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Declining religious diversity in the Middle East
The Middle East, once a region of great religious diversity, has in recent decades seen a mass emigration of minorities – now making it one of the most religiously monolithic regions in the world. Joseph Braude reports.
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Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.

Jews and Christians were at one time far more common in countries like Morocco, Tunisia and Syria. But over the last few decades, many religious minorities have departed for Europe, Israel and the United States. 

Norman Stillman, history professor at the University of Oklahoma and author of The Jews of Arab Lands, questions the great change. “The Middle East was once, like many other great imperial areas, a great mass of ethnicities, languages, religions that had large numbers of Christians and Jews. It had large numbers of different Muslim ethnic groups. How is it that a world that was so multiethnic 80 years ago has become, basically, so monolithic?”

“Both the Jews and the Christians of the Middle East are in a sense the native Americans of the Middle East,” says Franck Salameh, Near Eastern studies professor at Boston College and author of Language, Memory, and Identity in the Middle East: The Case for Lebanon. “If we want to speak in terms of precedence, they were the people who were there first, before there were any Arabs in the region. Arabs began pouring into the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa beginning in the 7th century. But prior to that, if we want to go into words like “indigenous,” the indigenous inhabitants of the Middle East were Christians and Jews.”

A 7th century document called “Sahifat al-Madina” – the Constitution of Medina, by the prophet Muhammad – lays the groundwork for a new relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims to govern an expanding Islamic empire. A key term in the document, later expounded in other Islamic texts, is “protection.”

According to Salameh, “It regulated the existence of the dhimmi people: the Jews and Christians who came to fall under the rule of Islam. It was a system of unequal relationships whereby the dhimmi people were relegated to certain professions and certain areas within the domains of Islam. It was also a system of taxation where Christians and Jews paid a special poll tax that essentially was meant to allow them to remain on their lands.” 

The last Muslim empire was the Ottoman Empire which ruled from Istanbul for centuries. Some Ottoman rulers applied the laws of the dhimma more stringently than others. But by the dawn of the 20th century, the empire’s dhimmi had noticed that there could be other ways of living – through the institutions and ideals of Europe.

“Minorities began to look outside the Islamic world with the ascendance of the West,” says Stillman. “They were the first ones to seek modern educations. They were the first ones to learn foreign languages. They also served as intermediaries between the outside forces that were penetrating their world.”

Some Christians and Jews moved to Europe. Others served European colonial powers, such as France and Britain, as they took control of former Ottoman provinces like Syria and Iraq.  Others – notably Christians – tried to help import a new form of political thought to the Middle East: nationalism.

“They began advocating the idea that rather than us being Muslims, Jews, and Christians, we were all a single people. We were all Arab people. We’re all users of the Arabic language. We’re all Arab speakers. Therefore we are all Arabs. That’s the idea that took flight beginning in the 1930s and gave rise to this concept of the ‘Arab world,’” says Salameh.

In 1952, Arab nationalism achieved a major victory that attracted international attention.

George Caldas is an Egyptian Coptic Christian came of age as nationalists, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, took control of the country. 

“I was born in Alexandria, which was a big mixture of many nationalities. From 1952, the Egyptian revolution started little by little picking off all the “foreigners” first.”

Two countries in the region, Israel and Lebanon, developed as havens for religious minorities, particularly Jews and Christians, in the face of Arab nationalism.

“Greater Lebanon was an entity that would be a homeland for Middle Eastern Christians -- and others, if they wished to be part of that configuration,” says Salameh. “The State of Israel instigated the exodus of Palestinian Arabs out of Israel into neighboring Arab-defined countries, but traditional scholarship does not tell us of the influx of Jews from Arab lands into Israel.  Both these states were viewed by the surrounding Muslim-majority states, or Arab-majority states, as anomalies that needed to be removed from their midst.”

The polarization between Maronite Christian and Jewish nationalists on the one hand, and Arab nationalists on the other, spurred a civil war in Lebanon and a series of wars between Israel and several Arab states.

These wars caused refugees, many of them religious minorities, to spill out of Arab countries into Israel, Lebanon and beyond: Europe and the Americas.

Now, only a few decades later, a new wave of revolutions is largely displacing the ideology of Arab nationalism with a new take on governance based on traditional Islamic principles. What will it bring to the remnants of the region’s religious minorities? Even though over a dozen Coptic churches in Egypt have been firebombed in recent months, Caldas hopes for the best.

“Any democracy, when it starts, starts always violently. So this could not be taken to be against anybody or any revolution.”

But Salameh, taking the long view, sees an unmistakable trend.

“There has been – beginning in the 7th century – a squeezing out process of minorities [from] the Middle East. For a while, this squeezing out has stopped in places like Lebanon and Israel. But it seems that this squeezing out has been re-actuated and Christian communities have begun a more severe exodus. Up until 1952, there were a number of Coptic parishes in the United States, maybe two or three. Today they number in the hundreds. The same applies in Europe, Canada, South America, and so forth.” 

In light of new pressures on parishes in the Middle East and the people who pray in them, it’s not easy to see this outflow letting up. But global concern can be valuable in supporting the rights of Middle Eastern minorities, as well as highlighting the value of diversity in the ancient heartlands of all three monotheistic faiths.

– Reported by Joseph Braude for America Abroad

Religious Minorities in the Middle East / Produced by Kimberly Adams, Joseph Braude, Katherine Lanpher, the team at Tunisia Live, and A.C. Valdez/ Edited by Martha Little with additional production help from Flawn Williams. / Web Producer: Philippa Levenberg / Photos: Marcus F. BenignoSeth Frantzman (via Flickr), AP/Ben Curtis, and spdl_n1 (via Flickr).

Host: Ray Suarez / Length: 51 minutes / Airdate: Feb 2013

This show was made possible through the generous support of The Henry Luce Foundation.

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