Lebanon Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Lebanon, like many other nations in the world, has had to put some thought into the meaning of its various ethnic identities. In this lesson, we'll talk about ethnic groups of Lebanon, and see what this has meant to the nation.


Lebanon is not a place that you expect racial identity to be an easy topic. This is not necessarily because racial tensions are greater in Lebanon than anywhere else, but simply because this region has been continually inhabited by settled societies for thousands upon thousands of years. People have moved in, out of, and through this area for a long time. Nestled on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea, the nation of Lebanon is currently home to roughly 6.2 million people. That's a lot of people, and the long history of the nation means that racial categories are not always what they seem.


Arab Ethnicity in Lebanon

So, how do the Lebanese people self-identify? Actually, about 95% of them identify as being ethnically Arab. On the surface, this makes Lebanon seem pretty racially homogenous, but like I said, the reality is somewhat more complicated. Technically, Arab ethnicity refers to being descendent from the people of the Arabian Peninsula, but the term is more broadly applied to a range of peoples native to the Middle East. In Lebanon, much of the Arab population is actually descended from the West Aramaic ethnic subgroup, while others are Arabian, Assyrian, Hebrew, and Persian. Most are a mixture of these various subgroups.

The other issue that complicates this ethnic category is the fact that in many parts of the world, the term Arab has become almost exclusively associated with Islam. A great number of Lebanese Arabs are Muslim, but not all. Many are Jewish and Christian, and for them this term seems problematic. In fact, while all of these people are loosely categorized as Arabs in term of ethnicity, Christian Arabs in Lebanon greatly prefer to be called Phoenicians, and see themselves not as descendants of people from the Arabian Peninsula but from Canaanites of the Levant. The Phoenicians were an ancient seafaring Mediterranean culture based in what is now Lebanon and this ethnic identity has remained, particularly amongst Christians who want to avoid being associated with the Arab-dominated Islam. This is significant, especially considering that about 40% of people in Lebanon are Christians. The distinctions between Christian and Muslim Lebanese people are very important, and in fact the nation itself is somewhat geographically divided. Christians live mostly in the northwest and south of the nation, Sunni Muslims live in the north, and Shi'ite Muslims live largely in the northwest and parts of the south.

Many in Lebanon feel that the ethnic term Arab implies a devotion to Islam

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