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Many attempts to think about the population groupings in the contemporary Middle East, however that is defined, tend away from terms related to nation-states – a relatively new creation, often on the part of colonial powers – towards other forms of grouping people.  Whilst in terms of international relations analyses, thinking about Jordanians, Iraqis, Egyptians and so on might often make sense, there is also a long-standing tradition of political scientists and anthropologists regularly using tribal and other markers in an attempt to discuss circumstances and events.

One of the most common of these descriptors is an apparently religious marker that breaks down populations into ‘Muslims’ and ‘others’, with the ‘others’ often being called, more charitably,  ‘the minorities’ of the Middle East.  There are many problems with this: primarily that it feeds into binary understandings of the world exemplified by the ‘clash of civilisations‘ model of the world (recently regurgitated in related form by Niall Ferguson, the TV ‘historian’ who has become a rather odious neo-liberal apologist for imperialism), but it also lumps together very different people with different identifiers from an undefined but large area – for example, Berbers in Morocco are a minority, as are Christians in the Gulf, but that does not mean they are connected in a particularly meaningful way.  Apart from anything else, these two minorities are based on constructions of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘religion’ respectively, making it extremely problematic to put them together in a generic ‘minorities’ category, especially one that uses another ostensible ‘religion’ identifier as the main demarcation point.

At a recent Christians in the Middle East and KU Eichstätt conference in Germany that I was involved in organising, this was a topic that came up again and again in subtle ways as participants discussed Relations between Christian churches in the Near and Middle East – theological, historical and political-cultural aspects.  In his keynote lecture Anthony O’Mahony, from London University’s Heythrop College, argued that we should not be seeing Christians in the contemporary Middle East as minorities.  Instead, he suggested using the expression ‘the church in the shadow of the mosque’, which comes from Sidney Griffith’s book with that title.  This, O’Mahony felt, communicated something more: after all, from the mid-seventh century for about 400 years, half the world’s Christians lived under Muslim rule, something most contemporary understandings of church history have ignored altogether.  Under these circumstances, to talk about Christians as a ‘minority’ represents a truth, but only a partial truth, and the widespread links between different communities – Christian and Muslim – belies the vulnerability that the term ‘minority’ often suggests.  Indeed, other speakers confirmed this view in different ways.

Several papers pointed to the links that existed between churches across the region and western institutions.  For example, Robert Clines discussed two Jesuits,  Giovanni Battista Eliano and Tomasso Raggio, sent to reform Lebanese Maronite practice in 1578; the Catholics being in a minority position vis-à-vis the Greek Orthodox and Muslim populations meant that there was great wariness about how these two conducted themselves and what this said about different communities’ identity and relationships to one another.  Within the region, Carsten Walbiner’s contribution discussed the different historiographies of a schism in 1724 between the Greek Orthodox and Greek Melkite churches, and how these divergent understandings even today impact on relations between the two communities and the resultant ideologies that have helped to solidify boundaries between them over time.  In contrast, Christine Lindner (one of my co-organisers, together with Heinz-Otto Luthe), discussed contemporary practices around the Feast of St Barbara in communities in northern Lebanon, which is marked by Greek Orthodox and Maronite Christians, as well as Druse and Muslims.  My own paper looked at how a group of Scottish missionaries in the early 20th century did their best to ignore the differences between Christian communities altogether, almost creating a category of ‘Middle Easterners’, regardless of whether they were Christian, Muslim or Jew.

What these approaches help with is not just a better understanding of the relationships between the churches as hoped for in the original call for the papers, but they also remind us that there is still much to learn about the individuals and communities who engaged with Muslims and the wider world around them in the past, as well as the present.  This also applies beyond the Middle East: for example, it is estimated that 30-40,000 Chaldean Christians from Iraq now live in Australia, and the Patriarch of the Church of the East now resides in Chicago, USA – these changes are just two indicators of the significance of emigration and diaspora for Middle Eastern Christians, and much more research needs to be carried out in this field.  The generic term ‘minorities’ does not do justice to the complexity of the relationships involved, nor does it adequately reflect the nuance of the relationships between the communities and the supposed ‘majority’, itself anything but a monolithic and uniform entity.

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As a postscript, I should add that in the coming spring I am teaching an undergraduate module that I have titled… ‘Minorities in the Middle East’.  Why?  In substantial measure it is because despite the objections noted above, in some ways it works as a ‘quick and dirty’ identifier, and I can then, in the first sessions, use the problems with the term to show how difficult and variegated these issues are.  Perhaps I can be accused of making a lazy compromise here, but it seems to me that there are times when terms in common use are helpful, provided their usage is conscious and the problems associated with them can be elucidated.  I’ll see what the cohort of students make of it all…

Harry Hagopian has written a comment piece on this article here.