Minorities in the Middle East face dim future

Friday 29/05/2015

WASHINGTON - Recent developments in the Middle East, dubbed the “Arab spring”, have brought to light the remarkable presence of minority groups and their historical significance in social change in the region.

The intensive media coverage of these dramatic events and their socio-political fallout highlighted the insecure status of minorities in an unstable and fast-changing region. Global audiences became suddenly aware of the difficulties faced by these groups trying to overcome their precarious legal status and survive in their falter­ing and increasingly radicalised societies.

Clearly, the Middle East is not, and has never been, a culturally or demographically homogeneous unit. The region includes, among its diverse population, a very complex and constantly changing kaleidoscope of minority groups. The classification of such groups as minorities might be based on ethnic, linguistic, national, racial, religious, socio-economic or tribal differences. The list includes Alawites, Armenians, Assyrians, Baha’is, Berbers, Chaldeans, Chris­tians, Circassians, Copts, Druze, Jews, Kurds, Mandaeans, Maron­ites, Turkmen and Yazidis, just to name a few.

This complexity in the midst of political and social unrest makes it difficult to engage in a coherent and open discussion about minorities for a variety of reasons. First, there is the basic question of identity. Who is a “minority” is the ultimate political question in the Middle East. Are the Kurds or the Shias in Iraq a minority or are the Sunnis? Are the Maronites in Lebanon a mi­nority? Are the Palestinians under Israeli rule a minority?

For the purpose of this op-ed, I would venture to consider as a minority any “subordi­nate” group that is differ­ent culturally, ethnically, racially or religiously from the larger society of which it is a part. Implied in this admittedly simplistic defi­nition is an element of in­equality or discrimination practised by the dominant group against its minority population throughout the modern history of the region.

Second, although challenges fac­ing minorities are universal, there is a uniquely Middle Eastern legacy associated with the problem that militates against an effective treat­ment of the issue. When minorities are perceived culturally as “dhim­mis,” “goyim” or even “infidels”, it makes it virtually impossible politi­cally to consider them as common and full citizens of the state. They are apt, by definition, to remain a tolerated segment of the popula­tion and not an integral and equal part of society. The same applies to the “constitutional” definition of states in the region as “Muslim” or “Jewish”, which implies that citizens of other faiths are less than equal citizens when it comes to the allocation of values in society.

Third, the colonial legacy of the region has created a difficult climate for minority groups in general. Minorities have been ma­nipulated for protracted periods of time by colonial political systems that practised strategies of “divide-and-conquer” or “separate-and-un­equal” vis-à-vis their subjects. This resulted in minority groups being often suspected by the majority as a fifth column harbouring separa­tist tendencies.

Consequently, the minority issue has become taboo throughout the region. Both governments and people in the Middle East are not comfortable dealing with their minorities or admitting the wide­spread institutionalised policies of discrimination that they face. It seems that the whole region is in denial when it comes to the legal status or treatment of minorities. In certain countries vital statistics about minorities are even treated as state secret.

Will minorities in the Middle East achieve the acceptance, equal­ity and tolerance they deserve? I would like to be hopeful and opti­mistic in answering this question, however, it is very difficult to do so when it comes to the dim future of minority rights in the region.

The absence of democracy, the persistence of authoritarian and repressive governments, the resilience of ancient sectarian differences and the resurgence of radical Islamist political ideology have made it virtually impossible for vast areas in the Middle East to overcome cultural and sectarian identification and espouse values conducive to coexistence, equality and tolerance.

Therefore, “minority rights” in the Middle East will remain an oxymoron until the region first achieves “majority rights”.