A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Ethnicity and Identity in Kyrgyzstan and Elsewhere

The Registan blog, a good go-to for Central Asia, has this post on how the ethnic conflict in Kyrgyzstan is being reported. Taking off from a NYT article that seems to say that it isn't an ethnic conflict but a class one, it finds that too simplistic an explanation.

The author shows quite a bit of reportage seeking to downplay the ethnic factor, and argues that it is off target if well-meaning. So what if Kyrgyz and Uzbek are mutually comprehensible Turkic languages? The Middle East has plenty of examples of ethnic groups who are hostile despite speaking exactly the same language, and I suspect Central Asia does too. I'll let you read the post for Kyrgyzstan, which I know almost nothing about, but wanted to reflect a bit on how awkward talk about ethnicity can be.

Of course, ethnicity is always a slippery subject. We've thankfully come a long way from the old days of categorizing "races" by measuring skulls and noses; but what is ethnicity exactly? I'll let the anthropologists answer, but in practical terms it usually means the language one speaks. In terms of body type etc., most North Africans appear to be of Berber descent, but only those who speak Tamazight or other Berber languages consider themselves Amazighen. It gets more complicated when we speak, as in Iraq, of "Kurds, Sunnis and Shi‘ites" as if they were three ethnic groups. In the first place, the phrase is shorthand for "Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi‘ite Arabs," and there are both Sunni and Shi‘ite Kurds as well (not to mention Yazidis . . .). Sunni and Shi‘ite Arabs are indistinguishable ethnically and linguistically (for the most part, excluding a minority of Persian-speakers), so it really is a religious or communal rather than an ethnic distinction. Are the Druze and ethnic or a religious group?

I guess the main issue, really, is how one identifies oneself. There are plenty of mixed marriages across communal, ethnic, and religious boundaries, yet in most Middle Eastern countries one's communal identity is important (and in Lebanon, has official resonance), and to some extent, may involve choices.

I don't know if the Kyrgyz attacking Uzbeks in Osh are doing so because of ethnicity, class, economic role in society, or what, and I'm not sure in the heat of the moment, they are sure themselves. What's fairly clear is there is an "us" versus "them" at work here. And clearly, things have been bad in Kyrgyzstan lately, whatever label we may put on it.

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