The fate of minorities in the Arab Spring

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By René Guitton

From the shores of the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf, women and men in many Arab-Muslim countries are demanding that their rulers democratize, and that dictators monopolizing power and national wealth for their own profit step down. Many observers have long underestimated and some even denied the great aspiration of the Arab people for democracy. But the ongoing extraordinary turmoil demonstrates the universality of the demand for human rights, and that adherence to Islam does not preclude desire for democracy. So far, despite some fears, Arab revolutions have led to neither xenophobia nor anti-Western demonstrations, nor a significant breakthrough for Islamists.

Tunisia’s “Jasmine Revolution” and the mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt shared demands for the end of dictatorial regimes. The uprisings also raised the implicit challenge of political Islamism. But demonstrators did not cite the Sharia or the wish for a theocratic state based on a fundamentalist Islam while defying batons and bullets. They demanded, and won promises for, what people in other Arab states are also now seeking — a multiparty system, freedom of the press, and the prospect of genuine democratic pluralist elections.

At these demonstrations, no American or Israeli flag was burned, no anti- Western or anti-Jewish slogan uttered. In Libya and Syria, like Iran, the incumbent regimes have attempted to delegitimize protests by denouncing what they dubbed the “foreign hand,” blaming the popular wind that would sweep upon them on an imagined “Great Israeli-American Satan”. This populist appeal was barely credible, and protesters have shown they are determined to reject “anti-imperialism” as a reason to preserve dictatorship. This is a greatly encouraging sign, although there is no guarantee what direction these uprisings will take. And some recent events call for vigilance.

In late 2010, Egypt was the scene of a bloody attack against a Coptic church in Alexandria. Nobody could then have imagined that a few weeks later, massive crowds of Muslims, Christians and agnostics would gather together in the same city to help force Hosni Mubarak from power. It is incumbent upon all Egyptians now to mobilize that same civic spirit to ensure that sectarian attacks, as well as dictatorship, are rejected.

And in Tunisia shortly after former President Zine Abeddine Ben Ali’s fall, Father Marek Rybinski, a Poland-born Catholic priest, was murdered on the premises of an inter-denominational school in the Tunis suburban governorate of Manouba, while dozens of Islamist protesters were rallying outside the Great Synagogue of Tunis, and a chapel was burned near Gabes. In an encouraging response to these events, hundreds of Tunisians demonstrated for a “secular Tunisia”, waving placards that read: “We are all Jews, Christians and Muslims.”

It is always by how it treats the “other” that a society is best judged, a statement that also applies to western societies, even when minorities are so small that they are virtually invisible. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain. We must reject a restrictive and egocentric and ethnocentric interpretation of this question. We are — but we are not only — our own brother’s keeper. One need not be a Christian to stand up for Egypt’s Copts, Iraq’s Assyro-Chaldeans, and Lebanon’s Maronites. One need not be a Muslim to stand up for the Arabian Peninsula’s Shiites, Iran’s Sunnis, India’s Muslims and Turkey’s Ceylon or Alevis. One need not be a Jew to come to the defence of Syria’s or Iran’s Jews. But defence of minorities is above all the responsibility of the majorities among whom they live, none of which can enjoy true and untroubled self-esteem if they despise or mistreat the “other.”

New regimes will be judged by how they treat their ethnic and religious minorities, among them Egyptian, Syrian, Jordan and Lebanese Christians, Syrian Kurds, and Persian Gulf Emirate Shias. The often cited but fallacious theory that only authoritarian regimes are able to ensure their minorities’ security, or even survival, is awaiting a strenuous denial that must be demonstrated in words and by deeds. It is by the space allowed for these various minorities to live and flourish in their societies shall we will judge the true nature of the Arab spring.

René Guitton is French writer and publisher, specialized in religions. This article is part of the series “Religion, Politics & the Public Space” in collaboration with the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and its Global Experts project ( . The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nation Alliance of Civilizations or of the institutions to which the authors are affiliated.



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