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Meszár Tárik
Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University; MCC PhD Program

The invisible inhabitants of the Arab world

Image source: the author

The Arab world is ethnically extremely diverse, as many non-Arab communities also live in it.

The region encompasses many ethnic groups and religious communities. In addition to the Arabs, there are Kurds, Assyrians, Copts, and many other smaller and larger groups. Religious communities such as Christians, Jews, Sabaeans, Yazidis, and Bahai also reside in the region. This rich cultural mosaic colors and complicates the identity of the inhabitants of the Arab world.

Throughout history, several important civilizations and empires have left their mark on the region, and these influences have, to some extent, shaped the image of the later Arab nation-states. For example, the great empire of ancient Egypt has left a tremendous legacy that is reflected in architecture, art, and literature. Furthermore, the influence of the ancient Mesopotamian and Mediterranean empires can be seen indirectly in several Arab nation-states. Examples of this are the fact that some Christian communities in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon still speak the Syriac (Neo-Aramaic) language, which predates the Islamic era, or that members of the group living in Iraq, who call themselves Assyrian Christians, celebrate the so-called “Akitu” festival (Babylonian New Year), which was already celebrated at the time of the Neo-Assyrians (911 BC – 612 BC) and the Neo-Babylonian Empire (612 BC – 539 BC).

Minorities in the Arab world in historical context

Throughout history, the situation of non-Muslims living in the territory of today’s Arab countries has always been volatile. They also experienced positive periods in which they were treated with relative tolerance (e.g. the first two centuries of the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258); the period of the Millet system of the Ottoman Empire; the rule of Abd al-Karim Qasim in Iraq between 1958-1963; the 1926 Constitution of Lebanon in the period after its adoption), at the same time they were victims of massacres, pogroms and the phenomenon of marginalization also affected these communities.

The fundamental change in the political status of non-Muslims in modern Arab countries was that they went from being subjects of Muslim empires to citizens of modern nation states. In the Middle East, minorities were protected subjects of the Muslim-dominated empire until the time of the Ottoman reforms in the 19th century. They paid a special tax (jizya), obeyed the ruler and were subject to various restrictions, mainly to maintain the supremacy of Islam in the public sphere. In this system, non-Muslims were “protected persons” who were distinguished from other citizens on religious grounds. Religious affiliation determined legal status, and different religious groups enjoyed different rights.

Imperialist minority policy

The Ottoman reform movements of the 19th century, the spread of new ideas of popular sovereignty and the creation of modern state systems after the First World War drastically changed the previous conditions, and the various minorities were able to experience the effects of Western-style minority policies for a time.

After the First World War and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, France and Britain, which acquired mandated territories in the Arab world, adopted the practice of patronizing members of certain religious minorities, and they were often used in the establishment of their administrations. It is important to emphasize that this type of Western imperialist policy had a long-term negative impact on the situation of minorities living in the Arab nation states. The Western powers created a divide between the Muslim majority and the Christian, Jewish and other minorities and then abandoned the non-Muslim population of the modern Arab countries when the various colonies and mandated territories were dissolved. France did this with the Maronites in Lebanon and to some extent with the Kurds in Syria, and the British treated the Assyrian Christians, Kurds and Jews similarly. However, it is part of the overall picture that the minorities were also interested in alienating themselves from Muslim society and deepening relations with the French or the British, because they wanted to fight for autonomy in the emerging Middle East and saw the necessary guarantees provided by the foreign powers. However, the fact that the non-Muslims living in the Arab world became a hated community and collaborators of the imperialists in the eyes of the majority during this period contributed in the long term to the conflicts between the parties, which in many cases ended in serious violence.

An uncertain future

Many Christians in the region have been concerned about the rise of Islamist politics and parties since the last third of the 20th century, fearing the potential threat they pose to their full civil rights. Furthermore, amid political instability and wars, religious minorities have been forced into larger forces and have emigrated in ever-increasing numbers. Accused of being allies of the West, they have been targeted by various terrorist organizations and militias and their cultural heritage has been partially destroyed. Suffice it to mention the civil war and the rise of radical jihadist groups in Syria, as well as the American invasion of Iraq, the subsequent outbreak of sectarian violence and the rise of the Islamic State terrorist organization. But other lines of conflict have also emerged in the region, such as the violence between the Turkish government and Kurdish separatists or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has remained unresolved for many decades. These and other factors continue to have a detrimental effect on the indigenous ethnic and religious groups.

The persecution of non-Muslim groups mostly takes place at the non-state level. It is a serious problem that the rule of individual governments does not cover the entire territory of the respective country, which has led to the strengthening of military organizations (militias) outside their control. In addition, the situation in several countries is aggravated by the fact that, due to the lack of secular leadership, extreme religious thinking exerts an excessive influence on public life, which has a negative impact on minority groups. The factors described above clearly encourage emigration to Western Europe (e.g. the UK and Sweden), the United States and Canada, as well as Australia.

The Arab region has been an area of ethnic and religious diversity for thousands of years, but the current political conditions make the future of non-Muslim communities uncertain, which may lead to the disappearance of indigenous groups who have existed for thousands of years.

About the Author
Since September 2020, I have been a PhD student of the Arabic Studies program of the Doctoral School of Linguistics at Eötvös Loránd University. From March 2021 I am a researcher at the Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University, and from September 2021 I am a participant in the Mathias Corvinus Collegium PhD Program and a researcher at the Migration Research Institute, where I study the situation of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, mainly Iraq and Egypt. I also deal with the Arabic language and its dialects, as well as the international relations of the Arab world and its role in the world economy.
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