Minorities in the shadow of Islam

Lyn Julius has written the following review in Sameah (June 2005) of a remarkable joint effort by an Egyptian, a Sephardi Jew and two Berbers.

A l’ombre de l’Islam: Minorites et Minorises by M Demnati, L.S.A Ouhlahbib, M Feki and M. Rahmani (Editions Filipson, Brussels, 2005) 32 Euros. [email protected]

It is not often that the repressed minorities under Islam make their voices heard, still less make common cause, but this book is a joint effort between a Moroccan Berber, a Christian Berber, an Egyptian and a Sephardi Jew. The Sephardi Jew is none other than the indefatigable Moise Rahmani, founder of the Institut Sepharade Europeen and author of l’Exode oublie – the story of the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries.

If Rahmani’s section of the book has a familiarity to it, that is because it is. His country-by-country history of the Jews in the Muslim world was published under the title Sous le joug du croissant ( and a review appeared in Sameah in September 2004) so I will not dwell on it here, except to say it is highly useful and informative, drawing on Rahmani’s personal experience of exile from Egypt.

All the minorities under Islam have one thing in common – they were the indigenous peoples of the Middle East and North Africa before the 7th century Arab invasion. The Berbers once contributed to Roman and then Christian civilisation. Among their women warriors was the famous Queen, the Kahena, who converted to Judaism. Although some tribes did convert to Judaism the Berbers as a whole embraced Islam – so successfully, in fact, that Christianity died out.

In a short essay addressed to her mother, Moroccan Meryam Demnati tells how she has tried to throw off the yoke of Islamic submission in order to retrieve her feisty Berber female persona.

Lucien Ouhlahbib gives a scholarly account of Berber history. The Berbers became Christian and produced St Augustine; with the advent of Islam they became the most zealous of Muslims. But Islamic Spain was in fact a Berber empire, and any advances in science, art and architecture were made by North African Berbers. Oulahbib even argues that the Berbers should apologise for the persecution of Maimonides and the Jews by the Almohads and Almoravids, just as they should be given credit for achievements usually attributed to the Arabs. What rankles most is that the Berbers have stifled their true personality and taken on the identity of others. They cannot be Muslim without also being Arab. Though two million Berbers speak their own tongue, they have to use Arabic in public and go along with the fiction of a pan-Arab identity.

Perhaps the most interesting contributor is the Egyptian-born  Masri Feki. 

He considers the marginalisation and persecution of minorities, namely the Christian Copts – once up to 25 percent, now barely 15 percent of the population – a litmus test of the health of the Egyptian state, arguably the only true nation state in the Arab world. Much of Feki’s writing deals with the Copts, not only because he is passionate about minority rights, the key to a democratic Egypt, but because Egypt’s national roots are to be found in Coptic history, culture and language.

It is easy to forget that as a country of 76 million Egypt accounts for a quarter of the Arab world’s population. But, the rot set in when a local purveyor of Nazism took power in 1952 – Gamal Abdel Nasser. If Nasser was bad, Feki believes Sadat was no better and Mubarak, who has jailed a record 55,000 political prisoners, is worse.

Increasingly the Egyptian regime derives legitimacy from Islamic fundamentalists, a useful channel for political expression as long as they remain unarmed. Thus the clergy produced by Cairo’s famous Al-Azhar university have been allowed to islamise Egypt, introduce the veil, control education and enforce sharia law. Whenever Islamists are perceived as a threat, however, the regime invokes the permanent state of emergency to arrest and execute them. Egypt’s regime also uses incitement against Israel, which Feki calls a ‘village to the North’, to distract the masses.

Without secularism there can be no democracy. The immediate challenge is for Egypt to safeguard minority rights through secularisation, according to the maxim: “ Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”

Feki’s conclusions could readily apply to the entire Arab world, where minorities have been scapegoated by ruthless and illegitimate rulers. But as the authors of this remarkable volume show, the malaise goes much deeper – by marginalising and losing its indigenous minorities, the Arab world has lost part of itself.

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