One of the most tragic aspects of the present explosion of the so-called Islamic State in Syria and northern Iraq is the ethno-religious cleansing being perpetrated under this self-proclaimed Sunni “caliphate.” This echoes the recent repression of Coptic Christians in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood and the increasing vulnerability of Syria’s religious minorities, including Christians, Druze and the Alawite ruling elite.
With many reports of this violence come adjectives such as “barbarous” and “medieval,” along with the intimation that this sort of intolerance is particularly characteristic of Islam and antithetical to the enlightened and rational secularism of the West.
But brutal as this sectarian violence may be, the fact that there are so many religious minorities in the Middle East stands testament to the reality that, despite long-standing antagonisms, myriad ethnic groups and religious denominations have not only survived but even thrived in this region through some 1,500 years of Islamic domination. The richness of the culture, where many of the ancient sects and arcane languages — often surviving only in small, highly localized communities — predate Christianity, Islam and even modern Judaism, has no parallel in Europe. The Yazidi religion, for example, goes back to Mesopotamia; Aramaic, the language of Jesus, continues to be spoken in a clutch of villages near Damascus.
This is not to say that the Islamic Middle East has been a Shangri-La of tolerance; its history has been punctuated by outbreaks of ethno-religious violence. But on the whole, these have been rare, and rarer still have they been fatal to the communities concerned. Sunnis and Shiites have intermarried and intermingled for a thousand years, and Alawites and Druze, considered heretical by Sunnis, have prospered. Aside from occasional, localized bouts of oppression, Judaism flourished in the Muslim Middle East until only very recent times, and Christianity has a diversity unequaled elsewhere.
In modern Western Europe, on the other hand, as the idea of nationalism took shape and populist democracy emerged, the notion was established that each nation had one language, one people and one religion. European rulers staked their legitimacy on their claim to universal moral authority and religious orthodoxy. By extension, all those who were not religiously orthodox were considered suspect, persecuted and, in some cases, eliminated. Muslim and Jewish communities were targeted for elimination; heretical Christian groups were eradicated; and the Protestant-Catholic split led to a series of bloody wars. The secularized ideologies that emerged in the last century, like Stalinism and fascism, were no more forgiving.
In the Middle East and Islamic Eastern Mediterranean, religious diversity has long been established as part of the region’s culture as a practical necessity, if not as a virtue in itself. The state here is traditionally conceived of as an aggregate of distinct ethnic and religious communities, with one group dominant and the others formally subordinate. Historically, the minority dhimmi, or “protected” communities, had rights enshrined by law, and their own parallel systems of justice. The ethno-religious community, rather than the individual, was privileged and protected, and while personal liberties may have been restricted, social stability was the reward. Equity, rather than equality, is the aspiration in such an arrangement, for it is equity that guarantees the survival of vulnerable communities. Hence, the Coptic Christians of Egypt have not only survived but maintained their cohesiveness, their identity and even their influence in the administration and financial sectors to this day.
This reflects an entirely different model of political compromise than that which has developed in the West, and it may seem regressive to us. But it is an arrangement that developed organically and has functioned for about 14 centuries.
The breakdown of religious tolerance and plurality in today’s Middle East is not, then, a manifestation of some particularly Islamic barbarism or evidence of a return to the Middle Ages. Nor is it religious in motivation, although it may be in expression. It is a symptom of what we call modernization, and its political framework: nationalism.
European-style nationalism was not forced on the Middle East; the emerging native political classes aspired to nationalism as a model from the late 19th century onward because of its association with modernity and prosperity. In fact, quite by accident, the imposition of the arbitrary state boundaries after World War I put a brake on national movements by drawing borders that did not coincide with ethnically homogenous “nations,” thereby ensuring that many of the new states would remain diverse.
Today, we seem to be witnessing a process of nationalistic realignment in the rest of the Middle East — a process we have hurried along since 2002 by undermining the artificially created nations that were the legacy of European colonialism. If this is the case, we can probably expect a lot more “medieval barbarity” — at least through the medium term. But what is the alternative? Shall we prop up authoritarian regimes that are themselves oppressive? We say we want the Muslim Arab countries to “step up,” but do we want a Middle East colonized by Wahhabist elites?
The lessons from our past are not particularly heartening. It took Europe 500 years (and counting) to establish her national boundaries — half a millennium of warfare and genocide on a massive scale. Even now, the persistence of xenophobia and racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia show that our societies have not fully worked through the challenges of diversity. Whatever evil lies at the heart of the Islamic State is the same evil that lurks in the heart of all mankind.
Perhaps, all we can do now is encourage the development of institutions based on inclusiveness but which resonate with the cultures of these lands, rather than attempt to impose on them imperfect models rooted in our own particular experience for which they will feel no affinity or attraction. That, and brace ourselves for the worst.
Brian A. Catlos is a religious studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.