The growing insecurity of religious and ethnic minorities is one of the biggest problems arising from the Arab Spring. But much can be done to protect them.
- By Jamsheed ChoksyJamsheed K. Choksy is a professor of Iranian and international studies and a former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University. He is also a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed are his own. , Eden NabyEden Naby is a cultural historian of the Middle East. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University. Her book on Assyrian Christians will be published in 2011. Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian and international studies at Indiana University and a member of the National Council on the Humanities.
Citizens who oust dictators often face the question: What comes next? Despotic rule leaves behind few entrenched institutions other than confessional or ethnically based ones. So, transitional countries are finding that ending autocracy frequently does not bring fundamental rights equally to all members of the public.
Ever since the Iranian Revolution of January 1979 swept a Shiite theocracy into power, contests for political change around the Middle East have taken on sectarian overtones. Ousters of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak, and now uprisings against Bashar al-Assad, Emir Al-Sabah al-Ahmad of Kuwait, and King Hamad al-Khalifa of Bahrain have often had the effect of pitting religious and ethnic blocks against each other.
Iraq and Syria have witnessed civil war between religious sects. In Iran and Egypt, the removal of strongmen has led to further repression of minorities. Addressing the U.N. General Assembly on 25 September, U.S. President Barack Obama urged countries to break the "cycle of sectarian violence" so political transitions can be successful.
The Shiite ayatollahs have cracked down harshly on Iranians yearning for confessional and communal rights. Sunnis (8 percent), Bahais (1.8 percent), Armenian and Assyrian Christians (0.2 percent), Sufis (0.1 percent), Zoroastrians (0.03 percent), and Jews (0.01 percent) among Iran’s 75 million citizens are tarred as disloyal to the nation. Sunnis are the one religious minority with sufficient numbers and resources to challenge the dominant group. Comprising of Kurds (20 percent), Arabs (2 percent), and Baluchis (2 percent), they are responding with insurrection.
The fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003 should have marked the beginning of an Iraq in which the Shiite majority (65 percent), Sunni minority (30-32 percent), and Christian minority (3-5 percent) jointly crafted a country without tyranny. But civil war fuelled conflict between Sunni Kurds and Arabs against Shiite Arabs within the population of 31.1 million. Assyrian-Chaldean Christians were caught amid the bloodletting. Numbering 1.4 million prior to 2003, there are fewer than 500,000 Iraqi Christians left now. Thus far in Iraq’s political transition, two de facto states exist–one for Sunnis of Kurdish ethnicity (20 percent) and another for Iraqis of Arab ethnicity (75 percent) which is divided between Sunnis and Shiites.
Egypt, too, is shifting from authoritarian to representative governance. It is the most populous nation in the Middle East with 83.7 million people — mostly Sunnis (90 percent), with Copts and other Christians forming a relatively small minority (10 percent). As Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis take over power they are making intolerant demands that Christians’ basic rights be curtailed. Likewise, their new government has shut down the last synagogue. Egyptian Christians and Jews are in no position to engage in insurrection, but even their occasional protests are forcefully quashed by the state’s security forces.
Similarly, the struggle against Syria’s Baath Party is being exploited along sectarian lines. Alawites, a minority sect within Islam, are regarded by Sunnis as linked to the Assad government’s violent repressions. They and other Syrian Shiites, such as Ismailis, in turn see themselves as a minority (13 percent) in a fight for survival against a Sunni majority (74 percent) of Arab (90 percent) and Kurdish (8 percent) ethnicity. Again, Christians from the Greek Orthodox Church and its Catholic offshoot (the Melkites), Armenian and Assyrian Christians, Druze, and Jews are caught up in the civil war — accused of supporting the Assads. So these ethnoreligious minorities are also beginning to take up arms to protect their lives, homes, businesses, and places of worship.
In Kuwait, the Shiite minority (26 percent) is challenging the ruling Sunni majority (59 percent) for a more equitable distribution of authority and resources. In Bahrain, a Sunni minority (35 percent) clings to power through the royal family despite protests for a greater share of political power from the majority Shiite population (65 percent). So these two small nations, vital to U.S. and E.U. strategy in the Persian Gulf, may be up next for political transition.
In some cases, there’s a significant risk that local religious conflicts can quickly assume regional dimensions.
Iraq’s administrative patchwork of a Kurdish north and northeast, Sunni center, and Shiite south has not as yet broken apart its international boundaries as Yugoslavia did. But post-Assad Syria could in a worst case scenario prove much like post-Tito Yugoslavia — and probably with far-reaching effects on its neighbors.
Baluch separatists plan a Sunni state for parts of eastern Iran, southern Afghanistan, and southwestern Pakistan. A Pan-Baluchistan could become an al Qaeda and Taliban stronghold from whence terrorists would strike abroad due to the Quetta Shura’s growing authority. Kurdish separatists plot to unite northwestern Iran, northern Syria, and eastern Turkey with their semi-independent polity in northern Iraq. The government of Turkey will certainly move to protect its national boundaries by confronting those Kurds militarily — and Assyrian Christians would again get caught between the warring parties.
So what can temper the "tyranny of the majority," of which political observers from John Adams and Alexis de Tocqueville to John Stuart Mill have warned, in countries undergoing transition? Answers can be found in the Middle East’s own history.
During the sixth century B.C., the Iranian monarch Cyrus II established governmental procedures that respected and supported religious and communal freedoms. Through incentives and deterrents he brought concord and prosperity to the Persian Empire’s far-flung territories from Egypt and Israel to Iraq and Central Asia. His successors, like Darius I, funded reconstruction of the Second Temple, notwithstanding that Jews formed a very small portion of the overall population. This legacy has prompted even President Obama to echo Cyrus’ policies.
Linking international legitimacy and multinational assistance for new regimes to their ongoing commitment to representative governance is one place to start. Governments that honor the rights of all citizens should benefit not just from platitudes but receive tangible support in the forms of economic, administrative, and security guarantees as they work toward stable, viable, and tolerant societies.
Egypt obtains almost $2 billion each year in military and economic aid from the United States; Iraq gets at least as much too. Post-Assad Syria is sure to request fiscal, technological, and other forms of assistance from the U.S. and E.U. Congress has attempted to link American aid to foreign governments’ respecting the confessional and communal freedoms of their citizens. But to date U.S. administrations have failed to enforce those requirements. Letting recipient governments off the hook sends the message that the West’s words and deeds do not square up.
So long as sectarian and communal strife are tolerated, stability and prosperity will continue to elude post-revolutionary nations. Little will be gained from having pushed out dictators and from pouring in billions of dollars of foreign aid. Those nations’ leaders must be convinced by both carrot and stick that only representative governments which unite citizens and treat all of them equally and judiciously, irrespective of creed and culture, will be supported.
Nor should aid be handouts which can be squandered by newly-elected leaders. Rather, at least part of inflowing resources must be directed toward civil society restoration and reconstruction programs. Those programs can provide constitutional and legal frameworks, administrative know-how, and personnel training necessary to establish, implement, and sustain religious and ethnic harmony in nations where problems were hitherto repressed rather than resolved.
Pressuring those countries, and others like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to excise negative representations of minorities still commonplace in their school textbooks is necessary as well. After all, how can tolerance be built when children are taught to hate everyone not of their creed and background?
Conversely, groups and individuals who violate religious and communal rights on national levels must be brought to justice. The International Criminal Tribunal’s ruling relating to Bosnia, the International Criminal Court’s decisions on Liberia, and the International Criminal Tribunal’s actions on Rwanda have set precedents applicable elsewhere. The U.N.’s Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights needs to be strengthened as well, from largely observing and reporting to being capable of intervening to enforce compliance with the world’s values.
The U.S. Congress’ Syria Human Rights Accountability Act can serve as a model for additional international and national measures to ensure that confessional and ethnic freedoms are respected. In the case of Iran, sanctions currently take aim only at Tehran’s nuclear obfuscation and support of terrorism. Including rights violations within those sanctions’ scope and blacklisting Iranian leaders who discriminate against other creeds and groups would add to the pressure they are under to change their derelict ways.
Ultimately, citizens and emerging leaders in nations casting off totalitarianism’s yoke need to be convinced of the distinct advantages of not trading "the tyranny of a dictator for the tyranny of a mob." Only then will the grip of intolerance be broken and political changes produce nations that are embraced by all citizens and welcomed as responsible partners by the global community.