Religious and ethnic minorities in the Middle East are threatened by the rise of Sunni and Shia supremacists. A major threat is the mushrooming growth and barbarity of the self-declared Caliphate, the Islamic State. Another is a nuclear enabled hegemon, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Christian minorities, Maronites, Syriacs, Greek Orthodox and Druze in Lebanon are examples of religious and ethnic minorities in the heartland of the Muslim Middle East stretching from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the Persian and Arabian Gulfs. There are 1.5 million Druze, a heterodox, mysterious sect that broke away from Islam and today is found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. There are the estimated 40 million ethnic Kurds divided between Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq in the misshapen map created from the 1916 Sykes Picot Agreement and in the League of Nations mandates after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The Kurdish quest for a landlocked country of their own was upended by the rise of the modern Turkish Republic recognized by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, after the brief Greco Turkish war led by Kemal Atatürk. There are the dwindling Assyrian Chaldean Christians and ancient religious minorities like the Yazidis scattered in what is now Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Living in Egypt, the significant minority Coptic community numbers upwards of 10 million.
In the Sudan are over 11 million Christian and African animist tribes in Nubia, Kordofan and the breakaway Republic of Southern Sudan. They face continual warfare and enslavement by the northern Democratic Republic of Sudan which is ruled in accordance with Islamic Shariah law. Across the Maghreb region of North Africa are an estimated 30 million ethnic Berbers or Amazighs, whose presence preceded the great wave of Islamic Jihad conquest. The Berbers populate the former colonial possessions of Italy and France from Libya to the mountains of Algeria and Morocco in the West. Many of these minorities in the Muslim heartland view Israel as a kindred shining example of human and civil rights as illustrated by Lebanon and the Kurdish regional entities in Syria and Iraq. Now with the bursting of borders in the modern map of the Middle East by the sudden emergence of the Salafist Islamic State which is committing genocide and ethnic cleansing of these minorities, there is rising international concern for their survival.
One of the leading scholars of the plight of minorities in the Muslim Middle East is Israeli-Canadian, Dr. Mordechai Nisan. Dr. Nisan received his Ph.D. in Political Science from McGill University in Montreal. He lectured in Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for 35 years, and at other Israeli academic institutions. Among his books: Toward a New Israel and Only Israel West of the River; Minorities in the Middle East; Identity and Civilization: Essays on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; and The Conscience of Lebanon: A Political Biography of Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz). His most recent book is Politics and War in Lebanon: Unraveling the Enigma. See our review of Nisan’s book in this edition of the New English Review, “Enigmatic Lebanon.” Dr. Nisan has lectured extensively on Middle East topics to public audiences in Israel, America, and Canada, and has a special interest in minority communities in Israeli society
Against this background we reached out to Dr. Nisan for this interview.
Jerry Gordon: Dr. Nisan, thank you for consenting to this timely interview.
Dr. Mordechai Nisan
Mordechai Nisan: Thank you for inviting me.
Jerry Gordon: What prompted your professional interest in Middle East minorities?
Mordechai Nisan: The vantage-point of Jewish history and the precarious status that Jews endured over the centuries led me to be interested in minority peoples in the region. Often oppressed but resilient, the ancient communities and churches in the Middle East are far more authentic than some of the fictional states from the 20th century. Political entities like Syria and Iraq did not diminish or crush the tenacity of minorities from retaining their integral identities and ambition for survival and self-expression. I found this subject worthy of research and compassion. To all this I add my concern for small and distinct minorities in Israel, who are differentiated by religion, ethnicity, or culture – like the Druze, Circassians (Cherkess), Bedouin, Christians – –who are not part of the essentially anti-Zionist anti-Israel Arab-Muslim group.
Gordon: In your latest book you describe the confessional system of Lebanon. How central was that to the development of Lebanese identification?
Nisan: Finding the balance between traditional group identities and loyalties, and a transcending pan-Lebanese sentiment, has been a political challenge since the modern Republic of Lebanon was established. The confessional system is unique, ingenious and a political wonder of sorts. The Christian component in Lebanese politics has from the start been a dominant symbol, but with notable recognition and representation for the Muslim and Druze communities. In this remarkable political edifice, where a confessional key fixes the distribution of positions in the executive and legislative branches, Christians and Muslims regularly collaborate and cooperate. There is a sense of an inclusive Lebanese national political community above the distinct groups which compose it.
Gordon: What is the history of Jewish relations with Lebanon prior to the founding of the State of Israel?
Nisan: From the beginning of the modern Zionist settlement enterprise, Jews in the Galilee fostered relations with Christians, Shiites, and Druze in southern Lebanon. Political dialogue, in particular between Christian Maronites and Zionist Jews, became an encouraging sign against the background of militant Arab hostility to the Jewish National Movement. A broad spectrum of Lebanese personalities, and not only Christians, were not averse to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Lebanon’s distinct identity converged well with the distinct Jewish state, both together a microcosm of creativity, culture, and enterprising peoples.
Gordon: You devoted one of your earlier books to a biography of Lebanese leader Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz). What was his significance vis-à- vis Lebanese relations with Israel?
Nisan: Etienne Sakr, though not the only Lebanese personality to forge a relationship with Israel, did so with an ideological and historical perspective that accounted for Israel’s special role in the Mideast environment. When Lebanon was subjected to Palestinian violence and Syrian invasion, Abu-Arz considered a connection with Israel the optimal way to assure the survival of Lebanon against Arab predators and Islamic conquest. Although initially vibrant in its personal and political intensity, it was a wager which failed (at least for now).
Gordon: In your latest book, you write about the fratricidal war among the Maronite leading families during the Lebanon civil war of the 1970’s and 1980’s. How did that lead to Syrian occupation and the rise of Hezbollah replacing previous Shia leadership in Lebanon?
Nisan: A correction – it was not a civil war in its origins, rather a Palestinian war against Lebanon which began in 1975. The Syrian invasion, which in part evolved from Maronite in-fighting and no less a request for assistance against the Palestinians, proved to be the terrible nemesis for Lebanon. Iran’s religious colonialism and Syria’s brutal interventionism brought about the establishment of Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Traditional Shiite leadership from within clan circles was significantly superseded by Hezbollah and its notorious call for ‘resistance’ against Israel. Although vintage Lebanese, Hezbollah is a proxy of Iran and a central component of the Shiite global axis of Islamic terrorism – against Israel and Jews in particular.
Gordon: How would you assess Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and the implications of Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, including the treatment of the South Lebanese Army (SLA)?
Nisan: In June 1982 the IDF liberated southern and central Lebanon from the jaws of Palestinian PLO savagery and terrorism. This very successful military operation was partly vitiated thereafter by the interminable and unmanageable vicissitudes of Lebanese political life. A rather static and defensive military posture against Hezbollah proved only partially effective. In the end, by withdrawing from Lebanon in May 2000, Israel defaulted and placed the territory fully in the hands of Hezbollah, and treacherously abandoned the South Lebanese Army which had, as allies of Israel, fought shoulder to shoulder with the IDF. Israel threw its moral compass to the wind, and sacrificed Lebanon to Hezbollah.
Gordon: Did the assassination of Lebanese PM Hariri and the Cedars Revolution of 2005 spell the demise of the confessional system in Lebanon?
Nisan: The durability of Lebanon’s confessional political system remains in place. It is both traditional and consensual that the President be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of the Legislature a Shiite Muslim. These arrangements have persevered for some 80 years as an organic model for the special case of Lebanon.
Gordon: What has been the historical record of Israel’s support for minorities in the Middle East, especially the Kurds, Druze, remaining Christian communities, and non-Islamic religious minorities?
Nisan: Whether publicly expressed or not, the minorities across the region look to Israel as an inspiration and beacon of hope, for assistance and cooperation. The rationale is to join with peoples who, like Israel, are confronted by Arab enemies. This has led to Israeli support for the Kurds in Iraq in the past, perhaps also today, for the Christians in Lebanon, for the African Christian population in Southern Sudan, while sustaining a notably positive relationship with the Druze of Israel. Of recent significance is the IDF promoting military conscription of Christians in Israel. The ability of Israel to assist besieged Christians in Iraq and Syria, or Yazidis, from the horrors of ISIS is probably and sadly limited by logistics and geography.
Gordon: You have been a proponent of recognizing Jordan as the Palestinian state. Given the collapse of the peace process since the Oslo Accords and both EU and US insistence on recognizing a Palestinian State, why hasn’t the Jordanian option been pursued?
Nisan: Sketchy reports over the years affirm that Israel and Jordan conduct semi-secret ties on strategic matters, pertaining to Iraq, Syria, the Palestinians, and ISIS. But there is another side to the political coin. The fact that Jordan has been absolved – by itself, Israel, and the world – to house ‘a Palestinian homeland’ east of the Jordan river, the political repercussions then point to its location west of the river and at Israel’s expense. The notion of Jordan as Palestine is rooted in the realities of geography, demography, and international law, and offers the most reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum. Two states, okay, but the Arab one not targeting Tel Aviv and slicing Jerusalem in two, but across the Jordan River.
Gordon: What options do Israel and the West have to deal with the rise of the Salafist Islamic State?
Nisan: Moderate half-measures, a multi-cultural spirit, defeatism packaged as political correctness, feeble democracy, and fear of engaging the enemy – will assure Islam’s victory. The only option is a swift and total victory against the global jihad/ISIS/Al Qaeda, and all other branches and movements whose goal is the destruction of liberal Western civilization. We are witnessing a barbaric, unrelenting, hate-filled Islamic enemy on all fronts, countries, and continents: primitive religious Nazism. If Islam is not confronted, smashed, and defeated, then the increasing Islamization of the world will crush all in its ruthless path.
Gordon: Retiring US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno in his valedictory news conference suggested the sectarian division of Iraq. Given Kurdish resistance and establishment of de facto control in Syria and Iraq, could we be witnessing the rise of an independent Kurdistan?
Nisan: An independent Kurdish state, based on ancient people-hood and an indigenous culture, buoyed by the existing Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, will be a victory for justice, a blessing for liberty, a defeat for Islamism and Arabism; and a sign that parts of the Middle East can still breathe the air of political freedom. The Kurds are a brave fighting people, an essential condition for survival in this part of the world. It is imperative for the United States to assist the Kurds everywhere and in all possible ways.
Gordon: How significant has been the rise of Berber/Kabyle (Amazigh) ethnicity as a counterweight to Islamism in Northern Africa?
Nisan: The ancient Berber/Kabyle people – Amazigh – yearns for freedom from the stifling and violent agents of Arabism and Islam in North Africa, from Libya to Morocco. In Algeria in particular, the distinct Kabyle community, embodied for example in the courageous voice of Ferhat Mehenni, is struggling to assert its secular cultural identity and aspiration for independence. Berber energies flourish in writings and demonstrations; political protest is in the air.
Gordon: In light of Israeli opposition, how dangerous would Iran become in the Middle East given UN and international endorsement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action for its nuclear program?
Nisan: Three transparent sides to the Iranian triangular axis: the goal to acquire a nuclear capability, the technological capability to do so, and the demonic ambition to destroy Israel, conquer the Middle East, and spread militant Shiite Islam around the globe. If Iran is not stopped, further chaos and warfare – as in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq – will ensue. Sunni Islam, represented by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, is threatened and tested. This is a Middle East that for the days ahead lacks any coherent or stable model for political equilibrium.
Gordon: Dr. Nisan thank you for this insightful and timely interview.
Nisan: The pleasure was all mine. Thank you for inviting me.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.