When Minorities Rule

A presentation by Martin Kramer to the Policy Forum of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, December 15, 2004. Martin Kramer shared the podium with Ammar Abdulhamid, Syrian writer, intellectual, and coordinator of the Damascus-based Tharwa Project , a program devoted to religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East. A summary of Abdulhamid’s remarks appears here. Posted retroactively at Sandbox.

When we hear the phrase “minority rule,” the first inclination is to think that it is something abhorrent. It is precisely the phrase that was used to categorize South Africa under apartheid: white minority rule. We assume that such rule is illegitimate by definition. The European ideal of the nation, as it formed in the nineteenth century, is predicated on the nation as a numerical majority, formed by people who share some fundamental attribute of culture, be it language, ethnicity, religion, or shared descent. The numerically smaller groups within the polity that do not share this attribute are described as minorities, and as such should be entitled to various protections even as they are offered avenues of assimilation. What is insufferable is minority rule; that is an inversion of the natural order.

Historical legacy

But this is a very modern and very European idea. Minority rule has long been the norm in the Middle East. The traditional Muslim polity was not concerned with establishing the numerical superiority of Muslims. Indeed, in the most dynamic Muslim empires, Muslim minorities ruled over non-Muslim majorities. We do not have hard figures, but the evidence suggests that in the great Arab empires, Muslims did not form the majority of the population until the early Middle Ages. In the Ottoman empire, for most of its existence, and while it encompassed the Balkans, Muslims were in the minority. In the Moghul empire in South Asia, the Muslims formed a thin ruling crust resting upon a predominantly Hindu society.

Muslims did not agonize over their status as numerical minorities in these situations. The natural order since time immemorial had been imperial rule by elites who embraced a different culture, language, and religion than those of the populations over which they ruled. And since sovereignty belonged to God, and through him to the divine-right ruler, the question of who was in the majority or the minority had no relevance. Legitimacy had other sources, in Islamic law, and in the ideal of just rule.

Muslim empires generally ruled according to the precept that “there is no coercion in religion,” and because non-Muslims were subject to extra taxation, it actually served the rulers to remain in a minority. The result was that the Middle East, even after the Islamic conquests and the gradual conversions to Islam, remained home to a plethora of religious and other minorities, which enjoyed considerable autonomy. This gave rise to the mosaic that we see today, comprised of enclaves of different religions, sects, and ethnic groups. This is a consequence of the kind of social contract that prevailed across the Islamic Middle East for centuries: authority tolerated the autonomy of varied groups in society, and society accepted rule by an elite minority.

Now there are debates about the nature of this system, and the tradeoffs it involved. There is the harsh view of Bat Ye’or, who believes that the traditional system of state relations with non-Muslim minorities constituted a kind of thousand-year apartheid, systematically discriminating against non-Muslims, leaving them in an endemic state of insecurity. She has named this sort of apartheid dhimmitude, after the word dhimmi, which means a Christian or Jew living as a subordinate protected person under Islamic rule.

There is the rather more nuanced view of Bernard Lewis, who argues that the cases of actual persecution of minorities were few, certainly as compared to Europe, and that they occurred as a consequence of general societal crises. Lewis holds that in most places and times, minorities did thrive in their own autonomous space. He has been keen to stress that such tolerance was not equality, which would have been a dereliction of Islamic law, but his is a generally favorable assessment.

Finally, there is a view best articulated by the late Elie Kedourie, who believed that the Islamic system in its last, Ottoman phase had achieved a nearly perfect equilibrium among social groups. He regarded European nationalist ideas as a virus that brought disease, and the destruction of the Ottoman empire in the First World War as an act of hubris, one that unleashed the very worst forces, and substituted a “wilderness of tigers” for an ordered world in which everyone had a defined place.

Whatever you think of these approaches, it is clear that the Middle East since the end of the Ottoman empire, if not also in its last days, has been a dangerous place for many minorities. The list is long: the Armenian tragedy or genocide; the depradations against Assyrians upon Iraq’s independence; the persecution of ancient Jewish communities across the Arabic-speaking lands; the enslavement and massacre of non-Muslim blacks in Sudan; and the list goes on. As a result, parts of the Middle East have become much less diverse than they were two generations ago. Just visit Alexandria, which was once a Mediterranean melting pot, and that has become a bleak and monolithic city with its back to the sea. Just visit Bethlehem, now largely emptied of its Christian population. There are many such cities and towns and villages across the Middle East, where monotone has replace mosaic.

That change was the result of coercive nationalism, which declared that you must either shed all your particular beliefs and traditions, in order to join the Arab (or Egyptian or Syrian) nation; or you will be regarded as a foreigner and fifth-columnist of imperialism, and be gradually dispossessed and driven out. It is true that both Britain and France used minorities as allies in their efforts to find economical ways to exert imperial control. They recruited from minorities, as a counter-balance to the very same Arab nationalism they had once promoted. But the Arab nationalists then took this as a license to suppress and dispossess those very same minorities. The predominant effect of half a century of Arab nationalism has been this: those who would not or could not conform, had to submit or leave. Christians submitted or left. Kurds and Shi’ites in Iraq faced a similar choice. Jews left or reassembled in Israel, a kind of redoubt for a minority that made a programatic plan to become a majority in one place, and so chart its own course.

Now the interesting thing about Arab nationalism is that, while it purports to represent the identity of the majority of Middle Easterners, many of its prime promoters have been members of minorities. Many of its early ideologues were Christians, who saw in Arab identity a way to escape their own subordinate status in an Islamic state. The Hashemites, who were installed in Transjordan, Iraq, and briefly before that in Syria, were outsiders—a small ruling clique imported from Arabia. In Syria, it was minority groups, such as Alawis, Druze, and Ismailis, who seized the mantle of Arabism from the old Sunni elite, and used it to make Syria into a pan-Arab champion. And in Iraq, when the minority regime of the Hashemites fell, it was eventually replaced by minority regimes of Sunni Muslims who concocted a notion of Arabo-Iraqi identity, precisely to deflect the charge that they were ruling on behalf of a minority sect. Jordan is a case of minority rule twice over: by the imported Hashemites, and by the native East Bankers in preference to the imported Palestinians, who form a majority.

So even in the era of nationalism, the Middle East, east of Suez at least, continued to be ruled by minorities. This applied not only to Sunni-ruled Iraq, Alawi-ruled Syria, and Hashemite-ruled Jordan. It has also come to apply to the Arab Gulf states, in which the number of foreigners now wildly exceeds the number of natives. This is one of the paradoxes of Arabism: it was used by regimes to give themselves a veneer of populism, when in fact these regimes had their bases in minority groups.

Democracy vs. social order

Outsiders, especially Westerners, look at this and say to themselves: this is not legitimate and it cannot last. Each person should be allotted one equal vote. If that means that power will shift from the Sunnis to the Shiites in Iraq, so be it; if that means it will shift from the Alawis to the Sunnis in Syria, so be it; if that means it will make the Shiites into Lebanon’s power-brokers, so be it; and if that means dominance will shift from the Hashemites and the East Bankers to the Palestinians in Jordan, then so be it. Minority rule is a vestige of the past; let it be phased out, through the implementation of real democracy.

This is the reason democracy promotion is so feared in the Middle East. We see democratization as a noble enterprise to erode authoritarian rule. They see it as a foreign demand for a fundamental shift of power among sectarian and ethnic groups. In a homogenous place like Egypt, and in other parts of North Africa where the rulers come from the majority social or ethnic group, democracy does not have that same association. But across the Fertile Crescent, to empower “the majority” means to take power away from a long-empowered sectarian or ethnic or kinship group that happens to be smaller, and vest it in one that happens to be larger.

The problem with this is that minority rule can sometimes be more respectful of difference, more tolerant, and more open than majority rule. That certainly was the case in the Ottoman empire for much of its history. It has arguably been the case in places like the progressive Gulf states and Jordan. In Iraq, of course, minority rule was a disaster. In other words, minority rule may be good, or it may be bad; it may be enlightened or it may be despotic; it depends on the circumstances.

The same goes for majority rule. The principal effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein has been to bring the Shi’ites to the fore of politics in the Arab world. The United States, willy-nilly, has allied itself to Shi’ite power, by dint of its democratizing message. But it is by no means certain that Shi’ite power will be tolerant of the pluralistic values that democracy is supposed to nuture and protect. Indeed, in Iraq, the prospects for such an outcome would seem to rest on the shoulders of one 74-year-old man, Ayatollah Sistani. In Lebanon, too, it is not at all clear that an enhancement of Shi’ite power would make the country more open and tolerant of differences, be they political, cultural, or religious. And would we really want Palestinians, with their historic long-running grievances, to set the course of Jordan?

The democracy agenda tampers with much more than the political order. It tampers with the social order, in a number of places where that order functions passably. These are conservative societies; they fear disorder; and if democracy means overturning ethnic and sectarian balances, and opening the door to possible conflict, they are bound to suspect it.

In fact, the unseating of such minorities already has a reputation for serving as a precursor to civil strife. It could well be argued that Lebanon would not be Lebanon without the Maronites; in the same measure, Iraq would not be Iraq without the Sunnis. These minorities founded both states, and they legitimized their separate existence. In Lebanon, the decline of the Maronite minority has left a vacuum that persists to this day, and that makes it uncertain even now whether the country can be restored to sovereignty. The same holds true of Iraq: the displacement of the Sunnis, who have always been the hinge of Iraq, has unhinged the country. One does not have to be a follower of the Phalanges or the Baath party to realize that these two communities have cultural roles in both countries beyond their numbers, and that their marginalization might be as fateful for pluralism as the earlier marginalization of Jews, Greeks, and the other groups that leavened Middle Eastern society.

America’s inadvertent overturning of the group hierarchy is one of the reasons why “they hate us.” The people who really hate America think that it will do everywhere what it has done in Iraq: shift power to the benighted Shi’ites, in the name of democracy. The empowerment of the Jews via the creation of Israel overturned one traditional order, but empowering Shi’ites is an escalation that reaches into the very essence of Islam. That is what fuels the insurgency in Iraq, and that is what keeps new recruits coming to Al-Qaeda. All one has to do to find evidence is look at the jihadist websites to see what they say about Shi’ites. We are tampering with a 1,400-year-old hierarchy, the product of untold generations of struggle within Islam.

Self-determination first

If democracy contains within it the seed of disorder, what is the alternative? The problem in the Arab world is not a lack of democracy. It is a lack of self-determination. Here I do not mean national self-determination; I mean latitude for ethnic, religious, and kinship groups to exercise the maximum autonomous control over their collective lives. This is what has been eroded by the cancerous growth of the state over the past fifty years, exemplified by Iraq. The problem is the overbearing state, which has achieved efficiency in one thing only: depriving the Middle Easterner of the freedom he most cherishes, which is to be left alone to practice his faith, speak his language, and enjoy the traditions of his sub-national community.

This community does not always value democracy. In Iraq’s Sunni triangle, they like their tribes and they might want a tough-minded sheikh to keep order among them; in the Shi’ite south, they might wish to venerate a white-bearded recluse in a turban, and have him resolve all their disputes; and so on. What they crave is not democracy, but sub-national self-determination, for both majorities and minorities. More important to them than one-man one-vote, are guarantees for social, religious and linguistic freedom, implied by the retreat of the state.

To what point should it retreat? Ideally, to the distance at which the Ottomans stood. We have much more to learn from the Ottoman way of empire in the Middle East than from the British or the French. The European imperial powers also overturned heirarchies, which is why they constantly had to put down the kind of insurgencies that the United States now faces in Iraq. The Ottomans obviously had certain advantages over Europeans: first, they were Muslims, and second, the peoples of the Middle East were not at a heightened level of political consciousness until the empire’s last days. But the Ottomans ruled for as long as they did because they did not threaten their subjects with an all-intrusive state, and did not seek to turn the social order on its head.

An interviewer once asked the late Elie Kedourie whether he was nostalgic for the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires. Kedourie replied:

Nostalgia is not a very profitable sentiment nor is there any sense in regretting something that cannot be revived. All one can say, is that these political systems and institutions, contraptions, or call them whatever you will, worked while they were there. They functioned; and considering the societies that that Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians ruled, they did not do a bad job of it. What one can also say, is that the successor states have failed lamentably.

He went on to praise the Ottomans for their “very sensible attitude to the problems raised by large groups of people who were under their control. When it came to insurrection, the Ottomans were quite ruthless. But apart from that they tried very hard to maneuver, to meander, to try and conciliate.”

America cannot revive the Ottoman empire, but it might take a lesson from its legacy: that empire is most effective when it is invisible, that there are things worse than minority rule, that there is no greater evil in the Middle East than an intrusive state, that people who do not rebel deserve to be left alone to run their affairs as they see fit, and that it is wisest not to overturn existing heirarchies, but to maneuver and meander within them. Pursue the idea of majority rule, come what may, and we may eventually find the majority of the Middle East agreed on one thing: that America is an evil empire. That kind of consensus is bound to undermine American interests, and would be the worst outcome of the best intentions.