Battling perceptions: Minorities in the Arab world

We must move away from the overriding narrative that ‘sectarianism’ is the natural state of the Arab world.

A church among residential buildings in the Armenian Christian town of Kasab in Syria [Reuters]

Everywhere you turn in the Middle East, sectarianism is on the rampage – or at least, that is a prevailing media storyline. Incalculable suffering and loss in the Middle East is narrated as the product of religious loathing: between Sunni and Shia; between Muslim and Christian. As countries such as Syria and Iraq are overwhelmed with blood and death and anguish, we are constantly told, by way of explanation, about sectarian divisionslong-simmering tensions and ancient hatreds. Outlining why the US would not carry out airstrikes in Syria without Congressional approval, US President Barack Obama last year rolled the phrases into one, referring to “ancient sectarian differences“.

Zaid al-Ali, author of The Struggle for Iraq’s Future – How corruption, incompetence and sectarianism have undermined democracy, says that “ancient hatred” was similarly invoked by Western analysts and media as the only plausible explanation for the deadly unravelling in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion.

“They would describe a society where everyone hates each other and can’t get over it – that’s just the way we are,” he says. This constant messaging has consequences – not just that the post-invasion plans drawn up by US occupiers in Iraq were catastrophically premised on this supposedly innate hatred, hobbling the country, gutting political life and sowing the seeds of perpetual instability.

“US media has a very powerful impact, articles are translated across the region,” says al-Ali. “This idea, that it is just a given that people in this region despise each other – it percolates and people start picking up on it.”

One worry is that, in the face of constant, terrible bloodshed along ethnic or religious lines, and given the prevailing “sectarianism” narrative, a generation on the ground may come to believe this to be the natural state of things.

But it requires a serious case of political amnesia to view the Middle East through a historically sectarian lens.

The sectarianism narrative

Rather than being somehow innate, false divisions have, across the Middle East, been gouged out by colonisers and dictators – European occupiers were especially good at this – to breed weakness and social disunity within populations, all the better to control them with.

As historian Ussama Makdisi, author of a book on the culture of sectarianism, has written: “Sectarianism is an expression of modernity. Its origins lay at the intersection of 19th century European colonialism and Ottoman modernisation.”

This is still at play today as modern-day tyrants prey on ethnic and religious differences, privileging one section of the population and setting it against the other. This sectarian style and rhetoric is of course invoked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – but also put to use by US-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government is routinely accused of using anti-terror laws to target the Sunni population.

“It is not the case that sectarian relations are fixed or predetermined as being hostile,” says al-Ali. “Fault lines aren’t spilling over [into violence] – they are being manipulated; there is no question.”

Now it goes much wider as the region is being used to fight a proxy war – foreign fighters, munitions and other forms of toxic meddling have flooded nations that might otherwise be more able or necessarily more willing to put weapons aside.

My father, and many Iraqis like him, often spoke of a pluralism in his home country that was so unselfconscious and everyday as to be remarkable only in hindsight. He defined himself as an Arab-Jew, a hyphenated identity that seemed both obvious and lacking in contradiction. Identities such as his, forged in a different time, are history lessons gifted to us in human form – yet when people reference tolerant eras in the Middle East, it tends to be viewed as rose-tinted nostalgia, a whimsical preoccupation with the past. That is to entirely miss the point about the region’s multicultural history: It presents a path to what is possible; to an ebb and flow that has always been and can still be a way of life.

When people reference tolerant eras in the Middle East, it tends to be viewed as rose-tinted nostalgia, a whimsical preoccupation with the past. That is to entirely miss the point about the region’s multicultural history: It presents a path to what is possible; to an ebb and flow that has always been and can still be a way of life.

Fadi Daou, chairman of Adyan, the Beirut-based foundation for interreligious studies, says the very label we use – “minority” – is inherently problematic.

“The connotation is of an identity and culture that is different to others in the community,” he says. When you consider the “minority” label applied to Palestinians in Israel – natives of the land and a fifth of the country’s population – the politicised and marginalising of this appellation becomes immediately clear.

The minority label

One of the effects of such singling out of small communities, Daou says, is “to make a very rich heritage a private one for that particular community” – as opposed to being part of a nation’s diverse collective heritage, identity and cultural capital. Talking with him reminds me of Jacob Lellouche, a Tunisian who last year opened the country’s first Jewish museum, showcasing the culture of this Tunisian population that once numbered 100,000. Tunisian visitors of all faiths told him: “They felt like Tunisia was a chair with only three legs, and that after seeing this museum, the picture was complete.”

When I wrote a book about Jewish populations of the Middle East, one consequence was a spate of letters from Arab countries now emptied of Jewish populations, all saying the same thing: “We always wondered what happened to the Jews who once lived in our neighbourhood.”

Defining minorities instead as “citizens” brings many benefits to that community itself, but also to the wider society – because people bearing hyphenated identities often, by definition, have a capacity to deal with differences. Cultures, ethnicities, religious factions or even just languages that may be clashing on the streets are, for minorities of the Middle East, often residing in the same soul. Armenians in Syria, Coptic Christians in Egypt, Arab-Jews in Tunisia – all can be bearers of this same trait: A capacity to intuitively comprehend the “other”, because the external is, in some constantly reaffirming way, also an intrinsic part of the internal. Such populations, in other words, aren’t an afterthought to reconciliation, but a crucial component to the process itself.

The last battle

Some minority communities in the Middle East have necessarily sought the protection of a majority group in power – it makes sense that a community fearful for its own future would seek to do so. But Daou and other analysts argue that such a pursuit is counterproductive.

“This is the last battle for the minorities in the Middle East, the last chance,” he says. “Either they continue looking for protection and it will be useless and they end up leaving the region, or they take up the battle for citizenship and recognition for diversity in societies. This is the battle that is worth fighting.”

It seems clear that the first steps, the concrete signs must come from Muslim majorities. All over the world, majority communities are typically blind – through lack of experience – to the fraught everyday realities that are inherent to not being a member of the dominant culture. Reassurances that conflicts aren’t religious or ethnic-based – such as those issued by some Syrian rebels – simply aren’t enough to banish fears, when Christians, including Armenians, are killed or forced to flee, and when extremists leaders make chilling threats against them. It doesn’t work, when minorities are caught up in bloody strife, to just put it down to politics, without pausing to understand why sections of a minority community might feel that its best chances for survival would be to support – or at least, to not overtly oppose – a brutal dictator. And it is also dangerously erroneous to label an entire community – Shia, Allawite, Armenian – as being loyal to, or the beneficiaries of, any particular regime.

It is also dangerously erroneous to label an entire community – Shia, Allawite, Armenian – as being loyal to, or the beneficiaries of, any particular regime.

But here is the thing that analysts always come back to: Populations across the Middle East recoil at sectarianism and, given the slightest opportunity to escape this devastating dynamic, will grab it.

As al-Ali says: “If the political class wanted a society where this [sectarianism] matters a lot less, they would find very sympathetic ears in the wider community. Society wants to quell ethnic sectarian tensions, but the politics isn’t willing.”

Despite all the bloodshed, poll after poll in Iraq since 2003 shows that people want a unified country under a centralised political system. Hyphenated identities and multi-stranded societies may rip and unravel when the threads binding them together are so deliberately prised apart. But, even while ethnic and religious differences are inflamed and used to stoke the most nightmarish suffering and cruelty in now blood-torn Arab countries, majorities on the ground seek freedom and justice and equality.

In seeking any signs of possible hope, possible solutions, Daou says: “I count on that majority.”

To adopt the “ancient hatreds” line of explanation is effectively to do the opposite – and to thereby condemn the region to hopeless and perpetual misery.

Rachel Shabi is a journalist and author of Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands. Follow her on Twitter @rachshabi