Morning Brief

The fallacy of `minority` status in the Middle East and the role of Western power

If modern sectarianism, with all its political issues and social polarization has a creator, it is European.
Published by
Central Office
on March 16, 2023
on March 16, 2023
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A picture of a group of Kurds in northern Iraq.

Analysing the term, "minority" became a product of modern-states creation (Rowe, pp. 3-4). Once the Ottoman Empire was dissolved, the European powers inherited the former Ottoman domains as granted by the League of Nations-set mandates system and emphasized the different nature of several communities within the given territory, granting them rights under the newly created "minority" label (Rowe, pp. 3-4). Therefore, all ethnic and religious groups in the former Ottoman domains were named "minorities" by the first half of the 20th century. If modern sectarianism, with all its political issues and violence has a creator, it is European (Rowe, pp. 3-4). But with the term "minorities", several social interpretations with a possible impact on society have emerged.

First, the term "minority" provides a juvenile nature to that community, meaning that those members of the community have not yet achieved full rights as the adult majority, while this might have been seen contrary to the social contract established by the `Covenant of Umar` (Grafton, pp. 23-24). Although perceived as either transforming the minority religious communities into a `second-class citizen` by diminishing their visible presence within the Islamic society, or benevolent and just, the `Covenant of Umar` not only provided a mature status by granting autonomy to the protected religious minorities (`dhimmīs`), allowing them to arrange their own affairs, govern their own members and apply their own communal laws and stay behind their own courts in exchange for requirements to be respected by those minorities in their social life, but it set in motion a mature, non-violent and enduring centuries-long relationship between the Muslim dominant class and the religious minorities, took over by the Ottoman-era `millet system` which formalized the ancient `dhimmī` structure into an imperial political system on the same principle: "hospitality and protection to religious minorities on condition of their acknowledging the domination of Islam" (Grafton, pp. 23-24) (Grafton, pp. 20-21) (Grafton, p. 27). But not all religious minorities received the `dhimmīs` status. While for theological reasons, the Christians and the Jews were granted protection due to their monotheistic nature and religious contribution for receiving revelation from God then passed on in Scripture, mentioned in the Quran as the `People of the Book` (`ahl al-kitāb`), Arab or other ethnic polytheists, such as Manicheans, Yazīdīs, Druze, Sikhs, Bābīs, and Bahá’ís, were excluded from receiving the `dhimma` (Grafton, p. 22).

Secondly, the term is threatening because it further divides these "minority" members from their fellow citizens (Rowe, p. 4). This "unnecessary special treatment" was to be perceived by the Coptic Christians in Egypt as an attack on their belonging in their own homeland, while the Kurds see it as an impediment to their full assimilation and participation in their societies (Rowe, p. 4). On the other hand, it was exactly the full assimilation of the Kurds within the Turkish, Arab, or Persian population surrounding them that represents one of the reasons for the lack of a nation state for the Kurdish people, as the Turkish, Iraqi, Syrian, and Iranian governments embarked on a state-building project based on seeking to create national majorities, limiting the growth of civil society among Kurdish people (Gunter, 2011, p. 2) (Rowe, pp 5-6) (Gunter, 2011, p. 15).

But it is the absence of a powerful foreign political sponsor that represents the most crucial external factor for the lack of a nation state for the Kurdish people. The US has supported the creation of a de-facto (not de-jure) Kurdish state in northern Iraq under the Kurdistan Regional Government, and tacitly endorsed the formation of `Rojava` as a de facto autonomous region in north-eastern Syria (Gunter, 2011, pp. 10-11). But this US support came because the Iraqi Kurds proved to be a viable political asset against Saddam Hussein, while the Syrian Kurds (under the People's Defence Units-YPG) proved to be an important military ally in the fight against ISIS, something that the Turkish and Iranian Kurds did not offer, thus eliminating the possible scenario for a unified trans-national de-facto Kurdish state.

In the absence of a foreign sponsor to go beyond supporting the formation of a de-facto Kurdish entity, and political or military causes to attract one, the chances for a de-jure Kurdish state are slim. Moreover, even these de-facto entities in Iraq and Syria are very fragile as Turkey proves to be their greatest nemesis, as Ankara fears that any federal structure granting autonomy to the Kurdish might possess a threatening domino-effect extending to Turkey with the ultimate goal of breaking apart (Gunter, 2011, p. 16).



Grafton D. David, Religious Minorities in The Diversity of Islamic Thought, pp. 19-30.

Gunter, M., The Kurds Ascending, the evolving solution to the Kurdish problem in Iraq and Turkey, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Rowe, S. Paul, (ed. By), Routledge Handbook of Minorities in the Middle East, pp. 1-16.

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