Minority groups

Make-believe harmony

The A to Z of ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East embraces Alawites, Armenians, Assyrians, Baha’is, Berbers, Chaldeans, Copts, Druzes, Ibadis, Ismailis, Jews, Kurds, Maronites, Sahrawis, Tuareq, Turkmen, Yazidis and Zaidis (by no means an exhaustive list), and yet serious discussion of ethnic/religious diversity and its place in society is almost a taboo subject.

If the existence of non-Arab or non-Muslim groups is acknowledged at all, it is usually only to declare how harmoniously everyone gets along.

The roots of this attitude lie partly in history. Most Arab states, in the form we know them today, were created during the last century and their boundaries were determined, sometimes quite arbitrarily, by imperial powers. Successive Arab governments have had to grapple with the resulting problems, attempting to weld various tribal, have sought to achieve this by sweeping diversity under the carpet.

Another factor is the importance Arab societies attach to avoidingfitna, or social discord. This has its benefits but the abhorrence offitnacan also become an excuse for not acknowledging problems. The result is a sort of make-believe harmony in which differences are kept out of sight as much as possible.

The Arab countries’ concern for national unity is understable, given their history, but it can easily turn into an obsession and it often confuses unity with uniformity. In any case, the Arab countries’ problems are not unique. The number of countries with no diversity issues at all is very small indeed, and some deal with them more successfully than others.

Experience elsewhere has shown that pretending differences don't exist can only lead to trouble in the long run. Real national unity does not rely on make-believe uniformity; it is achieved by addressing minority issues openly and honestly, and dealing with any problems that are identified before they become serious. Real national unity is also achieved not just through avoidance of discrimination but through inclusivity – ensuring that all social elements have a proportionate role (neither subservient nor dominant) at all levels of national life ... politically, socially and economically.