Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression, by Mordechai Nisan (McFarland & Company, Inc.: 2002), 351 pages
To the average observer, the Middle East appears to be a homogeneous, gigantic Arab-Muslim continent. Under this heavy blanket of uniformity, however, the remnants of colonized, extinguished nations, crushed and dispossessed by imperialism, survive in pain and anguish. These peoples — Kurds, Alawites, Copts, Jews, and others — have withstood jihad, genocides, persecutions, and continual sociopolitical repression. Yet their hearts still beat, inspired by the hope of freedom and survival.
It is their history that Mordechai Nisan tells, combining clear scholarship with a perspicacious sensibility. Who are these peoples? In his subtle analysis, Nisan demonstrates that they represent diverse ethnic groups, with unique historical experiences. The author constructs a fascinating mosaic of peoples, beliefs, and intertwined histories. This work expands upon a 1991 study, with much new material.
Nisan begins by specifying the characteristics these people share in their diversity. What inner forces of cohesion shaped their resistance to the Arab and Islamic onslaught on their lands and civilizations from East Persia to North Africa? The factors promoting survival are neither fixed nor stable. Throughout the political dynamism of historical events, each of these peoples has preserved a collective self-consciousness that spans millennia. “The crux of a minority struggle,” writes Nisan, “often revolved around the ability to define identity from within as a matter of group self-articulation, and not be the victims of a superimposed identity from without.” Crushed by cultural and religious Arab-Islamic imperialism, the group’s identity and cohesion is a testimony to its indigenous uniqueness. But can this human and cultural diversity of the Middle East survive after millennia of hardship, unforeseen challenges, and resistance?
One discovers, for instance, beneath the uniformity of Arabism a substructure of living, resistant, minority peoples cultivating their pre-Arab and pre-Islamic native languages, cultures, and religions. Nisan organizes the groups into four main categories: (1) the Islamized peoples who resisted Arab/Muslim colonialism and kept their own culture and languages, like the Kurds (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Turkey), the Berbers (Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco), and the Baluch (Pakistan); (2) the heterodox Muslim minorities who were Arabized but resisted Islamization by keeping their ancestral beliefs and customs under a Muslim veneer, like the Druzes (Levant) and the Alawites (Syria); (3) the Christian minorities: Armenians, Assyrians, Copts, Maronites, and Sudanese; and (4) the Jews, the only minority who succeeded in liberating a part of their historical land from Arab-Islamic imperialism.
Nisan describes the rich history of each group and the inevitable tensions that accompany cultural, linguistic, and religious resistance to Islamization. Their histories include the difficulties entailed in maintaining the history and culture of the group, the processes of survival they adopted, the modalities of adaptation, and the compromises employed to save a modicum of freedom without disappearing. This analytical survey carries us through several levels of understanding, from the policy of conquest and domination that included spoliation, slavery, deportation, and genocide to the various mechanisms of survival adopted by each crushed, humiliated, oppressed, or tolerated community. Not every group developed the same self-consciousness of its history, culture, and ethnic characteristics, but all resisted.
The political and social tensions highlighted by Nisan are most urgent and topical for the West. In our age of multiculturalism, which has seen the recent development in the West of large immigrant communities, what does integration mean? Can some groups integrate more easily than others? Can integration succeed when fundamental values clash? Nisan’s sober and scholarly analysis of the conflict between territorial ethnicity and religious imperialism is of great relevance to the West.
In history, chance is a fugitive fairy that rarely passes twice. The light of freedom sparkled for the oppressed Christian minorities in the Middle East after World War I. It was quickly extinguished by France and Britain in their eagerness to appease Muslim hostility in their Arab colonial dominions. Sacrificed were the legitimate aspirations of the Armenians, Kurds, Assyrians, and Copts.
Their ancestral homelands were arbitrarily lumped into enormous Arab-Islamic entities, while concessions to Islamic demands violated their rights. Some, like the Armenians, Assyrians, and Jacobites, were simply abandoned to bloody reprisals, while the promises they had been given were broken. Only the Maronites and the Jews were given a chance; even for these, it was a delusion and a snare. British pro-Arab policy in the 1930s in Palestine, the gestation of the Shoah in Europe, and the closure of all routes of escape for the Jews at the Evian Conference in 1938 seemed to have delivered the last blow to the Zionist dream of national liberation. The Maronites had to wait a generation to experience the bitterness of world abandonment and the betrayal of their friends. Hence, among all the dhimmi peoples, only Israel survived the lethal Euro-Arab alliance against the indigenous Middle Eastern minorities.
This history of blood, hope, and massacres that Nisan recalls in a masterly way is not over. The martyrdom perpetrated on the Lebanese Christians by the Palestinians and their Muslim allies, generalized jihad, the slavery and butchery inflicted on the rebellious non-Muslim Sudanese populations, the oppression of the Copts and the Assyrians, the massacres of the Kurds, the negation of the Berber’s cultural rights, the jihad Intifada against Israel — all are ignored or explained away by European governments and the media. Do these ancient and courageous peoples still have a chance to deliver themselves from the shackle of dhimmitude, and the manipulations of Eurabia? Now that a new Middle East is being projected, in spite of old Europe’s lethal alliance with the most repressive regimes, maybe the good-luck fairy will pass a second time, to console and redress the cynical injustice inflicted on vulnerable and martyred peoples. Nisan’s book is invaluable for a fuller understanding of Middle East history, past and present.
In the mid 19th century, the French Turcophile writer Abdolonyme Ubicini (translation from The Decline of Eastern Christianity) described the subjected dhimmis of the Ottoman Empire — Christians and Jews — awaiting liberation despite centuries of oppression:
The history of enslaved peoples is the same everywhere, or rather, they have no history. The years, the centuries pass without bringing any change to their situation. Generations come and go in silence. One might think they are afraid to awaken their masters, asleep alongside them. However, if you examine them closely you discover that this immobility is only superficial. A silent and constant agitation grips them. Life has entirely withdrawn into the heart. They resemble those rivers which have disappeared underground: if you put your ear to the earth, you can hear the muffled sound of their waters; then they emerge intact a few leagues away. Such is the state of the Christian populations of Turkey under Ottoman rule.
Will his observations prove relevant today for the Christian and other ethnic minorities of the Arab-Muslim dominions?