Mordechai Nisan teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the Rothberg School For Overseas Students. His recent works include Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression (McFarland, 1991) and Toward a New Israel: The Jewish State and the Arab Question (AMS, 1992).

The Middle East is home to many ancient and indigenous small peoples whose powerlessness makes their history little known -- indeed, virtually hidden. Such lack of power often signifies the absence of speech, of a public and recorded voice to articulate the existence, condition, and vision of a people.

After long being the objects of other peoples' history, could minorities, under the right conditions, become actors in their own right and authors of their own destiny? Rather than continue merely to lament their fate, small Middle Eastern peoples hope for an opportunity to improve their lot by exploiting their tenacity and changes in international circumstances. For the most part, this remains but a remote possibility, with the significant exception of two peoples, Jews and Palestinians.

We begin by reviewing the minority experience in the region, a prism that casts light on the political character of the Middle East, and then analyze the possibility of small peoples' winning their rightful place.


Three types of continuity -- linguistic, geographic, and religious -- have enabled small Middle Eastern peoples of antique origins to adapt to changing circumstances while preserving a memory of historical greatness.

Language is key. Sunni Muslim minorities, having succumbed to the hegemony of Islam, often preserve their historic tongue as a distinctive mark. Kurds and Berbers attempt to keep Arabic at bay by keeping ancestral languages alive. Several of these non-Arabic-speaking groups failed to cultivate single-dialect and classical written languages, so their national literatures remained thin and their political self-articulation underdeveloped. Some minorities (Kurds, Berbers, and perhaps Assyrians) found this an obstacle to establishing cohesive and unifying national movements. But where the minority's religion diverges from Sunni Islam, as it does for Christian minorities (notably Copts and Maronites), `Alawis, and Druze, Arabic does not endanger the group and so is acceptable. Not adopting the Islamic religion meant they could drop their defenses when it came to the Arabic language.

Physical geography, and especially mountains, has an important role in making ethnic insularity possible for such people as the Baluch in Pakistan, Kurds and Assyrians in Iraq, Maronites, `Alawis, and Druze in the Levant, and Berbers in the Atlas and Aurès. Living apart and somewhat inaccessible, these groups developed internal cohesion and the ability to defend themselves but offered little power projection (in contrast to the Turks and Bedouin Arabs, who lived, respectively, in the steppes and deserts; the nomadic way of life provided an excellent base for conquest).

Some minorities have maintained their religious identity through centuries, even millennia, most notably the Zoroastrians of Iran and the Jews. Others have changed religions yet managed to preserve their identity. Pharaonic Egyptians became Coptic Christians. The Assyrians of history today are Nestorian and Chaldean Christians. Kurds and Berbers existed as distinct collectives before they adopted Islam, and even today probably remain more Berber and Kurdish than Muslim.


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.


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.


In response to these problems, minorities have devised specific strategies, ranging from careful cultivation of a low profile to outright violence. Their behavior is often risky, sometimes desperate, and almost always reactive.

Weakness can serve as a mechanism of survival; expecting less often is more productive than striving for more. Avoiding extravagant claims and obstructive behavior, even while protecting one's own interests, has proven to be a workable formula for the Druze in recent decades in Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. In addition, dissimulation is an old technique, especially among those with a Shi`i heritage. The `Alawis of Syria, headed by no less a personage than President Hafiz al-Asad, are the great exception, having virtually captured power in Syria in 1966 and still thirty years later ruling the country. The ultimate success of the `Alawis has yet to be established, for the Sunni majority may yet take vengeance. In general, a low profile can be a positive strategy for survival, if not for power.

This minority orientation recalls the millet framework for confessional autonomy under Ottoman rule, when the demeaning and shameful dhimmi experience was turned into official recognition of religious freedom for Jews and Christians. The millet system functioned reasonably well during the Ottoman period, despite attendant insecurities and abuses suffered by the vulnerable minorities. The modern goal of universal citizenship for all would appear to offer a more advantageous position for the former dhimmis, but it does not. In part, the minorities suffer from the same denial of freedom, security, and dignity that afflicts all subjects of autocratic regimes. In part, too, the Muslims' anger and opposition against some minorities, like the Maronites in Lebanon, have simmered ever since they took advantage of their elevated status during the colonial era.

Nonetheless, the dream of independence remains strong among Middle Eastern minorities. The language of struggle, resistance, and revolution (as opposed to mere rebellion) persists. Armenians recall Musa Dagh and Maronites promote the Junieh republic for its spirit of heroism.3 Autonomy being inadequate and unbecoming for a historic people, the declared and uncompromising aim becomes liberation. Why should Copts enjoy fewer rights than Andorrans, Western Samoans, and the Seychelles Islanders?

This view has led some to resort to violence against the majority. Violent action has its therapeutic purpose, releasing tension and transforming shame into revenge, and conveys its own political rationale of raising the minority predicament to international attention. But most minority efforts that involve violent struggle have had poor or disastrous results. The Kurdish effort began in 1922 in Iraq and 1925 in Turkey, and in 1961 saw the launching of a war of liberation both costly and disappointing. The southern Sudanese case is a woeful tale of horrendous suffering and failure, from the Torit mutiny in 1955 until today.4 Armenian terrorism surfaced in the 1970s; two groups formed, the most notorious called the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). But by the 1990s, little if anything was heard of these organizations or their activities. The Maronite cause of 1975-90 exhibited a defiant spirit but ended in terrible defeat. In the Maronite experience, General Michel Aoun represents desperation turned into heroism -- but one defeated and expelled from his homeland. National liberation is seemingly beyond the grasp of the victimized minorities across the region.

Minority strength, exercised with bravado and paraded around with imprudence, may insult stronger forces and bring on catastrophe; this may have been the ultimate Maronite error of the twentieth century. In contrast, the softer virtues of the Armenians -- cultural sophistication, a bent for the literary arts, a mercantile capacity, and moral refinement -- proved of no help when the Turks engaged in large-scale massacres in 1894-95 and 1915-16. The happy medium between Maronite pride and Armenian submissiveness would seem to be a communal toughness that is defensive in orientation. The Druze are a case in point, having consistently demonstrated a preparedness to fight and having often prevailed in battles, but not ever really challenging the hegemony of Sunni Arabs. Coptic and Kabyle reticence are also reasonable strategies under the circumstances of their existence.


The authoritarian character of Arab regimes presents a major obstacle to the expression of minority identities and aspirations. Authoritarian regimes strive for a single homogenized identity for all within highly centralized and repressive systems; in contrast, minorities radiate differentness. Algiers, for example, suspected Kabyle sectarianism of minority hubris. Any signs of a minority uprising are thought to bear the germ of separatism, and possibly irredentism, and so prompt ever more vicious repressive measures, as the 1970s cases of the Kurds in Iraq and the southern Christians in the Sudan testify.

All citizens suffer as individuals from the denial of basic liberties; members of weak minorities suffer as communities as well -- for example, the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. In parts of the Muslim world, Pakistan for example, the very notion of democracy is maligned as an infidel's weapon to harm the Muslims. So long as democracy and civil society remain weak in the Middle East, the disenfranchisement of minorities will continue.

A centralized regime can exploit the minority question to justify oppression and provide a cover for totalitarianism. Khomeinism in Iran serves as an example of this vis-à-vis the Kurds, Baluch, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, all of whom were labelled as threats to national unity.5 To achieve national political cohesion, the fundamentalist regime in Khartoum seeks to annihilate the Nuba people in northern Sudan.6

Some Middle Eastern states relate to minority enclaves as internal colonies, areas that are to be exploited by the central regime and the majority population.7 Damascus established an "Arab Belt" of settlement in the northeastern Jazira to dilute the Christian and Kurdish ethnic character of the area. Ankara has similarly deported and displaced the Kurds of southeast Anatolia. Khartoum relates to the Sudan's three southern provinces with an eye to extracting their oil -- but refining it farther north. In Iraq, the oil of Kirkuk must not be allowed to provide an economic foundation for Kurdish political aspirations.

Civil wars represent the abyss of the minority condition. A steel-willed and technologically prepared central regime holds the advantage against a rural uprising. To risk all and perhaps lose all -- remember the Armenians -- is a harsh historical lesson, and one for the distraught Maronites and the daring `Alawis, no less, to brood over. Still, without ever becoming a long-term winner, a minority can become a long-term nuisance. Note the Kurdish cases in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and the persistence of the southern Sudanese fight.


Minorities frequently offer active support for the struggles of the Sunni Arab majority. Paradoxically, they contributed disproportionately to the independence of states that subsequently relegated them to an inferior position. Their efforts did not guarantee rewards but it did earn the minority cause legitimacy and kept potential opponents preoccupied. Thus, the Druze articulated their 1925 uprising in Syria as a pan-Syrian revolt against French rule. Muslim Lebanese looked positively upon Maronite opposition to French rule in Lebanon in the early 1940s. Kabyles in Algeria and Berbers in Morocco led the wars of independence against France in the 1950s. Even the Zionist underground war against British rule in the 1940s culminated in 1947 in global recognition also for an Arab state in Palestine; ironically, the successful Jewish war for freedom provided the opportunity for Arab independence too.

It is a more than wry commentary on the condition of minorities that beyond being submissive to their protagonists, they sometimes serve the latter's aims. Since the Umayyad empire in the seventh century, vulnerability has made non-Muslims supple and loyal candidates on which the ruling Muslims can rely; politically enfeebled, they dare not raise suspicions about their dedication, so as not to provoke a revengeful reaction against their dhimmi or minority community. Maronite Christians served as police officials in the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century. Baha'is, followers of a religion widely seen as illegitimate in Iran, very usefully served the state apparatus during the Pahlavi reigns; and Assadullah Alam, a Baluch, served as prime minister in the early 1960s. Likewise, Berbers have played a pivotal role in internal security for the monarchy in Morocco.

At times, minorities support the very regime that harms their own people. Tariq `Aziz, a Nestorian Christian who serves as Saddam Husayn's main foreign interlocutor, provides diplomatic finesse and political loyalty even as his own Christian community suffers from having its villages razed, its churches destroyed, and its oppressed people denied freedom and security. `Aziz's participation in the Iraqi establishment serves himself but not his Assyrian community, accordin to an emigré/writer in Syria, as reported in Assyrian Guardian Monthly (Chicago), Sept. 1992, p. 8. The case of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the Egyptian scholar, public servant, and diplomat, testifies to the co-option of a talented Christian even as his own Coptic community is subject to discrimination and Muslim-initiated sectarian violence. His 1991 appointment to the post of secretary-general of the United Nations helped the Egyptian government, not his Coptic brethren. Hanan Ashrawi, a female and Christian professor of English, gives the Palestinians a much-needed image of enlightenment and modernity but does not protect her people from deprecations by the Muslim majority. These token Christians provide a helpful façade of tolerance and pluralism for otherwise authoritarian regimes.


Contrary to this pattern, one Middle Eastern minority question has acquired the status of the outstanding moral and political issue of our time. The Palestinian Question is the struggle of a dispersed and victimized people, landless and stateless, to attain national liberation. The U.N. General Assembly took up this cause, as did the media; the PLO became a household word and Yasir Arafat a world personality. This exceptional case demonstrates the awesome power of the Arab-Muslim hegemonic force in the region; it is the exception that proves the rule.

The Palestinian Question is a special case because Palestinian Arabs may be a demographic minority in Israel but they are a branch of the dominant Sunni Arab peoples, with all their inherent power. This connection facilitates the Palestinian struggle by winning it diplomatic and material support. The Palestinians do not have to confront Arab nationalism and fundamentalist Islam but gain from their strengths. No other Middle Eastern minority enjoys these advantages and opportunities, for none other is also part of the majority power in the region.

The investment of enormous resources in the Palestinian Question has driven all other minority cases to the political shadows, even those with greater claims on world attention. The Armenians had known mass murder beyond any level of human suffering experienced by the Palestinians; the Kurds, some twenty million strong, were a far larger stateless people; Copts and Maronites, with their centuries-old national identities, had far deeper claims than the Palestinians, with their several decades.

So powerful is their appeal that other minorities find advantage by associating their causes with that of the Palestinians. The Kurdish guerrilla group PKK and its Armenian counterpart ASALA trained with the PLO in Lebanon in the 1970s and drew legitimacy from close association with the Palestinians.

Though part of the dominant majority Arab-Muslim nation, Palestinians benefit by successfully portraying themselves as a minority. Kenneth Cragg, an Anglican bishop and specialist on Middle Eastern religions, presents the establishment of Israel as a burden thrust upon the Palestinians, who thereby become a people whose tragedy is of a type with the Armenians' and the Kurds'.8 Yosef Gotlieb, a writer on minority issues in the Middle East, censured Israel for engaging in "reprehensible" policies against a weak minority -- rather than representing a "minority" success itself.9 The Palestinians benefit from the best of two worlds by conjuring up sympathy on the basis of their pitiful minority condition, then pursuing a war of liberation against Israel with the support of the powerful Arab-Muslim majority.

Juxtaposing the usual minority tragedy against the Palestinian advance demonstrates both the power of Arab-Muslim forces and the West's betrayal of other small peoples. As for Israel, containing the "Palestinian revolution" would be not only its gain but a setback for Arab-Muslim hegemony across the Middle East.

How does Israel, the most vibrant minority success story of the Middle East, fit this pattern? Faced with rejection by Sunni Arabs, Zionist Jews soon after the Balfour Declaration began to seek out relations with other small Middle Eastern peoples. The most enduring and intimate connection exists with the Maronites, who are geographically proximate and imbued with a like spirit to secure the independence of their country; this began in the 1920s, included Israeli supply of arms in the 1970s, and peaked with the strategic cooperation of 1982. Today, it lives on in the form of the South Lebanese Army, which works with Israel against Hizbullah and others. Similarly, Israel developed close ties with the Kurdish resistance in northern Iraq during the 1960s. It apparently provided aid to the anya nya warriors in southern Sudan and perhaps to the SPLA in the war against the fundamentalist Khartoum regime. While Jerusalem played the minority card in the regional policy deck with discretion and dexterity over the years, it made few, if any, long-term gains either for itself or for the smaller peoples.

In 1992, Israel's policy changed profoundly, turning away from the complications and disappointments of working with minorities in favor of a search for peace with the majority Sunni Arab population and the Republic of Turkey. Coordination with Turkey has implied a shift in Israeli policy against the Kurds. Similarly, if accommodation with Syria succeeds, it would presumably imply the further marginalization of Christian Maronites. Peace with Israel, ironically, may turn out to be a major step forward for the Arabization and Islamization of the Middle East.

But at the same time that Labor lost interest in the minorities, the Likud Party may take new interest in a "minorities strategy." Already in 1983, Israel's new prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, wrote that "the Jews of Israel are the only non-Arab people to have successfully defied Arab domination and achieved independence," then noted that peoples subject to Arab-Muslim rule may hope to receive Israel's assistance against a common adversary.10 In a recent book, Netanyahu refers to the Berbers, Kurds, Copts, Druze, and others who "are accepted only in a state of subjugation, never as equals," adding that "those who have refused to agree to this arrangement have been suppressed, often mercilessly."11


The twentieth century presents a dismal record of Christian loss. Christianity found a home in the Occident though its historic origins lie in the Orient, and remnants testifying to that fact survive across the region. The rise of fundamentalist Islam threatens Christian populations, be it Hizbullah Shi`is against Lebanese Maronites or intimidation by Hamas Palestinians of Christians in Bethlehem. In 1980, in the aftermath of the Khomeini revolution in Iran and the Pakistani government's having declared the Shari`a to be national law, an Islamic conference convened in Lahore whose stated goal and central resolution was nothing short of a "Great Islamic Republic" throughout the entire Middle East by the year 2000; the elimination of the Jews and the Christians from the region was a central concomitant of this goal.12 Hasan at-Turabi's Popular Arab and Islamic Conference, held in Khartoum in December 1993, also expressed this sentiment; the Iranian and Sudanese regimes committed themselves to establishing Islamist dominance in all places where Muslims reside. Turabi proclaimed, with an eye to the triumph of Islam: "Objectively, the future is ours."13 There is no sign of a Christian response to these Muslim declarations.

Lebanon demonstrates the deteriorating situation of Christians in these mournful times. Tripoli, the northern city with a 90 percent Muslim population, exudes classic Islamic rhetoric against the infidels. Christian storekeepers are harassed while pictures of Muslim leaders plastered on public walls convey the spirit of popular Islamization. The situation is even less safe and congenial for the yet smaller and marginal Christian communities in the Muslim world. Since 1992, tens of defenseless French and Italian clergy (as well as other foreign Christians) have been murdered in Algeria in the course of a religious war conducted by the Islamic Salvation Front against the regime in Algiers. Following the murder of four Catholic priests in December 1994, the Armed Islamic Group declared the goal of its campaign in Algeria to be the "annihilation and physical liquidation of Christian crusaders."14

This problem demands not just American power but a broader vision of Christian solidarity across the seas, between America and Maronites, Copts, Armenians, southern Sudanese Christians, and even Assyrians (in Iraq, no less). The strong Christian movement in the United States, which considers Israel's struggle of a piece with that of the eastern Christians, may also have a role here. This approach could, with minority perseverance and Israeli participation, revive the chances for small peoples to live lives of security and independence in the Middle East.


Various international forces have been involved with Middle Eastern minorities. The Europeans, intent on conquest, employed the imperialist stratagem of a divide-and-rule policy and nurtured minority particularity. The French supported Berbers in Morocco, Maronites in Lebanon, and `Alawis and Druze in Syria. The British pursued such a policy toward the Zionists until 1947 and the southern Sudanese until 1956.

Western withdrawal from the Middle East meant the abandonment of those minorities, who suffered accordingly. The Christian powers have largely ignored the plight of their religious brethren in the East. Less than two years after Iraqi independence in 1931 followed the Assyrian massacres. When the British pulled out of the Sudan, they left the vulnerable Christians of the south to face the formidable power of the northern, Muslim forces. The French left the Maronites alone to face a hostile environment. The British mandatory power sailed from Haifa in May 1948, abandoning the Jews in their newborn State of Israel to deal with five invading Arab armies.

Nor has U.S. government interest in the welfare of minorities stood the test of time. Aid to the Kurds in Iraq ended abruptly in 1974; the Marine presence in Lebanon collapsed in 1984, less than two years after it started.15

The Vatican seems more intent to absorb and unite with Eastern churches than to raise its voice in condemning the persecution of oriental Christians. For almost a thousand years, since the schism of 1055, the Latin Church of Rome has hoped to reunite with the Orthodox church of the East, and it has for even longer sought to catholicize the totality of Eastern Christians. And, indeed, the Catholic papacy has made religious overtures to the Chaldeans and the Copts. When it comes to Muslims, the Vatican prefers coexistence to confronting them with the tragedy of Eastern Christians. The Vicar of Christ turned the other cheek, and let the Christians down. Christianity is a world religion but Christians, unlike Muslims, are not a global force.

The Western powers generally attempt to arrange their Middle Eastern interests in concert with the Arab world rather than against it. Their alliances with the dominant Arab and Muslim states can signify impending disaster for minorities. Washington has recognized Egypt as a leading Arab strategic and political partner, and this markedly weakens its criticism of treatment meted out to the abused Copts. Turkey represents a key American ally in the northern tier and possibly Central Asia, leading to American reticence on the Kurdish question.

In the United Nations, the influence of Arab and Muslim states has denied Middle Eastern minorities international sponsorship. Even in the case of Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Kuwait war, when a unique global consensus existed to punish Saddam Husayn's regime, Kurds, Assyrians, and Shi`is were left as prey to Iraqi oppression.

In short, Western powers see minority travails as issues of little importance. In the nineteenth century, Europe addressed the Armenian Question with pathos and political intensity. Now the map of the Middle East is considered sacrosanct, and Western interests have found their niche via the Arab and Turkish path to their realization. There is no Maronite Question or Copt Question, and hardly a Kurdish Question. In the 1860s, France came to Mount Lebanon to protect the Maronites, but it stood on the sidelines in the 1980s as Maronites collapsed under a Syrian assault. William Gladstone's fiery tirade against the Ottoman massacres of Bulgarians in the 1870s was not echoed by Henry Kissinger when Iraqi government troops massacred Kurds a century later.

Looking to the future, Western civilization faces a determined foe in the surge of fundamentalist Muslim power. Spiritually confident, financially capable, it is fiercely determined to show up Christian arrogance. Establishing a Bosnian Muslim republic in Europe and bombing the World Trade Center in New York represent two signs, political and terrorist, of this challenge to the West.


The still surviving ancient peoples of the Middle East have undergone a long experience of almost unrelieved loss and suffering since the Muslim Arabs conquered their lands, then ruled, discriminated, and persecuted them. The twentieth century cast a ray of hope, but that light flickered and dimmed. Today, the right of self-determination appears chimerical: the state system and political map of the region have been finalized, except perhaps regarding the case of the Palestinians. Indeed, even the very existential issues of physical survival, territorial rootedness, and group identity all lie in the balance. As a result, minority peoples are leaving the Middle East in significant numbers.

At the same time, the majority's weaknesses may provide an opening: political repression, poverty (despite the oil wealth), and a struggle over the place of Islam may offer fluid and changing circumstances for a new mapping of the region.

When all is said and done, small peoples might realistically assure their permanent presence in their historic homelands by giving up the dream of statehood in favor of autonomy within existing regimes. Kurds, Berbers, and Druze can cultivate their collective identity and nurture cultural traditions in this context. International recognition of such arrangements would assure their viability within and across, but not against, existing state borders.16 All this until and if, some day, each and every cohesive and territorially defined people finds its place.

1 Turkey also contains the mysterious Alevi ethnic minority numbering between 10 and 20 percent of the population. Lax in Islamic observance, its syncretic and esoteric draws on a variety of Christian, Buddhist, shamanist, Shi`i, and other sources. Alevis speak a language called Zaza, an Iranian dialectic, and often identify as Kurds.
2 Bat Ye'or, Les Chretientés d'Orient entre Jihad et Dhimmitude (Paris: Les Editions Du Cerf, 1991).
3 Musa Dagh is the site of a Armenian resistance to Turkish assault; the "Junieh republic" in the 1980s, north of Beirut, was the locus of Christian (mostly Maronite) resistance to Syrian occupation of Lebanon.
4 For an update on this tragedy, see the excerpts from the U.N. Special Rapporteur's 1995 survey of human-rights abuses on pp. xx-xx of this issue.
The U.N. has delved extensively into the problem of human-rights abuses. It issued the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and an International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Reports on the denial of minority rights and the work of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities are central to the U.N.'s documentation on the subject. Yet, practical political or other involvement on behalf of Middle Eastern minorities has never exceeded humanitarian aid, and that in no impressive fashion. 5 Fred Halliday, "Iranian Foreign Policy Since 1979: Internationalism and Nationalism in The Islamic Revolution," in Juan R.I. Cole and Nikkie R. Keddie, eds., Shi`ism And Social Protest (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 94, 102, and 106.
6 International Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity, I.I.S.I.C. Bulletin (London), Oct.-Nov. 1995, p. 8.
7 The concept of the "internal colony" points to colonialist policies not being limited to the Europeans. On this, see Anthony D. Smith, "Nationalism, Ethnic Separatism and the Intelligentsia," in Colin H. Williams, ed., National Separatism (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1982), pp. 20-22.
8 Kenneth Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (London: Mowbray, 1992), p. 29.
9 Yosef Gotlieb, Self-Determination in the Middle East (New York: Praeger, 1982), pp. 8-9.
10 Benjamin Netanyahu, "How Central Is the Palestinian Problem?" The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 5, 1983.
11 Benjamin Netanyahu, A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), p. 98.
12 The Copts: Christians of Egypt, vol. 17, nos. 1 and 2, p. 3.
13 Judith Miller, "Faces of Fundamentalism: Hassan al-Turabi and Muhammad Fadlallah," Foreign Affairs, Nov.-Dec. 1994, p. 127.
14 Keesing's Record of World Events, news digest for Dec. 1994, p. 40335.
15 Washington has provided formidable assistance to Israel; this case constitutes an exception of some consequence to the usual treatment of small peoples. This said, until 1948 the State Department's Arabist inclinations merged with a traditional indifference toward the fate of Middle Eastern minorities to combine into a strong bias against Zionism. More recently, the U.S. government has several times delayed and reevaluated its aid as part of a carrot-and-stick policy of coercive diplomacy toward the Jewish state.
16 See the thoughtful essay by Gidon Gottlieb, "Nations Without States," Foreign Affairs, May/June 1994, pp. 100-112.