Two decades ago, Yugoslavia, a third larger than Syria, broke into multiple
political entities: Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and
As a state it had existed in several forms since the First
World War. Its peoples used two alphabets, hosted several religions, spoke four
languages, comprised two major races and included several
For decades it has been commonplace to describe the Middle
East as “Arab-Muslim,” as though it belongs to them exclusively. In reality, the
region’s multitude of minorities considered together may be a
Populations may be categorized by religion, ethnicity,
language, race, nationality and perhaps other variables. For example, people of
Syria define themselves not only as Syrian but also Alawite, Sunni, Shi’ite,
Druse, Kurd and Christian.
Consider further major population
Iranians are mostly Persian, not Arab.
Iran is home to
Shi’ite Islam (as compared to Sunni Islam, the center of gravity of which is
Saudi Arabia) and also home to the Zoroastrian and Baha’i religions. Its people
speak Farsi, not Arabic.
Iraq’s three major distinct populations are now
mostly grouped geographically: Shi’ites mostly in south and center, Sunnis in
the west and Kurds in the north. Vast population transfers or migrations
occurred the past decade (after America’s 2003 takedown of Saddam Hussein’s
regime), those regions becoming more homogeneous. Until recently, Iraq was also
home to many Jews and Assyrians.
THE PAST century saw considerable
population movements in the Middle East, some voluntary, others
Christian Armenians living in the Caucasus region were
unsuccessful at maintaining statehood after WWI. Many were killed by Turks in a
conflict variously defined as a civil war or a holocaust, and they suffered
post-war Soviet dominance.
Egypt has a durable national identity distinct
from its Arab or Muslim identity, and includes large minorities of Coptic
Christians and racial Africans. There were once also many Greeks, Europeans and
Jews, most of whom left. The tension between Egyptian nationalism and
Arab-Muslim identity is reflected in the November 13, 2012, CNN News report
citing an Egyptian Muslim calling for destruction of the Sphinx and pyramids as
Lebanon was established as a Christian state alongside Syria, with
Maronites and the Eastern Orthodox Church providing primary identities, but also
with large Sunni, Shi’ite and Druse populations. It endured civil war in the
1950s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Lebanon once had a Jewish community.
a Jewish state, provides religious freedom for Christians, Muslims and other
citizens and residents. Its Jews include various races – from Africa, Europe,
Mideast, South Asia – as well as Ashkenazi and Sephardi, assorted religious
streams, and peoples from many lands.
MANY MIDDLE East peoples consider
their primary identity to be other than Sunni, Shi’ite or Arab. Kurds are a
significant population in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Armenia and Syria. While most are
Sunnis, Kurds consider themselves a non-Arab nation. Many Beduin’s cultural
self-image is other than that of the majority in their host states.
majority of Turkey’s people do not identify as Arab, but Turkic, kinsmen of
Asian communities, with diasporas in Cyprus and Europe. A large minority are
Kurds. The 1920s population swap with Greece saw many people return to their
homeland; the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded the transfer’s organizer. Turkey is
home to Albanians, Armenians, Assyrians, Azerbaijanis, Bosnians, Chechens,
Circassians and Georgians, among other minorities.
The population of
United Arab Emirates includes Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Arabs, Persians, South
Asians (Indians, etc.), Eastern Asians, Filipinos and Western
Some Muslim leaders submerged earlier identities of peoples in
lands where Islam became the dominant religion and identity.
Taliban’s purposeful destruction of ancient Buddhist shrines in Afghanistan
An excellent book on Middle East minorities is by the
Hebrew University’s Mordechai Nisan – Minorities in the Middle East: A History
of Struggle and Self Expression, published in 2002. Also see his September 1996
essay “The Minority Plight” in Middle East Quarterly.
TODAY THE Middle
East is in greater political flux than at any time since the 1920s.
WWI, the British and French, and Turkish reformers, replaced the collapsing
Ottoman Empire and established new political states and borders.
the alternative scenario of Ottoman leaders in 1914 not casting their lot with
Germany and Austria-Hungary. That fateful decision concerned Britain (Suez Canal
owner and long-time supporter of Ottomans against expansionist
In 1915, the Ottomans attacked British forces in Egypt from
Sinai, crossing the canal. Britain responded with military campaigns into the
Holy Land and Syria, and northwest from the Persian or Arabian
Commonwealth forces conquered most Ottoman territory (except its
Might the Ottoman Empire have endured had it not joined
Britain’s initial WWI enemies? An intriguing “what if.”
The British 1918
victory led to new states formed from territories long Ottoman and sometimes
known as the Levant, Mesopotamia and Arabia. Among new entities were Mandate
Palestine (soon subdivided into Transjordan and a smaller Jewish homeland),
Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Kuwait. Arabia would soon form a political state after
civil war among Saudis contending with Hashemites; the latter gained power in
Transjordan and Iraq.
FORMATION OF distinct Kurdish and Armenian states
from territory long controlled or contested by the Ottomans was discussed by the
international community after WWI.
Britain’s Foreign Office after WWI,
and America’s State Department post-WWII, generally cast their fortunes with
Sunni Muslim Arabs in the Middle East (with Shi’ites in Persia/Iran). France
gained influence over Syria and Lebanon, and supported the latter’s
At various periods after WWI there was significant
international support for minorities: Armenian, Coptic, Jewish, Kurdish,
Maronite, Shi’ite. The British initially promoted Jewish rights in Palestine,
later shifting from that stance. For eastern Palestine, renamed Emirate of
Transjordan in 1923 (Jordan after 1950), Britain supported leadership by
migrating tribal leaders from Arabia over locals.
Britain installed a
Hashemite king in the new Iraq (on lands of ancient empires, other
As Britain, France and the US gained influence, they tended to
downplay rights of most Middle East minorities. Israel overcame British switches
in sympathy/support, and American diplomatic inconstancy, to force Britain from
western Palestine in a militarypolitical independence campaign 1944-‘47,
proclaiming statehood in 1948. Israel has since fought Muslim challenges
repeatedly, and became a flourishing democratic state, albeit one systemically
threatened and often symbol of hope to minorities.
THE PRESENT era may be
an opportune time to cease considering the Middle East as generically
Arab-Muslim. It is a moment to redress the neglect of minorities via broader
appreciation of the region’s varied populations. A fresh term like “mosaic of
Middle East minorities” might illuminate the new perspective. This reflects
historic reality and suits attempts to create and enable representative
democracies – ideally, ones which protect “rights of minorities.”
in the “Arab Spring” (or “Winter”) that elections have not been accompanied by
minorities’ rights being protected, a central feature of real democracies. A
fresh perspective respecting such rights, and political entities that reflect
component elements, may be beneficial, if not for full peace, at least for
improved prospects for regional balances of power and stability.
Yugoslavia’s recent devolution be a model? Would this leave most Middle East
peoples better off?
The writer is a former army officer and retired business
executive, who lived in Israel several years working as a political analyst. He
leads discussion groups about international security affairs.