September 2012

The Middle East stretches from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula in the West to Iran’s border with Afghanistan in the East, and from Syria’s border with Turkey in the North to the Arabian Sea in the South. It is the cradle of ancient civilizations and three world religions.


Major historical developments in the 20th century have shaped the difficult climate for many minority groups in the Middle East today.

The 1948 Arab-Israeli War and resulting displacement of Palestinians galvanized Arab nationalism during the 1950s. The creation of Israel led to a near tripling of the Jewish population between 1948 and 1972.

Meanwhile the Cold War was at its peak, major oil discoveries were made in the Persian Gulf area, and rising world demand meant that this oil was a resource of strategic importance. In 1953 the United States and Britain conspired to overthrow a democratically elected government in Iran, contributing to the emerging pattern of western preference for friendly dictators in the oil states.

In 1967 Israel launched a pre-emptive strike against a planned attack by its Arab neighbours, who had the support of other Arab countries. At the end of the Six-Day War, Israel had expanded its borders to include parts of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, as well as all of East Jerusalem, creating new sources of Arab resentment that in turn served to propagate Israel’s sense of vulnerability.

Population growth in Arab countries and high rates of urbanization led to a burgeoning underclass that was receptive to the calls of Arab nationalism or religious fundamentalism. Sectarian tensions in religiously diverse Lebanon—already divided over whether the country should look to France and the Mediterranean world or to its Arab neighbours—were sharpened by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict involving the country’s large Palestinian refugee community, and exploded into civil war in 1975.

Four years later, revolution in Iran overthrew the western-backed regime and introduced a virulently anti-western, fundamentalist Shia Islam theocracy. The United States responded with support for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, despite his use of chemical weapons during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. However, when Hussein invaded oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, the U.S. led a coalition to expel and contain his forces. A new American invasion of Iraq in March 2003, ostensibly to prevent Hussein’s use of weapons of mass destruction that never materialized, overthrew the regime, but became bogged down in sectarian and ethnic civil war.

The U.S. administration launched the war in Iraq on the false claim of Hussein’s support for the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. Al Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups had exploited anger in the Muslim and Arab worlds over the ongoing plight of the Palestinians, as well as the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Sunni extremist groups have benefited from Saudi largesse, as the Kingdom has attempted to deflect the extreme Wahabbist opposition by subsidizing its proselytizing abroad and granting it cultural policing powers at home. Ongoing war and chaos in Iraq have fed the cycle of anti-western resentment among many Muslims and Arabs, and opened a gaping front for sectarian violence between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

The US-led invasion of Iraq has had serious effects on neighbouring governments bearing the weight of a large-scale refugee crisis that has put great strain on resources from water to health and education provision.
Internal conflict in Iraq has continued to threaten the lives of its numerous minorities. Although has been an overall decrease in sectarian violence, religious minorities are still falling prey to attacks from militant groups.

Religious minorities

The majority of the population in the Middle East adheres to two main variants of Islam: Sunni Islam, which has the greater following in most countries, and Shia Islam, centred on Iran and Iraq. Sunni-Shia violence in Iraq has exacerbated sectarian tensions in Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Smaller Muslim sects have often faced discrimination as well. Jews are concentrated in Israel, but ancient Jewish communities still exist in most countries of the Middle East. Jews and Christians have faced varying degrees of discrimination, but have found some protection through Islam’s classification of their adherents as ‘people of the book’. Followers of smaller religions often face greater harassment and discrimination. Many Islamic clerics decry Baha’i as heretics for believing that other prophets came after Mohammed, and this group faces discrimination across the region, particularly in Iran. Israel’s significant Muslim minority, including most indigenous Palestinians, has faced systematic government discrimination in citizenship, property, education, and other rights. In reaction to terrorist attacks on Jewish targets over the years, Israel has imposed drastic security measures on the occupied territories, launched frequent military raids, and stifled Palestine’s economy; Israel and Palestine remain locked in a cycle of violence fed by the politicization of religious intolerance.

Ethnic minorities

Overlaying the religious diversity of the Middle East is a patchwork of ethnic minorities among an Arab majority in most countries, the European and Oriental Jewish majority in Israel, and the Persian majority in Iran. In Iraq, Kurds, Turkmen, Armenians, Circassians, and other ethnic minorities have been targeted by violence, sometimes by Arab authorities, but also at the hands of regional authorities—for example attacks on Turkmen in Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq. Suspicion of Kurdish separatism also has led to state discrimination against them in Syria and Iran. The Gulf States have largely failed to protect the rights of migrant workers, including many from South and South-East Asia, on whom they have become reliant; these workers face widespread exploitive work conditions and restricted freedom of movement.


Migrant or ‘guest workers’ are present in many Middle Eastern countries in their millions. They face a variety of problems because of legal and administrative rules, and lack of protection by their host governments. In many countries in the Middle East, ‘sponsorship’ laws typically tie workers to their employers and restrict their freedom of movement, making them vulnerable to workplace abuse.

Throughout the region, there are numerous reports of overwork and physical, psychological and sexual abuse against foreign domestic workers. The Gulf States have largely failed to protect the rights of migrant workers, including many from South and South-East Asia, on whom they have become reliant; these workers face widespread exploitive work conditions and restricted freedom of movement. In accounts from Saudi Arabia, foreign domestic women workers report being regarded as less than human by their employers.


Amid the generally poor climate for religious and ethnic minorities throughout the Middle East, women minorities have suffered particularly. In addition to ethnic and religious persecution, minority women have been frequent targets for rape and other sexual assault. Conflict, as in Iraq, has enhanced these dangers, and left many minority women as widows or forcibly divorced from husbands of another group; in societies where women have few opportunities to make a living, many have become destitute.
Across the region, women continue to be subject to varying degrees to personal status laws that are based on Sharia law. Such laws privilege Muslims over non-Muslims, and Muslim men over Muslim and non-Muslim women, for example in marriage and inheritance.

Increased legal discrimination and conservatism is not always tolerated or enforced, however. A campaign in 2009 against a revised personal status law in Syria was begun by women’s groups in Damascus. Using social media and email, the campaign found support throughout the Middle East and was also backed by international nongovernment organizations (NGOs). This resulted in the law being ‘shelved’ by the Ministry of Justice.

Current state of minorities and indigenous peoples

Arab Spring

Very few seasoned observers of the Middle East and North Africa could have predicted the wave of uprisings that spread throughout the region in 2011. The self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamad Bouazzizi on 17 December 2010, the event which triggered the Arab Spring that quickly spread across the Middle East, was a desperate cry for dignity in a repressive state and symbolized the plight of many citizens in the region. Young people in particular, who led the revolutions, felt disenfranchised and disconnected from the decades-old obsolete state ideologies which had failed abysmally to provide employment, social mobility and prosperity.

Future prospects for minorities in the region became a much discussed topic, especially following the tragic outcome of the Maspero demonstrations in Cairo in October 2011, during which Coptic Christians, who were protesting against the destruction of a church in Aswan, were attacked by the Egyptian army, with up to 27 protesters killed. Maspero also symbolized the current predicament of minorities in the Middle East after the Arab Spring: will the prejudices and identities of the old order continue to dominate or will public space open to allow minorities to express their culture and enjoy full political participation?

The Syrian revolution, which by July 2012 had entered its sixteenth month, has intensified into a sectarian civil war between the regime, led by the Alawite Assad family, and the Sunni-led opposition. Escalating violence has claimed the lives of 10,000 people, mostly civilians, and tens of thousands of people have been displaced, according to UN estimates. The great majority have been civilian victims of government forces, but there are also reports of opposition militias attacking Shi’a families. The Syrian government accepted a join UN-Arab League proposal in March 2012 to end the violence, but killings have continued and in April the UN Security Council authorized a UN military observer mission. The fact that the government is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shiism, places Alawite and other Shi’a communities at risk if the conflict intensifies or if the government falls. Assyrian Christians are also deeply concerned about the possibility of attacks from Sunni militants.

The situation of minorities in other Arab countries did not improve in the wake of the Arab Spring. In Saudi
Arabia, persecution of the Shi’a minority escalated, as the kingdom feared that shockwaves from demonstrations in Bahrain would spill over onto its own soil. International attention on Iran has focused on the issue of nuclear facilities, but the systematic campaign of repression of opposition activists continues, and reached a new level in the country’s north-west, where the conflict with Kurdish militias intensified. Shelling by Iranian tanks and artillery in June 2012 displaced thousands. Iran’s numerous minorities, despite inhabiting regions rich with natural resources, continue to experience high rates of unemployment, poverty and health problems because of weak infrastructure and poor government investment in their regions. International Baluchis, Ahwazi Arabs and Azerbaijanis also accuse the government of long-standing oppression and denial of political participation.

The resignation of President Saleh in Yemen in November 2011 was greeted by human rights campaigners but has not improved life for minorities. Fighting between al-Houthis and Sunni tribes in the north has compounded the security challenges faced by a state in a worsening humanitarian crisis, to say nothing of the continuing threat posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Repressive governments throughout the region have for decades sought to deny political space to Islamist parties. But competition between Islamists and secularists is only one potential axis of political division as those governments weaken and begin to fall. Differences between Sunni and Shi’a, Muslims and non-Muslims, Arabs and non- Arabs are all expressions of an internal diversity in the Arab world that is often underestimated and which depends on traditions of tolerance and mutual respect. In Iraq – whose recent history stands as a terrible warning to other states facing change in the region – each of those differences became fault-lines for mass killing.

The Arab Spring is an ongoing process, where the relationship between citizens and the state is still being redrawn and negotiated. While the old Arab nationalism may be waning, more inclusive national identities in the region – one more accommodating to minorities and not defined by a dominant religion, ethnicity or language – has yet to form. The full political, social and cultural integration of minorities in Arab countries will be a major litmus test of the success of the Arab Spring.

Minorities and indigenous peoples in
< Middle East overview