The Seoul Times
6 May 2009
If we focus on Egypt, then the indigenous Coptic Christians who number between 8 and 12 million, depending on different data; also face enormous problems in their own homeland.
When most people think about the Middle East the usual images arise, for example the religion of Islam and the role of Arabs in this vast region. However, in many societies you have a rich mosaic of differences and the so-called "Arab Street" ignores this rich diversity.
Also, for many minorities who reside in mainly Arab nations in this region, their suffering and pain is being largely ignored. Before focusing on minorities within the Arab dominated nations, it is worth remembering the nations of Iran and Turkey respectively. After all, both societies have very small Arab minorities and the overwhelming majority of people belong to different ethnic groups.
In Turkey, it is clear that the two dominant ethnic groups are the Turks and Kurds and both ethnic groups can be found in other parts of Asia. For the Kurds, they are pressed between competing nationalisms. Therefore, the 25 million plus Kurds face Arab, Turkish, and Persian nationalism in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey respectively, and they also face problems in parts of Syria.
However, while the Palestinian cause gets the majority of the global attention, the more numerous Kurds are largely neglected and the desire for a united Kurdistan remains. Therefore, the Kurdish issue impacts greatly on a vast part of the Middle East region.
If we focus on Egypt, then the indigenous Coptic Christians who number between 8 and 12 million, depending on different data; also face enormous problems in their own homeland. After all, just like the vast majority of Arab dominated nations in this region, the Arabs conquered and colonialized many parts of the Middle East.
However, despite enormous persecution in the past, and continuing problems in modern day Egypt, the Coptic Christians are a further reminder of the rich mosaic of the entire region. Also, the legacy of Coptic Christianity applies to monasticism and the "Christian heart" is still "beating" despite Islamic dhimmitude and inequality.
Christianity is also vibrant in Lebanon, and in Sudan the Christian faith helped different ethnic groups, for example the Dinka and Nuer, to fight-back against Arabization and Islamization. So once more, the dominant thinking of the Middle East is complex because in Lebanon and Sudan you have many non-Arab ethnic groups.
In modern day Lebanon the Christian population is approximately 39% and the Christian Maronites can trace their lineage back to ancient Phoenicia. Also, when a DNA survey was done several years ago it was noticeable that many Maronite Christians carried the male chromosome called the WES1. This chromosome is usually only found amongst West Europeans, at the same time, most Muslims in the test in Lebanon carried the J1 chromosome which is related to Arab expansionism from the 7th and 8th centuries.
So clearly, the "Arabness" of Lebanon is clearly "vague" and you also have a vibrant Armenian Christian community in this nation. While in the religious field it is clear that the Druze community is very different from both Sunni and Shia Islam and this all adds to the rich mosaic of Lebanon.
In modern day Iraq around 23% of the population is non-Arab and this applies to the Assyrians, Kurds, Turkomans, and others. For the Assyrian Christians, Arabization and Islamization is still a great threat and hundreds of thousands have fled since America invaded Iraq. However, the Kurds have a major stronghold in northern Iraq because of military and ethnic factors.
Yet people often refer to Iraq being an Arab nation, however, the Assyrians are the indigenous people and the rich civilization of this nation belongs to the ancient Assyrian Empire. Meanwhile, today, it is clear that Arabization and Islamization is a serious threat to the Christian minority in Iraq.
However, for the Kurds, it is clear that a "real Kurdistan" remains in the offing in the future because the 25 million plus Kurds of the Middle East desire an independent homeland. Therefore, Iraq appears to be the most likely start of this new nation.
Yet for other minorities in Iraq, notably the Assyrian Christians, the Mandaeans, the Shabaks, the Yazidis, and Turkomans; they face a very fragile future and many may not survive the current crisis in modern day Iraq. After all, you have competing nationalistic forces in parts of Iraq which threatens all the minorities. Added to this, you have radical Sunni Islam which is bent on crushing the minorities within Iraq, therefore, Christians, Shabaks, and Yazidis, are under siege.
The current crisis in Iraq, just like in Sudan, does tell us about past history. After all, the African Dinka and Nuer, and other African tribes in Sudan, had to use military force in order to prevent Arabization and Islamization. Therefore, just like in modern day Iraq, where Assyrian Christians, Shabaks, Mandaeans, and Yazidis, face daily persecution, it is clear that past conquests pushed out the indigenous population.
Berbers also face Arabization policies in Algeria and just like the Kurds who are mainly Muslim, it is clear that Islam is secondary because Arab nationalism in more potent. The same of course applies to African Muslims in Sudan. Given this, Arab nationalism is still a major threat to many ethnic minorities and the Berbers in Algeria and African Muslims in Darfur are witnesses to the mass negatives of Arab nationalism.
Overall, it is clear that the Middle East is very diverse and many minorities exist within this vast region. Meanwhile in nations like Iran and Turkey, it is clear that they are mainly non-Arab nation states. Despite this, we often hear about the "Arab street" or the "Arab Middle East."
However, new forces are shaping the Middle East and many ethnic minorities have moved to different Gulf States in order to find work. So while some ethnic groups face Arabization policies, persecution, or assimilation; other new ethnic groups in places like Dubai are changing the ethnic map. Therefore, the next time someone talks about the Arab Middle East, just remember the "real Middle East" which is a patchwork of many different cultures and identities.
Also, I have only "scratched on the surface" because you have many other ethnic and religious groups in this vast region. At the same time, you have great richness within the Syriac world and others. If we lose sight of the past and how minorities are struggling today, then we are also losing out on a rich history which gives beauty to this world.