The Challenge of Minority Rights in a Changing Arab World
On June 26, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion focused both on the challenge of minority rights in a fast-changing Arab world and on possible solutions moving forward. The panel featured Lina Beydoun, Joint Fellow of the Brookings Doha Centre and Qatar University, Khaled Al Hroub, Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts at Northwestern University in Qatar, and Faleh Jabar, Director of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut. The event was moderated by BDC Director Salman Shaikh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, business and media communities.
Lina Beydoun opened the discussion by trying to define what we mean by the term “minorities”; although groups are normally termed “minorities” based on their size, she said, we must move beyond that to a broader definition that includes any sector of society that is denied its rights. Faleh Jabar, on the other hand, detailed four kinds of minority groups that have been “excluded” from the modern Arab nation-state – groups that, because of religion or sect, regional alliances, tribe, or class, have been deprived economically, culturally oppressed and denied inclusion within these modern states. The very terminology of minority and majority was called into question by Khaled Hroub, however. He urged caution when using terms that present minority groups as a homogeneous block, when in fact they are heterogeneous groups consisting of a wide range of individuals.
All speakers agreed that minority issues first came to prominence with the building of the modern Arab nation-state, arguing that discrimination against minorities has been a constant throughout the region’s recent history. Beydoun, for example, explained that challenges for minorities in Egypt have intensified since the construction of the modern Egyptian state. Most Egyptians, she said, would agree that minority groups had more rights under the Egyptian monarchy than they do so today. In the case of the Copts, for example, this lack of inclusiveness has led them to isolate themselves from society. This changed with the 2011 revolution, when Copts – particularly Coptic youth – started to organize themselves politically outside previous religious boundaries, demanding an end to discriminatory policies as well as equal rights in the new Egyptian constitution. While helping to bring different voices to the fore, according to Beydoun, the transition in Egypt had not improved the position of minorities. She said that President Morsi had failed to address minority issues and was leading the country in a direction that was more repressive and less inclusive.
Jabar explained how, in the creation of the modern nation-state, the processes of state-building and nation formation had only worked in homogenous societies in which the state was able to act on behalf of all its citizens. In the case of the Arab world’s heterogeneous societies, on the other hand, Jabar spoke of an “incongruence” between these two processes, with the state failing to represent the broader spectrum of religions, sects, and ethnicities. Jabar described how the Iraqi monarchy had originally been built upon a Sunni-Shi’ite alliance, allowing economic inclusion and participation for all religious minorities. With the rise of the new Ba’athist government after 1968, however, the situation changed completely. The government began to monopolise political and economic power and concentrate national wealth disproportionately in the hands of a single sect, leading to sectarianism and the breakdown of Iraq’s traditional Sunni-Shi’ite equilibrium. It is the escalation of such problems, Jaber said, that characterizes the political systems of Iraq and other Arab countries today.
Hroub blamed the lack of minority rights in the Middle East – and the resulting formation of divided and polarized societies – on the Arab state’s role as “aggressor,” serving its interests above those of its citizens. Hroub was not optimistic about the future; he contended that there is a deep misunderstanding of national democracy in the Arab world, where Arab leaders are emphasizing majoritarianism above everything else. If a party wins 99 percent of the vote, he said, that does not mean it has no responsibility to protect the remaining 1 percent. In the end, he argued, a democracy should protect minorities alongside the interests of winning parties. While citing the draft Tunisian constitution as a possible model, Hroub expressed pessimism regarding the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s treatment of minorities. He said the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is essentially replicating the Iranian model of Islamic theocracy, calling into question the role that sharia law currently plays in Egypt. While sharia has traditionally guaranteed minority rights, he explained, this has happened as part of a sort of Islamic hierarchy in which Islam is seen as the superior religion. Today, he said, this doesn’t meet the modern need for coexistence and equality between religious groups.
Discussing how to meet these challenges going forward, Jabar floated the idea of an Ottoman-style millet system as an alternative model to protect minorities. Beydoun, however, disagreed with this approach, saying that we must move beyond religious, sectarian, ethnic, and cultural divisions and instead push for a society that “views itself collectively.”
During the Q&A session that followed, a member of the audience asked about the role of the media in the promotion of sectarianism and discrimination. While most speakers acknowledged that the media could play a positive, responsible role in promoting tolerance and helping the cause of minorities, Hroub pointed out that increased media freedom in the Arab world is having a somewhat negative effect. Previously obscure – and sometimes inflammatory – religious messages are now being publicized to larger audiences, Hroub said, resulting in greater polarization within Arab societies.