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“Progressives” often portray the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as homogeneously Arab and Muslim. That is not accurate. Reality is nuanced and complicated. The MENA is a diverse region, home to many non-Arab minority groups with cultures that predate both the Arabic language and Islam. Some of these ancient communities have resisted Arab colonialism, persecution, and assimilation for nearly 1400 years.


Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all Abrahamic religions. Judaism has significant barriers to entry for outsiders who want to adopt the faith. Meanwhile, Christianity and Islam are expansionist in nature. Both openly seek and encourage newcomers to convert to their religions. Endless wars have been fought, all across the globe, for more than one thousand years, in the name of imposing these two belief systems on non-believers. Despite their many similarities, Christianity and Islam have diverged in matters regarding diversity and dissent.


For centuries, questioning religious authority was prohibited in Christianity. Countless critical thinkers were persecuted and killed for merely exercising common sense. Eventually, however, Christian imperialists engaged in introspection, and abandoned their totalitarian conformism in favor of the scientific method and rational thought. Thus emerged the European Enlightenment and Western liberalism as it exists today. A similar introspective experience, which leads to respect for diversity, of both opinion and belief, did not materialize in the Islamic world. 


Tolerance of difference and dissent has been difficult to reconcile with the more monolithic worldview of Islam. When the Prophet Muhammad conquered the city of Mecca, he destroyed Arab Polytheism, the difference it represented, and the threat that diversity posed to Islam’s hegemony. From 360 idols, only the God of Abraham, worshiped by the Jews and Christians, remained in the Kaaba. While anywhere between 2 and 3 million Muslims make the Hajj pilgrimage to pray at this location per year, non-Muslims are still prohibited from entering, let alone visiting, Mecca today.


States in the MENA don’t tolerate dissent against their governments, let alone against religion. For instance, blasphemy laws criminalizing criticism of Islam are enforced by most countries in the region. The punishment for apostasy (conversion from Islam to another religion) in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, two partners of the West, is still death. Non-Muslims cannot openly practice their faith in Saudi Arabia. The list goes on and on. The divine authority of the last and true religion of Abraham must be accepted without criticism. For what more can come after the end?


Despite what Islamists and their apologists would have “progressives” believe, the process of Arabizing the MENA was not peaceful. Far from it. Spanish imperialism exported the Spanish language and Christianity to the American continent. Likewise, Arab colonialism brought the Arabic language spoken by the tribe of Quraysh and Islam to the MENA. Both were spread by conquest and consolidated by gradually assimilating those who were conquered. Within a few centuries, Arab expansion resulted in an empire that stretched from the Indus River Valley to the Atlantic Ocean. 


Today, Islam is practiced by more than 2 billion people. Of 49 Muslim-majority countries, 27 have enshrined Islam as their religion.  Another 25 states claim Arabic as an official language. While Muslim warriors from the Arabian Peninsula colonized most of the MENA, many minority groups persist to the present. Some, such as the Maronites of Mount Lebanon, kept their Christian faith but adopted Arabic over time, replacing their native Aramaic, the same language spoken by Jesus Christ. Others, like the Algerian Kabyles, maintained their indigenous Amazigh languages, such as Tamazight, but nonetheless converted to Islam.


Consider Algeria. Arabic and Islam are not indigenous to the country any more than French is. Amazigh customs and languages, which predate both by thousands of years, are. After the FLN won its independence from France in 1962, the Algerian government conducted a systemic makeover of national identity through Arabization to carve out a nation that had not existed prior to independence. Recognition of Tamazight was unfortunately not part of Algeria’s reformation. It only obtained the status of an official language in 2016. Who knows how many Amazigh were persecuted and killed to accomplish this. 


Consider Egypt. An ancient nation with cultures, traditions, and languages that have thousands of years of history. After independence, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s vision of pan-Arabism prevailed over that of Sayyid Qutb’s Muslim Brotherhood. Both were loosely based on ideas exported from and imposed on Egypt by Muslim warriors from the Arabian Peninsula more than one thousand years prior. Meanwhile, non-Arab minority groups remain persecuted until today. Discrimination persists against the Nubians, as does violence against women and the persecution of Coptic Christians.


Consider the Kurds. At more than 30 million strong, they are the world’s biggest group without a state of their own. Indigenous to Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran, Kurdish nomads got the shortest end of the stick after the Ottoman Empire collapsed. They have been persecuted and killed by the governments exercising sovereignty over the land they reside on, and the empires that preceded them, long before Saddam Hussain’s Anfal campaign and the Islamic State committed genocide against Yazidis. Forget encampments on campus or protests in the streets, few “progressives” have ever called for a boycott of the Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, or Syrian governments over their anti-Kurdish policies. 


Which brings us to the Jews. A liberal, and democratic Jewish State exists despite endless efforts to eradicate the difference it represents, and the threat that diversity poses, to Arab hegemony. After all, nearly half of Israel’s Jewish population are the descendants of Mizrahi – mostly Arabized Jews – who fled persecution across the MENA. Despite millennia of exile, statelessness, forced conversions, pogroms, genocide, and the 1948 Arab invasion, the Jews finally earned a tiny country of their own. Where they can pass their religion (Judaism) and language (Hebrew) on to their children free from the bullying they endured at the hands of their antisemitic oppressors in Europe and the MENA.


From the Tuareg in the Sahel to the Masalit of Darfur and the Assyrians of Iraq, Israel exists as a reminder that minority groups can persist and prevail in the MENA. There is nothing controversial about this conversation. It is an important discussion that should not be silenced in the name of political correctness nor canceled under the guise of Islamophobia. That would constitute censorship and coercion. Rather, this debate must be had, and it can be won. By examining the facts in an honest manner and drawing conclusions from the evidence through the use of reason. Let introspection and critical thinking prevail. In the hopes that freedom will finally reign, so minority groups can thrive in the MENA.

Originally published by National Post on May 20, 2024.

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