One of the main criticisms that the Tharwa Project has received focuses on its emphasis on the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in the region, noting that this could easily conflict with other avowed goals of the Project, namely: the interest in democracy promotion in the region and raising the standards of civic awareness and citizenship therein. The emphasis on minorities, we are told, could eventually increase the feeling of non-belonging and separation among minority groups, further isolating them from the rest of society and further feeding the growing ethnic and sectarian suspicions that exist between minority and majority populations in the region. As such, wouldn’t it be better to simply focus on democratization and citizen rights?
While this might appear to be a legitimate concern at first, it actually misses the point, namely: the need for moving beyond general considerations of our problems in the region towards the adoption of more specific and concrete programs for action.
For without addressing the issue of growing ethnic and sectarian tensions that divide the populations of certain countries, ideas of citizenship, equality before the law and equal opportunity, to name but a few, cannot acquire a real and realistic substance. A member of a persecuted group cannot be simply won-over on general and vague promises of citizen rights. Memories and a history of persecution and marginalization cannot be so easily put aside.
Given the chance, members of minority groups will more likely clamor for special legal and constitutional guarantees and monitoring mechanisms. They might even call for compensations in some cases, and the adoption of certain transitional measures and practices meant to help offset the practical effects of the persecution they suffered.
For their part, majorities, who often tend to be deeply prejudiced as well as ignorant of the realities that minority groups have to deal with, sometimes on a daily basis, will be quite unwilling to accommodate minority demands on many pretexts, including the one noted above, that is, the claim that focusing on minority issues will only reinforce minorities’ feeling of separation and isolation from the rest of society.
This matter is further complicated by the fact that, in some countries, ruling elites who come from minority background seem to have usurped the reign of power on the pretext that this was the only way to safeguard the rights of their particular communities. Such situations, naturally, only feed the underlying distrust between minority groups and majority populations involved.
Obviously, none of the issues involved here could be addressed in vague and general terms. If any of these situations are to be resolved, they need to be addressed directly, baldly, creatively, and in very specific terms.
Here, however, we have to wonder as to the extant to which states can go to be accommodative of minority concerns. This is indeed a more legitimate and practical concern to raise with regard to minority-majority relations, though no clear answer can really be given, as different communities and countries are bound, through a process of negotiations and dialogue, to come up with their own practical arrangements, arrangements that may not work or prove acceptable in other communities and countries.
One thing is clear though, minority-majority relations will always be dialectical in nature, even in the most democratic societies. Just consider the continuing struggle in the EU and US with the concept of multiculturalism and their ongoing attempt to accommodate the aspirations and idiosyncrasies of the growing non-western communities in their midst. On the other hand, we can also consider the now defunct Ottoman Millet System based on the Islamic concept of Dhimmitude. The Millet System did work for many centuries, but now, it is no longer acceptable and it is indeed far from the ideal of equal citizenship to which many religious minority groups aspire.
As such, practical arrangements need to be constantly revisited and redefined so that the societies involved can continue to widen the scope of acceptance of mutual rights and responsibilities. But the ideal concept of citizenship will probably never be achieved.
Indeed, for democratization efforts and moves towards promoting a greater sense of civic awareness in the region to prove successful, we need to move from the general to the specific, we need to address the specific concerns of minorities and we need to be involved in the nitty-gritty of working out practical social and political arrangements and accommodations.
Without the willingness and the courage to work along these lines, we will continue to be bogged down in generalities and will continue to ignore basic problems in our lives and societies, problems that will most surely come back to haunt us, one way or another, in the not so distant future. Lebanon has provided a good lesson in this regard, and Iraq is currently providing another.
If we truly understand the gist of these lessons, then we will understand how critically important it is for the peoples of this region to begin to talk more honestly and freely about their concerns with regard to the issue of minority-majority relations. Providing such a forum is indeed the main goal of Tharwa.
Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.