Those People

Suddenly, you started to hear the phrase a lot. "What do those people want?" Or, "Why don't those people go back where they came from." When an American Sikh was murdered and people of various Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds were harassed and assaulted, it showed just how little many Americans know about the world, including their own country's diversity.

Imagine foreigners using the nouns Americans and Baptists interchangeably, or calling Southerners "New Yorkers" or "whites" and you get an idea of how misused and misunderstood the terms Arab and Muslim are.

Definitions of Arab have been debated. Historically, it has referred to nomads living in southwestern Asia and northern Africa, according to the Encyclopedia of the Middle East. Today, Arabs are generally defined as those who speak any of a number of Arabic dialects. They make up part of the Middle East and northern Africa, including 21 countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. (Although Arabs predominate, there are other ethnic groups within those countries, including Assyrians, Berbers, Chaldeans and Kurds.) Other Middle Eastern countries—Iran, for instance—are not Arabic at all, but Persian.

Many Arabs are followers of Islam, but many others are Christians, Jews or Druze.

A majority of Arab Americans are Christian; a majority of them living in the United States are citizens. The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't keep count, but it's estimated that 3 million Arabs live in the United States.

The Islamic world is even more diverse and far reaching. Islam is the second largest religion in the world, with about a billion believers. Growing faster than the world's population, it could surpass Christianity in the next century. The United States Muslim population is estimated at 5.5 million. About 42 percent of American Muslims are African American, about 25 percent are of South Asian descent, and around 12 percent are Arabs.

There are two main schools of Islam: Sunni and Shia. The two schools differ over doctrine, ritual, law and organization. But unlike Christian denominations, the two schools are not distinguished in the mosques. Any Muslim is welcome, and in Knoxville, most followers don't know who belongs to which school.

Many people who have little in common with Arabs or Muslims are often lumped into the same group with them—Hindu Indians, Sikhs, Christian and Jewish Iranians—because of the color of their skin, their accent, name or the clothing they wear. It may be tempting (and human nature) to classify people by these superficial means, but these identifiers tell very little about an individual's background or beliefs.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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