In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Minorities in the Middle East

  • Introduction
  • General Overview

International Relations Minorities in the Middle East
Ibrahim Zabad
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0275


Minority is a difficult concept to deal with as there is no internationally agreed definition that specifies which groups are minorities. Minority is not simply a neutral term but is rather a sociological concept laden with meanings. Even in consolidated democracies, a parliamentary minority, for example, by definition lacks power. Any definition of the concept of minority must account for both objective and subjective factors. A minority must be a separate ethnic, linguistic, religious, or sectarian group, and clearly perceiving itself as a minority. A widely accepted definition is that of Francesco Capotorti, who believes that a minority must be numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a state and has to be in non-dominant position. The later principle of non-dominance might create some difficulties in defining minorities in the Middle East. For example, a numerical minority in Syria, the Alawites, are in power, so was the Sunni numerical minority in Iraq until the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. However, in this article, I do not treat politically dispossessed majorities as minorities. Indeed, the oppressed majority “perceives” itself as a “majority” that is deprived of its rightful power privileges, and not as an oppressed minority. Additionally, looking at ethnic groups at the regional level, not state-level, we do have clear majorities and minorities: the Persians, the Arabs, the Turks are a majority and every other ethnicity is a minority; looking at religious groups, Sunni Muslims are a majority and every other religion is a minority. The Middle East is the cradle of ancient civilizations, the birthplace of the three monotheistic religions, and the land of a multitude of ethnic and religious minorities. However, most scholars who study the Middle East focused on wars, oil, and geopolitics and ignored minorities. But the tumultuous Arab Spring demonstrated that the fate of the region is intricately related to the fate of its minorities and that various minorities are positioned to play a crucial role in shaping the region. Minorities are not simply subjects of state persecution or minoritization processes but have become in some instances energetic actors and dynamic agents. Discrimination against minorities is common among almost all Middle Eastern countries. Historically speaking, minorities have been oppressed, marginalized, under-represented, and subjected to variable degrees of repression and violence. Many clerics, especially the Wahhabis, decry minorities, such as the Shiʿi, the Bahaʾis, and Yezidis as heretics, thus justifying and even encouraging violence against them. Religious freedom is another major issue that besets the region. The Sunni- Shiʿite divide has become a major fault line that shapes politics in the region, especially the Iranian-Saudi rivalry. Tensions between Muslims and Christians are still apparent in many countries, especially in Egypt and in Iraq.

General Overview

The following works provide general introduction to minorities in the region. Hourani 1947 was among the first to introduce minorities and the author himself described his work as a tentative introduction to an ignored subject; Nisan 2002 highlights the region’s diversity by shedding light on the natives who inhabited the region before the Arabo-Islamic conquest; Ma’oz 1999 explores both conflictual majority-minority interactions and forces of assimilation and integration; Routledge Handbook of Minorities in the Middle East (2019) is a comprehensive collection of essays on various ethnic and religious minorities and numerous related majority-minority issues; Robson 2016 offers a theoretical discussion of the concept of minority before delving into the processes of minoritization carried out by the states and minorities’ reactions to these processes; Kumaraswamy 2003 explores various problems related to the study of minorities in the region; finally, Russell 2015 combines travelogues and meticulous historical research to study the lesser known minorities in the Middle East: the Mandaeans, the Yezidis, the Zoroastrians, the Druze, the Samaritans, the Copts, and the Kalasha (Pakistan).

  • Hourani, Albert H. Minorities in the Arab World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1947.

    Albert Hourani wrote in his preface in 1947 that his book is only “a tentative introduction to a subject which has not yet been dealt with fully and objectively.” This is indeed a superb introduction to the question of minorities in the region. The book introduces a list of minorities and dedicates one chapter to each country (Egypt, Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) along with general survey chapters.

  • Kumaraswamy, P. R. “Problems of Studying Minorities in the Middle East.” Alternatives: Turkish Journal of International Relations 2.2 (2003): 244–264.

    A short article that discusses various problems and questions surrounding the study of minorities in the region.

  • Ma’oz, Moshe. Middle Eastern Minorities: Between Integration and Conflict. Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1999.

    A policy paper that covers minority populations in Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, exploring the forces of integration and antagonism. A fine study that doesn’t only highlight conflictual majority-minority interactions but also explores coexistence and assimilation tracing changes in minorities’ fate since the 19th century.

  • Nisan, Mordechai. Minorities in the Middle East: A History of Struggle and Self-Expression. 2d ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.

    Nisan highlights the region’s diversity by shedding light on the natives who preceded Arab Muslims and asking whether Arab Muslims “should be considered as native inhabitants, or perhaps foreign conquerors.” The book explores five non-Arab Muslim communities (Kurds, Berbers, Baluch, Druzes, Alawites), five Christian communities (Copts, Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites, Christians in Sudan) and the Jewish people. An informative book but with a strong opinion on conquest, domination and lost status.

  • Robson, Laura, ed. Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016.

    The first part of the book is extremely interesting for shedding light on the concept of minority itself before delving into more substantive and empirical issues. The second part explores the processes of minoritization carried out by the newly emerging states, societal reactions to such processes, and the various tactics that minority groups employed to navigate their new status. The third part explores minorities in the transnational spheres.

  • Rowe, Paul S. Routledge Handbook of Minorities in the Middle East. London: Routledge, 2019.

    This handbook, which manages to bring together some of the finest Middle Eastern scholars, is divided into four sections. Section 1 deals with various issues regarding majority-minority dynamics. Section 2 focuses on religious and ethno-religious minorities. Section 3 explores the question of ethnic minorities and section four deals with various contemporary issues such as minorities and armed conflicts and the media. Most of the chapters are small and accessible.

  • Russell, Gerard. Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East. New York: Basic Books, 2015.

    The book combines travelogues and meticulous historical research that tackle the lesser known minorities in the Middle East: the Mandaeans, the Yezidis, the Zoroastrians, the Druze, the Samaritans, the Copts, and the Kalasha (Pakistan). This is a beautifully written book sprinkled with fascinating and gripping stories of rituals, traditions, and struggles of survival against all odds. The book provides a trove of information that is hard to find somewhere else. Highly recommended for readers who want to learn about the richness and diversity of the Middle East.

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