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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.

  • Benedict Carter

    None, if the Al Qaeda affiliates win. For this reason I am totally opposed to intervention in Syria.

  • Sara_TMS_again

    Nothing homogeneous about England- it’s one of the most hybrid societies there is- look at its language. Half Latinate, half Germanic.

    But otherwise, agreed.

  • Acleron

    Anti-Western and antisemitic feelings are as old as the hills. We have invaded the Middle East repeatedly since the 11th century, murdering and pillaging as we went. There is no reason to be surprised they dislike us. The persecution of minorities is also a time honoured occupation, much favoured by most religions. The secular West, has shown it is possible to live with tolerance providing no religion has any power over society. The Middle East has little concern for secularism except perhaps in Egypt, but why should they even consider our methods when all they see is the destructive power we deploy in their countries.

  • NatOns

    And very little even if they do not. It is another lose / lose situation, of course; except for Victory in Christ. That is a painful truth to face, yet the Christians there have faced persecution, violence and even genocides (think Ottoman empire).

    Yet how we can help them beyond prayer, open hearts and charitable welcome, well, that is the real difficulty.

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes, you’re right NatOns. Helping the Christians is the last thing on the minds of the Western nations. Doing the bidding of those who provide us with oil & gas is our governments’ prime concern.

  • Julian Lord

    As, it seems, is Parliament.

  • Cestius

    That is an unbalanced and distorted view of history, though. It ignores the attempted invasions and colonizations of Europe by the Arab/Muslim world, both in the eighth century which got as far as Tours in central France in 732, and also in the 16th to 17th century which got as far as Vienna (twice) before being driven back. Compared to these invasions, the Crusades had relatively limited objectives, mostly to secure the holy land and make it safe for pilgrimage. And the brief colonial period after the first world war was largely as a result of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire that picked the wrong side in the first world war, and it didn’t last that long.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Quite a lot homogeneous about England. Recent genetic research indicates the scale of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon/Viking immigration was far smaller than traditionally assumed.

  • Julian Lord

    The underlying tribal organisation of Britain in Antiquity continues to affect the national spirit to this very day …

  • Julian Lord

    We have invaded the Middle East repeatedly since the 11th century

    I see that you have had much Islamist propaganda dripped into your ear …

  • la Catholic state

    If there is more we can do to help Middle Eastern Christians…..we should pray for the Holy Spirit for it. By our own efforts we can do little… let’s trust the Holy Spirit once again.

  • Peter Salmon-Lomas

    Negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council are the only way – there is absolutely no criteria for America to intervene with rockets or anything else. America is not & should never be the world’s self-appointed ‘police force’