Put ‘Minorities in the Middle East’ into any search engine and a huge volume of articles are displayed insinuating that ethnic, tribal, family and sectarian affiliations are the only relevant factors needed to aid an understanding of the politics and societies of the Maghreb and Mashreq. Be it the often praised ‘mosaic’ of multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies, or the explanation and anticipation of actual and potential conflicts in the Middle East, that are shaped by ethnic, tribal or confessional affiliations, the reading has a flavour of exoticism and orientalism since it focuses on affiliations that are not made through choice but governed by the unchangeable. It also conveys the impression that people in the MENA region are fundamentally different from Western societies, acting on the given and not on legitimate demands, needs, interests, and choices. Minorities are, in a colonialist way, considered as subject to protection by external forces, not as entities in their own right, defined through other characteristics of their identity than those assigned from outside. So for this issue of Perspectives, we decided to ask authors in a broader sense about minority-majority relationships that can, but do not necessarily have to, tackle ethnic or confessional subjects.
Activist Marcelle Shehwaro explains how Syria’s repression of any form of civil society ensured that pre-revolution encounters only took place within your sect, a sectarian approach disguised as harmonic coexistence yet in fact leading to distrust and violence among citizens.
Lucia Marzova focuses on the Dom people, whose way of life, moving from one place to another, is affected by borders rendering them a minority of minorities in danger of losing their traditions because of a lack of recognition. Elza Sefarian, in her article on the disappearance of Lebanon’s ‘Little Armenia’, shows how the garbage crisis is affecting each and every citizen posing not only a threat to health but to the traditions of the Armenian minority in Beirut in particular. The Moroccan expert Dr Ayad Ablal discusses the challenges to religious pluralism in Morocco, be it for converts or agnostics and atheists. Tunis office’s Wafa Ben Haj Omar and Professor Wahid Ferchichi take a closer look at the Tunisian constitution and the granting of individual liberties which when not backed up by political action more often moves in quite another direction. Dr Ali Qleibo from Ramallah gives a comprehensive overview of Sufism in Jerusalem, providing an interpretation stressing the fact that Sufism is a community of practice based on choice.
The Syrian theatre director Abdullah AlKafari explains how artists, perceived as a threat to the authorities, are further marginalised and their work made more precarious than previously, in the wake of an authoritarian backlash.
Individual choices that go strongly against the social norm feature in Joey Ayoub’s article on cycling in crazy traffic in Lebanon, where the lack of a government commitment to the creation of cycle lanes, means citizens take their life in their hands each time they jump on their bikes. Fedwa Bouzit from Morocco speaks about her choice first, to be a vegetarian, and now, a vegan, lifestyles that are difficult to explain in a society where, first through colonialism and later with the advent of fast-food culture, meat became a standard in everyday life.
And what if your identity does not fit with those that endeavour to impose their understanding of moral behaviour? Lebanese LGBTI-activist George Azzi explains that it is not only, or even predominantly, laws that curb LGBTI communities’ space and contest their legitimacy but societies themselves. Tunisia’s constitution grants inclusive rights to the physically and mentally challenged, however, as pioneering activist Manal Bergaoui explains, there is still much to achieve when it comes to its implementation; as revealed by her in-depth look into the realities of life for the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities.
Finally, the satirical magazine al-Hudood from Jordan caricatures the minority of optimists in the Middle East in a fictional interview accompanied by a visual caption.
We took the liberty of illustrating this issue with a regional adaptation of the German Süddeutsche Magazin’s ‘perceived truths’ displayed in diagram form by Katharina Schmidt. In a way these transform ‘common perceptions’ into thought-provoking rather than scientific graphs.
We hope that the ‘majority’ of you will enjoy this ‘minority’ issue.
Dr Bente Scheller, Bauke Baumann, Dr Heike Löschmann, Dr Bettina Marx