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The ethnicity conundrum

Oct 22,2017 - Last updated at Oct 22,2017

One of the most poignant books I have read was “Turn My Head to the Caucasus”, the biography of Osman Ferid Pasha, an ethnic Ubykh who took his family to Istanbul to escape the Russian genocide of Caucasians in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

He distinguished himself in the Ottoman army during the Russo-Turkish war and later as governor of Mecca and Medina.

He then faced an existential dilemma with the rise of Turkish nationalism. He was a loyal Ottoman subject, but an Ubykh, not a Turk, and this made him a suspect in the eyes of Turkish nationalists.

When he came to die, a deeply frustrated and aggrieved man, his last words to his wife were: “Turn my head to the Caucasus.”

This dilemma is felt keenly by many people in all parts of the world.

Historically, mediaeval empires conquered different races, but often left them undisturbed provided they paid taxes. Later, when empires were replaced by nation states, these different ethnic groups became second-class citizens.

Their tragedy is that they were denied the capacity to evolve beyond their feeling of national exclusion.

Some thinkers predicted that ethnic and national identities would be replaced by the more progressive affiliations of socialism, communism or capitalism. History proved them wrong. Faced with hardship, people still fall back on the most primordial affiliations of tribe or ethnicity.

Then, adding to the complexity, globalism introduced another layer of confusion, with some people now seeing themselves as citizens of the world.

In principle, there needs not be a contradiction between the different layers of one’s identity. I see no problem with me being a citizen of the world, Jordanian, Muslim, an ethnic Circassian, equally an Arab thanks to my Yemeni grandmother, and with many East African genes from the days when Yemen was ruled by the Kingdom of Axum. But life is not so easy, is it?

National identity is most frequently formed in deliberate opposition to other groups. The logic is: “I am such and such because I am not one of those perfidious and accursed others!”

Therefore, when you identify yourself as a member of an ethnic or religious group, members of other groups react with hostility because they see this as a rejection of them.

This is why debates now take place in Arab countries on whether ethnic identities threaten national unity and security. One result of nationalism and globalism, unfortunately, seems to be more segregation.

Still, I remain an optimist. Young people will always be impetuous and defiant. They will always fall in love with and marry people outside their national, ethnic or religious groups, despite strong protestations from their elders that these are “others” who should be despised and reviled.

This may be humanity’s best survival mechanism against racism, until the time comes when people realise that it is easier to be with people who are different from you but have the same values than to be with people who appear similar to you but have different values.

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