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The Middle East Minorities "Problem"

8 August 2012

By Yisrael Ne'eman.

The unfolding disaster in Syria is the culmination of a process begun more than 150 years ago when minorities were given equal rights by the Ottoman Empire due to European pressures. Previously the dhimma strictures of Islamic Sharia law discrimination were enforced in Muslim societies for over 1000 years. The change to a European value based society enforcing Enlightenment ideals did not come easily. Such equality was harshly resented and often minorities suffered no less than before. The Muslim majorities continued to be suspect in the eyes of the varying minorities who entertained repressed fears of the re-implementation of majority Islamist rule whereby once again they would be relegated to second class discriminatory status or could find themselves "outside the realm" and deemed as heretics, an even more damning category.

According to the dhimma strictures, Jews and Christians as "People of the Book" received previous Divine revelation and therefore were permitted to live in a subservient status. Heretics such as the Druze and Alawites or the Zoroastrian non-believers could and often would suffer a much more devastating fate. European Enlightenment ideals as embodied in 20th century secular Arab nationalism were meant to eliminate religious persecution and to enfranchise all into the new evolving identity no longer derived from Sharia law.

We live in the post 1856 Middle East where minority issues became one of the major reasons for violence throughout the region. A quick review illustrates the following:

Turkey – The Ottomans murdered some 1.5 million Armenians during the 1915 Genocide while another 2 million Greeks were forced to flee during the Greco-Turkish War of 1920 – 21. It should be mentioned that 100,000s of Muslims fled from Greece to Turkey although eastern Greece still has a large Muslim population. However 98% of all Turks are Muslims. Antisemitism exploded in the 1950s and most Jews left the country for Israel although some 20,000 still remain despite occasional attacks and intermittent synagogue bombings.

Iraq - Prior to WWII there was a large Christian population comprising Nestorians, Chaldeans, Greek Orthodox and Armenians. Most were massacred or forced to flee following persecutions during and after the war leaving some 250,000 dead. Turkish genocidal policies as exhibited towards the Armenians in 1915 had a major impact but the local Muslim Arabs were known to have participated or at best to have taken an apathetic stance. Iraq had a sizeable Christian population even after WWII but abuse and persecution, including church bombings by Jihadi groups in recent years have destroyed what was left of the community.

Jews suffered from Iraqi Muslim antisemitism during and after WWII. The Farhud pogrom in 1941 claimed 180 lives and further attacks with the establishment of the State of Israel led to the flight of over 130,000 Jews by 1952. Arriving with nothing except a suitcase since their property was nationalized 120,000 arrived in Israel while another 10,000 went elsewhere in the Western world.

Egypt – Coptic Christians comprising 10% of the population suffered discrimination and attacks in the past and are continued victims of murders and church bombings in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. Today approximately 150 Jews remain in Egypt out of a community once numbering over 65,000. Antisemitism led to massive flight and impoverishment by the late 1960s.

Iran – Zoroastrian and Bahai adherents were and are harshly persecuted often suffering long prison terms or even death. Most Jews and Christians fled over the years with the majority of the former arriving in Israel. About 20,000 Jews still remain.

Large minority populations remain in Syria and Lebanon – two states whose only chance of survival is a secular Arab nationalism as advocated by the Baath ideology. Beginning in the 1970s the Arab secular state structures failed while Islamic fundamentalism made a comeback. The Islamic Awakening (Arab Spring) brought the two into a head on collision in March 2011 and Syria's Assad regime is increasingly losing its grip. The minorities are desperate as are the Sunni majority led rebels. Jews faced persecution in Syria and over the years fled both countries. In Lebanon the once majority Christians are the minority and the previously peripheral pro-Iranian Shiites are today the dominant plurality as attested to by Hezbollah influence.

Syria is ruled by a minorities coalition of Alawites (Assad family), Christians, Druze and secular Sunnis. All were and are traumatized by the thought of a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood regime where Sharia law will determine who is acceptable, dhimmi or a heretic. Middle Eastern minorities can only suffer under Islamist rule, especially when mixed with a "well deserved" revenge for the recent humiliations, oppression and massacres suffered by the Sunni opposition. Such can be the expected outcome whether religious or "liberal democratic" rulers take office.

Looking back at the past century and a half one can expect the Baathist Syrian "Minorities Regime" to battle to the bloody end and quite possibly carve out a mini-Alawite state as a refuge for all minorities to avoid total defeat. However the only way to ensure their existence is with big power support, especially from Moscow. Once upon a time Lebanon was a "Christian" country but never enjoyed an international commitment to its survival as appears to be the case with the Russian-Alawite (plus Christians and Druze) alliance. Furthermore, at least for the moment, the Iranians are in the picture using the Alawites as a conduit to strengthen their Shiite Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. A Syrian collapse signals the beginning of Tehran's own demise regardless of the impact of Western sanctions resulting from their nuclear program.

The Jews as the most roundly persecuted Middle Eastern community guaranteed their own continuity though the Israeli state entity in alliance with the Western powers, in particular the United States. Ironically Middle Eastern Jews as a whole are by far the most free and successful of all the communities today.

No doubt the brutal Assad regime needs to be removed from power. But the question remains as to why secular Arab nationalism became so oppressive and is often led by minorities? Although no less violent, Arab minorities not only learned from the majority behavior but intended to pre-empt Islamist extremism and not suffer the dictates of Sharia law and Islamist extremism as had their ancestors of less than 200 years ago. When seeking the roots of conflict in the Middle East one must examine the religious and ethnic persecutions of minorities by the Muslim majority over the centuries.

What is needed is a liberal democratic solution, but as far as Syria is concerned there is none in sight. As for Lebanon, a renewed civil conflict may be just around the corner. The Islamic Awakening and its resulting clash with Middle Eastern minorities are far from over.