A Middle East Primer
Arabs, Muslims and Islam
Many of us tend to use the terms "Arab" and "Muslim" interchangeably. While they often apply to the same person, the terms do not have the same meaning. The truth is, most Arabs are Muslim (with minority groups of Christian Arabs to be found in Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon). However, most Muslims are not Arabs. Many non-Arab countries are largely Muslim, that is, they believe in the Islam religion.

Arabs are a Semitic people who originally lived on the Arabian peninsula. When the Islam religion developed there in the 7th century, the Arabs spread their language and culture with it, going north and west. Now, Arab peoples live north of the Arabian peninsula in Syria, spreading to the Atlantic coast in northwest Africa. Minority groups can be found in the Sahel and parts of east Africa and in Israel and Iran.

Even while living in different countries and having varying skin colours, customs, dialects, and politics, Arabs tend to feel they are one nation. Following the decline of the Ottoman Empire, they believe that Western imperialism artificially divided them. Arabs are increasingly migrating to West Africa, Australia, Europe, North America, and Latin America.

The United Arab Republic was a union formed in 1958 between Egypt and Syria. It broke apart in 1961 and Egypt continued to use the name until 1971.

The United Arab Emirates is a federation of the emirates of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al Quaiwain, and Ras al Khaimah. It covers an area of 83,657 sq.km. -- mainly desert, with mountains in the eastern part. About 10 per cent of its about two million population is nomadic. Arabic is the official language. Ninety per cent of the people are Muslim, the remaining 10 per cent being Christian and Hindu.

The prophet Mohammed first revealed God's teachings to people who came to be called Muslims -- the religion was called Islam. Muslims worship the same God and share many of the same ethics as those of the Christian and Jewish religions. This includes a respect for innocent life.

Most Muslims, about 90 per cent, are of the orthodox Sunni tradition, having a non-hierarchical structure. Most of the remaining 10 per cent are Shi'ites whch largely occupy Iran. Many Shi'ites live in Yemen, Bahrain, Lebanon and Iraq as well.

The largest Muslim country is Indonesia. Afghanistan, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, along with Nigeria and several other black African states, and five Central Asian republics are also non-Arab countries that are Muslim.

Islam is expanding rapidly in the world and Muslims can be found almost everywhere. About five million Muslims reside in the United States.

In the West, religion and government are separate institutions. This is not true in the Mid-East where there are varying Islamic traditions in place.

Political movements based on Islam have run the gamut from left to right, from violence to non-violence and from tolerant to chauvinistic. Where pluralism in politics has allowed Muslimsto function openly, Islam has developed with more moderate attitudes. In countries that have seen autocratic rule or bad economic policies or conflict (or any combination of these), more radical religious viewpoints have developed amongst the Muslim people.