By providing alternative answers to common questions about the Middle East, this FAQ will help you make sense of this complex region.
Are all Arabs Muslims?
While the majority of Arabs are Muslims, at least ostensibly, many Arabs belong to religious minorities, the largest of which are the various sects of Christianity, and some are atheists and non-believers. Egypt has the largest Christian minority, estimated at about 10% of its almost 110 million people. Other religious minorities include Jews, Druze and Yazidis. The Jewish minority of several countries (such Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen) used to be quite sizeable but has shrunk considerably in recent decades. Middle Eastern Jews and their descendant now largely reside in Israel, Europe and the Americas.
Are all Muslims Arab?
While the majority of Arabs are officially Muslims, the majority of Muslims are non-Arabs. Arabs make up about 450 million of the 1.8 billion or so people classed as Muslims worldwide. Pakistan, Indonesia, India and Bangladesh are the countries with the largest number of Muslims in the world – and none of them are Arab.
What's the difference between Arab and Arabian?
Arabian is a dated term and today usually refers to the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula (Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the smaller Gulf states). Arab is a modern term (dating back to the 19th century) which refers to people from countries where Arabic is the official or majority language, or the diasporas of these countries. Not everyone in Arab countries identifies as Arab. Some groups reject that identity or combine it with other identities, such as African. Non-Arab groups include Amazigh and Kurds.
What's the difference between a Muhammadan and a Muslim?
Muslim and Muhammadan refer to the same thing but with very different connotations. Muslim is the most common way to refer to a follower of the Islamic faith. Muhammadan is a term which originated in Europe based on the false belief that those who embraced Islam followed Muhammad personally. This was partly influenced by Christians' own naming of their faith after its founder, Christ. Another reason was due to the mistaken belief that Islam was a personality cult and that Muslims worshipped Muhammad himself.
Which is more violent: Islam or Christianity?
Only blinkered believers in Christianity or Islam believe that their rival religion is more violent than their own. In reality, both faiths are religions of both peace and violence. Computer analysis a few years ago revealed the Bible, especially the Old Testament, to be statistically more violent than the Quran but this does not tells us what that means qualitatively. Besides, given the ambiguity and contradictions of religion, passages from scripture can be used to justify diametrically opposed actions, from war to peace.
Is Islam more misogynistic than Christianity?
Both Islam and Christianity, like most religions of the world, are patriarchal. In reality, they are of a similar level of misogyny but which is more misogynistic depends on who is interpreting it, where and when. Of course, many believers of both religions are convinced that their faith is empowering to women.
Why do Arabs hate the West?
Arabs do not suffer from a collective hatred of Europe and America. Some love the ‘west', its culture and achievements. Others (including some of those who admire Europe and America) despise the legacy of western imperialism and the yoke of western hegemony. Yet others, such as secular pan-Arabists and religious pan-Islamists, especially violent jihadis, view the west as the root of all the evils afflicting the Arab world.
Is there a clash of civilisations?
Despite the popularity of the “clash of civilisations” amongst bigots and radicals in Europe, America and the Middle East, there is precious little historical or contemporary empirical evidence to back up this theory. It is far more a case of wishful thinking than reality. For every case of a clash or conflict, there are just as many if not more cases of cooperation or alliances, from modern times all the way back to the early years of Islam. Then there is the inconvenient truth of the multitude of clashes within self-identifying civilisations. Most fundamentally, Arabs and Europeans largely belong to the same civilisation.
Why is the Middle East so violent and tribal?
The Middle East has a reputation for violence and appears from the outside to be something of a bloodbath. But when inspecting carefully and over a longer timeline than this moment, Europe and America appear just a violent and, by some measures, more so. Despite the bloodshed in the horrific warzones of Syria, Libya and Yemen, the Middle East has yet to witness slaughter on the scale of the two World Wars in Europe. While the contemporary Middle East is internally more violent, the contemporary West can be argued to be externally more violent (though this is partly a function of its superior military might).
As for tribalism, much of what is classed as tribalism and sectarianism is more a manifestation of failed and failing states than of age-old feuds. Moreover, the West, and particularly Europe, is riddled with similar fault lines.
Are Arab women meek and submissive?
While meek Arab women certainly exist, the idea that women in the Arab world are collectively meek, submissive and subservient has more to do with misunderstanding and ignorance than any objective reality.
Although Arab women do not generally enjoy equality with Arab men and are, on the whole, worse off than European women, navigating these structural limitations actually requires boldness and combating discrimination and sexism requires ferocity. Even traditional women in the traditional sphere are often anything but meek, as the patriarchy often allows women to exercise robust control over the domestic sphere.
Are Arab women oppressed?
Arab women, on the whole, enjoy fewer legal and social rights and face greater discrimination than women in Europe and America. However, the situation is not uniform. For instance, educated urban Tunisian women enjoy far more rights and prestige than less educated rural women in the United States. The situation within the Arab world is also not uniform and varies wildly between countries and classes, with women in the conservative Gulf states generally enjoying the lowest legal rights.
Do Arab feminists exist?
Yes, Arab feminists do exist and the Arab feminist movement is almost as old as its western counterpart, though smaller and with fewer concrete wins under its belt. Although women's rights have generally advanced less far and penetrated less deeply in the Arab world than in Europe and America, the situation is not straightforward. For example, Arab women have had property rights for centuries, whereas western women did not generally start gaining the right to own property until the 19th century. Moreover, feminism in the Arab world is not just confined to secular, educated and/or wealthy women, many women who are devout believers and wear the hijab define themselves as feminists.
Is alcohol prohibited in the Middle East?
Alcohol is generally believed to be prohibited in Islam, although some schools have historically believed that it is intoxication and not the intoxicant that is haram. Moreover, the Christians and Jews of the Middle East have no such religious prohibition (except for some minor schools, such as some Protestant movements). In the most conservative societies, alcohol is both a sin and illegal. In more permissive societies, alcohol may be a sin in Islam but it is legal to sell, buy and consume it. Some countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Lebanon have a vibrant local beer or wine industry. Although the majority of Arabs do not drink, a significant minority does imbibe alcohol, even during Ramadan.
Is it Islamophobic to criticise Islam?
No, it is not Islamophobic to criticise Islam per se. It depends on how – i.e. whether your criticising or demonising. For instance, if you criticise it out of a general scepticism towards religion or using the same criteria as you use to assess other ideologies, then this is valid. However, if you single out Islam as uniquely bad or evil, despite evidence that it is little different from other religions, especially its Abrahamic cousins, then this is Islamophobic. Moreover, it is possible to praise Islam and be Islamophobic, for example, by holding back criticism or excusing failings because you are convinced that Muslims or Islam are different and must be measured by a lower bar.
Is there a right way to make hummus?
There is no one right way to make hummus but there are plenty of wrong ways. Many Arab aficionadas, especially from the home of hummus, the Levant, are horrified by the liberties that have been taken with one of their most beloved dishes by those who have adopted or appropriated it elsewhere in the world. And, of course, many traditional recipes are far tastier than some of the abominations that have appeared on the market. That being said, fusion, innovation and change have always been the spice of food. If you do decide to innovate, make sure that your hummus recipe at the very least contains chickpeas (which is what hummus means in Arabic). Hummus is not a generic term for dip