Arab Americans And Bush I Was Glad To

Arab-Americans and Bush

I was glad to see Jack Shafer at Slate take on the awful NYT report about “Arab-Americans” giving big donations to Bush. Most of the donors cited were Iranians and Pakistanis.

“Arab” is actually a linguistic category, like “Romance” or “Latin”. Most of the people in the arid zone stretching from Morocco east to Iraq speak Arabic and the majority is Muslim. The 2000 spoken dialects of Arabic are quite diverse and until recently not always mutually comprehensible (the adoption of a Modern Standard Arabic for the purposes of writing and public discourse has allowed direct communication throughout the region; it is as though all the Romance countries got together and adopted a modernized form of Latin as their written language, but spoke Spanish or Italian or Romanian at home.)

But the region is linguistically diverse despite the dominance of Arabic. North Africa has a lot of Berbers, who are Muslim but do not speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Berber is an Afro-Semitic language very distantly related to Arabic and Hebrew. Then in Upper Egypt some groups speak African languages rather than Arabic. In Jordan, there is a large community of Circassians, Muslims from the Caucasus whose language may be distantly related to Chinese, who fled Russian persecution (the Russians conquered the Muslims of the Caucasus in the early 19th century and then fought them for decades; some estimate a million were displaced to the Ottoman Empire, and lots were killed; it was a kind of genocide). The Coptic Christians in Egypt and the Maronite and Eastern Orthodox Christians of Lebanon speak Arabic as their mother tongue and so are technically Arabs, but many don’t think of themselves that way.

“Arab” is not a racial category. There are anyway no such things as races in the way they are popularly imagined. But even on that level the “Arabs” are just people who speak a language. The northern Sudanese are black Africans but speak Arabic. The Red Sea port city of Massawa in Eritrea (formerly Ethiopia) is largely Arabic-speaking because of historical trading patterns, though the population is African. On the other hand, there are blue-eyed, fair-haired Arabs in the Levant, presumably descendants of the Crusaders. About a third of Israelis are Arab Jews, i.e., Jews from Arabic-speaking countries who traditionally spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. While the term is now rejected by many, it is certainly the case that in 1945 Moroccan and Yemeni Jews were “Arab.” All Arabs are not Muslim, and only a minority of Muslims is Arab.

In Iraq itself, many Chaldean Christians speak Aramaic (a Semitic language) as their mother tongue, and of course the Kurds speak an Indo-European language related to Persian and distantly to English. The Turkmen of Iraq, some 500,000 – 700,000 strong, speak an Altaic language related to Mongolian and perhaps very distantly to Korean and Japanese. Probably a majority of Iraqi Turkmen are Shiites, many of them esoteric (“New Age”) in orientation, though I’m told there has been a movement among them to become more orthodox, and many of the latter support Muqtada al-Sadr.

So, the Arab world has a good deal of linguistic diversity within it. But then when you move north and east of Iraq, the situation becomes really complicated. Iran is 51% speakers of Persian, an Indo-European language related to Sanskrit and Hindi. It also contains Turkic Azeri, Turkmen and Qashqai speakers, and smaller Indo-European languages like Lur and Baluchi. In Turkey most people speak Turkish but there is a large Kurdish minority and traditionally there were many Armenian and Greek speakers. Central Asia largely speaks Turkic languages (Uzbek, Kazakh, Kyrgyz), which, however, are not that close to the Turkish spoken in Istanbul. I studied some Uzbek and the grammar is slightly different. A very substantial minority speaks a form of Persian called Tajik (about a third of Uzbeks, and the majority in Tajikistan). There are also Chinese speakers and some long-time Korean immigrant communities, along with Russians and German speakers, who are, despite living in Muslim-majority countries, from a Christian background but most often secularists because of the Soviet past. Kazakhstan is some 40% Russian.

Then you have Muslim South Asia. There are four major regional languages in Pakistan: Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluchi and Pushtu. All four are Indo-European. There is also a sliver of Kashmiri speakers on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control. But the national language of Pakistan is Urdu, which was the Muslim lingua franca in Muslim South Asia from the 18th century, and is a Persianized form of what we would now call Hindi. It is taught in schools and spoken alongside the regional languages, though the elite of the country still prefers English and often speaks halting Urdu. Again, it is Indo-European but with a large dose of Arabic, Semitic vocabulary. It is in fact a lot like a Muslim Yiddish. (Historically, “Hindi” is actually a result of a movement of Hindu nationalists to “purify” what was then called Hindustani of the Arabic and Persian words. The Muslims kept the words, and Hindustani came to be called Urdu. Urdu is a Mongolian and Turkish word meaning “military camp” and is the root of the English word “horde.” When the Central Asian tribal warriors came into northern India, Urdu is the creole that ended up being spoken in the camps so that Hindu traders could sell the Muslim grandees their goods).

So when the New York Times included “Pakistanis” among the Arab-Americans, this would be like including Arnold Schwarzenegger in the “Latin Wave” of popular culture.

There are 1.3 billion Muslims in the world, and by the time the global population stabilizes around 2050, theirs will be the world’s largest religion. Americans had better become more familiar with it.

As for supporting Bush, most of those people are Iraqis happy with the overthrow of Saddam; or Lebanese Christians, many of whom are traditionally Republicans (think Darrell Isa, whom the JDL tried to assassinate, and who got Gov. Gray Davis recalled). Many Iranian-Americans fled clerical rule in Iran and are trying to pull a Chalabi by getting the Bush administration to overthrow them, and they give Bush money. Many Pakistani Americans support the Republican Party because of their interest in family values or because of class reasons. South Asians are the elite of immigrants to the US, including the Pakistanis. They are wealthier than any other immigrant group, including the European immigrants. And are often physicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs who vote Republican for the same reason their European-American colleagues do.

Kerry doesn’t offer much to Muslim Americans or Arab-Americans concerned about Middle East policy, since all the senators have had to toe the AIPAC line to avoid being targeted for unelection. My guess is that they will split again, as they did in the last election, but that there will be a marginal move to vote Democrat just because many of them are upset about the Patriot Act and the mishandling of Iraq.

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