The Cost of Ignoring the Plight of Minorities in the Greater Middle East
While the concerted military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) dominates headlines, the international community faces a far greater policy challenge: if it continues to ignore the plight of minorities across the wider Middle East, it will provide ample breeding ground for other radical groups. If state cohesion is eroded through continuous marginalization, political instability, or the disintegration of the state entirely, can be hijacked by extremist groups for their own aims.
The world has justly turned its attention to the plights of Iraqi and Syrian Christians and Yezidis, recently forced from their homes and massacred at the hands of Islamic State extremists. While tragic and heartbreaking beyond measure, the international community overall concerns itself very little with the root causes of enabling factors for the rise of groups like the Islamic State, which are often related to the states' treatment of marginalized peoples in the region. A policy solely focused on state actors is a dangerous, and potentially costly, fallacy.
For the last several years, the European Union has greatly reaped the benefits of prime fishing rights off the Atlantic coast of Morocco. While seemingly innocuous, Sahrawis have been living in much of these coastal areas for centuries and have been largely dispossessed of their lands. Western Sahara remains one of the world's last remaining non-self-governing territories and is considered "Africa's last colony", subjected to systematic human rights violations such as aerial bombardments using chemical weapons in refugee camps and the disappearing and kidnapping of dissidents, according to Forced Migration. In 1975, when Spain withdrew from "Spanish Sahara," 20,000 Moroccan troops 'escorted' 300,000 Moroccan settlers into Sahrawi territory by monarchical decree. This "Green March" is celebrated as a national holiday which has largely contributed to the ongoing state of war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, the main Sahrawi political party. Over one-tenth of the entire Sahrawi population are refugees or internally displaced.
Media outlets may also want to direct their attention to state-sanctioned persecution of Baha'i, Mandaeans, and Ahl-e-Haqq (Yarsan) in Iran. These minuscule communities have been systematically discriminated against particularly since the 1979 revolution and are left unprotected as unrecognized religious minorities according to the constitution (as opposed to Christians, Jews, and the smattering of remaining Zoroastrians). Overwhelmingly, they are unable to earn degrees in higher education, limiting chances at acquiring decent occupations and thus economic stability. According to several leading human rights organizations many of their shrines and cemeteries have also been destroyed.
In 2012, Tuareg rebels in Northern Mali shocked much of the world when they successfully wrested control of their homeland, Azawad from the long-oppressive Malian government. Though autonomy was promised by French Colonial authorities neither they nor successive Malian governments followed through. Hardly anyone took notice of their dire plight for almost one hundred years until groups associated with Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) hijacked the rebellion for themselves, and infamously burned down many famous buildings in Timbuktu, including libraries housing invaluable manuscripts dating back centuries. It was only afterwards that France intervened.
Reasons for marginalization are manifold: some due to centuries-old prejudices, some due to political expediency, and some simply because scapegoating deflects from larger, more pressing issues. During a time when national borders seem to be increasingly frayed and as regional actors across the political spectrum openly question the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, it is incumbent upon the international community as well as the media to broaden the voices and narratives promulgated out of the region. It is long overdue for Western governments to reevaluate their foreign policies vis-a-vis their respective regional allies to meaningfully ensure they are able to maintain national cohesion and prevent potential balkanization and further instability.
The West can leverage this by incentivizing regional allies to become more integrative and inclusive toward currently marginalized communities through various carrot and stick approaches while simultaneously urging that by allowing more cultural or political autonomy, broad-reaching and concrete steps would ultimately lead to increased domestic stability. In other words, for Morocco, the way to Paris and Brussels should be through Laayoune and Agadir, the cultural and political capitals of the Sahrawi and indigenous Amazigh (Berber), the latter of whom number at least twenty million across North Africa. It is evident that forced assimilation and state violence lead to collective alienation, in some cases terrorism, or even a desire for outright secession. In extreme cases it leads to the complete break-down of the state as in Mali.
It is therefore crucial that regional countries themselves take responsibility for their domestic policies and begin to make sincere overtures toward a rapprochement with increasingly restive marginalized populations regarding economic, educational, political and social inequality. By no means is this list exhaustive — all countries in the region have ethnic, religious and politically marginalized communities in need of meaningful international attention and action. This region has always been and continues to remain a colorful and multilayered mosaic, despite numerous historical and contemporary attempts to alter its makeup. This is precisely why a more complete picture must be presented.
Benjamin Kweskin is a US-based writer and researcher. He holds two Master's Degrees which focused on Middle East Studies. He is currently involved with several projects pertaining to Kurdish culture, history, and political aspirations.