What kind of 'minorities' are the Christians of the Middle East?

By Harry Hagopian
5 Oct 2011

This is a comment on issues raised in an earlier article published by both Ekklesia and the University of Stirling's Critical Religion [1] project, Christians as ‘minorities’ in the Middle East?

First and foremost, let me say that it was a pleasure to read the recent feature article by Dr Michael Marten, lecturer in Postcolonial Studies at the University of Stirling and a fellow Ekklesia associate. In fact, reading his piece reminded me of my time both as Assistant General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches in Beirut / Cyprus almost a couple of decades ago, and later - more briefly - as Middle East Consultant for Minority Rights Group International in London. Those two mandates might initially appear somewhat incongruous in their focus and objectives, so let me use my experience with both bodies to elaborate on the complex issues involved.

With the Middle East Council of Churches, our ethos was to veer away from any usage of the term ‘minorities’, whether in its religious, ethnic or linguistic connotations. This term was seriously unpopular in ecumenical circles - perhaps even more so now than before - by a large majority of Christians. For those indigenous communities that sprang from the region itself and whose roots predated Islam, they often felt that terms such as ‘minorities’ dispossessed them of their sense of belonging and genuineness as an integral part of the broader fabric of the region.

The term also implied - and still does in some cultural contexts today - that numerical inferiority presupposes an unequal submission to the will of the majority, and that it was (in fact still is in the Middle East and North Africa region today, in the midst of revolutions and popular revolts) reminiscent of an insufferable period of servile dhimmitude and second-class citizenship during Ottoman rule.

It felt almost like someone walking into your own house, throwing you out as owner and taking over not solely because s/he is more powerful but also because s/he has a larger number of family members! The analogy is admittedly self-limiting, but it implies a sense of relative de-legitimisation, of powerlessness and vulnerability alike, and ‘minorities’ in the religious, ethnic, linguistic and even cultural senses reject the lack of ‘ownership’ that this term could breed into some psyches.

At Minority Rights Group International, however, the reverse was almost true. The whole ethos and work of this small but skilful NGO - and of many others - whether at the UN in Geneva or elsewhere - was the protection of the rights of minorities through a whole raft of international legal instruments. This meant an acknowledgement of this disputatious term so that it would then become possible to deal with it.

In fact, as Patrick Mackelm from the Faculty of Law at the University of Toronto queried as far back as 2008, “Why should international human rights law vest members of a minority community, either individually or collectively, with rights that secure a measure of autonomy from the state in which they are located?” But as his argument would proceed, there also exists an alternative account of why minority rights possess international significance, one that trades less on the currency of religion, culture and language and more on the value of international distributive justice.

On this account, international minority rights speak to wrongs that international law itself produces by importing international political reality into a legal order. This tortuous account avoids the normative instabilities of attaching universal value to religious, cultural and linguistic affiliation and challenges instead the international legal order to remedy pathologies of its own making.

In fact, some of those tensions remind me of the revolutions that occurred in Europe since 1989 and reawakened many minority issues that had ostensibly lain dormant during the Soviet era. After all, as Geoff Gilbert from the University of Essex reminded us recently, those issues served as catalysts in formulating the Framework Convention (FCNM) of 1995.

But back to the present Middle Eastern context, though. Here, I am perhaps a bit more familiar with those arguments, perceptions and benchmarks that are prevalent in the sphere of minorities’ existential realities or rights. I dare say that these fears are at times being magnified disproportionately across the board. And so whether in the dealings of the various Christian hierarchs with state institutions and leaders, or else in the osmosis between the older generations of various faith communities, there is one school of thought that says that Christians can best protect their interests ‘under the shadow’ of other, stronger groupings.

After all, if we reel back history, this has been the case with many Christian communities such as the Melkites or Jacobites who sought affiliation and protection with kings and bishops as their status became increasingly precarious. Sadly enough, we also witness those same examples in some quarters such as in Syria or Egypt today. But this is also why many Middle Eastern Christians convulse at the idea of being labelled a ‘minority’ and why the contradictions I touched upon between the Middle East Council of Churches and Minority Rights Group International, that appear at first glance to be mutually exclusive, could actually turn into an alliance of purposes. After all, it is perhaps possible to speak of ‘minorities’ - almost teleologically - if that were to avail those communities of the whole spectrum of legal remedies that preserve their rights but still distinguish the definition of this term from its more disparaging, negative, intimidating and unhelpful resonances.

Michael Marten also refers in his piece to a colloquium at the Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt in Germany, where Professor Sidney H Griffith’s The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque was mentioned by one of the speakers as a softer alternative to ‘minorities’. I would assume that the speaker was trying to be sensitive to the allergies associated with this term. But interestingly enough, the very title of this book - whilst highly valuable in itself both in terms of its clarity and simplicity - is not straightforwardly accepted by the culture of many Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa region either.

In fact, much as this book challenges the scholarship on both Islam and Christianity and should therefore be read carefully, its title has lent itself to some divergent interpretations and it seems to me that some non-Arab Christians have not perhaps taken fully on board the subtleties it evokes in local minds. Nonetheless, the book makes many valid points, not least when it helps dismantle the political (and almost apologetic) propensity in interreligious fora these days of referring to Abraham as “our” common forefather. After all, Jews, Christians and Muslims have often differed and even competed on this important figure from Ur (near Nasiriya, not too far from modern-day Baghdad) rather than agreed upon his legacy and the homopolar nature of its inter-faith significance.

Finally, to conclude my fleeting thoughts with a postscript of my own, let me add that I am delighted that Michael will be teaching an under-graduate module on Minorities in the Middle East. Other than the fact that the term might well work as a "quick and dirty" identifier (as he self-depracatingly puts it!), I would also imagine that the module will address the definition and classification of minorities, and perhaps even raise the hugely pertinent point as to whether minority rights belong to the minority or to its individual members. After all, the younger generations of the Middle East and North Africa region might well feel differently from their elders today in view of the different cultural baggage they bring with them into this ongoing discourse.

So while accepting that the term ‘minorities’ might well stay with us, should we perhaps not be a tad more sparing in its definition and usage, in a way that ensures we do not end up colonising the perceptions of the ‘minorities’ themselves?

Note:

[1] Critical Religion is a research project bringing together academics from a wide range of backgrounds to explore the way 'religion' is employed as a a marker, construct and category in public and intellectual discourse. You can follow Critical Religion on Twitter: http://twitter.com/StirCritRel Critical Religion articles and news are also available through Ekklesia here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/criticalreligion

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK) and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net

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