Thursday, March 1, 2012

For minorities, now is the time to report

It is unfortunate that among those most anxiously observing the uprising in Syria (and not only Syria) have been members of the Middle East’s religious and ethnic minorities. Indeed, Syria’s Alawite leadership is perpetrating a butchery partly because it expects its community to be marginalized if Bashar Assad falls.

Minority solidarity is a dangerous impulse. It has led many of Syria’s Kurds and Druze to watch from the sidelines as their countrymen have been slaughtered – when they have not actively participated in the repression. In Lebanon, it has pushed leading figures in the Christian community, among them Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai, to defend the Assad regime. And the vile Sister Agnes Mariam of the Cross, of the Catholic Media Center, has been a useful idiot on behalf of Syria’s intelligence services, echoing regime propaganda.

The foolishness and inhumanity of these reactions does not mean minority questions will be any less important once the current consignment of autocrats disappears. Minorities will gain in significance, because in many countries the breakdown of authoritarian rule also represents a breakdown of the ideological and intimidatory underpinnings that once kept minorities in line.

The edifice began collapsing in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, removing the minority Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein. The Americans, for a moment, naively aspired to sponsor an equitable Iraqi social contract, with federalism at its core. In reality, they ushered in a Shiite-dominated regime, while federalism permitted the Kurds to consolidate their autonomy in the north. The Sunni Arabs, despite combating Al-Qaeda, have since then grown alienated from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, generating worries that Iraq’s centrifugal forces may become unmanageable.

Fear of what might happen in Syria if the majority Sunnis regain power has colored the behavior of the country’s minorities. Their fixation has been deformed by the expectation that if the Sunnis return, they will do so as resentful Islamists.

So much in that expectation is left unsaid. First, that minority apprehensions, including those of the Alawites, are based on an impression that the brutality and absoluteness of Alawite conduct will necessarily bring an equally brutal and absolute reckoning from Sunnis; that, just as the Alawites favored those from their community, at least those integrated into the political and military elite, and calculated on the basis of communal interests, so too will their foes; and that at the heart of the Arab world’s political arrangements there must be antagonism between minorities and majorities, because that was always the nature of things, even before independence.

Arab nationalism has played a critical role in shaping so stark an outlook. In Syria and Iraq, ruling minorities drew on Baathism to detract from their status by positing a larger Arab identity to which all had to bend. The uniformity this tenet enforced was as much designed to stifle alternative identities as to justify crushing dissent. Where majorities have governed, they have been no gentler with minorities, while non-Arab states such as Turkey and Iran have similarly deployed a muscular nationalism against their minorities.

In Lebanon, where minorities coexist, the story is somewhat different. Christians by and large rejected Arab nationalism during the first three decades after independence, extending this to include wariness with the Palestinian cause when Beirut hosted the Palestine Liberation Organization starting in 1970. Shiites, too, remained mistrustful of Arab nationalism, which they regarded as a surrogate for Sunni pre-eminence. And yet ironically, Hezbollah, created and sustained by Iran, later sought to hijack the symbols of Arab nationalism and the Palestinian struggle to legitimize itself among Sunnis while drawing attention away from its Shiite personality.

As the old political structures disintegrate in Syria, many are panicking. Turkey’s leaders, for instance, worry about what might happen to their own Kurdish population, or to Arab Alawites in the province of Iskenderun, were Syria to break up. If Syria’s Alawites decide they can no longer hold on in Damascus, they may seriously contemplate falling back on an Alawite mini-state in the northwest. For much of my youth I was told how Israel and Henry Kissinger intended to fragment the Middle East into weak sectarian entities. Now that purported scheme threatens to be carried out by Syria’s Alawites, with a sympathetic partner in Lebanon’s Shiites under Hezbollah’s authority. Iran must be confused. A Syria in pieces would compel Tehran to guarantee that Alawites and Shiites cooperate. But if one of those pieces is a self-ruling Kurdish entity in Syria’s northeast, alongside Iraqi Kurdistan, then the Iranians, like the Turks, could face a major headache with their own Kurds.

Some Lebanese minority leaders are looking afar for new friendships. Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea visited Iraqi Kurdistan in recent months. Both men are astute enough to sense that the Kurds will be big players during the coming decade, and are unlikely to fall under the thumb of Islamists. Jumblatt and Geagea support the Syrian uprising, but are also aware that the policies pursued by the Assad regime, as well as the aid Syria’s opposition is receiving from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, may cede the initiative to Islamists and Salafists, who are as hostile toward the Druze as toward the Maronites. In such circumstances, novel minority alignments may prove useful in the event communal self-preservation becomes the name of the game.

Christians have used the fate of their coreligionists in Iraq as a cautionary tale for what awaits minorities in the Middle East. That’s a shallow way of looking at things. Minorities – Kurds, Shiites, Druze, Alawites and Christians in general – will be vital in defining what occurs next in the region. Be that good or bad, to assume that an iron curtain of Sunni Islamism will necessarily descend on us all is to underestimate the influence of those, secular Sunnis and Islamist Shiites included, who reject such an outcome.

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