This week for my Middle Eastern Culture course I had to write a blog post on a ‘cultural object’ in the Middle East – this is that same blog post. It’s different from what I write most weeks, but still fits the blog quite well I think.
Many of us will recently have wondered why certain people have been changing their Facebook profile photos to the Arabic letter ‘N’ (or a strange half-moon if you don’t read Arabic). The change is a sign of solidarity with Iraqi Christians who Islamic State have forced to flee their home of Mosul. IS painted the letter on the houses of Christians (Nasrani in Arabic) to mark them out from their neighbours. The events in Mosul, and the use of this letter, show the two sided nature of the struggle for recognition faced by Middle Eastern minorities – from the outside world and in the Middle East itself.
The first arena in which Middle Eastern religious minorities struggle for recognition is in the eyes of the wider world. The Middle East is generally seen globally as a region dominated by the two ‘monoliths’ of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, with some even failing to miss this distinction. This image however ignores the existence of hundreds of religious minorities. These range from sects of Islam to different branches of Christianity to separate religions all together, such as Zoroastrianism.
This ignorance means that organisations such as the UN are less prepared to stand up for their religious and human rights. In the case of the Christians of Mosul, it’s plausible that most would not even know of their existence. This campaign to reclaim the “N for Nasrani” therefore played a vital role in bringing their plight into the spotlight. Ironically, this is exactly what IS was doing in Mosul – using the ن to mark the Christians out as different. They are now made to reinforce their own artificial alienation from their neighbours in order to gain support from the outside world.
Unfortunately for the minorities of the Middle East, they also face ignorance and lack of respect from parts of the mainstream Sunni population. The Yazidis for example have been persecuted for centuries thanks to the incorrect idea that they worship the devil. The Shi’a (a minority in most states) are sometimes seen as grave-worshippers because they honour the dead to a greater extent than Sunnis. In this way the minority religion is denied legitimacy, and portrayed as a twisted version of Islam – the greatest sin to the takfiri IS militants. As we have seen in Iraq, even minorities seen as dhimmi by IS are not safe from persecution.
In many ways religious minorities in the Middle East are more vulnerable than ever. The number of Middle Eastern conflicts has jaded the outside world to their plight, and the rise of militant Islam means their very existence is threatened throughout the area. However as we have seen with the “N for Nasrani” campaign, the interconnectedness of today’s world means that minorities are steadily more able to make themselves known on the world stage and attract help from outside. After all, it was the threat to Iraq’s Christians and Yazidis that brought airstrikes from the US. However, IS have already achieved their aim of alienating the minorities from their community – and it will take a lot more than airstrikes to bring acceptance for these embattled believers.
For a Lebanese perspective on the persecution of Christians in Iraq, it’s worth reading this piece at the excellent blog Eye on the East, which gave me the idea for the subject of this post.