North Africa, West Asia

Ignored minorities of the Middle East

The world is finally paying attention to the plight of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Christians and Yezidis. Hopefully this will shed a light on the repression of many of the region's other minorities.

Benjamin Kweskin
4 November 2014

For those concerned with seeing justice and human rights upheld, international laws implemented and maintained, and conventions observed and ratified, the Middle East is one hell of a place to research.

From the intractable Israeli-Palestinian (and broader Israeli-Arab) conflict, to alleged Iranian nuclear ambitions, to the threat of the Islamic State and its potential reverberations beyond the Middle East, the region clearly lacks stability. This should elicit further constructive and consistent engagement from the rest of the international community so that future generations do not have to fight these same battles.

The world has now noticed the plight of Syrian and Iraqi Christians as well as Iraqi (and Syrian) Yezidis. They are suffering at the hands of extremists who claim to represent the religion of over one billion people by wreaking havoc “fi sabilillah (for the sake of God).

The Middle East has not seen a catastrophic humanitarian disaster on this scale since the dispossession of Palestinians from their homes in 1948, the near complete expulsion of Mizrahim (Middle Eastern Jews­ from 1948 to1952, and the Armenian genocide in 1915still unrecognised by the United States where 43 states independently recognise the genocide).

It is commendable that the international community has begun to pay attention to what has befallen Christians and Yezidis in Iraq and Syria since they are at present most at risk in these countries. But there are ethnic, religious and political minorities in each and every country in the Middle East and North Africa in need of support, or at the very least, solidarity and allies.

Though they are persecuted in some parts of the region, the status of Christians in the Middle East is not black and white. Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine have large Christian minorities fully intertwined with the broader society who cannot be considered marginalised politically, socially, or economically.

However, since 2003 and 2011 respectively, Christians in Iraq and Syria have faced enormous pressure to convert or emigrate, and many thousands have chosen the latter.

American audiences were first introduced to the Yezidi ethno-religious minority in July when the so-called Islamic State (IS) abruptly swept through the border region of Sinjar, virtually cleansing the area of its indigenous population.

Similar measures had been taken against Christians around Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, forcing hundreds of thousands of families to flee to the significantly safer Kurdistan Region, where an estimated 1.8 million refugees and internally displaced peoples (IDPs) will soon be facing winter in the largely mountainous environs.

It is laudable that the western media have (finally) begun to take an interest in and focus on the plight of Kurds (particularly in Syria), where they have been discriminated against for decades under an oppressive fascist Ba'athist rule. The media and governments should not shy away from addressing the daily struggles of Kurds and other minorities elsewhere in the region.

Take the Baha'is in Iran, for example. This miniscule religious minority has been systematically discriminated against and persecuted, particularly since the 1979 revolution. They are not protected as a religious minority under the Iranian constitution (as opposed to Jews, Christians, and the smattering of the Zoroastrians that remain).

The overwhelming majority of Baha'is are unable to earn degrees in higher education, limiting their chances at finding decent employment. Many Baha'i fear for their lives daily, and it has been revealed by several leading human rights organisations that many of their shrines have been destroyed as have their cemeteries—even deceased Baha'is cannot rest unmolested.

While some steps have been taken in Turkey by the ruling AK party toward resolving the ‘Kurdish issue,’ observers should contemplate the political and social ills plaguing Turkey's Alevi community. There are an estimated ten million Alevis in Turkey, roughly fifteen percent of the overall population. Together, Turkish Kurds and Alevis make up more than thirty percent of the population.

Long ignored and denigrated by the self-proclaimed secular state, Alevis' standing in society has been questioned anew, based on an erroneous assumption of religious affiliation and proximity with the 'Alawis in Syria, who are facing their own problems.

It is disingenuous to discuss the need for tolerance and openness when the US Navy Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, helping sustain an increasingly unpopular kingdom. Yet one will be hard pressed to find much if not any reporting about the convulsions of Bahrain's Arab Spring, whose Shi'a majority (70 percent) are among those who seek to throw off the yoke of the Sunni royal family and their allies and install a Shi'a-led republic.

For example, no major US networked covered the recent release of Bahraini-Danish human rights activist Maryam al-Khawaja. Furthermore, it is rare that these same networks cover any of the political upheaval in that island nation, despite the fact that thousands have been injured, thrown in jail, or killed by the regime and by the 1.4 billion dollar’s worth of US-made weapons sold to the al-Khalifa royal family since 2000.

Numbering over twenty million people over the expanse that is North Africa, the Amazigh (Berbers) have been discriminated against for centuries and seen their culture systematically repressed and in many cases successfully extinguished.

Morocco is the only country to officially recognise the Tamazight languages; however teaching Amazigh culture, history, and languages in schools remains forbidden in other North African states. For individuals and communities who reject cultural assimilation with the broader Arab societies, socio-political equality is only a pipe dream.

The Amazigh are said to be related to the Tuareg, another distinct group that have been fighting for equality in the Sahel (the region of North Africa that straddles sub-Saharan Africa).

The Tuareg shocked much of the world in 2012 when they began successfully wresting control of what they call Azawad—their homeland—from the oppressive Malian government. The French promised Azawad to them in 1916, though neither they nor successive Malian governments provided the Tuareg with significant autonomy in their regions.

No one took notice of their dire plight for almost one hundred years until groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) hijacked their rebellion for themselves, and famously burned down the most significant buildings in Timbuktu, including libraries which held manuscripts from hundreds of years ago.

The European Union and its citizens greatly reap the benefits of prime fishing rights off the western coast of Morocco, as agreed to by King Mohammed VI years ago. This seems innocuous enough, but the problem is that it was not the Kingdom of Morocco's concession to grant: the Sahrawi people, numbering around one million, have been living in these areas for centuries.

According to the United Nations, Western Sahara remains one of the world's last remaining non-self governing territories. It is also known as “Africa's last colony” and has been subject to systematic human rights violations such as aerial bombardments using napalm, white phosphorous in refugee camps, torture of prisoners, and the disappearing and kidnapping of dissidents by Moroccan authorities since 1975.

When Spain withdrew its forces from 'Spanish Sahara' in that same year, instead of granting Western Sahara any degree of autonomy, 20,000 Moroccan troops 'escorted' over 300,000 Moroccan settlers into the region, to settle and take advantage of economic opportunities there.

The Green March is now celebrated as a national holiday throughout Morocco. This state-sanctioned event led to a protracted war, yet to be resolved, between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the main Sahrawi political party. Currently, over one-tenth of the entire Sahrawi population are refugees in neighbouring countries.

This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive list. The reasons (excuses) for the marginalisation of these communities are manifold; some because of age-old biases dating back centuries, some for political reasons, and others because scapegoating deflects from larger and more pressing problems, namely poverty, under-educated citizens, and a lack of resources.

The narratives of the Middle East cannot simply be reduced to those of Arabs, Persians, Turks, and Jews. The mosaic remains colourful and multi-layered, despite numerous attempts to alter its makeup.

A region spanning two continents, several oceans, and countless cultural treasures must not be limited to seconds-long sound bytes, ignorant pundits and politicians spouting policy pronouncements. A fuller picture must finally be taken and shared with us all.

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