Minority report: from hope to tragedy

Maronite from Mount Lebanon

I have resurrected this article by Mordechai Nisan, an academic specialist in minorities of the Middle East, because much of what he says gives essential context to Middle East politics. Since 1996, when the piece was written for Middle East Quarterly, the Kurds in Iraq have attained quasi-autonomy, Israel is being delegitimised, the position of the Maronites and Copts has continued to decline, and Alawite control in Syria is under serious threat. Read the whole thing!

The spiritual buoyancy and political rule of the Arab-Muslim peoples, along with their extraordinary reproduction rate, deny smaller peoples the resources required for independence. An ethic of conquest and a self-confidence in their right to rule has propelled the majority Sunni Muslim Arabs forward. This reflects the inherent character of Islam, the religion of power. Islamic doctrine rejects sovereignty for non-Muslim peoples, in contrast to Christianity, which conveys Christ’s suffering as a minority experience, a vintage theme in the Armenian disasters of 1915-16 when dying the martyr’s death for Jesus became a collective sacrifice. Islam’s religious primacy and political assertiveness deny equality, or even legitimacy, to non-Muslims, especially in a territory long inhabited and ruled by Muslims; they are to be subjugated and reduced to the status of dhimmis (protected peoples).

Eastern Christians have, over the centuries, accepted virtual subjection to Muslim-Arab spiritual seniority. The ideological choices and political careers of political figures like Makram `Ubayd, Michel Aflaq, Antun Sa`ada, and George Habash reflect this reality: all of them sought to escape the dhimmi disability by furthering an inclusive nationalist idiom as against an Islamic one, in certain ways accommodating Muslim superiority, in others bypassing and neutralizing it. These and other Christians thereby won a remarkably central role as a result.

The awesome moral confidence of hegemonic Islam and Arabism actually succeeds in stamping small peoples with the mark of guilt, both in its own councils and internationally. Iraq is not censured in the councils of the nations for denying Kurdish independence, nor is Syria the object of international obloquy for effacing Christianity in Lebanon. No global outcry meets Egyptian maltreatment of Copts. Time and again, the tenacious but afflicted small peoples are judged the guilty party.

Demographic weakness may be the greatest obstacle facing Middle Eastern minorities. They number perhaps 50 million (of whom about 20 million are Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; and 15 million are Berbers in Morocco and Algeria) in the face of some 200 million Arab Muslims.1 The largest Christian population, numbering about ten million, is in Egypt, and the proportionally largest, about 45 percent, resides in Lebanon; but both groups are in decline, their physical existence precarious and their future dim. Christians in Iraq and Syria are remnants with no conceivable hope for significant recovery. The new Palestinian Authority (headed by Yasir Arafat, a Muslim) radiates with the rhetorical idiom and religious symbolism of Islam; it is most likely that Christian emigration from eastern Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Ramallah will markedly increase as Christian insecurity grows.

Internecine tensions among minorities sometimes lead to warfare. Divisions have long separated the Christian denominations, both from one another and from the Latin Church. Maronites lost power in Lebanon owing to the rivalries of notable families and their competing militias. The Chamouns and Shihabis feuded to a standoff in the 1950s, the Gemayels and Franjiehs killed each other in the 1980s, Geagea and Aoun weakened each other in 1990-91. John Garang’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), dominated by Dinka tribesmen, competes with a splinter group headed by Riack Machar, who belongs to the Nuer tribe. Though they seek the common goal of liberation from Khartoum’s Islamic agenda, the two groups have fought bloody battles in the 1990s. The Kurds’ modern history revolves around the fierce rivalry between the Kurdish Democratic Party of the Barzani clan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Jamal Talabani. Their rivalry burst into bitter fighting when Saddam Husayn lost control of northern Iraq in 1991, leading to clashes in 1993-94.

Many native peoples have been turned into refugee communities. Minority dispersion began at the end of the nineteenth century, when Ottoman regression and other pressures caused Maronites to begin leaving the mountain; today, over 1 million Lebanese reside in the United States and more than 3.5 million in Brazil. Other notable flights include those of the Armenians from Turkey, Assyrians and Kurds from Iraq, and Christians from southern Sudan. The map of minority dispersion finds Armenians in Los Angeles, Assyrians in Chicago, Chaldeans in Detroit, Maronites in Montreal, Copts in New Jersey, Kurds in Cologne. These overseas minority dispersions have given birth to political lobbying efforts on behalf of the distraught collective cause at home.

TWENTIETH-CENTURY ORDEAL:Minorities in the Middle East during the twentieth century have swung from hope to tragedy, from opportunity to annihilation. Many groups sought independence, few attained success. Six small peoples have actually tasted political freedom in one way or another in the twentieth century: the Maronites, Armenians, Kurds, `Alawis, Druze, and Jews.

But minority successes are precarious, partial, and usually temporary; they are an outsider’s gamble that generally evokes the house’s most resolute response. Kurds, Maronites, Jews, and Armenians attended the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 to present their cases for statehood. Some lost out early but persisted anyway: the Kurds established the Mahabad Republic in Iran in the 1940s, and in Iraq persisted in the pesh merga struggle that led to a Kurdish “liberated zone” in the 1960s. The Kurdish regional autonomy government in northern Iraq today lies in the balance. When the international sponsorship departs, Kurdish institutional survival will be tested.

Others won great-power support to compensate for their own weakness — `Alawis in Syria enjoying French tutelage, Assyrians in Iraq benefitting from British patronage. Still others moved toward independence, including the Maronites in Lebanon, `Abd al-Krim’s Riffian republic in Morocco during 1923-26, and the anya nya struggle in the Sudan. The Jewish national movement actually earned international recognition.

But few minorities prevailed. Arab nationalism and Sunni Islam have dominated the ideological and political high ground, reducing others to ineptitude and decay. Arab nationalism’s success denied the legitimacy of non-Arab national political claims, while Islam showed little tolerance for non-Muslim aspirations. The Armenians suffered genocide, deportation, and dispersion: much of their historical homeland has been emptied of Armenians and lies under Turkish rule. The Assyrians, victims of massacre, abandoned their northern Iraqi homeland in large numbers. The Maronites witnessed a diminution of their status and security, especially since the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon. Copts left Egypt in large numbers, Kabyle Berbers migrated en masse to France. The civil war since 1955 in southern Sudan has killed perhaps two million people. Even Israel stands today between regional power and national immolation.

Geographic sites across the region stand in memory to minority resistance and defeat — Deir ez-Zor for the Armenians, Simel for the Assyrians, Az-Zawiya al-Hamra for the Copts, Wau for the Sudanese Christians, Damour for the Maronites, Suwayda for the Druze, Halabja for the Kurds, Munich and Ma’alot for the Jews of Israel.

The Muslim denial of collective minority rights is rooted in the historical rejection of non-Muslim peoplehood. Dhimmitude, a term coined by the historian Bat Ye’or,2 describes the Islamic practice of denying equality to Jews and Christians who live within the political realm of Muslim power. Islam offers them religious autonomy, not national freedom. The PLO, for example, long denied Israel’s existence but offered to let Jews, after Israel’s demise, live in a “secular and democratic” Palestinian state.

At times, minorities encounter the guarded tolerance of pan-Arabists. However, the ideological evaporation of pan-Arab nationalism has denied Arabic-speaking Christians access into the larger matrix of Middle Eastern political affairs. Between a weakened pan-Arabism and an exclusivist Islam, minorities cannot easily succeed in public life but are more and more relegated to nonpolitical roles; the Copts of Egypt are a case in point.

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