The Difference Makes All the Difference

Persians, Arabs, and Turks

In 2006, the National Geographic–Roper Public Affairs Geography Literacy Study of 510 18-24 year olds pointed a dismal picture of how little the public knows about the Middle East.  Three years after the U.S invasion of Iraq and five years after U.S invasion of Afghanistan, 88% of respondents could not find Afghanistan on a map, 63% could not find either Iraq or Saudi Arabia, 75% could not point out Iran or Israel, and 44% could not find any of the those four countries. Today, with these wars costing 1.5 trillion dollars or $11 million every hour (according to the National Priority Project), and notwithstanding the human cost of the war so far, having a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East is long overdue.

A good place to start would be to look at some of the peoples of the Middle East:  Persians, Arabs, and Turks.  These three large ethno-lingual groups have lived in the Middle East for more than a millennia.  While they are tied together by the cultural unity of Islam, differences in history and ethnicity sets them clearly and importantly apart.

For a thousand years before Islam appeared on the Arabian Peninsula in 6th century AD, the dominant group in Southwest Asia were the Persians, decedents of Indo-European people who had also settled in Europe and India. International trade routes in Gupta and Sasanid times.HWC 284They spoke various branches of the same Indo-European language over the centuries, which used the same scripts known as Pahlavi. At the time of the Arab-Islamic expansion, the Sasanian Empire of Iran (Persia) ruled over the northern and eastern parts of Southwest Asia.

The inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula spoke different dialects of Arabic and lived as either farmers in the oases, traders and craftsmen in small towns, or nomadic tribesmen who travelled with their livestock in search of pasture and moved goods across the desert. Islam appeared in early 7th century in southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula. Prophet Muhammad claimed universal authority and by the time of his death in 632, he had sent military expeditions into Byzantine frontiers and representatives to the Iranian Sasanian court, calling on them to acknowledge his message.  

Ummayad_EmpireMuhammad’s successors soon took full advantage of the changing balance of power in the north and east.  Byzantine and Sasanian Empires had been weakened as result of plagues and eighty years of intermittent wars against each other. The invading Arab armies were now organized, experienced, and driven by either religious conviction or prospects of land and wealth. They conquered lands to the north and east, defeating the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires before turning to Northern Africa and conquering land as far as Spain by the 8th century.

In the center of the Arab Empire and in northern Africa, Arabic slowly replaced local languages and cultures. Differences between Arabs and Persians, however, persisted. Linguistically, Persians continued to use Pahlavi. However, in the tenth century a new Persian language emerged with a grammar similar to Pahlavi that used Arabic script and enriched by vocabulary from Arabic. In terms of historical identity, Persians continued to be strongly conscious of their pre-Islamic past, a feature not found in Arab countries of the Middle East with possible exception of Egypt.

Turks began to migrate across northeastern regions of the Islamic realm from central Asia beginning in the eighth century. Their largest numbers arrived as the bulk of the Mongol armies.  In time, they settled in northwestern Iran and Anatolia (todays Turkey), converted to Islam, and established dynasties that ruled over India, Iran, and the Arab regions of the Middle East. Turkish dynastiesThe most prominent of these were the Ottoman rulers who centered in Anatolia and controlled at their peak of strength South Eastern Europe, and most of the Arab speaking lands in Southwest Asia and North Africa.  The other major Dynasties were the Safavid in Iran and Moghal in India. In all three Turkish was the language of the army and the Court. Only in Anatolia and the lands on the east and west of the Caspian Sea Turkish was the language of ordinary people. In the rest of the Ottoman provinces with the exception of its Kurdish regions who spoke a language associated closely with Persian (Farsi), Arabic with its various dialects was the language of the people.  In Iran, the Safavid rulers, anxious to distinguish themselves from the Ottomans, forced the conversion of the population from the dominant Sunni sect of Islam to Shia. Since early 1600s, Shiaism has been the state religion of Iran.

Today some 250 Million Arabs live in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Turks living in Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and the Caucuses, make up around 165 million people. MapME_Ethnicities1993[1]Persians are the smallest of the three, perhaps no more than 40 to 45 million who make up about 51% to 60% of Iran’s population depending on how you count them.Nestled between live other large ethno-lingual groups such as Kurds, Baluches, Israelites, and Berbers.


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