Arab nationalism and the non-Arabs of the Middle East

434px-kurds_and_catholic1.jpgLee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Kurds with a Christian priest in 1873
The Middle East is a vast area and sadly the non-Arab minorities and non-Arabs who have been Arabized are often neglected. After all, you hear about the Arab Spring in Egypt but between 10% and 12% of Egyptians are Coptic Christians. Therefore, like usual, the indigenous Copts are being marginalized by massive generalizations and how many Muslims will have Coptic blood?

It is also factual that the “Arab card” is often equated with victimhood however this is a distortion of reality. This applies to the colonial nature of Arab imperialism over non-Arabs and this applies to language, culture, and other areas.

In recent times millions of Africans were slaughtered by the Arab dominated regime in Khartoum, Sudan. However, this was also glossed over because the Palestinian issue grabs the limelight even when other regional areas are more severe.

The Kurds for example have suffered the destruction of countless villages in Turkey and they suffer systematic persecution in this nation and throughout the region. Therefore, the Kurds who number more than 30 million in the Middle East are the biggest ethnic group in the region without any nation state.

Kurds have suffered and been victims of Arab nationalism, Persian nationalism and Turkish nationalism. Tens of thousands have perished in the last 30 years and systematic campaigns have been aimed against Kurds.

In Iraq under Saddam Hussein you had a clear Arabization campaign and poison gas was even used against the Kurds. However, the romantic view of “Arab victimhood” persists despite the ongoing reality of Algeria where Berbers suffer, the continuing threat towards Assyrian Christians in Iraq, persecution of Copts in Egypt and endless massacres against Africans in Sudan.

When most people think about the Middle East the usual images arise, for example the religion of Islam and the role of Arabs in this vast region. However, in many societies you have a rich mosaic of differences and the so-called “Arab Street” ignores this rich diversity.

If we focus on Egypt, then the indigenous Coptic Christians who number between 8 and 12 million, depending on different data; also face enormous problems in their own homeland. After all, just like the vast majority of Arab dominated nations in this region, the Arabs conquered and colonized many parts of the Middle East.

However, despite enormous persecution in the past, and continuing problems in modern day Egypt, the Coptic Christians are a further reminder of the rich mosaic of the entire region. Also, the legacy of Coptic Christianity applies to monasticism and the “Christian heart” is still “beating” despite Islamic and state persecution in modern Egypt.

In Lebanon and Sudan you have countless different ethnic groups and Christianity is still strong in Lebanon. In Sudan the Christian faith was a strong binding force in preventing Arabization and now a new state is being created in the south which is mainly non-Arab.

It could be argued that in recent times the different African tribes in Sudan and the Kurds in northern Iraq are chipping away at the Arab colonial reality. Berbers in Algeria are also fed-up with their second-class status and while most Berbers are Muslim their version is very moderate. Also, in recent times it is reported that 30,000 Muslim Berbers have reverted back to the original Christian faith which flourished in this region before Islamization and Arabization.

In modern day Iraq around 23% of the population is non-Arab and this applies to the Assyrians, Kurds, Turkomans, and others. For the Assyrian Christians, Arabization and Islamization is still a great threat and hundreds of thousands have fled since America invaded Iraq. However, the Kurds have a major stronghold in northern Iraq because of military and ethnic factors.

Yet people often refer to Iraq being an Arab nation, however, the Assyrians are the indigenous people and the rich civilization of this nation belongs to the ancient Assyrian Empire. Meanwhile, today, it is clear that Arabization and Islamization is a serious threat to the Christian minority in Iraq.

However, for the Kurds, it is clear that a “real Kurdistan” remains in the offing in the future because the 30 million plus Kurds of the Middle East desire an independent homeland. Therefore, northern Iraq appears to be the most likely start of this new nation.

Yet for other minorities in Iraq, notably the Assyrian Christians, the Mandaeans, the Shabaks, the Yazidis, and Turkomans; they face a very fragile future and many may not survive the current crisis in modern day Iraq. After all, you have competing nationalistic forces in parts of Iraq which threatens all the minorities. Added to this, you have radical Sunni Islam which is bent on crushing the minorities within Iraq, therefore, Christians, Shabaks, Mandaeans, and Yazidis, are under siege.

The current crisis in Iraq, just like in Sudan, does tell us about past history. After all, the African Dinka and Nuer, and other African ethnic groups in Sudan, had to use military force in order to prevent Arabization and Islamization. Therefore, just like in modern day Iraq, where Assyrian Christians, Shabaks, Mandaeans, and Yazidis, face daily persecution, it is clear that past conquests pushed out the indigenous population or completely marginalized them.

Therefore, if the indigenous population survived then Arabization policies would be the next stage in altering the indigenous reality that once existed. Also, many people link the Arab language with Islam and this shows the effectiveness of Arabization and Islamization.

The truth could not be more different because Pagan Arabs and Christian Arabs in Arabia before Islam clearly spoke Arabic. Also, modifications were happening in the Arabic language prior to Islam because Christian Arabs and other faiths in Arabia were adding to the Arabic language.

Berbers also face Arabization policies in Algeria and just like the Kurds who are mainly Muslim, it is clear that Islam is secondary because Arab nationalism in more potent. The same of course applies to African Muslims in Sudan. Given this, Arab nationalism is still a major threat to many ethnic minorities and the Berbers in Algeria and African Muslims in Darfur are witnesses to the mass negatives of Arab nationalism.

Overall, it is clear that the Middle East is very diverse and many minorities exist within this vast region. Meanwhile in nations like Iran and Turkey, it is clear that they are mainly non-Arab nation states. Despite this, we often hear about the “Arab street” or the “Arab Middle East.”

I have only “scratched on the surface” because you have many other ethnic and religious groups in this vast region. At the same time, you have great richness within the Syriac world and others. Therefore, much which is deemed Arab is not and the cultures which existed before the Arab conquests should not be swept away and ignored.

Arab nationalism remains potent alongside radical Islam and non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslim minorities face a hostile environment. It doesn’t help when the outside world also marginalizes ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.