« Sex selection makes national news | Gene Expression Front Page | Language & genes »
January 18, 2004

Culture dominant minorities?

Amy Chua's term, "Market Dominant Minorities," is fast becoming a conventional part of the public intellectual lexicon. But I have been wondering if she didn't leave a lot of groups out by narrowing her focus so much to economic factors and also pin-pointing groups that have multiple points of divergence from the majority population (historical, linguistic, religious, etc. more or less).

I don't know what term to use for a broader grouping of dominant minorities, but I'll use the term "culture dominant." Some of these groups to my knowledge are not nearly as market dominant as in the cases Chua points to, and what dominance they have might be do to recent political ascendence. Additionally, some of these groups exist in a closer continuum with the groups that outnumber them. Since Americans are pretty fixated on the Middle East, I'll start there:

Middle East:

Alawites in Syria: This is the group that dominates the commanding heights of the Syrian military-political complex. The Assad family are members. Their origins are confusing, and they have been termed as heterodox Shia and crypto-Christians. They have a historical relationship with the Alevi Shia of Turkey. Both these groups tend to hide their affiliation from the majority Sunni community because of a history of persecution, and just how heterodox they are is a matter of debate because of their secrecy. Like other minorites, the Alawites gravitated toward Pan-Arabism and the Baath Party because it offered a way to attain solidarity with the Sunni majority. The Hama revolt of 1982 was partially a Sunni conservative revolt against the secularism of the Alawite dominated government. They form 10% of Syria's population.

Bedouin in Jordan: Though Palestinians form the majority of the Jordanian population, the Bedouin are the major backers of the Hashemite monarchy, which itself was imported from the Hejaz (the Arabian province that his home to Mecca & Medina). Bedouin and Palestinians are of course both Arabs, but there is a difference in lifestlye, and from what I gather (I have a friend who has many relatives in Jordan), there is a fair amount of mutual contempt. Much of the non-political life of the nation is driven by the entrepenurial Palestinians. I believe Bedouin form about 25% of the population of Jordan.

Bedouin in Libya: The situation is similar to Jordan, Qadaffi is a desert tribesman by origin, as are many of his supporters. Tripoli and Benghazi are the home bases though of an ancient city-dwelling population.

Sunni Arab in Iraq: This is famous at this point, so I won't go into detail, except to note that there was a tendency in the 19th century for nomads who took up the sedentary life to switch to the Shia affiliation.

Arab in Morocco This is another sketchy case, because the line between Arab and Berber is fuzzy in Morocco. Many statistics will show that there are more Arabs in Morocco, but this might be due to the greater prestige associated with Arab affiliation. It is certainly a fact that Arabicization has proceeded at a high rate in Morocco, and it was only recently that the Berber dialects were acceptable in official discourse (in other words, a Berber judge would address non-Arab speaking peasants in a court of law in Arabic, because use of a Berber dialect would be unthinkable).

Arabs in the whole Gulf: This is an obvious call, native Arabs in most of the Gulf states have high incomes, but their dominance is only political, the 40-90% of the population who are not native Arabs do most of the economic production and keep the nations going.

I exclude other candidates like the Ashkenazi in Israel because they tend to dominate across all spheres of life, while the Riyadhi elite of Saudi Arabia is not as sharply set off from the other regions to my mind.

Readers with more knowledge of course are free to correct me, and I'm sure there are dynamics in many societies that are missed or glossed over by outsiders, so perhaps Oman is dominated by a particular tribe and so forth. It seems that where the line between the dominant minority and the majority is sharper, insofar as "switching," would be difficult, force of arms is crucial. For instance, the Alawites are heterodox, and concentrated in particular regions of Syria where they could find refuge against Sunni persecution. Their clans are probably somewhat inbred and related. Becoming an Alawite is probably very difficult, especially in light of the fact they tend not to publicize their true beliefs. In contrast, the switch from Berber to Arab in Morocco is easier, just learn Arabic and change your personal habits, there have been so many Arabicizing Berbers that no one will make a great note of your tribal origins. I suspect the situation in Jordan is intermediate, and the military power needed to maintain the dominance of the minority also less than Syria but more than Morocco.

Posted by razib at 05:00 PM