more.

The phrases Ash-sharq al-awsat (Arabic), Ortadog˘u (Turkish), and khAvareh MeeyAneh (Farsi) all translate as “Middle East.”

However, boundaries must be drawn at some point, even if they are not perfect. Should the Middle East include Pakistan, even though most of its inhabitants are of neither Arabic, Turkish, nor Persian background? If not, should the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, eastern Turkey, and western Iran be excluded from the Middle East? To answer these questions, examine the religious aspects of these lands.

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