Minorities in the MENA: new realities or old memories?

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By Dr Harry Hagopian, Middle East North Africa (MENA) Consultant

The latest opinion piece from our consultant on the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region, Dr Harry Hagopian, on minorities in MENA. Originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website epektasis.net.  


I am still young enough to recall those halcyon days when I lived peaceably and unselfconsciously next to Muslim neighbours in the northern suburbs of Jerusalem and often played football or rode the bicycle with Muslim friends.

A bit older, I also recall those dense years when I participated in different inter-faith forums led by the Middle East Council of Churches or other affiliated ecumenical partners. So I am somewhat perturbed – to put it mildly – by the trend in inter-faith relations in the MENA region over the past two or so decades.

Would it have been possible then to predict the stenosis that has now seemingly set into interreligious relations between some Christians and Muslims? Would I have thought then that we would talk glibly and matter-of-factly about Islamism, jihadism, takfirism, Salafism, ISIS, ISIL, Al-Qa’eda, Jabhat al-Nusra, Da’esh, IS caliphate or even – at a more basic level – about lurking doubts and insidious fears re-emerging between different faiths? Kicking a ball and racing with a friend on a bike, or even engaging in inter-faith dialogue with sheikhs, rabbis and priests, would I have thought of Raqqa, Mosul and Sinjar, or even closer to home, of Arsal, Ma’an and even Bethlehem?

Denizens of the Internet, let alone some self-labelled pundits inhabiting the social media, use such terms interchangeably and without always gauging their germane impact. But there is a radical momentum these days to sow discord – whether real or imagined, local or international, guileless, clueless or complicity-ridden – amongst some followers of the Abrahamic faiths. So much so that ethnicity, culture, heritage, neighbourliness or friendships forged over many moons have taken a very far second place when it comes to religious affiliations, traditions and practices. Hence, in view of my hands-on cumulative experiences over three decades and perhaps even the few extra grains of wisdom I have acquired since my adolescent years, I might be justified to look at the events unfolding in northern Iraq and across the broader MENA region with mounting concern.

As an ethnic Armenian, I am acutely sensitive to those calamities that befell my own family during WWI when my relatives fled the genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks against Armenians, Syriacs and Pontic Greeks. They were rounded up and executed, or force-marched into the unforgiving Syrian Desert. Some of them had to convert to Islam to save their lives and they witnessed their churches desecrated and their holy manuscripts burnt to ashes. Then, as if this trauma were not enough for the psyche of any human being, my family was evicted yet again from their homes in the German Colony in west Jerusalem following an ultimatum by the advancing Jewish militias. So when I espy those gruesome pictures or choking videos of deportations, encampments, defeated faces, frightened human beings or barefooted children with soulful looks and sorrowful demeanours, I identify with them not on an abstract verbal plateau but on the guttural – well nigh primitive – level as I hear their stories and empathise with their latest tragedies. They can only evoke in me the tears and fears that my grandparents and parents felt in 1915 and again in 1948 as they lived through their own horrors. Can readers truly imagine how those Christians, Yezidis and other communities perceive their lives unravelling around them nowadays and what deep, unresolved and frightening memories they might conjure up?

I am admittedly articulating those thoughts whilst being aware that they might prove unpopular with many a reader. After all, it is often easier – for many politicians, religious hierarchs or analysts – to seek attenuating circumstances or alternative explanations that could help them spin the facts in such ways that they avoid facing the ugly truth and so need not act on their consciences. But I believe this latest Iraqi chapter in the terror-driven and fear-loaded lack of conviviality imports a few pertinent axioms that cannot be swept so conveniently under the carpet anymore.

The origins and recrudescence of ISIS go back well over a decade – to Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi in 2000, to the US-led invasion in 2003 and to the Arab uprisings since 2010 – if not also to our collective inaction over Syria. They are also aligned with the splinters and offshoots of metastasising and Al-Qa’eda-inspired movements. Moreover, they are the consequence of past Western colonial intrigues let alone the complicity of many ruling regimes in the MENA region that have brazenly fomented such radicalism for their own survival and fetid purposes.

However, and despite the opinions or hopes of some writers, I tend to argue that ISIS is not a flash in the pan. It is not necessarily a momentary phenomenon that came out of nowhere and will also vanish to nowhere if we ignore it long enough or pretend that it is not really our problem. ISIS is not only a corporeal bunch of 10,000 fanatical religious zealots with $2000,000,000 in their vaults. As Hussein Ibish argues adroitly in his Does the Islamic State pass the test of statehood?, ISIS is also an idea that self-fulfils some of the components of statehood and astutely enforces its own version of Islam upon those societies that constitute part of the historical caliphate.

Some people are comparing ISIS today with the 7th century al-foutouhat al-islamiyya (Muslim Conquests) but I would suggest that such an analogy is both inaccurate and unhelpful since such conquests were perceived as part and parcel of the mainstream course of Islam. Rather, I would argue that this brutal ISIS group rose from the ashes of an incremental alienation that Sunnis feel in the contemporary MENA region. This sense of madhloumiya (injustice) is not unreal in some sense and it is also coupled with contradictions over the faith-based role of Islam for Muslims as well as for the Followers of the Book.

The challenge for Muslims in the face of the myriad pictures of Christians, Yezidis and others being brutalised, at times killed, raped, abducted, crucified or spoliated in the name of a puritanism that is meant to contain the original essence of Islam is twofold and also clear. They must have the gumption and vision to fight injustice as much as to undertake the long-overdue and necessary religious reforms. After all, is this not what icons like Mohammad Abduh and Taha Hussein strove to achieve although their efforts were somewhat defeated in the face of opposing forces?

Is it not high time to speak out?

To start with, the whole world should be united to condemn unequivocally the deeds of those groups that are indulging with such gory delight in the religious cleansing of the age-old diversity of Iraq and Syria. It is time for the international community to act not by issuing statements and edicts, holding meetings or drafting expressions of outrage in newspapers or on the web-blogs. Rather, it is by cutting their financial, military and communication wherewithal. Surely if it could be done with other players through UN agencies, it should be possible with ISIS too.

But let me humbly throw the gauntlet here to my Muslim colleagues (and friends) too.

It is first and foremost the responsibility of the Muslim World to speak out openly about such excesses being perpetrated against former friends, neighbours or colleagues. Good will and hypocoristic attitudes alone will not get us very far. As some Muslim critical thinkers the likes of Yassin Haj Saleh, Dalal al-Bizri, Hussam Itani, Jamal Khashoggi, Azmi Bishara or Saad bin Tefla al-Ajmi are asserting nowadays, what is sorely needed is an inward reflection on the causes of this ISIS phenomenology.

What do Muslims mean when they talk of moderates versus extremists, and what is the exact significance of this much-vaunted ‘moderation’ that has so far been a harbinger of ambiguity on a range of moral issues – from Dhimmitude to discrimination, from power, violence or personal liberties all the way to equal and fundamental rights? Is it not telling that clear Muslim thinkers and writers are now averring that Koullouna Daesh (We Are All Daesh) in the sense that silence and reticence – as much as outspokenness in some obverse instances – have helped incorporate ISIS? Is it not important for Muslims who view themselves as ‘moderates’ to empower their ‘moderation’ by standing up to those groups? Their efforts deserve our unstinting support. However, if they do not embark on such a course, could it not mean to an independent observer that they are either unsure of their own sympathies and affiliations or else have condoned the ultimate aims of ISIS-like groups? Their silence, prevarications or semantics are willy-nilly aiding and abetting ISIS.

I genuinely do not wish to indulge in this spine-tingling apocalyptic scenario. It goes against my grain anyway and I know enough Muslim friends from Lebanon and Palestine to Egypt and Iraq who would disprove this assumption. However, we are not talking here about a bicycle ride or a football game or even dialogue between veteran practitioners! Rather, we are talking about the existential – life-endowing and life-robbing – future of whole communities being chased out of their millennia-old homelands and homes.

As I see it, the challenges are twofold: they are political and socio-economic on the one hand and they are jurisprudential and exegetical on the other. True, the conversations have already started albeit timidly, but I would still urge a redoubling of ijtihad that applies as much to societal issues of justice as it does to scriptural ones. Muslims must use this latest crisis as an opportunity – a kairos if you will – to boldly seize the moment.

Minorities in the MENA: new realities or old memories? The choice in my title today is stark: inaction would inevitably lead to a gradual loss of the moral compass of a great faith but it would also cause further human deaths and physical destruction in the MENA region. So is it really a choice, and what will it be?


This article was originally published on Dr Hagopian’s website.