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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Majority and Minorities in the Arab World: The Lack of a Unifying Narrative

Filed under: The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 586    November-December 2011

  • The current sociopolitical eruption in the Arab world is the result of the total failure of Arab states to create a unifying national narrative and establish modern egalitarian polities.
  • Instead of seeking what is unifying, and constructing a society that mobilizes its resources to defeat backwardness and improve the economy, the elites have attempted through Arab nationalism and/or Islam to impose a unity that has always left parts of the population outside the majority community.
  • The 90 years since the Arab states were established have been fraught with discord between the different communities, political and economic discrimination, uprisings, military coups, subversion, and conflicts between the states themselves. These conflicts have levied at least 5 million fatalities and many millions of wounded and refugees.
  • At this stage no one in the Arab states is thinking about minorities and national unity. There is no talk of reconciliation or minority rights. Indeed, the situation of minorities has only worsened.


What the West calls the Arab Spring is actually a sociopolitical eruption in the Arab world resulting from the total failure of all the Arab states to create a unifying national narrative and establish modern egalitarian polities. The Arab states have had 90 years to find commonality in the mosaic of ethnic, national, and religious groups in each country and build political, social, and economic cooperation between them. But instead of seeking what is unifying, and constructing an egalitarian society that mobilizes its resources to defeat backwardness and improve the economy, the elites have attempted through Arab nationalism and/or Islam to impose a unity that has always left parts of the population outside the majority community. The 90 years since the Arab states were established have been fraught with discord between the different communities, political and economic discrimination, uprisings, military coups, subversion, and conflicts between the states themselves. These conflicts have levied at least 5 million fatalities and many millions of wounded and refugees.

The majority of the Arab world are Arabs who are Sunni Muslims; in Syria, however, the Alawite minority rules even though the majority is Sunni. In Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority, rule is in the hands of the Sunnis. In Iraq the Sunni minority held the reins of power until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. This minority is now unwilling to accept majority-Shiite rule, notwithstanding the elections that were held. In North Africa at least a third of the population are Berber peoples who have no part in governance and are denied all rights. Conflict between the majority and the minorities on a national, ethnic, or religious basis is a feature of all the Arab states.

The Minorities

The Arab states of the Middle East and North Africa comprise 355 million people. Some 75-80 percent of them are Sunni Muslim Arabs. The minorities, however, include Sunni Muslims who are not Arabs, such as the Kurds, and Arab minorities who are not Muslims such as the Christians in Syria and Iraq. The list of minorities is particularly long and includes dozens of ethnic, national, religious, and tribal groups. Here we will mention only the most important among them.

The Kurds

The Kurds are one of the ancient peoples of the Middle East. Kurdish is an Indo-European language, not a Semitic one and hence not an Arab one. The Kurds have preserved their uniqueness and their language despite having Islamicized. In the past they were part of the Sunni majority and actively participated in the wars of the Arabs and Islam. Saladin, who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was a Kurd. At the same time, the Kurds always saw themselves as a separate, non-Arab community. About 8-9 million Kurds live in Iraq and Syria, but together with their brethren in Turkey and Iran they number 20-25 million people.

In Syria the Kurds are subject to discriminatory laws. Half of them do not even have Syrian citizenship and are not entitled to medical care or allowed to open bank accounts. While at the start of the uprising against Assad he promised to remedy this situation, significant change is unlikely.

In Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Kurds fell victim to an attempt to Arabize their areas of residence in northern Iraq. About a hundred thousand Kurds were killed in gas and other attacks or expelled from their homes to be replaced by Arabs. When, after the First Gulf War, the United States and its allies declared the Kurdish areas a no-fly zone where Saddam’s army was forbidden to operate, the Kurds attained administrative autonomy.
Following the Iraqi elections after the Second Gulf War, the agreements between the parties determined that the president would be of Kurdish extraction. At the same time, various problems such as how to distribute oil revenues (a large part of Iraq’s oil reserves are in Kurdish areas), the fate of the city of Kirkuk, and the borders of the autonomous area have not been resolved. Some months ago the parliament of the Kurdish autonomous area unanimously declared the Kurdish people’s right to self-determination. Iraq will not find rest until it works out solutions to these problems in the framework of full and recognized autonomy; otherwise, a violent struggle for independence will erupt.

The Berbers

The Berbers are the original peoples of North Africa since the dawn of history (Berbers being the name given by Rome to peoples that did not speak Latin or Greek). In ancient times the Berbers had contacts with Jews and Christians and some converted to these religions. With the Arab conquest of the seventh and eighth centuries they Islamicized, even fighting together with the Arabs to conquer Spain. The Berbers indeed produced radical Islamic dynasties such as the Almohads, who massacred non-Muslims. At the same time, they occasionally revolted and maintained their uniqueness. In their surviving language, Tamazight, they are called Imazhighen, or Amazigh in the singular; this language belongs to the Afro-Asian group. The Berbers are not Arabs. They constitute 40-45 percent of the population of Morocco, 20-25 percent in Algeria, and 5-10 percent in both Libya and Tunisia. Altogether they number 20-25 million people.

The governments of all the North African states have ignored the Berbers’ culture and language. In Algeria there is violent repression of this minority, which lives mainly in the Kabylia region. About two years ago the Berbers of Kabylia set up a government in exile in Paris, from which it runs their struggle for independence. In Libya the Berbers supported the rebels and helped overthrow Gaddafi. They hoped this meant their discrimination had ended and the new government would recognize them as a cultural minority equal in rights to the majority. When, to their disappointment, their representatives were not included in the new government, they announced that they would boycott it.

The World Congress of the Imazhighen, established several years ago, represents the Imazhighen in the North African states and in the world as a whole. Fathi Ben Khalifa, the new chairman of the congress who was elected some weeks ago at its convention in Djerba, announced that the Imazhighen of Libya were prepared to establish contacts with Israel, that Israel was the only democracy in the Middle East, that the Palestinian problem was of no interest except to the Palestinians themselves, and that the Imazhighen were looking to concentrate on freeing themselves from the dictatorial regimes and working to achieve their political rights as a separate community.

The Christians

Substantial Christian populations exist in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority. All told they number 18-20 million people. The Copts in Egypt are a separate strain of Orthodox Christians who constitute 10-12 percent (about 10 million people) of the total population. They are descendants of the Pharaonic, Greek, and Roman periods. Their language developed from the ancient Egyptian tongue and is close to what was spoken and written in the Roman era. Today it is used mainly in religious ceremonies. This community has preserved its religion during 1400 years of Arab-Islamic rule, despite discrimination and persecution that persisted under Mubarak as well. If some thought a spirit of democracy would course through the Muslims’ veins with the overthrow of the previous regime, the hostility and persecution have actually only intensified since Mubarak’s ouster. Dozens of Copts have been killed in Muslim attacks and their churches have been burned. The army now ruling the country generally avoids getting involved except in latter stages of attacks and, indeed, in October 2011 massacred Copts who were demonstrating against discrimination. In tandem with the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Copts have set up organizations to demand their rights from the Supreme Military Council and want to be involved in formulating the new constitution. They have not, however, won any support from the Egyptian public. The initial election results in Egypt point to an Islamist majority in the parliament, and this is bad news for Muslim-Copt relations in the near future.

About 2.5 million Christians live in Iraq. Their situation has worsened since the downfall of Saddam Hussein and they have become a target of al-Qaeda terror attacks. In recent years about two thousand Christians have been murdered in Iraq, sparking a surge of emigration to the West. In Syria the Christians are 10-12 percent of the population and number about 2.5 million. In Lebanon they number 1.5 million, including the largest community, the Maronites, as well as different Eastern Christian groups. The Christians are not considered a minority in Lebanon because the government is based on a clear communal allocation of the senior positions. The Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 erupted between Muslims and Christians.

Also living in the countries of the region are Armenians (about a million), Assyrians, Chaldeans, Greeks, and others belonging to numerous Christian sects and subsects. Many of these do not regard themselves as Arabs and are persecuted by the Muslims, so there is large-scale emigration to Western countries.

The Shiites

Even though the Shiites are Muslim Arabs, for theological and political reasons they are a persecuted minority that constitutes about 15 percent of the total population of the Arab states, and they currently number about 35 million people. In Iraq and in Bahrain they are the majority; in Lebanon they are now the largest community. In Yemen they form about 30 percent of the population. There are also large Shiite minorities in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Most of the Shiites in the Middle East belong to the Twelver Shia, who believe that the Twelfth Imam since Imam Ali will reappear on Judgment Day. Another Shiite stream, the Sevener Shia, believes in the Seventh Imam, as do the Ismailis.

The Druze

The Druze live in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel, totaling 1.5 million. They view themselves as Arabs. Although they originated in Islam, they are not considered Muslims.

The Alawites

The Alawites form about 12 percent of the Syrian population or about 2.5 million people. They live in the northwest of the country; some live in Turkey. While they see themselves as a Shiite group from the central Twelver stream, they are regarded as heretics because their faith includes elements that contravene Islamic monotheism, and they are shunned by the Shiites. For political reasons (cooperation with Hizbullah and Iran) the Alawites were recognized as a legitimate sect by the Shiite clergy in Lebanon and Iran.

The Jews

On the eve of Israel’s establishment in 1948 there were about a million Jews in the Arab states. As conflict in Palestine intensified in the 1940s, pogroms occurred in a number of Arab states and the Jews began to leave. Once Israel was established the Jews were forced to leave, and within a few years the Arab states had eliminated a Jewish presence going back thousands of years. There are still small Jewish populations in Morocco and Tunisia.

One should also mention the Bahais, Turkmen, Circassians, Kharijites, Nubians, the Yazidis in Iraq, and black African tribes who are Christians and pagans in Mauritania and Morocco.

The Problem of Minorities after World War I

With the post-World War I dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of new nation-states by the colonial powers of the time, Britain and France, the minorities issue in the Arab world rose to the surface. Some 1300 years of Muslim-Arab subjugation had not succeeded to suppress the identities of the conquered peoples or erase their uniqueness, nor to eradicate the other religions. On the contrary, Islam itself engendered additional minorities, particularly the various strains of Shiites. The Arab states that were established at the stroke of a pen, in keeping with British and French interests, were not homogeneous polities and included diverse kinds of minorities. The Arab nationalism that grew in the new nation-states, along with the belief in the supremacy of Islam, bedeviled relations between the minorities and the Sunni majority and spawned conflicts that continue into the present. In a 1995 article, Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim noted that the Arab world, which then accounted for 8 percent of the global population, was responsible for 25 percent of all armed conflicts in the world since 1945. Occurring in a context of ethnic clashes, these conflicts had caused 2.5 million deaths. While the Middle East population is currently only 6 percent of the world’s population, the domestic and external conflicts continue and it appears that the number of victims has doubled.

Until the creation of the Arab nation-states in the twentieth century, the Middle East-North Africa region was an Islamic expanse in which all the Muslims were part of the Muslim nation and lived in a sort of single state based on Sharia and led by a caliph. That ideal picture, however, should be qualified. Throughout its history the Muslims of the region were involved in countless fratricidal wars; caliphs were murdered and competing caliphates were set up. The Middle East and North Africa were, most of the time, divided between antagonistic rulers, though the region was open to the movement of people and merchandise.

For five hundred years the Middle East was mostly under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, which rarely intervened in the affairs of non-Muslims so long as they accepted their dhimmi (protected minority) status. This status granted non-Muslims the protection of Islam. They paid a poll tax, the jizya, and in return were allowed to manage their community affairs. All this was conditional on honoring the Muslim majority and recognizing the sovereignty of the Islamic state. It should be stressed, though, that these non-Muslims were second-class citizens, subject to the caprices of the masses and of Muslim rulers who, at different points in this long history, killed and massacred them or forced them to convert to Islam. As the Ottoman Empire declined, the dhimmi status was abolished in 1856 due to pressure by the Western powers.

The terms changed completely, however, with the establishment of the new states after World War I. These were expected to be modern polities, with a separate national civil identity for the whole state, and to develop a political-social-economic policy that would ensure reasonable equality for all citizens, economic growth, and prosperity. This is the basis for the running of every state in the world, and the way to prevent conflicts that subvert unity. Here all the Arab states have failed.

The Arab States’ Failed Efforts at National Unity

Immediately after the creation of the Arab states, even before they attained full independence, two visions competed among them concerning state-building and the identity of their citizens: the Islamic vision and the secular-national vision. Given their basic tenets, both were far from conducive to national unity and the emergence of an egalitarian democratic state. In both cases, realizing the vision meant excluding various minority groups from the majority political system.

The Islamic vision posits a state based on religion, its governance and social structure determined by Sharia. That would mean the Kurds, who are Sunni Muslims but not Arabs, would be citizens with equal rights, while non-Muslims, and particularly Christians, Jews, and idolaters, would revert to being second-class citizens of dhimmi status who could not be appointed to key posts such as president, ministers, and judges.

According to the secular-Arab-national vision, however, the state would be based on Arab nationality-that is, those whose first language is Arabic and who identify Arab culture as their own. For the secular Arab nationalists, anyone who met these criteria was acceptable; they would be citizens with full rights regardless of ethnic or religious origins. This ideology put the Christians, who were scattered throughout the Arab states and for the most part saw themselves as Arabs, within the majority community. At the same time, this national vision left no room for national or religious minorities claiming rights as a separate community, which would contravene nationalism. If the Kurds or the Berbers-both of them also Sunni Muslims-were to petition for rights as a culturally-nationally unique community, they would remain outside the majority community, be denied recognition, and suffer discrimination. This vision also discriminates against the Copts, who are fully Egyptian but are a religious community that asks to be recognized as a separate group.

In practical terms, a situation emerged in which two forces acted together in different dosages. In the first stage, upon their establishment, the new Arab states made an effort to tackle the problem of identity. The first constitutions that were formulated in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq in the 1920s and 1930s, under the influence of Britain and France, were relatively liberal and granted equality to citizens without connection to their religion-at least on paper. However, all of these constitutions affirmed that each state was part of the Arab world and worked for its unity, and that Islam was the state religion and Sharia the source of legislation.

These constitutions enabled the appointment of prime ministers who were not Sunni Muslims. Boutros Ghali, a Christian and grandfather of Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros Ghali, was appointed prime minister of Egypt in the 1910 and assasinated by a Muslim. The Christian prime minister Faris al-Khoury was appointed in Syria, and Iraq had Shiite and Kurdish prime ministers. At the same time, the constitutional principles of Arab unity and Sharia as the source of legislation cast a shadow over the minorities. If the Arab states are Arab states and strive for Arab unity, what becomes of non-Arab minorities? If the Arab states consider Sharia an important source of legislation, what is the fate of non-Muslims or of Muslims who are not from the mainstream?

The establishment of the Arab League on Britain’s initiative was intended to promote cooperation between the Arab states with an eye to possible unification in the future. Today, as well, the constitutions of all the Arab states still emphasize in the first paragraph that the state is part of the Arab nation and aims at its unification.

The relatively liberal spirit began to change in the 1950s and 1960s as the two visions failed to solve the domestic and foreign problems of the Arab states. Economies were not developing; corruption was rampant. To this must be added the resounding failure of the principal Arab states-Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan-to prevent Israel’s creation and their humiliating military defeat. This period saw religious and nationalist ferment in all the Middle Eastern states. The result was that Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Sudan underwent military coups that purported to remedy the problems of Arab society. The military regimes promised their peoples modernization, economic and social reforms, and universal education. Yet, within a short time, it turned out they could not fulfill their promises; instead their states further deteriorated into cruel dictatorships marked by both domestic oppression and conflicts with neighbors. Seemingly the main reason for these regimes’ failure was their inability to come up with a narrative that could unify the whole mosaic of ethnic, national, and religious groups-along with corruption, which is endemic in the Arab states and stems from tribal Arab traditions.

In Egypt a coup was carried out by army officers who were close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although they rejected the Islamicization of Egypt as the Brotherhood demanded, Nasser, their leader, espoused extreme Arab nationalism tending to pan-Arabism. He undermined all the Arab states in an attempt to create a single, unified Arab state. He succeeded to establish the United Arab Republic with Syria, but it fell apart within a short time. Other unification agreements with several Arab states remained on paper and were not implemented. In addition, Egypt became entangled in the civil war in Yemen. And its nationalization of the Suez Canal led to a three-pronged attack by Britain, France, and Israel in 1956. In reaction Nasser expelled the non-Arab and non-Muslim minorities-Britons, French, Italians, Greeks, and Jews who had remained from previous population movements. This involved about half a million people who constituted the engine of Egypt’s economic development. Subsequently the Egyptian economy collapsed, and up to the present it has not returned to what it was.

In Syria and Iraq, army officers took over the respective Baath parties, which had been established by Michel Aflaq, a Christian, and were intended to be secular and pan-Arab. These officers, too, now adopted a radical-nationalist policy. In Abd al-Karim Qasim’s military coup in Iraq, King Faisal II and Prime Minister Nuri Said were murdered. Subsequently, Saddam Hussein set up a cruel dictatorship with massacres of Kurds and majority Shiites. He then invaded and conquered Kuwait, but suffered a humiliating defeat by the Coalition forces. In Syria the dictatorship set up by Assad, who belonged to the Alawite minority, was no less cruel; he massacred the Muslim Brotherhood, tightened control over the Sunni majority, and intervened in Lebanon. In addition, the two sister Baath parties waged a fierce ideological and personal struggle between them, leading Assad to join the Coalition forces against Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War and subsequently to form an alliance with Iran. Also worth noting is the civil war in Lebanon, which led to Syrian intervention in the Land of the Cedars. Essentially this was a war of Christians against Muslims, but also of Sunnis against Shiites and of Christians against Christians.

In Algeria the FLN (National Liberation Front) established the sole ruling party and massacred Berbers who were rebelling in the Kabylia region, unwilling to accept a nationalist dictatorship that completely ignored their cultural and national heritage. War also broke out between Algeria and Morocco on the background of Morocco’s desire to annex the Western Sahara, which had been liberated from Spanish rule; the enmity is still ongoing.

In Sudan, the African, Christian, and pagan tribes in the southern part of the state were not prepared to accept the Islamic rule of the Arab north, which tried to impose Sharia on them. Instead the south launched a struggle that lasted about forty years and ended with Sudan’s division and the establishment of the independent state of South Sudan.

Somalia went to war against its neighbor, Ethiopia, on the claim that the population of the Ogaden region in eastern Ethiopia was of Somali tribal extraction, seeking to conquer and annex it but suffering defeat.

Libya, too, went to war against Chad with the aim of annexing an oil-rich strip of land.

That is not an exhaustive list of the conflicts between and within the Arab states. It is, however, a representative sample that clarifies where the Arab peoples’ resources have been directed since attaining independence.

While professing secularism, the military regimes did not deny Islam. On the contrary, they boosted Islamic education as a way of distracting the masses from their military and economic failures. With most of the public clinging to religion in the face of failed economic development and ongoing poverty, Islam’s influence grew. When millions of workers from Egypt and other Arab states who had found employment in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states returned to their countries of origin in the 1980s, they brought with them radical Wahhabi Islam.

The rulers, for their part, sought to sweep all the intensifying problems under the rug, proclaiming national unity while they struggled against both their own peoples and their neighbors. Concurrently, the economic situation continued to deteriorate in all the Arab states.

The “Arab Spring”

Amid this socioeconomic plight, a process known as the “spring of the peoples” began in the Arab states. The “spring of the peoples” has also reopened the file of the minorities. The great question is: what are the solutions? Integration, autonomy, federalism, independence? No one can say. In Sudan’s case the independence solution has materialized.

The younger generation that has taken to the streets genuinely wants to get rid of the military dictatorships and improve living conditions. These same young people, however, have been absorbing Islam and Arab nationalism since they were born. A few weeks of demonstrations are not enough for them to change their beliefs. It is very doubtful that they understand the values of democracy, particularly as manifested in acceptance of the other, ensuring human rights, equality for women, religious tolerance, and upholding the law. Conducting general elections for a parliament, even under legal or international supervision, is no guarantee of democracy. Islam and Arab traditions will not disappear overnight. These peoples will have to overcome a heritage of hundreds of years of backwardness, of beliefs that have shaped their character since the dawn of Islam. The path to democracy will be long and bumpy. What has now begun is a protracted period of instability in the Arab world, until a new balance can be achieved between the younger generation’s demands and the traditional forces of Arab-Islamic society.

The Arab world lacks liberal parties that can mold these upheavals into democracy. The main elements are the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. Majorities in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco voted for these parties, and it appears that will also be the case in Syria, Yemen, and even Algeria when free elections are held there. When journalists asked some of the Egyptians to explain their votes, they said they believed that only through Islam could democracy be established and the economy improved. They are likely to be deeply disappointed, and may take to the streets again in efforts to bring down the Islamic dictatorships that are soon to arise.

At this stage no one in the Arab states is thinking about minorities and national unity. All are occupied with overthrowing the old regime and establishing a new one, even though no one knows what it is supposed to look like. There is no talk of Sunni-Shiite reconciliation, no notion of independence for the Kurds, but rather the opposite; as noted, the situation of minorities has only worsened.

To sum up, undoubtedly we are witnessing the beginning of a sociopolitical revolution in the Arab world. The first wave of revolution has, however, opened the door to Islamic rule, and it appears that we will have to wait until the second wave. The question is whether it will be feasible for the new regimes to act only for the benefit of the Sunni Muslim Arab majority while continuing to deny the minorities’ rights. Seemingly it is not. In the near future the various minorities are likely to voice their demands, but the Muslim Brotherhood will have a hard time accepting them.

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Zvi Mazel, a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt, as well as Sweden and Romania.