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What future is there for the Middle East’s minorities?

European history offers a chilling precedent

By on Thursday, 29 August 2013

A church in Judeida, Idlib province. Christians in Syria face an uncertain future (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

A church in Judeida, Idlib province. Christians in Syria face an uncertain future (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The footage of the recent violence against Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt shows how sites like Flickr have overcome historic British taboos about showing war violence (unlike in, say, Germany). There on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and on the websites of fairly respectable websites, were links to graphic images of dead bodies.

This could influence the way we see the Middle East. There is a theory, proposed (I think) by American journalist Stephanie Gutmann, that Israel has become such a focus of ire because, being a fairly open society with first world conditions, international media outlets base their Middle East offices in the country, so that every rubber bullet fired at Palestinians gets shown around the world.

The far, far worse things that Arabs do to Arabs never gets seen. But that’s changing now that lots of people have decent cameras and access to social media; Syria is a very repressive regime so the war has appeared as rather grainy YouTube footage, but the violence in more open Egypt has been shocking.

Also, for the first time western media has been showing footage of violence against Copts, by far the most exposure given to anti-Christian violence in the western media to date. It’s starting to dawn on people that the country’s six million or so Christians, like all the region’s minorities, face an uncertain future.

Egypt also used to have a substantial Jewish population, almost all of whom fled after the establishment of Israel. And the situation facing the country’s Christians gives some idea of what might have been their ultimate fate had Zionism not come about – perhaps not good.

Historical counterfactuals are of course pure guesswork and prejudice, but a precedent for what’s happening in the Middle East now is what took place in the early 20th century in Europe following the overthrow of autocrats.

Before the First World War much of Europe and the Middle East was ruled by multi-ethnic empires, Ottoman Turkey with its millet system being the great multicultural state, with separate laws for separate faiths, direct interaction between community leaders and the government, and censorship and sensitivity on matters of religion.

It tends to be assumed in today’s political parlance that democracy is automatically a good, but in such mixed societies people power was almost always bad news for minorities; the same has inevitably proven true in the Middle East. Minority groups who don’t have their own homeland, such as Chaldo-Assyrians in Iraq, are driven out.

In the popular western imagination Israel is a sort of settler European colony, yet as well as having a substantial Palestinian Jewish population even before the arrival of European refugees, the number of Jews expelled from or harassed out of Arab states was not that much smaller than the number of Palestinian Arabs who, having fled the country in 1947-8, were not allowed to return. Even had European Zionism never come about and Hitler had got into art college, Israel would still be a legitimate homeland for Mizrahi Jews, without which they may eventually have been imperilled.

But, so the argument goes, it was the establishment of Israel that triggered anti-western hatred and anti-Semitism, without which they would not have been persecuted and the Middle East would not have become so riddled with hatred and violence.

This ascribes to the Arab peoples a level of tolerance and moral perfection totally out of sync with the rest of humanity. History around the world tells us that minorities have always faced persecution, while anti-Semitism has always been prevalent across the Middle East, both among Muslims and Christians. Not only do both religions have a historical enmity towards the oldest of the Abrahamic religions, but also Jews are a market-dominant minority, and therefore doubly persecuted. Why would things have turned out differently in the Middle East?

No doubt Zionism aggravated anti-Semitism in the Arab world, and gave dictators something to blame, just as Communism did in Europe; the prominent role of Jews in revolutionary movements in Russia, Hungary and Germany after the First World War took those ancestral hatreds to new levels, but Communism does not explain European anti-Semitism, let alone explain it away. In the age of democracy anti-Jewish movements would still have arisen in central Europe, just perhaps not as vicious as the Nazis (who did set that bar pretty high).

Daniel Hannan wrote eloquently in the Daily Telegraph last Saturday about the problems facing democracy in multi-ethnic states, and suggests that some form of cantonisation is the answer. That would certainly be the optimal scenario, for otherwise if the Middle East follows the European precedent it will mean the expulsion (or murder) of large numbers of people. Turkey is no doubt the most successful Middle Eastern state, but some 1,000,000 Greeks were kicked out of their ancestral homeland during the birth of the republic, in exchange for 500,000 Turks from what is now Greece.

The irony is that these days “diversity” is seen as something to be celebrated, yet it is in the most homogenous corners of the western world, in England, Denmark and the Netherlands, where the rule of law, the jury system, freedom of speech, capitalism and the other democratic institutions arose. That was not a coincidence.