Labels for Arabs and Why they Might be Incorrect
By: Emily Tain/Arab America Contributing Writer
Labels we use to describe ourselves and others are fluid and subject to time, political climate, and personal experience. Because of this, it can be difficult to find a way to label someone when you are unfamiliar with their culture. Arabs are often subject to hearing a myriad of words attempting to reference their identity. This is made especially difficult because Arabs do not inhibit one specific continent, making it hard to attach a regional label. Because of this, I have selected four different terms people have used to describe an Arab and explain why they might not be correct.
An Arab is someone from or able to trace their lineage to a country within the Arab world. In many cases, this can be equated to the countries included in the Arab League. There is also a large diaspora of Arabs, most notably in Brazil, France, and the US. Arab is used adjectivally as well: Arab food, Arab music, Arab history.
As it goes with a majority of labels, it is impossible to have a universally agreed upon definition. For example, the Arab League defines an Arab as “a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic country, and who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic people.” This definition comes in direct conflict with the concept of diaspora, which leads to an entirely different debate on what it means to be an Arab. That being said, it is important to recognize that labels differ, and no definition is the end-all-be-all
Arabic is not an adjective in the traditional sense. There are no Arabic people, Arabic foods, or Arabic countries. Arabic is a language and a script. You can speak Arabic, or a language such as Urdu that utilizes the Arabic alphabet. Many seem to struggle with this word and try to use it to describe someone’s ethnicity or food. If you find yourself doing this, remind yourself that Arab is the correct form for adjectives.
The label Middle Eastern applies to people who are from the Middle East, which is not synonymous with the Arab world. For example, Turkey, Israel, Iran, and Afghanistan are some countries that are in the Middle East but are not Arab. Another term that includes Middle East is MENA, meaning Middle East and North Africa. While including many Arab nations, such as Morocco and Algeria, MENA still includes countries that are not Arab.
Some use Middle Eastern to describe a type of food; many restaurants describe themselves as serving ‘Middle Eastern’ cuisine. This is because many of the foods in the region are similar, but most definitely not synonymous. The label ‘Middle Eastern’ is likely more recognizable to those living outside the region and therefore used more often.
A Muslim is a person who follows the religion of Islam. While Mecca is located in an Arab country, Muslim and Arab are in no way interchangeable terms. An Arab can be Muslim, of course, but not every Muslim is an Arab. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that India and Pakistan have more Muslims than in all of MENA combined, which contains most Arab countries (344 million vs 317 million). It is important to recognize that a majority of Arabs are Muslim, but it is equally as important to not equate the two terms.
Mediterranean is often thrown around when it comes to cuisine. It is true that Arabs and other Mediterranean cultures have similar food and an intermingled history, but Mediterranean describes any region that has contact with the Mediterranean sea.
Even so, the term is most closely associated with Greece, Turkey, the Levant, Egypt, and the regions in between. Referring to an Arab person as Mediterranean is only partially correct; if they live in a country bordering the body of water, then geographically they fall within the Mediterranean. In terms of labels and ethnicity, however, most Arabs would not refer to themselves as Mediterranean.
It is important to once again assert that labels are extremely subjective and will change over time as cultures shift. An Arab might prefer the term Middle Eastern because it succinctly describes their geographic location, or perhaps identify as the Mediterranean because it makes more sense for them. In any case, it is up to you to decide how you identify and what labels others should use to describe you.
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