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To begin with, identity is often regarded as an expression of self through different group and individual affiliations. It is generally agreed that people from the Middle East historically have drawn a distinctive line between other nations and themselves, driven not only by economic, social or gender differences, but also by religious, national, tribal, and family identity. There were also primary identities that people acquired at birth, such as those defined by their origin and blood (the tribe, the clan, and the family), by place (the neighborhood, the city or country), and by religious community.
For many people in the Middle East religion has become the most important identity. The region of the Middle East has become a central focus of three most popular world religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Therefore, this paper seeks to discuss and analyze the role of family, tribal, state and religious identities in the Middle East in order to define which of them is the most distinguished in the region.
In the Middle East, family is one of the dominant institutions where people inherit their identity, religion, and social class. Particularly important is the role of family identity in the Arab community, where family is regarded as sacred patriarchal institution and where one member may bring shame or honor to the whole family. Certainly, the communication in many of such families is hierarchical (Barnett 272).
As such, marriage is viewed as a consecrated and religious ceremony which legalizes sexual relations between a man and a woman and promotes the stability within the society. Among the Muslim people, marriage is regulated by Hanafi law which forbids a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man, but allows a Muslim man to marry women from other religions, ony if they are Jewish or Christian (Barnett 272). In fact, in Islam it is possible for a man to have up to four wives as long as he can treat them equally. Therefore, there are very few people who can afford it.
Traditionally, the Middle East family is patriarchal institution, where fathers are the dominant power and gain complete control (Moghadam 105). No one can question father’s authority over his children, wife, and grandchildren. Usually, the father demands obedience and respect from the family members (Moghadam 107). When he dies, his eldest son must take the responsibility for the whole family and take care of his unmarried siblings (Barnett 274).
Besides the strong family identity in the Middle East, tribal values and identity have strong impact on shaping culture, politics, and social relations. Such scholar as Salzman (24) argues that throughout history of the region, tribes have always played a key role in supporting the ruling dynasties and sometimes posed a significant threat to governments.
Despite the fact that most of the Middle East cities and countries are becoming globalized, tribal phenomenon is still present in social and political consciousness of the people. Not only is this a way of life, but it is rather an identity which reflects the region’s politics and psychology. As such, tribalism in the region is politically shaped and culturally rooted. However, it is difficult to state that the relations between tribes and political administrations are easy. They are characterized by security tension and economic arguments, even if political administrations are indigenous (Salzman 27).
It is important to note that there is a distinctive fact that when political government is weak, the tribal ties become stronger. In other words, tribes are extremely dependent on the state, and the sstrength of the tribe depends on the weakness of the country. As a matter of fact, the role that some clans play in the Middle East is also balanced by the state’s role in destroying them. Analyzing the contemporary relations between the state and the society in the Middle East, it may be revealed that tribes continue to be the most important political actors in such countries as Libya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and the oil monarchies of the Persian Gulf (Salzman 29). In these countries, the banners of the clans are not less important than the national flags, and the tribal identity still plays a crucial role in shaping politics and decision-making process of the states, molding even the national identity. (Salzman 30).
The state identity is often linked to a sense of a nation that has traditions, language, politics and culture that define it among other nations. Looking back at historical past of the Middle East, one could notice a distinctive allegiance to a ruler or, in most cases, a monarch. Thus, people of the Middle East are mostly differentiated by their state identity, even though they may belong to the same religion or ethnic group (Moghadam 135). Despite the fact that religious and ethnic identities are of utmost importance in the region, people have a particularly strong sense of state and national identity. It can be proven by a number of conflicts in the region between the states, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict. As such, for many countries, including Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, and many others, state identity is a sensitive issue (Moghadam 150).
This kind of identity is usually acquired by birth. However, it may be challenged by the transfer of power, annexation of the territory, or migration. Considering the latest state identity issues in the Middle East, it is also visible how closely state is linked to a religion, in Muslim countries in particular.